Saturday, January 5, 2019

Chalta Hai India, by Alpesh Patel

Chalta Hai India: When ‘It’s Ok!’ is Not Ok, by Alpesh Patel

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Publisher: Bloomsbury India (October 2018)
ISBN-10: 9388038665, ISBN-13: 978-9388038669

Necessity may be the mother of invention, and in some cases, the midwife of innovation. In India, poverty, under-industrialization, a closed economy, and a socialist model of economic planning kept her in abject poverty for decades. Every little step taken necessitated innumerable hacks and compromises. Over time, this band-aid approach became popularized as "jugaad". Its romanticizing apart, jugaad was in reality a byword for compromises, corner cutting, and a rationalization of mediocrity. It became a stick to beat anyone up with who questioned sloppiness and demanded world-class perfection. Chalta-hai - it's OK, became the catch-all phrase to justify shoddy quality.

The premise of the book is simple and straightforward enough - is India a "chalta-hai" nation? Are we consistently and uniformly accepting of mediocrity? Is this a relatively recent phenomenon, or has it been an immutable part of our nation? What are the symptoms of a “chalta hai” attitude? Can we break it down further? Is it pervasive across every sphere of life, or are there bright spots of excellence that one can look to for inspiration?

Let’s take two examples, both stark. In 1950, the author writes, both India and China had roughly the same share of global GDP. By 2015, China’s share of global GDP had shot to 16 percent, while India was at 7 percent.
Or to put it in starker terms, in 1991, when India finally started to liberalize its economy, it had a GDP of $266 billion (in current US$), and China $383 billion (i.e., 69% of China’s; or, China’s economy was 1.4 times India’s). By 2017, after more than a quarter century of economic liberalization, India’s GDP had zoomed to $2.6 trillion, making India the sixth-largest economy in the world in terms of GDP. China’s GDP, on the other hand, had surged to $12.2 trillion (i.e., India’s economy was 21% of China’s, or, China’s economy was 4.7 times India’s), making it the world’s second-largest economy, having left Japan far behind. China had become the world’s manufacturing powerhouse, with the world’s largest high-speed rail network, the largest installed solar capacity, the most skyscrapers in the world, and now also an emerging AI superpower.

The second example is even more telling - "a survey on the quality standards in India (the BT-IMC Quality Perception Survey) found that most survey respondents were optimistic and most of them opined that in ten years, quality of Indian products would achieve world-class standards."

That was in the year 2000.

Ten and eight years have gone. Whereas the world buys hundred of millions of iPhones every year that are partly manufactured but almost all are completely assembled in China, India continues to be a straggler in terms of quality on the world stage, exceptions notwithstanding. Indians make a mark on the world stage outside India – like Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichhai, Thomas Kurian, Indira Nooyi, and more. But in India, not a single Microsoft or Google has emerged, despite the Indian ITES industry earning over $100 billion from exports in 2016. Is it time we looked in the mirror and asked ourselves tough questions?

Even in the area of television, India has hundreds of cable channels, but not one which can boast of a serial of the calibre of "Stranger Things", "Game of Thrones", "Breaking Bad", "Sopranos", or "Seinfeld". What we have instead are gaudy noise-fests that masquerade as soap-operas and feature ornately-dressed women mouthing inane dialogs at ridiculously-suited men. Despite churning out the maximum number of movies in a year, the Indian movie industry's official revenues are marginally more than what a single Hollywood blockbuster grosses worldwide. In 2015, India had an estimated box-office gross of $2.1 billion. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens", released in 2015, on the other hand, grossed $2 billion worldwide.

In sports, especially the Olympic games, where athletes from the world over compete, how does India compare? Unlike in the past, where India would have one solitary medal to look forward - a gold in hockey - we now have more than a single medal against our tally at the games. But how does that compare with China? In the 1988 Olympic games in Seoul, South Korea, China won five medals. Twenty years later, at the Beijing Olympic games in 2008, it won fifty-one gold medals - the most of any country. India had won zero medals in the 1988 games. In 2008, the same games where China won one-hundred medals, India came home with three (Abhinav Bindra's gold, and Vijender Singh and Sushil Kumar's bronze medals). Abhinav's is a case in point - he "invested his own money to construct a range in the backyard of his house and imported a machine from Germany. All of Abhinav's expenses... were entirely funded by his father." Even the success of Haryana in the field of wrestling was the initial result of a few families' efforts. India's rise in badminton can almost entirely be credited to P. Gopichand, whose academy has thrown world-class players like PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, and others. Chalta hai seems to be the continuing mantra in sports, notwithstanding the lone counter-example of cricket.

You cannot talk about CH (Chalta Hai) without at least going into the root causes of this attitude. This is where almost everyone will have their own pet theory. But in the case of this book, this is a section that illuminates. Alpesh goes to European history, going back more than two-thousand years, and contrasts India's history with European history, its dark ages, the fall of the Greek and Roman civilizations, the brutality with which Christianity took hold, India's own dark ages, and the rise of the English. It is a welcome and much-needed change from the anodyne history that we are taught. What lessons are derived from that section depends on how you approach it.

The race for excellence is not a sprint, it is a marathon. There is the example of how Israel kept on innovating in the area of water conservation, from the 1950s onwards. From physically transporting water from one part of the country to the other, to building desalination plants, to pioneering drip-irrigation techniques, Israel did not rest on its laurels.

You may find, like I did, some arguments and some interpretation of facts to disagree with. But that is to be expected in a book like this that casts a critical and analytical eye on India's fundamental failing - the Chalta Hai attitude. But if this book makes you pause, ponder, and reflect, then it would have served its purpose. What would it take to get India to rise from where it is and stand at the head of the pack of nations? One step would be to stop glorifying "jugaad" - what was a necessity in the morass of mediocrity that India was during the Nehruvian-socialism decades has now become a pathological excuse for condoning and justifying mediocrity. Read this thoughtful, well-researched, and passionately-argued book and reflect on what it would take to get India and Indians out of this chalta-hai mentality.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the publisher.

This review first appeared in MyNation on Dec 21, 2018.


© 2018, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.