This post is bound to make many of you very angry. But despite the fact that I am comfortably ensconced in a foreign country, I am going to say it. Be warned that it is a very long rant.
Why am I not surprised at the debacle that the Commonwealth Games preparations have turned out to be? When I first heard that India had won the bid to host the Games my immediate reaction was “oh no!” For one, I think it is a waste of public money. We have the highest maternal mortality rate in the world, vast numbers of our people have no access to toilets, the sight of children rummaging in the garbage is still common. Couldn’t the money be better spent on them? Even though I know it probably wouldn’t be. I understand that events like these can boost morale, generate jobs and attract tourism. Though I’m not quite sure if the Commonwealth Games or even the Asian Games have ever done so. God forbid we bid for the big ones like the World Cup or the Olympics.
And then there are the security concerns. Why take on the headache of inviting guests when we cannot protect our own people?
But I am convinced of something even sadder. I don’t think India is capable of hosting a large-scale international event to world-class standards. The reason I say this is because we seem incapable of constructing even a road properly, leave alone any more complicated infrastructure. Whenever I hear of skyscrapers in India, I am frightened. It now appears we cannot even be assured of a competent footbridge or a ceiling that won’t fall on one’s head.
It is fun to, as usual, blame it the government. But I think we are all implicated in this. We have become a nation of talkers, not doers. Of saying “yes” when we’re not quite sure we can deliver. Of lauding mediocrity and making incompetence almost a matter of national pride – “we are like this only”.
It is not that we are good for nothing. We have two great talents as a nation:
1. Looking for loopholes and cutting corners: This starts at the grassroot level. Have you ever called in a plumber, an electrician, a painter? If so, have you been ever been absolutely sure that the job will be done perfectly, that they will turn up on time, that they will turn up at all? Take domestic help. Is it possible for them to do their job without one following them around the house hawkeyed and nagging?
I agree these people are paid a pittance. But I have seen people performing these same functions for a relative pittance in other countries with attention to detail, if not pride. I strongly believe manual workers and domestic help should be paid more simply because what they are currently paid is inhumane. But I don’t believe that paying them better will improve their work substantially.
Have you tried getting something stitched with a tailor in a small shop or with a so-called designer? If you are very lucky, you will get a perfectly executed garment on time. But most likely you will not. There will be fit problems and badly done seams delivered to you after much begging and threatening. Whether you have paid Rs 5,000 or Rs 500 doesn’t really matter. You are just very lucky if you find someone who will do a perfect job at any price.
Performing a task with integrity and attention to detail is a personality, if not a moral, thing. Whereas in India, we seem to pride getting away with expending as little effort as possible, even if the results are slipshod.* Moreover, mediocrity is tolerated, maybe because it has become so endemic.
Let’s not pick on the lowest paid, maybe they can be excused. Let’s look at the way the middle class raises its children. Cheating in public exams is de rigueur. Forging certificates, bribing officials, bending the rules is condoned and often valorized. At some level, we believe fraud (in the worst instance) and laziness (in the best) is excusable, even clever. Yes, the system in India has made it unavoidable putting people in untenable moral positions like being forced to pay bribes. But sadly, the need to bend the rules when necessary has become a general free pass to do so when not as well.
I feel this attitude extends to the highest level. The abiding goal among Indians seems to be to be managers, not doers. To delegate work but to take the credit. And thus I come to our second talent, which when combined with the first makes for a disastrous combination.
2) It is a feature of the corporate world everywhere that one needs to blow one’s own trumpet to survive. But in India we seem to have produced a class of executives who are a lot of talk, less action. In regional meetings, Indian managers have become renowned for talking non-stop and aggressively arguing but unfortunately producing results through some questionable means. Isn’t Suresh Kalmadi the perfect example of this?
We have become excellent public relations mouthpieces but often we are promoting a hollow product. Isn’t India Shining an expression of this on a national scale?
Let me not spare my own profession. It is rather fitting that journalism in India has become the mouthpiece of India Shining, taking pains to report if possible only good news and to present to the nation the façade it wants to see – a booming economy, 8 per cent plus GDP growth and glitz and glamour in an urban setting as if 70 per cent of the population did not exist. It is a mirror that reflects to the growing urban middle class their own delusions of grandeur.
But leave aside the fallacious ideology that the “free press” seems to have taken to heart and the content of the news. Look at the craft of journalism itself. I am hard pressed to find a single newspaper in India that is not poorly edited, riddled with bad grammar and mouthing the most ridiculous ideas. Apart from the stupidity of the front page stories, they are unbearable to read. The only two with some semblance of quality are Tehelka and Mint (which is headed by an Indian who lived and worked almost all his life outside India).
When I joined the profession it was very poorly paid and many of the reporters had very rough skills. They were street smart but did not have talent for critical thinking, a quality I think is essential in a journalist. They were largely ready to cut corners and succumb to pressure from their bosses to produce news at any cost. I have never been a believer in journalism school because I believe that these are skills that can be, and probably best are, learnt on the ground. But the fact is that there was little on-the-job training. There was very little guidance from seniors.
And then one wonders if the seniors are in a position to provide guidance. I still believe that we have some fine senior journalists in India. But they seem to have lost their way and become embroiled in the national pastime of bolstering their own egos and indulging their own voice boxes. Look at the way our most senior journalists covered the 26/11 attacks – so much talk, so little thought. Watching an Indian news channel is worse than reading the newspapers. It’s a sad day when the most thoughtful reports on a country come from the foreign media.*
There is a silver lining. The upside of our talent for cutting corners is that this creativity and ingenuity could be channeled very productively. At the executive level, at least, when Indians go overseas we do well because generations of finding loopholes means that thinking out of the box is in our DNA. And our propensity to break the rules is curbed because this is just not tolerated in other countries. Our penchant for cutting corners, for passing the buck remains but our other great talent – the ability to talk ourselves up – serves us well.
Unfortunately, this only applies to situations where there is firm supervision from a foreigner. If left to our own devices, we Indians seem to revert to type. Take Indian groceries in Hong Kong. When I first came to Hong Kong, I was shocked at how grungy they were, even worse than the baniyas back home. The products were badly arranged, covered with dust, sometimes expired. Even worse, it is routine for groceries to deliver items that are expired or to substitute brands that you didn’t want (in the latter case, without asking you) hoping to slip them in unnoticed. Indians in Hong Kong seem to have accepted this is as par for the course. I now buy my spices from a Chinese grocer.
The Indian consulate in Hong Kong is definitely more efficient than government offices back home – I attribute it to being in Hong Kong that has rubbed off; it is just too embarrassing to perform inefficiently here. But they are still far behind other consulates in efficiency. Once when I visited the consulate, there was not a single person at any window. Only the foreigners were nonplussed. The Indians waiting to be served thought it was normal. And the Indians behaved like Indians in India… trying to exert their “influence”, having come without all their documents in order and then asking the staff to “adjust” etc. I have detailed my experience with the Air India office here. And I happen to know these guys are extremely well paid.
Nevertheless, our gift of the gab and our creativity have served us well in the international arena. But a nation cannot be built on salesmen, PR people and managers alone. We need worker ants too. Or we will continue to be a nation that builds crumbling roads, bridges and buildings and to take satisfaction in simply the fact that they have finally been completed.
Let’s stop blaming the government for faults that we all share. Let’s stop blaming the British. Let’s stop comparing ourselves to China, which does have decent roads and bridges at least in its metros, and taking consolation in the fact that we are a “free” and a “democracy”. Let’s take a long hard look at ourselves and see that we are all complicit in the failure that the CwG signifies.
* Maybe this is not the case in rural areas. Maybe our farmers are still perfectionists.
*I’m only speaking of the English media here. I sincerely hope the vernacular press is better. Do any of you read the papers or watch the news in other languages? Are they any good?
Edited to add: Saw some of the athletes arriving at Delhi airport. The airport lokos pretty good. In fact, many of the new airports in India are good – Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai domestic. Even the toilets in these are decent. So maybe there is hope that we can deliver quality products. Though the airports seem to have been built with foreign collaboration…hmm.