July 18, 2009 3:13:03 am
Two things over the past two weeks underline for us one of the most chronic ailments of the modern Indian mind: a fear of speed,and of scale. The prime minister talked of a 100-day agenda for his new government and Kapil Sibal was the first off the block. Almost nobody substantively disagrees with the broad thrust of his reform in education. But the reaction that cut across both the political and intellectual classes was the same,giddy nervousness: Kapil is going too fast,in India things move slowly. Kapil,of course,is unfazed and responded,in an interview with me on NDTVs Walk the Talk,by asserting that he was,in fact,18 years too late already. And that education reforms should have begun simultaneously with those in the economy in 1991. But as he goes along,he will have to fight the same doubts even among the believers. Because that is how we Indians have become,not merely over centuries of deprivation and calamities,but also through six decades of licence-quota-limit-everything socialist toxification.
The second evidence of the same widespread mental illness came in reactions to the Metro accident in South Delhi that claimed six lives. From newspaper columnists to TV channel talking heads to anchors who panicked as if another 26/11 had struck us,the doubt was the same: Sreedharan is wonderful,but is he going too fast? Is the Metro team under too much pressure to finish the project before the Commonwealth Games? Even Sreedharans assertion that he was six months ahead of schedule anyway,and would have no problem delivering on time in spite of this setback,was greeted with further panic. Why was the man not showing some humility and slowing down? Must he continue to risk the lives of workers? This in a system that is so forgiving of railways that move slowly,completing every project in double the scheduled time if not more (look at the Jammu-Srinagar rail link,for example),while still consuming hundreds of lives every year in completely ridiculous and avoidable accidents. Or,in fact,our view could be,thank God,our trains run so slowly,or so many more would die in these accidents! This also in a system where a tiny sea-bridge that took twice the scheduled time and three times the initial cost to be half-complete can still draw the entire political class to inaugurate it and celebrate it as a marvel of Indian engineering. In a more questioning system,somebody would have been working instead to figure out what kind of obstructions caused this
delay and cost over-run and how to avoid these in future.
In a more normal society,you would have wrapped a Sreedharan,who has that rare gift of completing projects in India ahead of time,in cottonwool,and tried to preserve him for ever. Here,instead,we are worrying about how and why he has apparently not set up a succession. Young Mr Lovely,Delhis transport minister,wants to start looking at Metro safety while his own machinery makes light of killing the odd guy even on his half-done-for-ever BRT corridor which,in engineering terms,is nothing but the laying of a few clumsy barriers and pavements.
The history of building a new,independent India,unfortunately,is a history of delays,cost over-runs,inefficiency,corruption and obstructionism,whether it comes to roads,bridges,railways,airports,schools and colleges,hospitals,whatever. Over the decades,we have convinced ourselves,as a society,that schedules are just for the heck of it,naam ka vaaste,because the realities of life will make it impossible to stick to them. Because nobody wants to believe the system can be changed,we have also acquired a kind of Stockholm Syndrome,feeling comfortable and secure in being held hostage by it. Go to the National Highway Authority website and check the list of projects delayed by more than a year and you will be astounded not by how many sections are running that late,but by how blasé that bureaucracy has become about it.
An even nastier sibling of our fear of speed is our repudiation of scale. Through the decades,our entire politico-bureaucratic-intellectual system has worked to control scale going out of control. This is what provided the intellectual basis of the licence-quota raj: because every resource,particularly capital,was scarce,it was imperative that we controlled how anybody invested/ expended it. The 1991 crisis liberated industry from that curse and see how wonderfully and gloriously it has responded and prospered,helping drive rejuvenating change across the country. But much else is still bedevilled by the same thinking. So we will first build a two-lane road because we are afraid a six-lane one will be too much given traffic projections. Then,it will be completed three years late,and be choc-a-bloc on the day of its inauguration. Six months later,you will start thinking of four-laning it,and by the time that is completed,and is overloaded,you will plan two more lanes. As a result,we still remain in a constant spiral of construction and under-delivery. The same applies to our railways,airports,schools and colleges. We always plan for today,deliver day-after-tomorrow,and are condemned to live with permanent shortages. In both practical and philosophical terms,this is comparable with our self-inflicted shortages of scooters,telephones and LPG connections in the past. The fear of scale,at least until the recent past,was exemplified by many leading lights in the Planning Commission who invested so much emotion,energy and time in scaling back plans and projects that it should have been renamed Underplanning Commission.
Admitted,we cant always hope to match the Chinese obsession with scale and speed,and the belief in the principle of If you build it,they (users) will come. But we have internalised the whole idea of hastening slowly as a core national belief,possibly drawing inspiration from our romantic poetry,even film songs that always counsel patience over speed: Babuji zara dheere chalo (Dum),Haule-haule ho jaayega pyar (Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi) and that evergreen favourite of three generations,Geeta Dutts Babuji dheere chalna from the 60s Aar Paar. You just tweak the next line a bit replacing pyaar with sarkar and you get the most fitting anthem for our system: Babuji dheere chalna,sarkar mein,zara sambhalna. Because if you move slowly,you take no risks at all. There are enough elements in India for you
to justify delays and,in any case,excuse-mongering is our most prized national tribute. It is only if you break that rule,try to finish things on schedule,or dream big,that you run the risk of going wrong. That,if you are in this mai-baap sarkar system,is just not worth it. Even our folklore,our traditional,even Sufi,wisdom passed down generations pleads only eternal patience,as in Bhakt Kabirs Dheere,dheere re mana dheere sab kuchh hoye (Be patient my heart,everything will happen,but slowly,slowly).
Even in our popular culture,the honest,efficient and sincere are stray romantics and,ultimately,losers; a trend you see in the defining movies of each decade. There is a sense of resignation,an acceptance of the inevitability of misery,under-performance,shortages,delays,waste and corruption. Only,it is unsustainable at a time when our people are getting younger,more questioning,demanding and impatient. One way or the other,they will refuse to live with this contradiction between what they want and expect and what the system feels comfortable delivering. They will either force a change,or vote with their feet.
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