Vanity as virtue
Instead of conserving resources, our obsession to splash wealth in order to satisfy our vanity and grandeur has made an injudicious dent in our society
A tweet of Ratan Tata narrating how Germans value resources is very relevant in our present-day culture of squandering precious resources to appease our vanity and grandeur mania. In this context, it is redeeming that at least in some quarters of the educated class, there is a new awakening to conserve resources to attend to other priorities.
According to Ratan Tata, one would think that because Germany is a highly industrialised country, people there lead a luxurious life. However, his experience in a restaurant in Hamburg gave him a different lesson. When he and his colleagues were engaged in devouring the sumptuous food they had ordered, they saw a young couple having only two dishes and two cans of beer. He wondered whether it was a romantic meeting and whether the girl would ever stick to that stingy guy. They also noticed a few elderly women finishing every bit of the food being served by the waiter. When his team stood up to go, to his surprise, suddenly the women snubbed them for leaving about a third of the food on the table. When his colleague retorted, 'We paid for our food; it is none of your business how much food we leave behind,' one of the women instantly called someone. A man in uniform from the Social Security Organisation appeared and slapped a fine of 50 Euros, and admonished them, 'Order what you can consume. Money is yours but resources belong to society. There are many others in the world who are facing a shortage of resources. You have no reason to waste resources.' A sense of shame overcame Tata and others, since wasting food and other resources is a common sight in India even when the majority of us are poor.
Indeed, people in a few developed countries care much more for their resources. Although they have all the technological capacity, Germany, France, and Japan have neither space ambitions nor any desire for developing nuclear weapons; their governments do not believe in spending taxpayers' money on them. Otherwise, the war-torn and divided country of Germany, in shambles in 1945, would not be what it is today. It is their culture of grit and hard work. For the Japanese, it is their nation first, not in terms of geography and culture alone but primarily in terms of its economic progress; their striking workers only wear black bands in protest but do not allow work to suffer since it wastes productive hours of the nation. On the other hand, the feudal culture of ostentations has only got increasingly embedded in our country although our economy is not as healthy as has been touted.
GDP growth has slowed the most in the last five years. Public debt went up by 30 lakh crores. The report of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) showed that the employment rate slumped to 39.42 per cent, whereas the unemployment rate in June 2019 climbed to 7.91 per cent. No new jobs were created, making experts question the veracity of the GDP growth figure of 7. Now the reality is in the open. It has slumped to 5. Demonetisation and drying of credit to medium and small enterprises as well as the unorganised sector have immensely contributed to the shrinking of jobs, along with a dip in the self-employment economy. FDI has come down. USA has ejected India from GSP, causing an annual loss of $5.6 billion dollars of exports, adding further to the woes of unemployment. Now, RBI has also come out with the long list of defaulters who cheated the country to the tune of over Rs 70,000 crore in the recent past. Further, despite good monsoons, even the average agricultural growth rate is only 2.51 per cent compared to the over 3 per cent for over a decade from 2004. Surveys confirm that 1 per cent people hold 58 per cent of the total wealth of the country, while 60 per cent of people reel under poverty. Even Oxfam International's 'Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index' ranks India at a pathetic 147 among 157 countries.
Yet, the country has only witnessed skirting of these pressing issues. When demonetisation and the consequential economic distress put people to hardships, the government's failure to address them was concealed with surgical strikes. Now, with serious economic problems and unemployment looming large (even Sensex is dropping every day), Kashmir has been made the focus of the country. Yes, the government's action in scrapping Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution is necessary and praiseworthy but either it can wait or taken simultaneously along with addressing other issues, instead of diverting people's attention from core issues bothering them. Yet, we revel in the national pride of our scientific and military achievements; continuing to be obsessed with our vanity to splash wealth even by entering into debt traps, mortgaging, and even by earning through unethical means.
Celebrating marriages is just one example. There is a mad imitation. Apart from spending on gifts like cars, buildings and dowry, people splurge lakhs just on Instagram-worthy photo-shoots, lavishly entertaining crowds of guests. This is all to satisfy our vanity in contradiction to the values of austerity and donation promoted in Vedic culture.
Growing aspirations for opulence and a life-style of comfort are aided and abetted by business houses that are behind centres of power and use every means to bombard and entice society with mouth-watering advertisements. Show off of wealth – luxury yachts, huge villas or flats, high-end cars with special numbers, etc. – is a status symbol, and it is infectious. Grandeur decides the financial priorities of even common people. Sadly, it is the political leaders who lead the way.
For example, the former CM of Andhra Pradesh unveiled a huge statue of NTR only to garner votes, although he had unceremoniously backstabbed him in the past. Against the recommendations of experts, he usurped delta lands for the construction of a world-class capital at Amaravathi by engaging experts from Singapore as if Indian experts who had built modest capitals like Raipur, Bhubaneswar and Chandigarh are not competent enough, and as if a modest capital would not satisfy his vanity and love for grandeur. Every sane man knows that his agenda was to help the land-sharks from his community. In the end, it is the tax-payer who is burdened to pay for this luxury of a Taj Mahal.
We are a country of contradictions – extreme poverty, and filthy wealth; scientific progress and unscientific temperament with a feudal mindset. We have failed to reduce the income disparity, rather only increased the gap. Yet, we swell with national pride for our nuclear and space achievements. We gloat about our ancient culture; yet, are retrograde in religious thoughts. Further, we ape the West in life-style but do not follow them in important aspects like truthfulness and dignity of labour. All the menial services have to be done by the poor for us, unlike in the West. We treat vanity as a virtue; caring the least for our resources. As a result, mafias plunder our forests and mines, damaging the environment and depriving forest dwellers of their habitat and livelihood, thus promoting Naxalism. In our narrow-minded ritualistic life, we worship rivers and pollute them, unlike in the West. Mafias indulge in indiscriminate sand extraction, thus affecting marine life, agriculture, etc.
Yet, of late, it is redeeming that some members of the educated class are keen on conserving resources. The 2019 Aspiration Index survey across the country set out to list priorities of aspirations and life goals of Indians for which health, wealth, fame, image, relationship and personal growth have been taken into consideration, and 25 different life goals were assigned to these six aspirations. For example, buying a home is a wealth goal, exercising regularly is a health goal, and becoming a domain expert is a fame goal. The survey revealed that in descending order their priorities are buying a home, saving and investing for children's education, etc., while spending on one's lavish wedding is the least priority goal. Trends show a preference for compact weddings with smaller guest lists, fewer rituals, and lower expenses, in place of big fat Indian weddings. Saving up to buy a home and helping some needy people, instead of blowing up one's life savings on a one-day extravaganza seems prudent to many. But this change in thinking is yet to spread wider and across to the common man.
People, especially the common man, are not aware that Vedas taught us austerity in order to curb extravagance that would become infectious in society and would lead to unethical practices. Legal systems have only gone awry. Thus, there is neither the spirit of Vedas and religion nor there is an effect of laws. Driven by the glitter of much-advertised luxury and grandeur, and controlled by two failed systems – religion and law, people have become maniacal about possessions and luxury. Ethics and values are only painted black on the canvas of declining culture. Can people claim that they are really happy? No. The World Happiness Index survey report of the UN places India at 140 out of 156 countries in 2018. We need to change.
Although our philosophy, Yoga, and Upanishads emphasise well-being and happiness as a state of complete physical, social, mental, and spiritual well-being and harmony with nature, we are overwhelmed by greed for wealth and vanity to splurge along with the increasing stress of modern-day life that has robbed us of our mental peace. We need to learn from the lesson tweeted by Ratan Tata.
(Dr. N Dilip Kumar, IPS (retd) is a former Member of Public Grievances Commission, Delhi. The views expressed are strictly personal)
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