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Ram Teri Ganga Maili: How to maintain ethics in a polluted environment?

By Dr Amitav Banerjee, MD* 

Is the holy Ganges getting more polluted every day? In addition to daily rituals, bathing, and religious activities performed on its banks, since ancient times, the new age industrial and population pressures are increasingly polluting the holy river. Over the decades a number of government schemes, rules and regulations to purify the Ganges have met with limited success.
Is the river doomed? Do we need more stringent rules and regulations to cope with the pollution of the sacred river? While these regulations may take some time to catch up with the ongoing pollution of the river, recent research suggests that a certain feature of the Ganges endeavours to maintain its purity. This is the capacity to accommodate a diverse range of bacteriophages which acts as a repository to regulate pathogenic bacteria in its aquatic environment. This is nature’s way of self regulation to maintain the purity of the Ganges.
Our social environment is similarly becoming increasingly polluted like the Ganges, as recent scams would indicate. Are we passing through difficult times? Are we becoming more corrupt and throwing ethics out of the window? The ongoing NEET-UG 2024 scam would be most distressing and a cause for disillusionment for today’s young people and their parents. About a decade back there was the similar infamous VYAPAM scandal related to unfair means in medical entrance examinations in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
Mismatch in supply and demand which is the highest for medical seats drives exploitation by many vested stakeholders leading to mushrooming of coaching classes and strenuous nerve wracking preparations for the medical entrance test. Kota has become the epitome of the coaching culture for the youth aspiring to pursue a professional career. 
On a much darker note, it has been hitting the headlines rather frequently, for tragic suicides of young people cracking under pressure. Against this background the details of the NEET-UG scam coming out on the media must be driving many young and old alike to cynicism and loss of trust in the goodness of humans.

Survival in an environment of corruption and unethical practices: the difficulty of being good

Rules and regulations directed to clean the pollution of the social environment by corrupt practices will take their time or, most likely, never root them out completely. Such practices are with us since the history of humankind. Unfortunately, the noble profession of medicine is not immune to them. Starting with the first step, the entrance tests, to subsequent career, the doctor faces ethical dilemmas. Few succumb to temptation and deviate from high ethical standards demanded of the noble profession. Few compromise because of career compulsions of the corporate model of health care affecting the autonomy of doctors. How does an honest professional navigate the dilemmas in such an environment? A couple of first person accounts may provide some cues.
Gurcharan Das, the famous columnist and writer, faced extreme disillusionment which drove him to the edge of severe depression few years ago. This was triggered by the Satyam scam in 2009. B Ramalinga Raju with toil and hard work had established a reputable software company. He had everything going for him, fame, fortune and respect of people. Then, inexplicably, he swindled his own company of Rs 7,136 crores, making the shareholders lose 23,000 crores and jeopardizing the job of 50,000 employees of Satyam. Das had known Raju for ten years and he came out as sincere and hardworking, a man with a greater purpose. It puzzled Das no end as to why one, at the peak of his accomplishments turn to crime? Greed for money was too simple an answer, there was more to it according to Das.
Das turned to the Indian epic, The Mahabharata, to search for answers. Unlike Greek epics where the protagonist commits crime and moves on, in the Mahabharata, every character who falls from grace, examines the moral dilemmas from every angle. According to this Indian epic, harmony and happiness come to a society only through behaviour based on dharma – a complex term that exemplifies virtue, duty, law and doing the right thing.
Das has interpreted the epic in the context of present moral dilemmas and paradoxes such as the Satyam scandal. In his book titled, The Difficulty of Being Good, he concludes that the Mahabharata is about our incomplete lives, about good people acting badly, and how difficult it is to be good in this mortal world. However, on a positive note, the epic leaves us with the confidence that it is in our nature to be good.

From Eastern philosophy to Western pragmatism

A leaf from the life of another author, a Western one, offers practical tips to maintains one’s values and creativity while surrounded by an unfavourable social environment. The bestselling author, Irving Wallace struggled as a freelance writer for various magazines for 20 years. During this period he had to compromise his writings to suit the target audience and the editors. This was a compulsion for him to maintain his livelihood. He toiled 6 days a week to avoid bankruptcy. However, to preserve his values and creativity, he kept Sundays to himself. To write as he pleased, as a free man, for his own pleasure and satisfaction.
His genuine writings over these two decades was compiled by him as a collection of essays with the title, The Sunday Gentleman. In the first chapter he narrates why he chose this title.
England in the 17th century was harsh on debtors. If caught by the money-lenders they were sent to prison. However, these defaulters enjoyed immunity on Sundays when no transactions or arrests could be made, as the Sabbath was observed as the Lord’s Day. Therefore, debtors and those facing bankruptcy would go into hiding 6 days a week and surface on Sundays as free gentlemen. On Sundays they were free to mingle and socialize with no fear of criminal action.
One such “Sunday Gentleman” was Daniel Defoe, the author of the classic Robinson Crusoe which most of us may have read in our childhoods. In 1692, facing bankruptcy, he hid from the law 6 days a week, emerging only on Sundays to be again his own man and walk with dignity. The personae of 1/7th gentleman was preserved until he earned enough to pay his creditors.


I suppose the reader, if he or she had the patience to reach this far, may have got the message. Be it the Ganges, or be it our social environment, they were never free of polluting influences. But like the Ganges, which has retained its capacity to nurture the bacteriophages checking its pollution to some extent, we humans too can keep a small part of ourselves pure and ethical howsoever polluted and corrupt be the social environment. And as we gain autonomy with success this part can keep expanding so that we are free and ethical all 7 days a week.
Ethics and purity cannot be imposed by rules and regulation but have to come from the inner core, be it the Ganges or humans. We should not despair, as long as we retain even a bit of this inner uncontaminated core which has the potential to emerge in full glory in due course of time.
*Renowned epidemiologist, currently professor at a medical college in Pune;  has served as epidemiologist in the armed forces for over two decades; recently ranked in Stanford University’s list of the world’s top 2% scientists; has delivered keynote addresses in national and international forums. Book:  "Covid-19 Pandemic: A Third Eye" 



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