INDIAN TALENT CAUGHT IN THE COBWEBS
There is no other religion in the world that believes as strongly in change as Hindu religion does. It is believed by Hindus that even destruction is a transformation and is hence useful and desirable. Hindus worship Lord Shiva who is supposed to be the God of destruction. Yet, no other society resists change as much as Indian society. It is strange that India has always needed major shocks to learn simple lessons that others could learn with minimum efforts.
Resistance to assimilation of modern knowledge has been a major weakness of Indian society since time immemorial. The use of horses in army was something that Indians learnt after losing to Greeks. Muslim invasion became successful because Hindu kingdoms relied on swords and had no gunpowder. British could win India with a small mercenary army because they had guns. Even today in almost every major city of India there is one square having a statue of Queen Laxmibai of Jhansi who fought valiantly against British imperialist forces less than one and a half century ago. The statue invariably shows the queen holding a sword in her hand. It is obvious that she did not stand a chance against an army equipped with guns.
The inability to assimilate and adopt new knowledge by a society which is otherwise extremely lively, vibrant, intelligent and knowledgeable seems strange. To a casual observer, there seems to be no reason that a society, fully aware of the latest developments in technology and conceptual thoughts, could have failed repeatedly to use its knowledge in its day-to-day operations. More strange than even the historical realities is the fact that the same situation continues even today to some degree.
Knowledge has become the new instrument of power. Yet, in the Indian context it is not knowledge but various other considerations that hold the key to decision-making in key matters. The person with knowledge is at best treated as a dangerous person to be guarded against and at worst treated as an intellectual prostitute - to be used as and when the need arises and to be despised at all other times. Alienation of the knowledge worker from all organizations and institutions within the society is a stark reality of modern India.
Government departments and organizations in India are controlled by omnipotent officers of Indian Administrative Service (IAS). A worthy IAS is a know-all who can be controlling poultry production on one day and suddenly take over as head of a steel unit the other day just before moving on to head the department of culture. The making of an IAS involves a systematic process wherein the finest minds of the country are selected and are benumbed of all desire to learn and acquire expertise in any field. These empty minds are then filled with an arrogance that can tread roughshod over the best minds of the world. Couple these empty minds with a judiciary who sees only judges and lawyers as honorable and learned (respectively), you have a world class system of governance for demeaning and insulting talent in any field. Of course, it helps a lot to have politicians whose aversion to anyone with some grey matter and a spinal chord knows no bounds.
It was a great scientist who said that if there were Government laboratories in stone age, man would have never discovered fire. Governments all the world are notorious for being anti-innovation. The engine of growth and innovation in most countries is provided by private enterprise. The much-flaunted virtues of capitalism are entirely due to the innovative spirits unleashed in a free society. Unfortunately, the private industry and trade in India has also proved to be a big damper for all types of innovation.
Indian trade and industry can well be divided into four categories a) Small trading and retailing outfits b) Medium and large sized traders c) Traditional business family owned industry d) Entrepreneur owned industry. The first three categories are dominated by traditional business families who in the caste based structure of Indian society have normally belonged to a handful of castes. Entrepreneurs coming from families that have no business background face a really uphill task since there is no venture capital funding and double digit interest rates (often above 20%) can be killing for a new entrepreneur in the initial start-up years. Yet, a handful of first-generation businessmen have managed to survive and some of the shining stars of stock market in India belong to this category.
In spite of the success of some of the first-generation businessmen who have adopted modern professional business practices, the vast majority of traditional Indian business houses refuse to learn. Often a reverse phenomenon is also witnessed. As and when the first generation passes on the baton to the next generation, the management practices at what was earlier an entrepreneur driven business are changed and the business starts resembling a traditional Indian business house exhibiting traits that distinguish a family owned and managed business. Though the traits are most pronounced in India due to the caste system, family owned structures all over the world have similar characteristics.
Long ago, American business discovered the need to divorce ownership from management to ensure efficiency of operations. In India a deep sense of caste based superiority forms the backdrop of the mindset of almost all traditional Indian business castes. It begins with a sense of pride and is more often than not a hollow vanity. It extends to the belief that a person's son is endowed with all the qualities of analysis and decision-making just because of the connection by birth. Any other person who is not connected by birth is considered to be an inferior human being in spite of all his qualifications etc. In such a situation talk of divorce of ownership and management is seen as nothing short of blasphemy.
In Indian business houses, it is not unusual to see an engineer with a bright academic background report to a school dropout young enough to be his son. The relationship between the school dropout and the bright engineer is akin to that of a master and slave, wherein the master retains the right to insult the slave as often as it pleases him. This may sound exaggerated to people who are strangers to Indian business scenario. But anyone who has worked in such a setup would testify that the key to survival in such an organization is to prostrate before anyone having even a remote connection to the Family.
The inhuman treatment of educated professionals by business houses controlled by traditional Indian families is not just an internal issue of such businesses. It is at the heart of the problem of assimilation of knowledge by Indian society as a whole. In a master-slave relationship, the slave can do only as much as the master orders him to do. Any innovation is frowned upon. Any creative idea is acceptable if and only if the master is the one to think of it. Slaves who tend to be creative and go beyond their call of duty deserve to be whipped. It is no coincidence that one often sees Indian business houses roaming around the world looking for technical collaborations in the most mundane fields. Indian business houses often enter into technical collaborations to do minor things that the engineers at their own factories are perfectly capable of doing, if the owners would let them.
Master-slave relationship reinforced by the casteist mindset of family owned businesses makes an Indian engineer lose all desire to even keep himself update on the recent technological advances. Working on the cutting edge of technology and contributing to the growth of technology sounds nothing but an impossible dream to anyone who has personally experienced futility of his knowledge.
The process of capital formation in India after independence has involved channeling of the nation's savings to productive businesses. Banks (and to some extent stock exchanges) have played this role. As was to be expected, in an impoverished society, initial capital would have been available only with families and castes that were traditionally in business. Bound by the stipulations of initial capital and collateral security, Indian banks have been lending a majority of their funds to such traditional families and castes. Lack of innovation at Banks has prevented the banks from giving any weightage to knowledge or innovation or entrepreneur capabilities. It may sound bizarre but a banker in California is likely to treat an engineer from IIT (Indian Institute of Technology - six world class institutes located at six cities of India) with some respect but a banker in India will spare no opportunity to insult him if the IIT graduate cannot offer adequate collateral.
Government, Industry and Banks - the three combined together have in India effectively created a situation where the talented person loses all motivation to think, to assimilate knowledge, to create and to innovate. India needs to remove the cobwebs of its own mind. The future of nations in the next century will not be decided by the use of horses or gunpowder or guns or even nuclear weapons. Ability to continuously assimilate and adopt knowledge for change is going to be the critical factor in the life of societies and nations in the times to come. India has a vast pool of talent in almost every field of knowledge and expertise. Liberating this talent from the socio-cultural cobwebs must be the agenda for Indians as well as for all those who love India.
VT JOSHI & ANIL CHAWLA
9 September, 1999
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VT JOSHI (1925-2008) worked for more than fifty years as a journalist. He retired from THE TIMES OF INDIA in 1989. During 1985-89 he was the Special Correspondent of THE TIMES OF INDIA in Pakistan. His books "PAKISTAN: ZIA TO BENAZIR" and "INDIA AT CROSS ROADS" (co-author GG Puri) were widely reviewed in both India and Pakistan.
ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.
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