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The Vyapams In Our Own Homes

28/08/2015 8:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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A boy cheating on an exam

For the past many weeks I have been reading up on the Vyapam scam and the public outrage over it. How undeserving candidates will become doctors who will treat our diseases, or engineers who will design India's infrastructure; people of dubious antecedents will enter the police force and other security agencies to become our caretakers. How the scam is so widespread -- politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats, money launderers and small time crooks are part of the team that has duped us as a country. That parents who paid bribes to get their children into these courses are demanding justice. That the ruling party must provide us answers, and it is time to set things right.

"By giving donations (or is endowment the accepted term?) for their admissions, by prepping their resumes and getting someone else to write their college applications, are we telling them it is ok to cheat?"

It is indeed time to set things right. Some years ago in Mumbai, at a school moms' discussion over lunch, the topic of college applications came up. Our kids were all entering grade 8 and most students in my daughter's class were aiming to go to the US for undergraduate studies. It was time to get down to business -- to begin to do the right things that would prep up the college application. This meant identifying one or two extra-curricular activities that the students would focus on and a community based service that they would engage in, in addition of course to good GPA scores. A mother shared with us that a friend of hers, a successful businessman, had helped window dress his son's resume. The father managed to get internship certificates from his cronies' companies; the resume boasted of meaningful community work, awards for playing the piano, excellent summer internship projects and recommendation letters from senior managers. While most of us were still processing these details, another mother spoke up, "Well, what is wrong with that? We have to help our children in the best possible way. Competition is so stiff these days."

I was secretly mortified. People actually endorsed this behaviour and thought they were helping their children? Did the mother not realise the gravity of her comment? The rich businessman may have used his financial clout to get his son into the best college, but was that really helping his child? What if he was not as capable as his peers? What would he do in a music club where he could not play the piano to save his life? Would that not make him feel inferior and raise his stress levels? Was the father not setting up his son for failure? Did helping his child not mean that the son's energies should have been directed to focus on the real things that would get him admission in a college of his choice and capability?

"I think as a society we have come to accept that certain behaviours exist, and the worst you can do is to be caught out."

To me it is not important if the boy would have been able to cope in college; I don't have enough data on his capability and intelligence. The more serious issue is what kind of integrity we are teaching our children? By giving donations (or is endowment the accepted term?) for their admissions, by prepping their resumes and getting someone else to write their college applications, are we telling them it is ok to cheat? It is alright to project yourself as someone you are not, with a skill set you don't have -- it is ok to be an imposter? Since competition is so stiff, it is perfectly ok to not put in your very best, but to utilise shortcuts to get what you want? It is not a shame to be a cheat, an imposter, a person with low integrity and a shaky moral fibre?

I think as a society we have come to accept that certain behaviours exist, and the worst you can do is to be caught out. When McKinsey's Rajat Gupta was tried and imprisoned there were numerous articles in the papers from his friends and ex-colleagues on what a wonderful guy he was and how he had made a mistake, and the sentence seemed harsh.

When an acquaintance was imprisoned in a money laundering scam, the over-riding feeling was sympathy -- that everyone does it but he was unfortunate enough to have been caught. At one of the firms that I worked with, the HR head had claimed to have studied in an MBA school she hadn't really attended. When she got caught, she brushed it off nonchalantly saying it was a typo -- instead of IMS she had accidentally typed IMT. She was asked to leave after much deliberation because the senior management was appalled that they had been conned so well. Capitation fees for admissions exist, window dressing of resumes exists, proxy writing for college applications exists, hawala exists, jugaad exists and pull exists.

Then why are we so appalled with the Vyapam case? We are all guilty of Vyapams in our lives -- small or big, harmless or life-threatening, and we don't even admit the wrongdoing to ourselves. We blame it on the demand and supply gaps in our country, on the inequalities that exist in the system where there are many firsts among equals. We blame corrupt politicians and bureaucrats and wring our hands in helplessness. Everyone except for our honourable selves is worthy of blame!

"We are spawning a generation that will believe it is perfectly normal to bend or break rules, and feel no guilt for the murder of moral fibre."

In reality, we are all culpable, taking shortcuts to achieve our goals, with little concern on the ethics of our behaviours. Our bloated sense of entitlement lets us believe that we are not wrong. While we talk to our children about values such as integrity, ethics, truthfulness, honesty and hard work, our actions speak louder than our words. We are spawning a generation that will believe it is perfectly normal to bend or break rules, and feel no guilt for the murder of moral fibre.

The only people I really sympathise with are the whistleblowers. They are the most innocent and idealistic of all -- passionately believing that they are doing society a good turn, that the guilty are quantifiable and shall be brought to justice, that corruption can be externalised, and that acchhe din aayenge! I worry about their safety.

In the meantime, the political drama will play out and the blame game will intensify. We may be informed that the whistleblowers are actually part of a larger conspiracy; scapegoats will be found and left out to dry and media attention will be focused on Vyapam until another scam is exposed and garners more TRPs.

And we will not be any wiser!

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