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Indian Tolerance for Dishonesty: An Impediment to True Progress

14/01/2015 8:12 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
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Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, his hands seen on right, shakes hands with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in New Delhi, India, Friday, March 12, 2010. Putin held talks Friday with Indian leaders during a day's visit that was expected to conclude with the signing of a slew of agreements on defense, space and civil nuclear energy cooperation, Indian officials said. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

It's not that Indians have an intolerance for honesty, but they do have an alarming tolerance for dishonesty. This deeply rooted cultural behaviour comes from a desire to be polite, but on a daily basis and on a massive scale, this tolerance for dishonesty is holding India back from realising its full potential in the world.

I'm not Indian but I absolutely love this country in so many ways, so much so that I left my comfortable life as a transplant surgeon in New York to spend one year in India helping to establish organ donation and deceased donor transplant centres throughout this vast and varied land. My experience as an advisor as to how best to create a complex, Western style medical infrastructure has been challenging not because the Indian people do not embrace the notion of organ donation (they do!), but because I've fallen victim to Indian dishonesty so many times out of politeness, embarrassment or self importance.

Nobody says "bullshit!" in India.

This is because Indians are taught from a very early age that it is impolite to say no. Fair enough. I might invite my friend to join me for a social function and, despite my understanding of a "yes", I'd be left in the lurch. Okay, I get that, it's the Indian way and I'm not going to let my feelings get hurt over a missed date.

But this behaviour gets really ugly quickly in professional settings. I can't count how many meetings I've been to where the whole room nods in agreement, smiling at the grand plan (or even not so grand) only to realise way too much later that everyone was just yessing me. I had been warned in advance by my NRI (non resident Indian) friends to nail people down for commitments, but this doesn't come naturally to me. I'm from a land where people value saying what you mean and meaning what you say.

Sometimes, my professional associates are embarrassed that an expectation has not been met for whatever reason and will try to soften things with misinformation. I suppose this happens to a certain extent in New York, but this behaviour is rampant here. No one wants to admit that they failed to follow up or simply failed to perform in the first place.

The most maddening situation for me in which dishonesty is tolerated is when good people lie to my face out of pure ego. I was speaking with a medical professional who was proud to tell me of the biologically impossible results at his hospital. In my most restrained and subtle sarcasm I said to him "you should publish your results". His horrifying answer was "yes we did"! Oh my god, I'm sure he has. This was not the first, nor the last time that a highly educated Indian citizen has made something up just to make our conversation comfortable and to make him look good too.

But here's the problem: the Indian tolerance for dishonesty severely erodes any concept of accountability. Also, the Indian tolerance for dishonesty severely erodes any concept justice. How can complex professional systems be put into place if people aren't willing to fess up to their shortcomings or change their behaviours in the face of suboptimal performance or outright failures? It may be a leap to ask anyone to embrace the notion that it is okay to fail but not okay not to try in the first place, but anyone should at least be able to accept responsibility for shortcomings. That's how we grow. We learn more from our failures than our successes and it's important to acknowledge when we've done wrong so we can do it right (or at least better) next time.

The judicial system in India suffers intolerably because of this tolerance for dishonesty. In many--too many--parts of this country it's the "Wild East". You can do whatever you want, break any law you want and have little fear of retribution. How long do political corruption or assassination cases take to settle in India? Decades.

India deserves better. India has the potential to be an innovative powerhouse and compete on the world stage because of the inherent intelligence and creativity of its people. If the education system in India is modernised to allow creative exploration as opposed to rigid compartmentalisation, if tolerance for dishonesty is replaced with transparency and accountability, then India can achieve true progress and realise its full potential.

It's okay to say no sometimes. It's important to say no sometimes. When saying no out of politeness leads to dishonesty, things simply can't get done. The culture needs to change (and will change, I predict, based on my interactions with the younger Indians whom I've met) in order for India to become a leader in innovation on so many fronts, including organ donation and deceased donor transplantation.

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