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Governance & Culture: NEED TO CHANGE MINDSET, By Dharmendra Nath, 2 January, 2013 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 2 January 2013

Governance & Culture


By Dharmendra Nath (Retd. IAS)


India is the throes of remonstration. Its people yearn for change in the system of governance. However, the structure, comprising legislature, executive and judiciary has come from outside. It is a colonial heritage of the West. It has not grown organically from any of our institutions. Many of the laws too, have a western derivation. On the other hand, our culture with its customs, ethics and value systems, though influenced by outside forces, is largely our own. It is relatively easy to import and introduce a governance system but introducing a new culture is a much more complex. Cultures take time to change.


The ongoing debate on changing the law to ensure extreme punishment for sexual offences against women has inadvertently also put into focus our mindset. Whereas a government system could be outright grafted on us it cannot be so with culture. Any culture will take time to adapt. This dichotomy is perhaps at the root of the divergence between some of our laws and their implementation. It exemplifies another play of tradition against modernity in our context.


Like many other developing countries, we have laws in the book but not on the ground. There are laws that are very little implemented like Prevention of Child Labour Act, Anti-Dowry Act, Prevention of Domestic Violence Act or the law against encroachment on public lands. Laws against the use of injurious substances such as intoxicants and tobacco share the same fate. Similarly, we have many citizen rights but much less implementation.


There are obvious cultural roadblocks to the implementation of such laws. For one, our cultural makeup is highly individualistic. It resists strict discipline and regimentation.


Secondly, it values relationship more than rights. Acquaintance carries a lot of weight with us. Our conduct is relationship-based and relies heavily on emotions and sentiments, and affinity rather than rationality. We-they is an ever present distinction in our minds. While this provides useful support to the individual in adverse circumstances it compromises objectivity.


Thirdly, our mental makeup is characterized by richness of fancy rather than austerity of form. Exuberance rather than control mark our approach. Our temples fully reflect our personality. A temple is hardly ever one outstanding form. It is normally a conglomerate of temples.


A key constituent of our personality is assertiveness. The tendency is to press on. That is why noble laureate Amartya Sen describes us as the argumentative Indian. Individuality is held important. There is very little self-effacement. Our ambitions too are individual-centric. That is why teamwork is many times at a discount. The effort is to project the individual. Numbers trying to get into Guinness Book of World Records reflect the same reality.


In addition, if one may say so, we have an inner urge to improvise and make do, whatever the circumstances. It is a problem-solving mind-set. The moment it comes up against an obstacle it tries to find a way around it. Faced with a difficulty it quickly shifts to an alternative. Sometimes it manifests itself as ‘jugad’ technology (improvisation) or reverse engineering, at other times it cuts corners and takes the form of a short-cut that risks being illegal. This is both an asset and a liability depending on the outcome.


It is no wonder that with such a mental make up our governance record on the implementation side in respect of so many our laws is what it is. Whether it is a traffic offence or unruly behaviour on the road, encroachment on public lands or use of force to sort out matters, all reflect the same cultural tendencies. Laws will not implement themselves. It is our attitude to them which will decide that issue. As at present our attitude many times runs contrary to our laws.


Take the case of honour killings. So strong is the hold of tradition and our emotional subservience to it that even those who have showered love and praise all their lives on their young ones are unable to compromise on this score. They just cannot tolerate wayward conduct in matters of love and marriage. They are powerless before their emotions.


Not only this, we have a very take-it-easy attitude in matters of discipline. Our record of office punctuality speaks for itself. Our tendency not to keep to the discipline of strict form makes it difficult for us to sustain any arrangement for long. For example, we used to have a weekly or bi-weekly system of police-parades in the local Police Lines to keep the district force in trim and also to sustain the spirit of necessary camaraderie in it. The march of the parade and the accompanying music could be heard for a long distance. The citizenry looked forward to it and was in a sense a silent participant from their homes.


Every one taking part in the parade was expected to be neatly turned out. He was faulted if it was not so. Punishments and rewards too were announced in the parade. That system has almost universally fallen into disuse perhaps on the ground that there are other pressing assignments. What else to blame for this but our attitude? If we go on like this one day we may forget the uniform too.


There are many things we do in spurts. There are campaigns and then we forget about them only to revive them once again when we want to publicise them. For example, we have anti-encroachment drives and road safety drives from time to time. Such drives last a few days. Once the drive is over the matter is almost forgotten. There is no persistence or consistency of approach. We make an enthusiastic show of it and then withdraw and almost forget it. Basically it is more an emotional rather than a rational response.


Or let us take the example of our democratic functioning. We are ostensibly a democracy but our ingrained cultural values have given it a highly monarchical twist. We have been used to monarchy. Its dynastic principle is very apparent in most of our political set up. Heads of political parties, members of Parliament and State Assemblies are mostly sons, daughters or relatives of their founding fathers. Monarchy is gone but the monarchical principle still rules strong in our public life.


It seems that only a cultural adjustment – which is bound to be slow – can bring about all round better implementation of and wide-ranging compliance with our progressive laws or those which are changed. So while we have to press with enforcement the more important task is to do something about the general outlook and attitude of the people. 


Education and media have an important role to play in this. They have to promote the ideas of liberty, equality and justice which form the bedrock of modern governance. At present we are at a hybrid stage where the traditional Indian culture is hitched to essentially foreign governance institutions and structures. For wider success on the implementation and compliance fronts our culture will have to adapt to the governance institutions which we have adopted. And the requisite changes these make. --- INFA 


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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