Thursday, April 17, 2008

Organizing Ourselves: Cautionary Tales & Inspiring Possibilities

Shyam Ponappa / New Delhi October 04, 2007

Instances and inspiring possibilities of institution building.

Some time ago, a perceptive ‘re-reading’ of the Babur Nama by Sunil Sethi in these pages highlighted the similarity of India’s problems and needs in the 16th century and now: essentially, the lack of purposive organisation and infrastructure.* Having failed for five centuries barring exceptions, should we then give up on organising ourselves? Or can we possibly make the effort to learn from those of our institutions and others that work as purposive systems - achievement-oriented organisations — to try to effect a transformation, to define a pragmatic way forward? Collaboration in the common interest instead of following our penchant for argumentation, and indulging in a million mutinies. Especially for self-aggrandisement in the ultra short run (because in the long run, it is in everyone’s interests to co-operate).

Some of our institutions that work, by and large:

- The defence services: the Navy, Air Force, and Army.

- Companies serving external markets: our IT stars were early champions, now under a cloud until they reinvent themselves. Broadly, knowledge-based companies, and some engineering and textile companies.

- The Delhi Metro, Konkan Railways, some aspects of Indian Railways.

- Some areas of government.

- Some groups of professionals.

For most of the rest of us, while there are very many excellent individuals, alas, few are part of any organised system.

The Challenge

It is really up to us whether to go on in this chaotic, neo-feudal way with the specious excuse of being the largest democracy, or to buckle down to organising and functioning in our collective better interests.

The greatest impediment is our unwillingness to act in concert while carrying the baggage of sectarian inclinations, a sort of tribalism focused on the special interests of factions, the lesser loyalties of region, caste, clan, family. Our needs are exactly the opposite: aggregation of information, allowing cross-discipline analysis for problem definition — informed, correct diagnosis — and the synthesis of solutions that are workable, that can be and are executed on the ground, i.e. the organisation and prioritised management of initiatives — prime areas for nonpartisan, multidisciplinary thinking and action. The questions are whether and how issues of common interest can elicit coherent behaviour.

Opportunities For Covergent Action?

Are there compelling purposes that could help us break out of this rut? Persuade us to act more responsibly, be less mindful only of our rights while being oblivious of our coequal obligations.

Could the purpose of deploying India’s currency reserves profitably for everyone’s benefit enthuse us — especially our politicians — to start thinking and acting collaboratively? The incentive could be Rs 90,000 crore a year from $150 billion invested.

Or of organising waste collection and disposal, so we can live in better surroundings some years down? From waste collection through effective, humane systems, including organising and paying rag pickers, to managing sustainable disposal, removing this great blight.

These are the issues that deserve nonpartisan attention, where a sense of our obligations would help. Such issues need breakthroughs of nonpartisan, convergent action in the common interest, with “right knowledge” (expert inputs), not merely negotiation and/or accommodation of public opinion. Everything is not best left to public opinion. We need to distinguish between issues for public debate, and those that need resolution with expertise or competence. This is impossible without abjuring sectarian interests and populism. If we go with public opinion, we will opt for “free” power and water, and stay mired in shortages and with dreadful sanitation … Few major projects — hydroelectric projects, nuclear plants, or dredging projects — will come about.

Given the realities of the evolution of Indian politics, ultimately, these initiatives probably need to be structured to tie into a fair election funding process. Either that, or the tax and PDS systems must become good enough to channel excess receipts into a decent election funding system, which will need to be developed. Without such incentives and processes, it is unlikely that our predatory politics and heedless public behaviour will change, or that we can break out of our established interest groups.

The Risks of Business-As-Usual

Many seem to expect that because India is in the early stages of its political and economic development, things will improve with education and prosperity. For these sanguine business-as-usual-ists, there are two cautionary images. One is the highly evolved democratic processes mired in a hardliners’ deadlock, the predicament of America. The second is the unresolved, divergent paths taken by the French-speaking Walloons and the Flemish in Belgium. These educated, prosperous people have stayed apart, and not been able to get beyond their uncooperative mindsets to function as a nation.

Lessons Abound

There is also much to learn from other countries if we care to, although we tend to dismiss others’ experiences as irrelevant. Small nations especially, like Belgium, Dubai or Singapore, are often viewed simplistically. It is in our interest, however, to look to wherever we need to for our purposes. Take Singapore: a closer look reveals the complexity it has had to overcome and the distance it has travelled to achieve its position. Set adrift in 1965 with a hodge podge of migrants from southern China, southern India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the archipelago, it had no homogeneous population, common language or culture. But it had plenty of examples of troubled and failing states as warnings. As venerable Singaporean leader Lee Kwan Yew puts it, “… we knew what to avoid — racial conflict, linguistic strife, religious conflict. We saw Ceylon …” Singapore’s secret is its practice of an unsentimental pragmatism that is “ideology free”.**

Many in India dismiss Singapore as a model because of its scale. But scale hasn’t stopped China from taking lessons. China’s officials have been interacting regularly and systematically with Singaporean counterparts, as they have with other countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands. Chinese ministers have meetings twice a year with Singaporean ministers to learn from them; every three months, fifty mayors of Chinese cities visit for courses in city management. Likewise, China is learning waste management from Flanders, as are Russia and Britain.

Our institutions must, of course, be tailored to our context. As a UN University report notes, successful institutional changes typically emerge as a mixture of country-specific innovation and chance developments, as well as deliberate learning.*** All we need do is select pivotal issues to galvanize nonpartisan thinking and collective action.

* “On re-reading Babur Nama in 2007”, BS August 11, 2007:

** “Lee Kuan Yew, founder of Singapore, changing with times”, Seth Mydans & Wayne Arnold, International Herald Tribune:

*** “Stranger than Fiction? Understanding Institutional Changes and Economic Development”, Ha-Joon Chang, UN University Policy Brief No. 6, 2007:

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