Rule and Person

To a bird’s-eye view, different human societies look similar in some aspects and different in some others. A closer look can reveal some similarities and differences to be more  stronger while others to be more superficial than they appear to be on the surface.

Institutions are of fundamental importance to all societies: a simpler and small scale society has fewer, joint-family, panchayat or some equivalent, temple or a small religious shrine; while a complex one have many, hospital, school, university, court, parliament, temples/mosques/churches etc. To have a closer look at differences and similarities, one can compare how social life is organized around institutions in different societies.

In the extent to which societies are governed by rule or person, in traditional societies based on agriculture, personal factors counts for almost everything. People are able to take finer personal distinctions in their businesses and other day-to-day work. In these societies, personal links can be used (or misused) for practically any purpose; and a certain sense of security is provided by the existence of such links. Now there are whole areas of life in complex industrial societies where such links are in principle irrelevant.

In complex industrial societies, social life is influenced greatly if not mainly by institutions. Here institutions are organized around impersonal rules. The treatment in hospital, admission to schools, services from police and courts are few examples of such arrangement. In these institutions, if someone needs to get something done which he is entitled to, there should not be any need on his part to have any personal links with people in these institutes.

In Indian villages based on agriculture, people are accustomed to getting thing done through persons rather than rule. To say this is not necessarily to pass a moral judgement. When society is small and everyone knows everyone, such arrangement is both proper and expedient. A lot of problems, related to both corruption and efficiency, can appear without any tangible solution when these links are used in places where norms are defined differently.

Those who live in large cities depends on many public utilities and services. And in principle, they are so organized to serve each citizen irrespective of personal consideration. There are rules of procedure according to which any citizen is entitled to make claim on certain service. But in practice, nobody seriously believes in rules alone. In cases when rules do not work for him at all, or do not work quickly enough, he tries to reach out to someone in right quarters through relative or friends, or friends of a relative. Those who have no relative or friends (‘connections’ as they are called) felt left out in cold. But it is just amazing, how just almost everyone in our society is able to activate ‘connection’ of some consequence.

It should be obvious to all of us that we are in a period of transition. Though majority of people still live in small agrarian societies, they are increasingly coming in contact with different sort of institutions they are not accustomed to, where personal connection should or ought to count for little. In such phase of transitions, people often suffer the worst of both systems: he can not be sure if personal ‘connections’ will be sufficient, nor he can trust the appropriate system of rules.

In cities, especially for young people, the moral universe associated with it is both confusing and intractable. This could cause a sort of psychological stress which is rarely seen in villages. When an old person (not only in rural India) pays a bribe or uses his family connections to get something done, he is not burdened by moral questions involved related propriety of following rules and norms. For him, such is the way of life — an ordinary and normal thing to do. He would give you a lecture about “art of living” if you point out the impropriety on his part. Younger people, and perhaps some among old too, do not always pay bribes or use family/friendly connections for their personal gain at the cost of someone else without a sense of moral ambivalence and indignation. The “queue” is one such place where such behaviour can be easily observed: when someone gets a cut from a friend or relative, he takes it, often with an embarrassing smile or a show of arrogance, but the same person turn self-righteous and morally indignant when he sees others taking “cut” at his disadvantage.

More than often, rules are defined vaguely which allows those who enforce them to use their personal discretion rather freely if not arbitrarily. Different rules or different interpretations of them are applied on “case to case” basis. And many times rules are bypassed all together. Many wonder how people in a country where substantial population is still illiterate get things done in a system with a plethora of rules. In the face of confusion, people get accustomed to bypassing or breaking the rules, especially when a person of some consequence is available at their disposal. Those who are responsible for making rules simpler or less confusing rarely loose sleep over it. Perhaps they believe the people are used to such situations and have ways to deal with it.

Problem of corruption or inefficiency can easily grow to alarming proportion in such environment for it is easy for people in position of power to manipulate the system for their own personal gain by colluding with others. One can always find someone in Indian offices who really mastered the art of manipulating rules and finding loopholes in them. Such people are seen with both envy and admiration.

No doubt that a system is bound to be efficient when rules and procedures are followed by most, if not all.  The personal favours which we are so used to receiving and granting can not have the same moral right in modern institutions as in the traditional order. Moreover, a typical Indian overvalues his convenience above most things, and following rules always cost some convenience. He would not mind doing his part in undermining rules as long as it is convenient to him.  A large proportion of our people do not, or perhaps can not, appreciate  what rules are for. But there are many among us who probably know what they are and why we need them. It is doubtful that over the time, as we progress more towards a modern society, even they will develop a moral commitment towards them?