Friday, April 11, 2008

Citizenship & Attitudes: We Need To Rework Our Attitudes

Shyam Ponappa / New Delhi April 05, 2007

Citizenship in democratic societies entails significant effort beyond exercising voting rights.

This is the fourth article on ways to build India’s competitiveness to achieve a broad spread of prosperity, through rapidly increasing per capita GDP. So far, I have described three areas of radical change:*

- First, the government’s reorientation from Ruler to Facilitator/Partner. This means evolving beyond our feudal and colonial antecedents, to democratic governance.

- Second, the Left’s renunciation of hardline ideology and adversarial class conflict for participative action, by evolving a social democratic platform that is in the public interest.

- Third, shedding absolutist market philosophies—capitalist, libertarian, or championing of the state—to focus on pragmatic, collaborative aims in the common interest, and strategies to achieve them.

Personal Attitudes to Organisation, Systems & Processes

A prerequisite for all of the above is a change in our personal attitudes. In effect, our attitudes have to evolve from the feudal to the democratic, without our having gone through and incurred the costs—or the benefits—of a revolution. This is because, despite our cultural and civilisational heritage, our capacity for personal excellence, our compassion... we are so inured to rubbish and misery. Perhaps the explanation is our unthinking tolerance and perpetuation of our feudal and colonial legacy systems. What else can explain these strengths and indisputable competences, our neat and clean turnout, contrasted with our utter indifference to garbage and filth in our streets, our cavalier handling of waste, our tolerance of squalor beyond our doors, our perpetuation of poverty, our chaotic traffic, our stray animals?

This tolerance perhaps explains our behaviour between ourselves, contrasted with how Indians function in well-organised societies abroad. Or how we behave with clients in or from those societies, whether for services or for products.

Organisation & Training

Our history has compelling examples of the power of organisation. In 1746, 930 men charged across the Adyar River and routed an army of 10,000 at the Battle of Santhome (or St. Thomé) near Madras.** From then on, foreigners realised that the armies of Indian rulers were disorganised and ineffective. However, 700 of those 930 men were Indian while the rest and their leader were French. Much earlier, in 326 BC, Alexander’s superbly trained army defeated the vast armies of Porus (Puru, Purushottama, Parvata, Parvataka, Parvatesha …?), and in 1526, Babar’s 12,000 prevailed against Ibrahim Lodi’s legions.

Some Indian rulers did have well-organised armies, e.g., Chandragupta Maurya against Seleucas, who as satrap of Babylon after Alexander, attempted to invade Chandragupta’s territory in 305 BC; Shivaji’s Marathas, and a century later, Mahadji Shinde’s defeat of the British at Wadgaon in 1779. And only a few years after Santhome, the Indian troops of the East India Company—dismissed as a “rabble of peons”—were transformed by the likes of Robert Clive into a winning army. Philip Mason, Secretary of the Chiefs of Staff Committee during WW II, attributes this transformation in his account of the Indian Army to “hard work and organization, on which gallant leadership had set the seal”.*** He also notes that “many Eighteenth century writers thought the Indian soldier in horsemanship and skill at arms was the superior, and in personal courage, the equal, of the British”. What was lacking? Organisation and orchestration, discipline and systematic processes.

Thankfully, our armed forces have retained their organisation, systems and processes; so have craftsmen with a tradition of apprenticeship. Some sectors with external markets have learned it, such as IT and IT-enabled (BPO/KPO) services, some pharmaceutical and healthcare companies, and manufacturers like Sundaram Fasteners, Bharat Forge, or TVS, TI, and the like. But these are exceptions; most of us seem never to have learned or experienced systematic organisation, purpose, and quality processes.

Citizenship in democratic societies entails significant effort beyond exercising voting rights. You get the neat and smooth operation of developed countries because (a) they have been carefully designed and built that way, with systems that include training, incentives and penalties, and (b) everyone works to keep it that way, mindful of the rights of others. If we want those benefits, we must make the effort to build—and maintain—systems and processes with quality standards, incentives and penalties. Quality is not something for an elite few; it can be inclusive, based on norms that everyone adheres to.

To effect such a transformation, we must rework our attitudes in these areas:

Democratic rights and responsibilities: the starting point. Societies, towns and communities reflect the aggregate contribution of their constituents in design and operation. The more we contribute, the more attractive our communities and cities are likely to be. The difficulty is that good outcomes need the participation of most constituents, i.e. no free-riders, whereas we are largely free-riders. We do have successes, such as the Gujarat Milk Producers Cooperative (Amul), or citizens’ initiatives to save trees when roads are widened. The negatives include the lack of training in citizens’ responsibilities in schools and by way of continuing education, lack of institutional support, of collaborative training in our curricula, the poor record of our co-operatives, and especially, the predatory behaviour of our polity that allows our exploitation through divisive strategies, whether by bigotry or appeasement.

Organisation and management, including processes and quality standards, both personal and professional: Whatever the quality of people, aggregates in quality and magnitude are a function of organisation, process, standards, and rigorous management. None of those beautiful cities in Europe would exist without these. So if we want them, we have to work for them!

Greed: All of us, whether in politics, administration, in public or private corporations, or as individuals, have to resist greed and instant gratification to pursue what is more beneficial in our common interest. We have to avoid partisan politics that exploits bigotry, caste, and reservations in the tradeoff between short-term predatory behaviour versus longer-term, multi-partisan, more sustainable and socially rewarding outcomes. This may appear simplistic, but some simple things have to be done right.

As outlined in these four articles, a combination of critical institutional support from the government, a constructive social democratic platform by the Left, pragmatic approaches to markets, and strong personal commitment by individuals, could work together to develop the sustained competitiveness that India needs to achieve prosperity.

* Archived at

** The Indian Mutiny of 1857, Col. G B Malleson:

*** A Matter of Honour, Philip Mason

No comments: