Settling for mediocrity

Published : Jun 06, 2003 00:00 IST

If India has to escape the morass of mediocrity it wallows in, it must channel the intensity of religious devotion and fervour among the people towards altering social values.

IT was the winter of 2002. We were leaving Singapore for the airport early in the morning. Traffic was very light and, as we passed down the immaculately kept roads of the city, I noticed a garbage collection van parked on one side, and a man loading garbage containers into it. He was wearing a uniform, and had gloves on. Not one scrap of refuse fell on to the road. He was clearly of Indian origin, from the South.

I thought of people like him who do more or less the same kind of work in Chennai, of the bits and pieces of filth that they leave strewn on the roads as the incredibly dirty garbage van moved down the street. And of the equally filthy garbage vans of the New Delhi Municipal Committee and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi weaving their way through the main roads of the capital city, leaving a trail of offal, other blobs of refuse, which are difficult to describe, and streams of dirty plastic bags and other odd bits of refuse along the roads.

There has been more than enough breast-beating on our lack of civic consciousness for me to indulge in some more of it. But what is of interest is why it is that people who share social values and modes of behaviour should have such different perceptions of their jobs. This is not a search for excuses and explanations, but an attempt to try to understand basic motivations; that might, just might, then provide some insights into how things could change, should anyone want that kind of change.

Let me hasten to clarify that this is not a dissertation on civic services. I merely used the example of different behaviour by the same kind of people to illustrate the basic point that there are such differences, for reasons that are not immediately apparent. It is evident in the way, for example, the police behave - the constables and assistant-sub inspectors - with whom people have necessarily to interact on a variety of occasions, it is evident in the quality of workmanship in products made by a variety of Indian concerns. A former vice-president of a major industrial concern, which has a tie-up with a Japanese conglomerate, once told me that while most of the key executive positions in the factory were filled by Indians, the Japanese had insisted on keeping quality control under their direct control. The head of quality control told him, very genially, "If a part is Japanese, send directly to production line. If Indian, send it to quality control." The vice-president asked why, not a little put out by what seemed to be open discrimination. Then the quality control chief explained; "Indian parts, 80 per cent rejected by quality control. Japanese parts sent for random check, rejection rate less that point five per cent."

All right, we are learning, we're getting better, and we need to tell ourselves that, we have launched the Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) and all the rest. That is fine; but it is not about GSLVs and Astra missiles. It is about the things that keep day-to-day activities going. Tins that will not open; bulbs that last for about three weeks; street-lights that are either on during the day or off at night in some parts and on in others; traffic lights that never, never all work at the same time. As I said, there will be explanations for all this; that is the one thing we are good at, providing very convincing, earnest explanations as to why our work and our products are so mediocre. But one needs to look for the causes for the basic inability to comprehend, to take matters seriously and not in the careless manner many in the municipal corporations seem to think is a macho thing to do. Why a manufacturer of electric motors will use third-rate components, which eventually establish that his motors are substandard.

IT seems to me that we have to go beyond education, because some of the worst offenders have actually had access to a fairly good education. Discount for the moment indifferent teachers, bad schools and colleges. The fact is that on the whole, taking a very broad view, there is an awareness of the value of producing goods and work that measure up to the best in the world. And this is so very evident; in every city, in every gathering, the quality of civic services, of the shoddiness of goods made locally are discussed and mourned over.

So where, then, beyond education can one go? To what is enshrined in virtually all Indians, religious fervour and the intensity of devotion. We place great value on pronouncing the Gayatri mantra correctly - but do we put even half that effort into the production of goods and services? Leave aside the casuistry and mendacity of those responsible for turning out spare parts for MiG fighter aircraft; look at the facts. Crash after crash make it obvious that there is something wrong with the aircraft, and let us not blame the lack of trainer aircraft, as if that was responsible for our pilots not being able to handle the high speed fighters. Had that been a real argument all the MiGs would have crashed long ago. Clearly the parts are third-rate and the servicing indifferent and careless. We have many more civilian aircraft flying every day, carrying hundreds of passengers all over the country; has the accident rate among them been anywhere near that of the MiG crashes - or for that matter that of Jaguars, or any fighter aircraft being manufactured in India - in the last decade?

So that is where a good part of the answer lies; in the fervour of our religious devotion, whatever our religion. It consumes all that each individual has by way of commitment, of striving towards perfection, and leaves him with little to give to whatever he does for a living. The corollary to this is the value placed on renunciation, hence the flocking to gurus and godmen who do nothing but pray and meditate. And yet the Gita, venerated by Hindus as the most sacred of scriptures, says:

Niyatam kuru karma tvam karma jyayo hy akarmanah sarirayatra `pi ca te na prashidhyed akarmanah

(Do thou thy allotted work, for action is better than inaction; even the maintenance of thy physical life cannot be effected without action. - translation by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan.)

There may well be similar exhortations to action in the religious texts of other religions; the point is that, given this key precept in a text as sacred as the Bhagavad Gita, most Hindus will flock to temples and mumble their devotion to their God and then come out and set about briskly plying their trade in mediocrity.

This is where the key to change must lie. It is the intensity of devotion and total, committed religious fervour that needs to be used in some way to alter values. Consider how much care and perfection goes into the preparation of the images of Durga for the Durga Puja celebrated every year by Bengalis, among others. There must be a way to channelise this intensity into perfection in the workplace. In that classic Religion and The Rise Of Capitalism R. H. Tawney had brought out the connection between the intensely personal Puritan religious values and the sanctity they brought from it to their work. So it has been done, even if the social contexts and motivations were different. If anything will lift us from the morass of mediocrity we now wallow in, then it will have to be something not very different from that.

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