The terrible disaster in Japan this month has left the world shocked (how could it be so brutal!), scared (what if it happens to us?) and confused (how dangerous is nuclear power?). The media is a fickle mistress, and the news is now dominated by Libya, Wikileaks and so on. But the scale of the earthquake, and the force of the tsunami after that has left everyone gasping for breath. The world won't forget Japan that easily.
More astounding, to a lot of us, is the good behaviour of the Japanese, even in the face of total destruction. They still stand in orderly lines for food. There has been no looting, plundering and rioting, as often breaks out in other parts of the world (sometimes even in normal circumstances). This is also because the Japanese are trained from childhood to always value the group above the individual. The good of the group comes before I, myself and me. That is why few people are hoarding, because they know that hoarding implies they are depriving their neighbour of essential supplies. In previous earthquakes, people rushed out into the street, but almost at once they quietly queued up to pay their shop or restaurant bill. Such is their love for doing the right thing. So even in the worst of situations, they still remain human.
In contrast, our culture values the individual above the group, in most situations. The individual is greater than the area, the organisation, the city, state or country. Hence, a lot of people feel they are above the law. Multiply this across a lot of levels of society, and you get a happy state of anarchy (masquerading as democracy). In a functioning democracy, you can exercise your rights because you fulfill your duty. In a democrazy people can freely break the signal, or throw garbage on the street, or bribe, because a) they don't care b) they don't feel the street is their country and c) they usually don't feel Indian. The identity of Indianness is usually overshadowed by the identity of the community. It is always 'I am Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, (fill in any state)' before it is 'I am Indian'. We were a bunch of kingdoms earlier, and we still are a bunch of kingdoms, strongly based on linguistic lines. For the North Indians, everyone south of Mumbai is a 'Madrasi'. For the South Indians, everyone north of Mumbai is a Northie. For the Mumbaikars, Mumbai is its own country.
So the general 'Me before all else' attitude has made our country very fertile for corruption. It is rampant at all levels, in all places, barring a few. 2010 may have been the Year of the Tiger in the Chinese calendar, but in the Indian calendar it was the Year of the Scammers. There was 2G, Commonwealth Games, Adarsh Society, Satyam, Ramalinga Raju, Raja and his Batcha, Swiss Bank, and the evergreen politicians being bought with wads of notes that were the size of bricks. And these are just a few of those that made the headlines. One can't imagine the amount of money changing hands under the table across all levels. No system is the system, with money as the new God. Scams are the new democracy, as everyone can freely indulge in them. It's scamming by the people, for the people and of the people.
And we are all part of the system. I plead guilty. In 2006, some friends and I bribed a peon at a prominent art college in South Mumbai to get our certificates. The certificates were rightfully ours by the way, and we didn't have to do it, but the peon openly and shamelessly asked three of us students for a bribe. Except that he called it a 'gift'. Filled with disgust, and in shock, we didn't want to give in. We didn't belong to that college, and we also didn't want to make numerous trips there to get it out of him. He would definitely trouble us if we didn't pay him. Our lame excuse is we had no choice. The real reason is that we were cowards who wanted the easy way out. There is no real excuse for bending the rules to suit your own convenience. We put 'me' before the greater good. So the price for 3 pieces of paper (also known as certificates) was Rs 100/- total.
Japan is grappling with radiation, but India has to grapple with something more dangerous in the long-term. The debates over nuclear power, safety, environmental destruction and disaster management will rage and die out as issues bulldoze one another. But good sensible behaviour, basic ethics, and the decision to do right, even when nobody is watching, is, well, the strength of the Japanese alone.
The New Yorker