Thursday, August 28, 2008

Kai Koolie Culture Imperils Civic Society Engagement

“Kai Koolie” Culture Imperils Civic Engagement

Everyone in India, Chennaiites included, knows, usually from direct, first-hand personal experience, that political, municipal and administrative corruption continues and is on the rise at every level of civil society. In this article I focus on what I am calling Kai Coolie Culture in the City of Chennai.

Although born in Chennai and increasingly appreciative of my birthplace, I had never spent time there until I began visiting regularly from my home and family in New York City and residing for a few months every year, in this booming, bustling, diverse metropolis. I have become impressed with Tamil culture and struggled to learn to speak street Tamil, which I find more vibrant and interesting than the more formal Tamil prose affected by news broadcasters and politicians with captive vote-banks. While In Chennai, I ride the public buses every day (I don’t own a car either in India or the U.S. and don’t plan to) during every extended visit, to every corner of the city. I continue to be particularly impressed with the civility and courtesy of ordinary people in Chennai, during my everyday activities here. I attribute this courtesy and civility, partly to the centuries-long civilizational discourse among Tamils, embodied in the Thirukkural and other works with which I am endeavoring to become familiar.

Thirukkural Culture or Kai Koolie Culture? So at this particular juncture in my continuing love affair with Chennai, my question is What do Chennaiites want -- Thirukural culture or Kai Koolie culture? This is a choice that is necessary to make, now, if we are to resume the Thirukural style of civilizational discourse, or if we choose to succumb to a thoroughly contemporary and noxious form of civic engagement - - Kai Koolie culture -- that imperils the development of healthy civic institutions in our unprecedented democracy. What civic path will Chennaiites choose?

The Personal is Political: The personal is political and vice versa, in my book. I grew up listening to stories about a Tahsildar great grandfather who became legendary under British rule for rejecting bribes and still accomplishing civic progress and prosperity within his jurisdiction in an area of Malabar. I grew up with an example of a father who became Director General of the Geological Survey of India and Founder Director of the Centre for Earth Science Studies (an Annual Lecture memorializes his professionalism and commitment), who led an inter-departmental scientific expedition to the Great Nicobar Islands, under Indira Gandhi’s Prime Ministership, and whose abiding passion for Earth System sciences had made him a visionary administrator of impeccable integrity.

Therefore, following my great grandfather’s and father’s example literally, during my recent visits to Chennai in the past eight years, I have stoutly resisted every attempt by Chennai municipal officials to extract payments for services which the government already pays them to do. During my recent visits to a sub-Registrar’s office and a Tahsildar’s office I openly declared “ I am not going to give Kai Koolie to anyone here, so I better get my forms and papers approved, pronto!” Perhaps there was a touch of New York chutzpah in these declarations. I sat in those offices for several days with no appreciable result. On one occasion a Revenue Officer and an Assistant Revenue officer attached to a local Tahsildar’s office visited me at my home, ostensibly to verify my documentation for a legal heirship certificate. I offered them a choice of mango juice or water, both of which the Revenue Officer refused. When I returned to the Tahsildar’s Office, the following week for yet another exasperating visit to ascertain the status of my heirship certificate request, I was asked by an official in that office “When the Revenue officer came to your home, you gave him juice?” Apparently, something more than a fruit beverage was expected.

On that same visit, when the sentry outside the Tahsildar’s office stepped away briefly, I strode into the Tahsildar’s office and explained my predicament. I finally obtained the certificate. While sitting in the Tahsildar’s office I timed the number of minutes (I am after all a postcolonial sociologist by profession), that the Tahsildar, an otherwise charming man, spent during a 45 minute segment on phone calls related to his job description (if it exists) responsibilities and the number of minutes spent off-task. Out of a 45 minute segment, this Tahsildar used his personal cellphone ( not his official phone) to make calls totaling 35 minutes, not counting conversations with functionaries he summoned into his office, in order to set up “a function for the CM.” If a local municipal official is engaged in personally lucrative political pandering instead of attending daily to the civic needs of residents in his taluk, how can s/he be efficient in redressing their grievances and furthering their civic participation? How can ordinary persons develop confidence that their requests for services and need of facilities and amenities will be respectfully considered and fairly implemented?

Kai Coolie Culture Negatively Impacts the Poor: The poor, the dispossessed and the disempowered are particularly vulnerable to Kai Koolie inducements, as I observed in my numerous visits to such offices. In any municipal office one can observe long straggly lines of poor people who are seek redressal of some grievance in regard to food, shelter, education or employment. Of course, the absolute poor, the disabled, the diseased cannot even recourse to such offices or hope to be helped by them.

Middle Class Collusion in Kai Coolie Culture: Members of the middle class often complain about having to give bribes to municipal officials and the police to “get something done.” They take the moral high ground against bribery but in practice, participate and in fact drive the culture of bribery. Kai Koolie culture, in which the middle class plays an increasingly collusional, cynical and apathetic role based entirely on short-term self-interest grounded in heavily subsidized privileges and entitlements, is a danger to the development of our civil society. Bribegivers are no less culpable than bribetakers.

A rejection of Kai Koolie norms and practices is desperately needed. A revitalization of Thirukkural culture and its practical application in civic life is imperative.