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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 30, July 17, 2010

Quarrelling with Indian Perceptions

Thursday 22 July 2010, by Arup Maharatna


There are always some people born with an innate proclivity for forging an uncommon, or indeed often just the opposite, stance on nearly all debates, discussions, and conversations in life —mundane or otherwise. Barring such select characters with pathological passion for dissenting, nobody would dare to deny that the British colonial rule has been largely (and perhaps indeed directly to a substantial extent) responsible for India’s protracted socio-economic retrogression relative to many Western nations since the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, injecting this perception amongst the masses was highly instrumental not only to the awakening of a nationalist sentiment for the freedom movement and independence from the colonial clutches, but this was perhaps the single slogan that could hold the nation virtually mesmerised. Consequently, there was practically or rather tactically no time left for pondering over the uneasy, but indeed very deep, question as to why or how it was the way history had rolled, but not the other way round. Eventually, however, the colonists had to quit the country, and home rule was established. But the long suspended question of why many Western countries succeeded in colonising a large chunk of the world, not vice versa, did not die. The time finally has come when this question could no longer remain dumped in perpetual hibernation and it does often surface both in ordinary and scholarly discussions and conversations, particularly after the country has begun stumbling on its way to speedy and balanced economic transformation.

Notwithstanding major structural infirmities inflicted by the past colonial rule and their myriad hangovers, the need to have an impassio-nate look into our own intrinsic traits and features became increasingly imperative. Indeed, what we, Indians, think and do now, cannot but be the metamorphoses of our own cultural and social traditions confronted increasingly by external (mostly Western) values, technology, and worldview carried through numerous channels. The moot question is whether we Indians have been doing well enough in moulding and adapting our traditional socio-cultural, political, and religious idiosyncrasies and perceptions, and prejudices to the over-whelmingly rational tunes and patterns of Western societies—the societies which did succeed much early (or earlier than us) in bringing about industrial revolution to be followed by relentless flow of inventions, innovations, and new technology. A case in point in this vein could be the question whether the changing incarnations and/or complex metamorphoses of India’s traditional caste or joint family systems through constant interactions with modern material and technological develop-ments, are consistent or/and conducive to further and sustained economic development towards a stage of ‘mass consumption’ and prosperity.

IN seeking insightful and honest answers to such questions, it is virtually impossible to gloss over innate differences in the sense/notion of rationality between Western and our cultures by continuing to blame the British colonial rule for our contemporary obstacles, predicaments, and inefficiencies. Indeed talking about such differences does not necessarily invoke a frame-work of a criminal court wherein a final judgement/announcement about a person found guilty is an indispensable element. Comparing two societies could take the form and spirit of two sisters’ quarrel wherein a lot of details of each is dissected and debated and hence get known through their (probably heated) arguments—but without any protocol of a final verdict on any. I intend to ‘quarrel’ with much of my own society, culture and perceptions in the latter kind of form and spirit. Indeed, it is not difficult to appreciate the imperative need for looking dispassionately into ourselves—including our own intrinsic/cultural attributes and ambiguities/oddities of our perceptions—in a comparative light with a view to resolving our dilemmas and impasses that stand on our way towards improvements and progress.

Let me illustrate the point that I am trying to make. In Europe—even in the 17th century for which fairly accurate quantitative evidence is available—a young adult postpones (as a matter of socio-cultural norm/practice) marrying until he could accumulate a threshold amount of resources (most often out of his own earned income) necessary to set up his own independent family. In rather sharp contrast, that many Indian parents do not hesitate to marry off even a jobless or non-earning young son is propelled by two deep-rooted perceptions of the parents: first, that their adult son, while remaining unmarried, could bring shame or stigma for the family by indulging in pre-marital sexual relations/acts out of sheer biological urges of adulthood; second, that the son, if burdened with the responsibility of his own family, cannot afford any longer to remain unproductive, and hence once married, he sooner or later would be forced to start earning. But, as the son’s jobless-ness is largely involuntary, and is typically dependent on circumstances external to the family, the marriage could well initiate a downward economic mobility. Indeed, I have met in my life not very few married men who —being grinded by a large family amid poverty —keep on lamenting over what they call ‘a blunder’ they had committed by agreeing to forgo bachelorhood in the first place, especially in the face of meagre and uncertain income.

Conversely, a poor peasant would barely spare a second thought while selling off his only tiny asset, a small piece of land, with the sole purpose of marrying off his daughter against a hefty dowry and observance of all rituals and customs including a public feast, despite a lurking peril of economic downturn not only of his own but of his very daughter’s as well. Interestingly, this scenario of marriage-initiated economic stag-nation or downfall can be made even gloomier by dint of a fresh dose of muddled perceptions and hence of potentially failed course of action and behaviour. For example, after marrying on such shaky material base, this couple could unhesitatingly go ahead in begetting many children, courting even deeper familial poverty and distress. While such hazy perceptions and understanding about one’s own immediate reality and broader circumstances could drag a family down, a lot of academic/scholarly ‘folklore’ and luminous theoretical alibis (read models) have been created just to uphold a credible façade of ‘economic rationality’ in the couple’s high fertility behaviour. The latter models generally utilise the widely evident phenomena that children in poor households perform various useful (and sometimes productive) activities from a very early age, and children, when grown up, are practically the only old-age security of the parents. This entire body of argument, however, amounts to little more than a sheer attribution of so-called ‘economic rationality’ on the parents’ perceptions, especially because children in poor households are virtually forced to take part in household chores under their precarious circum-stances with little other leverages. This pretty obvious consideration has often been under-played by many social scientists, who generally tend to attribute economics textbook-type economic rationality on the decision of a large family, with all the implicit shallow calculations and misperceptions on the part of the poor couple glossed over.

WHAT strangely lies outside the parents’ reckoning is the phenomenon of surplus labour and involuntary unemployment at the society level. Of course, if an individual couple restricts its family size, it can have no perceptible influence on the magnitude of societal unemployment, as withdrawing a few drops of water leaves an ocean utterly unaffected. The impeccably imperceptible effects of an individual’s decision/behaviour on the societal outcomes have arguably almost blinded many (even influential) economists to the blatant untruth of its converse. For instance, if societal unemployment is large and/or rises, there are almost obvious reasons why it could pinch an individual through her suffered difficulties and agonies of not finding jobs for a considerable span of the year. To put it in the vein of the above analogy, although addition or subtraction of a few drops of water from a river cannot succeed in provoking the latter’s fury, not a single household, let alone a few, could remain free of adversities or the upheaval if an excessive monsoon causes the river to overflow and hence submerge villages. Thus, an individual, though she alone cannot influence societal outcome, can hardly remain insulated from the impact of the latter. However, a large majority appear to be stuck to the barren (or indeed bizarre) thought that, since one petty individual cannot have a perceptible influence on the societal outcomes, there is no point in hesitating to act in a way of which supposedly small untoward effects could well spread beyond her own private domain. This often keeps them ambivalent to the possibility of the massive adversity accumulated by similar thoughts and acts or behaviour of many individuals. Ironically, when the society bounces back people’s own-created magnified pinch unto themselves, the latter often take a strategic resort to the idea of fatalism as a source of badly needed consolation and/or justification for their not-so-unconscious self-caring irresponsible actions in the first place.

Likewise, an individual may well perceive that if he throws out on the street his bit of household garbage and daily trash, it cannot cause any perceptible societal hazard of sanitation and cleanliness. Consequently, the aggregate outcome can soon become a huge pile of stinking garbage that may slow down traffic movement, pollute environment, and turn into a major source of health hazards of sorts. Being bred with the same flawed perceptions, an individual motorist feels no qualms while parking his private car on the side of a crowded street for a while (perhaps to quickly buy things from a specific shop of his choice), thereby causing inconvenience to others. His instinctive perception keeps him insensitive to the distinctly adverse potential impact on the traffic flow of the street or even on someone’s life due to an accident which can take place even within a fraction of a minute after the parking of the car.

It is pretty plain that the net impact of this common individualist thought and perception could well snowball into an enormous chaos and traffic jam on the street. Thus, what turns to be of particular interest in this typical perception is not exactly its element of narrow self-centredness, but rather the frivolity towards its own great potential for being sooner or later self-defeating. And this perceptional deformity is admittedly at the root of many grim, albeit avoidable, consequences at the society level. More strikingly, this poverty of perceptions inflicts not only common civilians, but even the high-chaired administrators and politicians often appear quite short of having practical farsights and understanding necessary for keeping up the standard/quality of our collective wellbeing. This is, to a large extent, why the whole society appears virtually reeling under unending and almost stifling mess and mismanagement in many walks of life. The casualness, muddled, and hazy features of thoughts and perceptions, which are at the root of many self-suffocating evils, are not only held by the majority of ordinary constituent individuals of Indian society but, by the same token, by its Ministers, officials, and administers.

TAKE, as another example, the case of primary education. Whether to universalise basic education/literacy or not, had been a very important question that our national leaders and politicians had faced just after the country’s independence. The resolution—though largely camouflaged but stubborn—has proved, on its face, to be the one not very favourable to it, as about 40 per cent of Indian children and adults are still illiterate, notwithstanding hundreds of written pages on the importance of primary education and various plans, programmes, and targets being routinely set to achieve the avowed goal. The haziness or indeed evasiveness of the perceptions and policy on primary education can be illustrated plentifully by citing the wide gaps between official rhetoric, goals and achievements. For example, in the beginning of the 1950s Article 45 of the Constitution of India had resolved as follows: “The State shall endeavour to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children.” About one-and-a-half decades later, not only was the proportion of illiterates to the total population aged seven years and above officially a staggering 75 per cent, but the official perceptions had continued to be rhetorically inspiring, utterly misplaced, and abundantly muddled. By way of illustration, the following remarks of the then Education Minister in his address to the Central Advisory Board of Education in 1964 illuminatingly testify to the inherent confusion at the policy level: “Our Constitution fathers did not intend when they enacted Article 45 that we just set up hovels, put students there, give untrained teachers, give them bad textbooks, no playground and say we have complied with Article 45 and primary education is expanding. The compliance intended by our Constitution fathers, was a substantial compliance. They meant that real education should be given to our children” [italics added; quoted in Praveen Jha and Pooja Parvati, ‘The Twisted Tryst: Some Reflections on Inclusion and Quality in the Public Provisioning of Elementary Education in India’, Indian Journal of Human Development, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2008, p. 339] It would be hard to blame someone who might find ridiculous the Minister’s emphasising the standard/quality of educational infrastructure vis-à-vis its reach and expansion at a time when three-fourths of our people were still officially illiterate.

Even today—more than 60 years later—primary education could not be made ‘compulsory’ and about a third of children are still illiterate as per official records. It is important to note that this failure in achieving universal primary education so routinely pledged is distinct and should not be confused with sustained failures in stamping out racist elements and attitudes from the US, the seat of Abraham Lincoln’s dreams and values, or caste discrimi-nations and social inequity from independent India, the land of Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals, precepts, and noble passions.

The traditional standard reasons adduced for not forcefully making basic education compulsory in India (for example, familial poverty necessitates child labour for survival; Indians have enough and even more wisdom and rationality than mere literacy can offer) have appeared of late to be of highly doubtful merit and validity. Indeed, it is difficult to point to any country in the world that has been able to make considerable economic growth without universal literacy (whether achieved through force or not) and primary education. Our national leaders have been for long (arguably) oblivious or perhaps sometimes even opposed to this requirement, with their own shallow and short-sighted visions and arguments. However, currently they seem to have woken up to this need, but that too due to the pressure and publicity of the influential international agencies and academic personalities. In any case, it has now been crystal clear that it was largely because of the frivolous perceptions, soaked often in vested interests, on the part of our national leaders, politicians and policy-makers that a low effective priority has been accorded for such a long period since independence towards the achievement of universal literacy and basic education.

In somewhat similar vein, short-sightedness, ad-hocism, organisational and coordinating deficiencies, of which imprints abound in most of the plans and programmes of state agencies at various levels, seem to be the hallmarks of the Indian style of administration. For example, the need for repairing a depleted bridge or a broken road is rarely felt urgent unless a real accident has taken place, ‘preferably’ costing human lives so that the media finds it worth printing in the newspapers. Apart from such a killer, and what one could call ‘man-made’ road accidents, there are, however, some ‘accidental’ routes to propelling expedient administrative action for the repair of the bridge. For example, if some Minister or such other VIP suddenly happens to have to travel along the dilapidated road/bridge, the latter will surely witness its windfall fate of being repaired with utmost exigency. Ironically, the reason why people apparently remain unfazed and keep patient over persistently erratic and ad-hoc approach held by the administration/management, is their common never-questioned perception that a poor country like ours has perennial shortfall of resources from the minimum required level for smooth functioning at almost all levels including of course in our present case of repairing the bridge. This popular perception is flippant, as it paradoxically happens to have a clash—albeit implicit—with another common-sensical wisdom, namely, that it is the scarcity of resources that only can create room for such notions as organisational/managerial planning, efficiency, and skill, and commitment meaningful. The right question thus is not whether/how acute is the resource scarcity, but whether there are good organisational/managerial and planning skills to effectively cope with the existing resource shortage.

No country on earth has been ever heard having ‘unlimited’ resources and wealth. It is the meticulous planning, organising skills, and efficient administration that generally contribute greatly to converting a scenario of resource scarcity into prosperity, but not the other way round. Thus, the question essentially boils down to one of priorities, planning, and effective imple-mentation of programmes. Therefore, if a major road is in a very bad shape, it almost tautolo-gically implies either relative neglect, that is, low priority provided for it in the envisaged scheme of activities normally detailed in the budget or administrative/managerial inefficiency/failure of the department concerned, or both, but not exactly shortage of funds per se. The above point is important, because people at large often get conditioned by the sloppy perception that the main culprit behind acute dearth on the fronts of road, public health provisions, electricity, schools etc. is the shortage of public funds. In fact it takes rather little clear thinking to see that the deformities/deficiencies in perceptions, sense of priorities, and the zeal and commitment for organisational innovativeness on the part of public administrations are the key to all these malfunctions, not exactly shortage of funds as such.

INDEED, one glaring handicap of the Indian style of administration relates to the lack of coordination (not to mention cooperation) among various state agencies and organs. And this again reflects primarily deformities of perception, lack of sense of commitment and perfection, and the characteristic inertia of administrators towards innovativeness. Let me illustrate the point with an example, which normally escapes the majority’s notice. I was once struck by witnessing in a metropolitan city a wide, busy, and important street, half the width of which is concretised and hence off-white cement-coloured, while the other half of the width, pitch black-coloured, is made of metal chips and black tar. Apart from the almost devastating effect from the standard aesthetic standpoint, the unmatched levels along the merging line of two parts leaves the road potentially dangerous and hazardous. The genesis of such a gross deformity in the road, as I was told by a taxi-driver, lies in the fact that half of the width of the road falls in the jurisdiction of the Port Authorities who wanted and could afford too a relatively expensive concretisation of its portion of the width, and the other half belongs to the Municipal Corporation, which wanted to stick apparently to austerity and refused to shoulder the financial burden above what would be entailed by the construction of its portion of the road with much cheaper conventional tar and chips. Similarly, it is not too rare a scene that the construction of a flyover over a railway track remains incomplete even for years together, causing untold inconvenience and misery to commuters and local residents. The major clue to such delays or bottlenecks has nothing to do with fund shortage per se, but it lies mostly in the lack of coordination (and sometimes even cooperation) between the Railway authorities and Public Works Department.

It is possible to adduce many examples of state administrative policy, decisions, programmes, and organisations which seem utterly ill-conceived, inefficient and even irrational from the point of view of productivity. In fact, it is blatant commonplace that there is a large scope for improvements in the functioning of many state organisations and enterprises even without any extra cost. I am perfectly aware that these observations are not purely new, nor unheard of before. Indeed such observations and commentaries on myriad reflections of the state’s perennially confused state of mind and actions constitute a bulk of the entire writings of the commissioned columnists of the prominent private sector press and other print media. But these routine writings appear often rather shallow and hasty in coming—presumably due to the inflexible demand for the economisation of space and time, both being linked to profit—to strong conclusions or verdicts, which often sound pretty close to throwing the baby with the bathwater [read suggesting abolition of public enterprises and state organisation them-selves, not the means and ways for removing their inefficiencies].

On the plane of activists, political practitioners and actors, inefficiencies and misconceptions in the day-to-day functioning of public/state organisations usually remain overshadowed amid the ceaseless whirlpool of political adversaries, and mobilisations and social conflicts on such divisions and lines as caste, religion, and region. Take, for example, a railway station with two ticket counters—respectively for second and first class reservations. [Of course I am referring to the pre-computerisation era.] While the ticket counter earmarked for the former category tickets had to deal with an enormous, chaotic, and nearly unmanageable queue, the clerk at the next window for the latter category bookings used to be mostly relaxed for obvious reasons, and was often sitting idly. If we could organise a more balanced distribution of workload between these two employees, we could ensure not only fairness in workload distribution but, more importantly, a higher standard of efficiency and consumer service.

Relatedly, the majority people, by looking at the day-to-day functioning and work culture in public offices and state organisations, get inclined to maintain that we Indians are almost by definition lazy and insincere. This popular view cannot but be superficial when it is confronted by an extremely common sight even in state/public sector organisations, namely, that the staff of salary/accounts section [where the monthly salaries are calculated and disbursed] work, in particular, relatively hard with distinctly greater degree of diligence and sincerity hardly ever matched by other sections/departments of the same organisation. Almost obviously the clue lies not in the staff of salary/accounts section being pathologically honest and hard working, but in the nature and priority of work of this critical (from all the employees’ standpoint) section being well-defined and extremely time-bound.

Such seemingly petty irrationalities get accumulated into a not-so-apparent giant of inefficiencies and lethargies pervading the entire society. They persist partly because of perverse perceptions which are generally resistant to amendments and innovations in their respective fields of work distribution and arrangement, and many seem to be just incapable of chalking out the most efficient system or organisation of functioning. A distinct lack of innovative impulse and urge on the part of our administrators, officials, and politicians towards raising efficiency is admittedly a stubborn curse on Indian society and culture. This is probably one major clue to the recent mushrooming of management courses and schools, which with pomp and bang essentially attempt at purging the never-questioned traditional Indian perceptions vis-à-vis those more suitable for efficient ways of doing and managing things, many of the latter being simply commonsensical for a logical and rationalist mental makeup.

ALL this may sound somewhat puzzling in view of the outstanding achievements of hordes of Indian scholars, scientists, and philosophers both within the country and abroad. But this apparently anomalous outcome is not too hard to explain by referring again to the features of the perceptions of our people at large. What is at issue is not that we are not intrinsically incapable of innovating in pursuits of a better world, greater efficiency and productivity. But a pervasive lack of interest and conviction about deeper utility, significance, and usefulness of innovations is a somewhat disturbing feature of our perception, which remains perhaps at the root of vividly suboptimal outcomes that have been persisting in almost every sphere of performance, administration, and management.

To innovate and plan for more efficient skills for better organisation, performance and functioning, it requires thinking which as such often inflicts pain and demands patience. We characteristically tend to eschew the pain of thinking and related agony of patience. But our people, politicians, bureaucrats seem neither ready nor open to grasp a rather simple truth, namely, that the immediate relief afforded by less of patient thinking and planning is relatively short-lived. Consequently we are ultimately left with the protracted state of displeasure and agony consequent upon ubiquitous chaos, inefficiencies, all-encompassing mediocrity, and irrationality of perceptions in the functioning, administration and management of our society and polity. It is becoming increasingly clear that modernisation and development in the sense of newer commodities, comforts, amenities, and high technology is not freeing our country of inherently hazy perceptions, long-adapted irrationalities, and compounded complexities surrounding caste, religion, kinship, and gender. For instance, a large part of the current escalation of caste-based politics and violence across the country is traceable to the deeply dilemmatic mind of our past political leadership, who pledged destruction of caste on the one hand (especially during election campaigns) and on the other hand got engaged in elaborate arrangements for preparing a solid list of virtually innumerable castes and sub-castes.

Therefore it may not sound too cynical if India’s current (relative) readiness to ‘surrender’ to the Western powers in various impressive guises of ‘liberalisation’ and ‘globalisation’ is viewed as a response to her defeat in reforming entrenched deformities and deficiencies of perceptions, notions of rationality and reasonableness. India’s present gesture of such surrender to the West is distinct from her earlier historic one, which did not culminate before protracted hard battles fought with the British colonists since the eighteenth century or even earlier. Needless to add, no amount of macroeconomic prescriptions and policies that have been flowing of late from the multinational agencies and organisations in various catchy names of ‘structural adjustment and reforms’ and ‘globalisation’ can efface our imperative need and sincere efforts of reforming our deep-seated socio-cultural, religious, and political idiosyncrasies, deformities, and irrational angularities, which constantly feed into perpetuating distinct blemishes and peculiarities embedded in our stubborn perceptions and prejudices.

The author is a Professor, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune.

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