How Honest Are We?*
What would you do, if you found a wallet with lots of money in it?
To find out, we sent our journalists to the streets of 16 cities around the world
It’s a busy afternoon at the Bank of Baroda branch in Ballard Estate, Mumbai’s old dockside commercial quarter. Amid the teeming crowd of customers is a young man named Lalit Kishore Birwadkar. As he walks towards the teller counters, he spots a brown
wallet on a chair. Without opening the wallet, Lalit hands it over to a female bank employee. In it she finds money and papers, including a slip with the name and cellphone number of its owner, whom she immediately phones.
More than 10,000 kilometres to the west, in Madrid, Spain, an elderly woman picks up a wallet found near Paseo de la Castellana, an upscale area with boulevards and museums. She takes the money, throws the wallet away and keeps right on walking as if nothing happened.
Further west, across the Atlantic, a wallet is found in New York’s Central Park by a group of tourists f rom Romania. As they look around wondering what to do, Michael Lupanucci, a 46-year- old teacher, offers to help and calls the number in the wallet.
These wallets weren’t mislaid by forgetful or careless members of the public—they were “lost” by a team of Reader’s Digest journalists in Mumbai and 15 other cities across Europe and South and North America. In each, we put a name with a cellphone number, a family photo, bills, other sundry papers and cash—ranging from ₹ 750 in Mumbai to $50 in New York, the kind of cash ordinary citizens would carry on an ordinary day. We dropped 12 wallets in each of the cities selected. We left them in parks, malls, restaurants, and on footpaths, among other public places. Then we waited and watched. We offered our wallets along with the money as a reward to the finders who returned them to us.
This was no rigorous scientific study, but rather a real- life test of honesty. Each of the 192 wallets had a story of its own, whether of outright theft, a struggle with temptation maybe or a refreshing aff irmation of integrity.
After we got that call from the Bank of Baroda and the wallet was returned intact, a colleague and I stopped Lalit Kishore Birwadkar and spoke to him. He’s 37, a peon at a nearby office, and has been working hard since he was 18. Lalit said he imbibed the virtues of honesty from his parents. “But things are changing now, and corruption is on the rise because of rising prices,” he opined. “Life is hard and I’m unable to save money after I got married. In fact there are months when I end up borrowing small amounts in order to run the house. But I’ll ensure that my son gets a good education and does well.”
When we offered him the wallet as reward, he asked if it contained any money. On hearing that it did, he seemed clearly offended. “No, thank you,” he said. “Please give it to someone who may need it.”
In the end, what made us glad was that nine of the 12 people who found our wallets in Mumbai behaved much like Lalit. That made Mumbai score second place across continents,
just below Helsinki, the capital of Finland, where 11 out of 12 wallets were returned.
“Finns are naturally honest, it’s typical for us,” says 27-year-old business student Lasse Luomakoski, who found our wallet on a downtown Helsinki street. “We have little corruption and we don’t even jump red lights,” he says.
Lisbon, Portugal, fared the worst, while Madrid did only a tad better coming second- last. We got back only one wallet from Lisbon and that, too, was turned in by tourists from Holland! In almost every case of returned wallets, we got a call from the finder within minutes. Those who were dishonest, too, showed some common behavioural patterns.
Two teenagers walking in a suburban housing estate on the outskirts of picturesque Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, came across a wallet on a park bench. The boy, in baggy jeans, who saw it first, whispered to his female companion and pointed towards it. He sat down, letting his bag fall over the wallet. The girl stood behind him, fished out the wallet and put it into her backpack. They left in a very good mood.
Similar but more dramatic was our experience one evening at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park. Our wallet lay on a path for a while until a young man, in blue T-shirt and shorts, spotted it. He looked like a humble labourer, most probably a passer-by, in contrast to the better-off citizens jogging or relaxing on the park benches. He picked the wallet up and innocently asked a young couple sitting nearby if it belonged to them. The man, in white T-shirt and jeans, took it and dropped it slyly into his plastic shopping bag. He and his female companion then got up and started walking away. My colleague followed, caught up with them and walked just in front, to eavesdrop on them. They talked about a missed investment opport unity that might have grown to ₹ 350,000, butt said nothing about our wallet. The couple then crossed
the road and disappeared into the crowd. We never heard from them.
For those who were honest, returning what’s not theirs came naturally to them. Lalit, for instance, had found a cellphone at the same bank a few months earlier and handed it in. A wallet dropped on a footpath at Colaba Causeway—a stretch in downtown Mumbai known for its art galleries, restaurants and souvenir shops—was spotted by 23year-old Ayush Sharma. After a brief discussion with his mother and sister, who were with him, Ayush picked it up and we got his call right away. An engineer, Ayush had come from Bhopal to help settle in his sister, who had recently got into the city’s Government Law College.
“It never occurred to me to keep what’s not mine and after ascertaining that there was some money in the wallet, I was anxious to return it to the owner,” said Ayush. His sister said she would have done exactly the same, had she found anything. All this while, as the siblings spoke, their mother looked on proudly.
Ayush’s conduct was a reflection of his family values: His father had once found and returned a wallet with about ₹ 15,000 on a train after tracing its owner, the pantry car manager. He had collected all that money from passengers for the food sold to them.
Likewise, what Manca Smolej’s parents taught her had a lasting impact on her. When we asked the 21-yearold student in Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, whether she had even considered taking the money she found in our wallet, her reply was an emphatic “No!” She said, “My parents taught me how important being honest is. And once I lost an entire bag but I got everything back. So, I know what it feels like.”
However, many others in Ljubljana just could not resist temptation, such as the two women in their late forties last seen dividing the cash from our wallet between them.
Even so, another lady from that age
group stood out. What unfolded that afternoon at the century-old Mumbai General Post Office added even more dignity to that imposing building. We dropped a wallet at a GPO counter. A man, busy sticking stamps on a large pile of envelopes, noticed it but didn’t bother. Meanwhile, Stamp Vendor Vaishali Mhaskar, working at a counter opposite, saw the wallet and requested a colleague to bring it to her. Moments later, we received a call from Vaishali. “Lots of people, mostly students and senior citizens, leave things behind here,” she told us. “A few months ago, I found a folder with some bank passbooks and other i mportant papers inside,” Vaishali recalled. “Luckily there was a mobile number scribbled on one of the passbooks, and when I called, its owner, a young businessman, rushed back to the GPO. He had to catch a flight that day and was overjoyed at getting his folder back.”
Vaishali took our wallet as a gift and we left the place, but while we were driving away, we got another call from her. “Please come back,” she said. We retuned to the GPO, only to be told that she couldn’t keep the wallet. “But why?” “I didn’t know there was money in it,” she said. We took it back. Our inexpensive rexene wallet might have been an acceptable token gift had it been empty. “I teach my children to be honest,” Vaishali said, and hopes her son and daughter get decent jobs. According to Vaishali, unemployment is the reason for so much corruption in India.
We’re not sure about that because this is how people with regular jobs acted at, of all places, the Bombay High Court. There, a wallet lay in a crowded corridor outside the office of the Advocates’ Association of Western India. A senior lawyer holding his black coat and walking by spotted it. “Hey Kumar*, there’s a wallet,” he said to an attendant, as he walked past. We could safely assume what he meant: Kumar, please pick
it up and help find its owner. Kumar picked it up, went into a room and came back. But we never heard from Kumar or anybody at t he courthouse again.
Zurich, one of the wealthiest cities of Europe, had a similar story to tell. A tram driver in his early fifties, distinctive in his navy blue suit with the logo of the city’s public transit company VBZ, found our wallet. After taking a good look at the contents, he pocketed the wallet, money and all. We never heard from him too, despite the fact that the VBZ is in charge of Zurich’s lost and found office, and citizens are encouraged to hand over found property to t ransit staff. The tram driver was, in fact, just one of eight Zurich residents who made off with the wallet and its contents.
In the university area of Bucharest, Romania, a young woman in her midtwenties with shiny black hair in a ponytail picked up a wallet. She asked two people nearby if they’d lost it. When they said no, she walked into a passageway to the subway. We saw her examine the contents of the wallet closely, then place it in her pocket. We didn’t hear from her.
How would youngsters behave as a group? When Rahul Rai, 27, of Mumbai found a wallet lying in the food zone of High Street Phoenix, a central Mumbai shopping mall, his mind went racing: I once lost my cellphone and never got it back despite all the desperate messages I sent to my number. Rahul picked the wallet up and waved it about. When nobody responded, he and his friends decided to open it. We watched as he dialled the number on his cellphone immediately and gave the phone to a girl in his group, since this wallet had the name of a female owner.
Friendly, somewhat shy, Kanpurborn Rahul is a video editor at a Mumbai production company. “My conscience wouldn’t let me do anything wrong,” he told us. “If I see anything unclaimed lying around—no matter if it’s insignificant— I check with people near me.”
The Hungarian capital came right after Mumbai on our honour roll. Near a shopping mall in downtown Budapest, a young blonde girl put down her bag and violin case, picked up a wallet and called the cellphone number immediately. “I remember being in a car, when my dad noticed a wallet by the roadside,” Regina Györfi, 17, told us. “When we reached the owner he was very grateful: Without the papers in the wallet he would have had to postpone his wedding which was to take place the very same day!”
A lesson in integrity learnt in childhood stayed with this 73year-old lady from the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro. In the upscale neighbourhood of Ipanema, Delma Monteiro Brandão was on her way to pick up her granddaughter at school when she saw a wallet lying on the ground, and gave us a call.
“This is not mine!” she answered when we asked her why she returned the wallet. Married for 53 years with three children, she was certain all of her family would do the same thing. “When I was in my teens, I picked up a magazine in a department store and l eft without paying,” she recalls. “When my mother found out, she told me this behaviour was unacceptable.” Delma had to return to the store, apologize and give the magazine back.
In Berlin, at Potsdamer Platz, a prominent public square, 46-year-old Adel Ben Salem was about to start his shift as a chauffeur at he Ritz Carlton. He was enjoying his walk to work when he found the wallet beneath a historic traffic light clock. “I saw the photo of a mother with her child,” Adel told our reporters. “Whatever else is important, a photo like that means something to the owner. That’s why it has to be returned.”
Two workers at a London construction company, who found our wallet and contacted us right away, were less solemn about the whole exercise. “We gave the money back because we know what it’s like to get up in the morning and work hard. Actually, we don’t work hard, but we do get up in the morning,” they joked.
On a wet monsoon day, a wallet was dropped near shops selling garlands and prasad in the premises of the busy Siddhivinayak temple— Mumbai’s most important Hindu shrine, dating back to 1801. Rupesh Patil, 28, a flower-shop worker, found it. He kept the wallet in his hand as he continued his job of soliciting devotees to buy garlands.
We soon got a call. “A few hundred rupees won’t make me richer or you poorer,” he told us. For him this was all in a day’s work— many devotees, he told us, lose wallets here and he’s found many. “Whatever little I earn here is enough for me,” he said, although the ₹ 750 in our wallet was about three days’ wages for Rupesh. And has he himself lost a wallet? Yes, Rupesh’s pocket has been picked in a suburban train and he lost his wallet with ₹ 1200. “What’s gone is gone,” he reflected. “You get it back only if it’s your destiny.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Of the 192 wallets dropped, 90 were returned—47 percent. As we looked over our results we found some striking similarities. It seems that age is no predictor of whether a person is going to be honest or not. Across all 16 cities in which we lost wallets, young and old both kept the wallets or returned them. Gender and income had no bearing on conduct either. In Poland’s capital Warsaw, all the wallets lost were taken by women; in Ljubljana, of the six wallets returned, all were handed back by women. In Mumbai men took all the three lost wallets. In Ljubljana, a man in his early fifties found a wallet in a parking lot near a movie theatre. He got into his Mazda CX-5 ( priced at 23,000 euros; over ₹ 19 lakh) and drove away. We never heard from him.
As smartphones and tablets become popular, many people choose to remain glued to the world enclosed in their palms than look at the world around them. Before being picked up, some of our wallets were dislodged by people walking while peering into their phones. Many others sat right next to a wallet, but never noticed it because their phones had all their attention.
Apart from those who kept or ret urned our wallets, there was a third category of people who saw it, but chose to do nothing about it. Indifference or being in a rush could explain this— or it could be the fear of touching un - known objects. A group of college girls, who found our wallet at Marine Drive, Mumbai’s curved seafront, told us how they were hesitant to pick it up. “What if it’s a bomb?” said one. “My first instinct was ‘ Don’t touch it’.”
Nearly all nine people in Mumbai who called refused at first to keep the wallets. But when we told them it was a reward with no strings attached, five of them took the wallets. Four ref used outright. Three of the five called us back when they realized there was money in the wallet. One of them returned the wallet and the money.
Mumbai is crowded. Its citizens face hardships and, as with most big cities, you expect selfishness and crime. So we had many questions in the end: Why did Mumbai do so well? Why were there so many honest citizens? What gave it a far better score than much of Europe and America? And was it surprising? Not for Mumbai’s Mayor Sunil W. Prabhu, 44, noted for his hands-on approach to the betterment of the city. “This is a city that teaches us a lot,” he said. “People come here from everywhere, they struggle, work hard and usually do well. So they love Mumbai and most of them will not betray their neighbour. I think, as we go along, honesty will only improve here.”
That’s our hope for the rest of the world as well.
Lalit wouldn’t take our wallet and cash even
s a gift.
Manca from Slovenia had learnt how bad it feels to lose something.
Vaishali spotted our wallet at her workplace.
Video Editor Rahul waved our wallet about, then made his friend call us.
Adel of Berlin was moved by the photo he saw in the wallet.
Rupesh thinks it’s your destiny if you got back anything lost.