Over the past few years, a lot has been said and done in the name of “protecting” industries, companies, and consumers. The individualist in me looks with interest at these words that should sound reassuring, but then the intellectual butts in and goes, “wait a minute!”
Ethics is “that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct,”i whereas morality is defined as “moral quality or character.”
In other words, ethics could be considered a subset of moraltiy, because our morality defines our own personal character; and that character decides how we deal with other people, which is the domain of ethics.
It is important for me to make this distinction between the two concepts, because when I talk about ideal behaviour in a business environment, I’m talking about ethics—the way in which I deal with other people or the way in which I would like people to deal with me—and not morality as a whole.
I have a couple of friends who follow the “whatever does my job more easily” principle when it comes to choosing their computer systems. Obviously, for them Windows wins hands down when it comes to operating systems. After all, it works with nearly every piece of hardware that was ever created, be it old or new, and nearly every software that is ever needed to do anything in business or personal life is available for Windows. So they find my passion for Linux and free software quite amusing and even pointless, to say the least.
Their main premise is based on this argument more or less: computers are tools just like any other, and you should pick one that does your job most easily rather than worrying about how good/bad the system is for its own sake or whether it’s open source or proprietary software. That’s where I disagree with them.
If there’s one word that defines Steve Jobs for me, it’s “inspirational.” And it’s not just because of his iconoclastic nature, because he didn’t break away from traditions just to be different. It’s because he had the sense to understand which traditions had to be discarded to do something great — which in his case was to get computer technology out of the geek domain and put it in the hands of the common man.
The last cab ride I had was one I would probably not forget for a long time to come.
I had to go pick my friend up from Thane — an adjoining district to Mumbai in India — so I was out looking for a cab, and when I saw one vacant, I asked the cabbie if he’d be willing to give me a ride. The cabbie said that he was waiting for a passenger who had just dropped by to a store and was en-route to the airport. However, the airport being quite close to where I was standing, he said he could be back in 15 minutes if I had the time.
I did have the time, so he gave me his mobile number to let him know if I wanted to leave before he returned. I waited, and just as he had promised, he was back within 15 minutes. As soon as I got into the cab, he asked me, “how much is 200 dollars?”
I said, “about 9000 rupees, why?”
He couldn’t believe it and said, “well, that passenger I dropped off at the airport tipped me with 2000 rupees, and these 200 dollars. Are you sure these are worth 9000 rupees?”
I asked him, “are they American dollars?”
He said, “yes.”
“Then they are really worth 9000 rupees. Congratulations!” I replied.
To give my Western readers a perspective here, the usual cab fare for a mile-long ride in Mumbai is about INR 40-50, and an upper middle-class man usually earns no more than INR 1500-2000 in a day if he has a good degree and works in a managerial position for a large company. Such a man can afford a heavy mortgage on a big house and is considered successful by Indian standards.
The cabbie, Mohammad Irfan Khan, was delighted at my confirmation, and started talking about how he is always able to build a rapport with all his passengers. Somewhere during the conversation, I happened to ask him what his life was as a cab driver. And what he said next almost made me want to become a cab driver.
He said, “on a normal day, I save up to 1000 to 1500 rupees, and my life is just great.
“I work for 14-16 hours a day, and I love every part of it. This car is so good, I never get backaches and since I’m always driving an air conditioned cab with passengers who are mostly educated and respectful such as yourself, I always have a great experience.”
I was really surprised. He continued, “When I was a rickshaw driver, I would save no more than 500 rupees and it would be very tiring with all the noise and smoke. But ever since I became a cab driver for Meru, my life has turned around. God bless the owners of Meru, they’re doing such a great job for all drivers like me.”
A cab driver wishing good things about a large corporation like Meru Cabs, this was turning into one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had with a stranger in a very long time.
I asked him, “so how does this work? Is this your cab that you register with Meru?”
He explained, “no. Meru owns this cab. All they need us to have is a taxi driver’s badge. If we have it, they provide us with a five-day training at the end of which we have to appear for a driving test. If we do well, we get a brand-new cab, and if we don’t do so well, they give us a slightly older one for a month until we can catch up.”
I was amazed, “that’s great. So does Meru take a cut from your earnings with this cab? How do they make money?”
He said, “well, we have to deposit 850 rupees daily into Meru’s account at any of the Axis Bank ATMs across the city. We can keep all the rest of the earnings for ourselves. We also have a choice of whether or not to accept the fares that Meru forwards on to us. For example, when I met you, I logged off from the system, which indicates that I’m no longer accepting their calls for the time being. Once I drop you off, if I wish to continue, I can log in again.
“We [drivers] usually prefer to stay logged in as we get maximum business from Meru. Our personal calls are very few.
“Another great part about this is that I get to keep this cab with me at all times. So when I go home, I can take my wife and son on a drive. They always get so happy whenever I take them out in this cab — it’s like our own personal car.”
I was dazzled by his story. I said, “it’s just great how your life can turn around, isn’t it?”
He said, “yes, absolutely. When I drove a rickshaw, I never felt like going to work. Now, I sleep for barely four to five hours and I can’t keep myself from going to work, I love it so much!
“I’ll tell you something else. My wife was pregnant a few months ago, and the doctor told us he would have to perform a caesarian section. He said it would cost 25,000 rupees. But I told my wife to relax and not to worry. I worked for nearly 24 hours for the next six days. And you know what, I earned 25,000 rupees during that time and paid for the surgery. After the surgery when my wife and son came home, I took a week off to spend time with them. So you see, if someone offered me an office job today that pays 30,000 rupees and asked me to quit driving this cab, I wouldn’t take it.”
He was beaming with pride. He said, “now I’m going to ensure that I give my family the best life possible here. I’ll get my son admitted to the best schools around here, which I couldn’t have afforded earlier.”
I congratulated him again and told him that I would write a piece on him. He offered to stay in touch with me and told me to call him anytime I ever needed a cab.
I got off thinking, here’s a company that wanted to make profits and ended up giving a whole new way of life to thousands of people. Meru currently owns a fleet of 3500 cabs all over India, and with the kind of pressure they are under to meet growing demand for good-quality cabs, I can bet there are a lot many Mohammad Khans they’ve touched along the way.
What all charitable institutions would give an arm to achieve in their lifetime, Meru has achieved within a few months without even aiming for it. That’s the only way a society can ever be lifted from poverty — capitalism style.