October 18, 2010

"Entrepreneurial Dharma Sankata" - By Sanjay Anandaram

In the backdrop of the umpteen scandals that’re making news nowadays and when it appears that integrity, principles and ethical behaviour are but quaint niceties from a bygone era, this tale of an entrepreneur’s dilemma is worth telling and discussing because it offers hope especially to us in India.

After completing a hard day’s work, our entrepreneur boarded an evening train at Hyderabad en route to Pune. As is the case, the Travelling Ticket Examiner (TTE) showed up sometime later that evening in the compartment. Our entrepreneur handed over this e-ticket and upon being asked for his ID, handed over a photocopy of his driving license. He wasn’t carrying the original. The photocopy wasn’t acceptable and the original was demanded. Our entrepreneur pleaded with the TTE to accept the photocopy but the TTE was unmoved. There were a few others traveling without tickets. The TTE summoned our entrepreneur and the ticket less travelers to the pantry car to discuss their case. In the confines of the pantry car, the ticket less travelers, being more worldly wise than our entrepreneur, essentially bribed the TTE a few hundred rupees each and, in exchange, received a stern warning and berths in the compartment for the night.

Our entrepreneur unfortunately had principles which precluded him from paying a bribe. Instead he offered to pay the fine which turned out to be twice the Hyderabad-Bangalore fare. Not having this large amount in cash on his person, our entrepreneur offered to withdraw the money from an ATM, if available, and pay the fine at the next station. The TTE wasn’t impressed and, after abusing our entrepreneur for not carrying enough cash, essentially kicked out our entrepreneur from the train. It was after 10pm at night and our entrepreneur was at a remote station with his bag in hand. Using the map application on his phone, he figured out he was perhaps a few hours outside of Gulbarga town in North-East Karnataka. There was no sign of any train at that time of the night.

Our entrepreneur then trudged to the main road, hailed a passing vehicle and hitched a ride to Gulbarga town. He then subsequently made his way back to his home in Bangalore. He narrated his tale to his family and friends who were amused and angry with his behaviour. The responses went along the lines “Why didn’t you just pay the bribe?”, “What was the need to be heroic?” “We’ve all paid bribes, so what’s the big deal?” Don’t you know that’s the way things happen here?”

I asked the entrepreneur why he didn’t pay the bribe. He replied that he had never paid a bribe in his life to anyone. When I asked whether he considered filing a complaint against the TTE, he said he had considered it but his family was totally against it. They recalled the deadly fate that befell crusaders like Manjunath Shanmugam and made our entrepreneur promise he wouldn’t pursue anything so foolish.

“I’ve never bribed anyone. I’ve believed that it is possible to build an honest and ethical company. Today, I’m asking myself whether it is indeed possible to build an honest company in India. Are there any large companies that are clean?” Our entrepreneur then made discreet enquiries amongst friends in the finance and purchase departments of a much admired, very well known internationally renowned Indian company and learnt the dirty secret. The companies themselves were legally clean but employed “service providers” and “consultants” who were paid by cheque against proper bills but who in turn ensured that the wheels of our system were kept adequately and appropriately lubricated.

Dharma Sankata (loosely translated into “difficulty of being righteous”) refers to the ethical and moral dilemma faced by humans and is very context dependent. Our entrepreneur’s dharma sankata was evident and his principles and beliefs were severely shaken by the experience.

Would he compromise, shed his beliefs and become pragmatic like most of us? Or, would he continue to retain his convictions? Would he be able to build his startup ethically and honestly into the company that he aspired to build or would he be forced to compromise? Time will tell.

But, what would we have done in his place? The answer will determine the kind of India we’ll leave for the next generation.

Sanjay Anandaram is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship in India; He brings close to two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, corporate executive, venture investor, faculty member, advisor and mentor. He’s involved with Nasscom, TiE, IIM-Bangalore, and INSEAD business school in driving entrepreneurship. He can be reached at sanjay@jumpstartup.net. The views expressed here are his own.