Why Mumbai and Moscow are among the most honest cities in the world

A Reader's Digest experiment showed Mumbai to be the second most honest among 16 world cities. Source: Ajay Kamalakaran

A Reader's Digest experiment showed Mumbai to be the second most honest among 16 world cities. Source: Ajay Kamalakaran

If you want to know why Muscovites and Mumbaikars are listed among the most honest in the world and the people of Lisbon and London find themselves branded as the least honest, just look at their histories.

Next time you lose your wallet, make sure you are not in Lisbon or London. Your chances of getting it back are far higher in Mumbai and Moscow.

India may be one of the world's most corrupt countries, but its largest city Mumbai is the second-most honest city, says Reader’s Digest magazine.

As part of an experiment to find out which city had the most upright people, Reader’s Digest reporters dropped a total of 192 wallets – 12 wallets each in 16 selected cities – around the world. Each wallet contained a name with a cellphone number, a family photo, coupons and business cards, plus $50 in local currency.

The wallets were left in parks, near shopping malls and on sidewalks. Then the reporters secretly watched to see what would happen.

Honesty index

Finnish capital Helsinki turns out to have the most honest people in the world with 11 out of 12 abandoned wallets returned to the owners.

Mumbai comes second in the list with nine out of 12 wallets returned. Rahul Rai, a 27-year-old video editor, said: ‘‘My conscience wouldn't let me do anything wrong. A wallet is a big thing with many important documents in it.’’

Vaishali Mhaskar, a mother of two, returned a wallet left in the post office. ‘‘I teach my children to be honest, just like my parents taught me,’’ she said. Later that day, three young adults found our wallet and called us immediately.

In fact, Mumbai's honesty has increased. In 1997 half the wallets dropped there were returned; this time the number increased to two-thirds.

Moscow came in joint fifth place with Amsterdam, Netherlands. Eduard Anitpin, an Officer of Emergency Situations, found an abandoned wallet near Moscow’s downtown zoo and handed it to a security guard. ‘‘I am an officer and I am bound by an officer's ethical code,’’ he said. ‘‘My parents raised me as an honest and decent man.’’

Another Muscovite who returned a wallet said: ‘‘I am convinced people should help one another, and if I can make someone a little happier, I will.’’

Wallet wallop

The city where the least number of people returned a wallet was Lisbon, Portugal, where only one of the 12 wallets was returned. And the one that was returned came from a couple visiting from the Netherlands.

Similarly, in London, where just five of the 12 wallets were returned, one was found by a Polish immigrant.

Curiously, extremely affluent Zurich returned only four wallets. 

Moral matters

Mumbai is famous in India for its law abiding citizenry. For instance, just as easily as Delhiites break queues as soon as they see their bus, Mumbaikars instinctively form a queue when they see one.

Mumbai is also a city that is traditionally safe for women, even late at night. Few Indian cities can even come close in that area.

Moscow’s high rating may surprise many but it shouldn’t. The city represents the morass of corruption that Russia has descended into. But while official corruption has skyrocketed, the ordinary people haven’t jettisoned their morals.

A measure of the importance Russia attaches to traditional moral values can be seen in President Vladimir Putin’s state of union address in December 2012 in which he asked the state to embrace “vospitanie” – a Russian cultural concept that refers to preparing young people for adulthood, usually through moral upbringing and conferring rules of etiquette, values and traditions.

Putin said the state should focus on strengthening society’s “spiritual-moral foundation” through education. Clearly, it would be hard to find another head of state who takes up the subject of morality directly with his people.

Thou shalt not steal: Why the West ignores this commandment

If you look at the larger picture, India and Russia have never been colonial powers that took a fancy to looting and piracy. While plunder is not a Western monopoly, it is nevertheless true that during the four centuries of colonialism, Europe conquered, decimated and pillaged entire continents.

Is it then a mere coincidence that Portugal, Spain and Britain – three of the leading colonisers of the planet, though not necessarily in that order – are in the bottom half of the honesty index?

The Spaniard Hernando Cortez’s looting of Aztec gold is a grim chapter in the history of the Americas. According to Stuart Matthews of the American University, “Despite the abundant evidence of a civilised existence comparable with the Spaniards’ own, within 18 months of the famous march across Mexico the European newcomers had reduced Tenochtitlan’s skyline and much additional evidence of Mexican sophistication to a platform of rubble.”

The British kept in step. One of the biggest heists committed by the British in India was of the magnificent Koh-i-Noor diamond, which adorns the British regent’s crown. It is said to be originally owned by the Pandava princes more than 5000 years ago. The diamond changed hands several times over centuries. In 1739 the Persian ruler Nadir Shah took it from the Mughal emperor while sacking Delhi.

In 1813 it passed into the hands of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the ruler of Punjab, and it remained in his palace for 36 years. The maharajah while on his deathbed instructed that the diamond be donated to the Jagannath Puri temple but his courtiers demurred.

When the British conquered Punjab they usurped the diamond and it ended up with Queen Victoria. In order to ease her conscience she returned the Koh-i-Nur to prince Dalip Singh who had been their prisoner. But the very next moment, she asked that he present the diamond to her in gratitude for all that the British had done for him.

Virtually every British civil servant in India had at least one hand in the till. Governor Generals Robert Clive and Warren Hastings were both accused of grand theft. In 1757, Clive received a quarter of a million pounds (an astronomical amount of money in those days) as reward for winning Bengal for the British. That bounty apparently wasn’t enough and he proceeded to steal millions more from the Indians. At his trial Clive said, with a dollop of chutzpah, that considering the wealth he had seen in India, he was astounded at his own moderation at not taking more.

Again, Zurich, Switzerland, is the epicentre of banking secrecy. It is a city where countless ill-gotten billions are stashed by everyone from American businessmen to Indian politicians and African leaders. Some of that bad karma must rub off locally.

Experimental results

It might be relevant to mention that topper Finland has a growing economy and an unemployment rate of 7 per cent, and Mumbai is at the heart of India’s rising economy. On the other hand Portugal, where the “least honest” city is located, has shrunk three years in a row and has an unemployment rate of 17.5 per cent. In Spain the jobless rate is a jaw-dropping 27 per cent, and the youth unemployment rate is 50 per cent. In both these countries the first thought of someone who finds a wallet with $50 inside might be that they could feed their family. They may not necessarily be dishonest.

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