Wednesday, March 29, 2006

In praise of the right brain, TOI, 26 March 2006

Last year I was on the jury of the McKinsey Award for the best article in the Harvard Business Review, a monthly journal for managers. This wasn’t easy work because I was forced to read every single article in the magazine in 2005 when I would much rather have been reading a novel. Besides, I have always believed that business is more about doing and less about reflecting. I was amused to find so many of the best articles had Indian names attached to them, and I thought with a smile, India is not only producing spiritual gurus but also “business gurus”. But I am sceptical of this latter ‘guru’, and sometimes wonder if the acronym stands for someone “Good at Understanding, but Relatively Useless”.

In the December issue I came across an article called “Hiring for Smarts”, which argues that the old fashioned IQ test is still the best predictor of success at the workplace. I liked the piece, not only for its clarity and confidence but for its impressive data base. In the end I decided not to nominate it because it was counter-factual. I know too many bright people with very high IQs who have failed as managers. The reason is that they lacked the ability to implement, a far more important skill in the world of action, and more difficult to acquire than thinking ability. I have known too many companies with excellent ideas and strategies who failed because their employees did not have executional abilities.

Of course, one needs to apply intelligence in executing a plan--in priorizing tasks, for example. But I find that determination and persistence are more important in getting results. These qualities reside on the right side of the brain, whereas analytical abilities lie on the left side. Jim Collins’ study of outstanding CEOs (From Good to Great) has arrived at the same conclusion. When I was younger and went recruiting at the IIMs, I always sought persons who had willpower and resolve rather than those with sheer mind power. The irony is that our education system teaches us to think but not to get things done. You’d expect that business schools would correct this bias, but they don’t teach one to implement either.

Our brahminical bias in favour of knowledge in India creates an even bigger gap between thought and action. Many of our leaders who run the world of affairs—profit and non-profit organisations, colleges, cricket teams, hospitals—lack the same ability to deliver results. Millions of our government employees are smart, having entered via competitive exams. Yet they persistently fail to repair roads, provide drinking water in villages, get teachers to show up at primary schools, action an FIR at a police station. Perhaps, the IAS exam should also check out a bias for action.

We tend to blame ideology or democracy or our system, but the dirty secret is that Indians value ideas over accomplishment. Exceptions like Shreedharan at Delhi’s Metro or Kurien at Amul did deliver, after all, from within the system. Even Nehruvian socialism could have delivered more—it didn’t have to degenerate into “Licence Raj”. The “golden quadrilateral’ highway project made great strides when B.C. Khanduri set clear, measurable goals, monitored day to day progress, and persistently removed obstacles. He thus motivated NHAI employees, but also made them accountable. These are some of the implementation qualities of the right brain, which make ordinary people do extraordinary things.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Two weeks ago I got a call from the board member of one of the world’s largest consulting companies, who invited me to come and speak to them about why so many Indians were making it in the global knowledge economy. My distinguished caller spoke about innovations emerging from General Electric and Microsoft’s R&D centers in Bangalore; advanced avionics installed by India’s Air Force on Russian fighter aircraft that had caught the U.S. defense establishment’s attention; sophisticated research on global capital markets outsourced by Wall Street to India; finally, he rattled off a dozen Indian leaders’ names in global multinational corporations.

I was skeptical. ‘Perhaps, it’s our large population?’ I suggested. He countered with half a dozen large countries that are invisible in the knowledge economy. ‘Or maybe it’s simply knowing English?’ I said. He asked if there was something in India’s education system that might help explain India’s recent economic success.
Although India does a miserable job of educating its masses, the best in India do get a decent education. Aside from the famed Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management, there are around twenty other centers of excellence in science, engineering, medicine, and even the liberal arts. Their success lies mostly in the high quality of their students, not teachers. The real victory may be with parents and their middle class insecurities. Indian parents, night after night, insist on overseeing their kids’ homework--it’s a rare mother who accepts a dinner invitation during exam season. By age 15, the young are packed off to coaching classes to prepare them for entry into the competitive colleges. Once they get in, of course, their future is made--they will be picked up by one of dozens of India’s emerging globally competitive firms, such as Reliance, Jet Airways, Infosys, Wipro, Ranbaxy, Bharat Forge, Tata Steel, Bharti, HDFC Bank and others.
The Indian middle class sends its children to private schools because government schools have failed. A national study by Harvard University faculty shows that one out of four teachers in government primary schools are absent and of those present one out of two is not teaching. As a result, even the poor have begun to pull their kids out of government schools and enrol them in indifferent private schools, which charge $1 to $3 a month in fees and are spreading rapidly in slums and villages across India. NIEPA, an official education think tank, confirms that two-thirds of the children in urban Maharashtra, U.P. and Tamil Nadu, three of India’s largest states, are now in private schools. The economist, Jean Dreze, predicts that government schools in Indian cities will soon be history.

Although teacher salaries are a third in private schools, Prof. James Tooley of the University of Newcastle found that even unrecognized schools delivered 22% points higher mean score in mathematics in his study of 918 schools in Hyderabad’s slums. A national study led by the NGO, Pratham, confirmed last month that even in villages 16% of the kids are now in private primary schools and they achieved 10% points higher scores in verbal and math. This upsets the Left establishment, which trashes these ‘mushrooming private schools’ and wants to close them down. The lower bureaucracy takes advantage of this prejudice and extracts bribes in exchange for licences, which typically average 5% of the private school’s running cost.

Private schools in India range from expensive boarding schools for the elite with large campuses to low end teaching shops in the bazaar. NIIT, a private sector company with 4000 ‘learning centres’, trained 4 million students and helped fuel India’s IT revolution in the 1990’s, and yet was not accorded recognition by the government. Ironically, even the children of government school teachers go to private schools. Members of Parliament finally recognized the state’s failure to deliver education when they pushed through parliament a legislative act a few months which would make it mandatory for private schools to reserve seats for backward castes.

Thus, Indians are solving their problems in the old fashioned way by depending on themselves and not waiting for the state. The media research firm TAM reports that educational institutions were the single largest advertiser category in print media in 2004 (up from sixth position in 2003). National Sample Surveys also confirm the rising spend on education. In 1983, only 1.2 percent of per capita expenditure went to education; this rose to 2.4% in 1993, to 2.8% in 1999 to 4.4% in 2003. In urban areas it has risen even faster, from 2.1% in 1983 to 6.3% in 2003.

As with so much about India's success story, Indians are thus finding solutions to their problems without waiting for the government. If China's success is due to its amazing (and state-funded) infrastructure, India's is largely the result of individual initiative that has given birth to globally competitive companies. If this initiative can successfully broaden access and quality to education, India could be even better positioned for the knowledge economy than its behemoth neighbor. And it’s success might be a more durable.

Gurcharan Das is the author of India Unbound (Knopf) and other books. He was earlier CEO of Procter and Gamble India.

Deeper into India’s soul March 12, 2006

How is it that so many Indians are making it in the global economy?’ This was a common refrain during President Bush’s recent visit. I looked for answers in India’s education system for a recent essay for an American magazine, and concluded that success belonged to students rather than teachers, and the real victory might lie with parents and their middle class insecurities—it’s a rare Indian mother who will step out of the house in the evening during exam season.

But education is only half the answer. The other half lies in history. ‘Western iron has probably entered deeper into India’s soul’ noted Arnold Toynbee fifty years ago. He felt India’s experience of the West was more intimate, more profound, and more painful than China, Russia, Japan, or Ottoman Turkey. His historian’s view of British colonialism was of a leisurely intermingling of two great civilizations over two centuries, which has eased India’s passage to modernity. Modern institutions thus found a comfortable home in India, and more significantly liberal thinking become a part of the Indian mind, unlike the Middle East, which also experienced colonial rule. This might explain in part why Indians move about comfortably in today’s global economy.

The British needed educated Indians to collect revenue, man the railways, guard forests, and generally run the country. The price of a ticket to these jobs was the English language. So, Indians learned English, passed exams and entered the modern Indian middle class. We became Macaulay’s bastard children, otherwise called “brown sahibs”. We berate Macaulay for cutting us off from our roots and ancient culture, but we don’t give him enough credit for creating a meritocratic middle class society. Happily, the pain of political slavery is gone, but our obsession with English and excelling at exams has stayed.

The colonial exam system merely reinforced the old Indian reverence for knowledge. This goes back three thousand years to the earliest speculations in the Rig Veda, which blossomed in the systematic reflections of the Upanishads. These experiments of the mind led to six systematic schools of philosophy and the rebellious paths of the Buddha, Mahavira, and Ajivikas. The diverse paths were an invitation to any creative spiritual entrepreneur that he could start a new yoga sect as long as he had a new idea and a talent for organization. Hence, we have a bewildering array of diverse paths to the truth. Not only does this diminish the temptation for theological narcissism—that only my religion has the answer--it also creates a bias for innovation. As there is no hierarchical church, each brahmin in his temple across India’s half a million villages thinks he is the Pope, while each self-sufficient village jealously guards its autonomy. It makes things chaotic but it also fosters an independent, enquiring mind which is so essential to success in the global knowledge economy.

Democracy in the 20th century has boosted the Indian’s irreverent temper, and after 1991 the young Indian mind is finally decolonised and unbound. Turn to any of our hundred TV channels—it’s a chattering India of Amartya Sen’s ‘argumentative Indians’. Contemporary India is filled with spiritual innovators, software princes, Dalit activists, brown sahibs and more—it’s a noisy, raucuous party, full of fun to which a billion Indians are invited, as long as you have an opinion and are aware that both spiritual space and cyber space are invisible. All of this enters into the explanation of India’s recent economic rise.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A great nation 26 February 2006

For a country that was widely regarded as 20th century’s great disappointment, it must feel good that the 21st has begun rather nicely. India is today one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and there is even talk of it becoming a great power. No doubt Mr Bush will also remind us of it this week. I must confess, however, that such talk leaves me cold.

I ask myself what is “great” about a “great power”. I learn more about India’s greatness when an old friend in New Jersey tells me that she has decided to return home to Tanjore because she cannot live without Carnatic music. Or my bania’s son says he is leaving for America because he couldn’t get admission into a good college here. He adds, “There are opportunities here for the best and for the corrupt, but anyone can make it in America.”

George Perkovich says that military might is not sufficient for greatness. America was a great power in the 1970s; yet it lost to a very poor Vietnam. Soviet Union, another great power then, stumbled against an even poorer Afghanistan. Neither are nuclear weapons essential. For then Pakistan would also be great. Hyphenating India and Pakistan diminishes us, but nuclear weapons, alas, are great equalizers. Nor is a permanent seat on the UN Security Council a measure of greatness. It would be healthier to lower its value in our self-perception because we are unlikely to get it soon.

My bania’s son is right--America is great because it is a land of opportunity. Sweden’s greatness lies in its welfare system that protects one from the cradle to the grave. Holland’s eminence lies in civil liberties. France is distinguished for its public support of culture. Norway is great because of its income distribution. Until recently, Japan’s excellence lay in job security. And England is remarkable for its sense of fairness.

I think India’s greatness lies in its self reliant and resilient people. We are able to pull ourselves up by our chappals and survive, nay, even flourish, when the state fails us at every turn. When teachers and doctors don’t show up in government primary schools and health centres, we don’t complain. We just open up cheap private schools and clinics in our slums, and get on with it. This makes us a tough and independent people. Fortunately, we are a young nation and the young Indian’s mind is now decolonised and liberated. You only had to look into Dhoni’s fearless eyes in Karachi last Sunday. But there also exists the fearful, old mindset, often among petty bureaucrats, who only know how to say “no”. Happily, they are doomed--you can tell by the way they sneeze or pare their nails.

Our democracy has released our spirits and brought us intimations of future greatness. Our economic success is more remarkable because it has been democratically produced. Our political freedoms are, of course, valuable in their own right, but they will also help sustain our coming prosperity. The shocking state of our governance, however, tells us how far we are from being a truly great nation. Moreover, we will only be able to call ourselves great when every Indian has access to a good school and a good health clinic. When our government realises that it doesn’t have to run these schools and clinics, but only to provide for them, will we achieve the Indian way to greatness.

Nasadiya Temper 12 February, 2006

The recent controversy over Islamic cartoons in Europe is once again testing the boundaries of religious tolerance. Most Hindus, of course, believe that they are tolerant and trace their broadmindedness to their many gods. Some even ask: how did our tolerant pluralism turn into the intolerance of Hindutva?

Hindu pluralism is grounded in the Rig Veda, Wendy Doniger, the Sanskrit scholar, tells us in a wonderful essay, “Many Gods, Many Paths”. It may well have originated in the charming humility of the Nasadiya verse (10.129): “[In the beginning] there was neither being nor non-being … [but] who really knows? … [for] the gods came afterwards.” This questioning attitude, adds Doniger, might also have led to the invention of a god whose name was the interrogative pronoun, ka. For the creator once asked Indra, “Who am I?” Indra replied, “Just what you said: Who.” And this is how the creator got the name, Ka or Who.

The pluralism of the Rig Veda, however, did have a monistic hue for the very substance of the universe was divine. Each god had a secondary or illusory status compared to the divine substance, yet was a powerful symbol of and a guide to the divine. Hence, many gods co-exist comfortably in a non-hierarchic pantheon. And the devotee of many, non-hierarchical gods is more likely to see the many sides of truth, and thus be more tolerant.

By the time that this unassuming outlook is enshrined in the famous “Neti, neti” (“Not this, not that”) attitude of the Upanishads, the seeds of monistic certainty have been firmly planted. It is charming the way open-minded kings in the Upanishads invite holy men of various schools to debate religious issues. But the modest openness of neti becomes a “submerged form of intellectual imperialism” when we come to Shankara. A belief in the unity of brahman and atman may lead to a belief in the unity of all persons but it does not necessarily lead to a respect for all viewpoints, as the argumentative followers of Shankara and Ramanuja will testify.

Thus, social pluralism doesn’t always follow from intellectual pluralism. The problem is that when I speak with certainty about my beliefs, I cannot help but suggest that what I believe in is superior. I secretly want you to renounce your opposing view and accept mine. Hence, all such statements are attempts at conversion. Here lies the leap from tolerance to intolerance. What stops one from trying to convert others is good manners. Fundamentalists lack these and take the further leap and threaten death.

The source of Hindutva’s intolerance, or for that matter any fundamentalist’s, is a political one and it is futile to seek answers in belief. All fundamentalists are insecure, and seem to take an excessive interest in others. They would do well to see Walt Disney’s 1942 film, Bambi. In it is a rabbit named Thumper, whose mother asks him, “Thumper, what did your father say?” Thumper replies, “If you can’t say something good about a person, don’t say anything at all.” Islamic, Hindu and Christian fundamentalists ought to consider joining Thumper’s School of Social Harmony. They might also consider following Albert Camus’ sensible advice: “To be happy one must not be too concerned with others.” The ordinary Hindu on the street, or any person anywhere, I am convinced, is tolerant in belief. She has the unassuming Nasadiya temper of the open-minded seeker in the Rig Veda, and all fundamentalists could learn something from it.

Why Rani can’t read? January 29, 2006

We are not a cooperative people, and some even accuse us of a crab’s mentality—we’d rather bring down the next guy than see the team win. So, when 20,000 volunteers from 700 institutions collaborate to test 332,971 village children in 484 districts at a breakneck pace, within a month that is a victory of sorts. It also says something about our voluntary movement. Where civil society begins to flourish democracy has taken hold, says de Tocqueville, and this is worth celebrating on this 57th birthday of our Republic.

This team effort was led by the impressive NGO, Pratham, and the result is a citizens’ report card called Annual Status of Education Report 2005. It is the first ever snapshot in our nation’s history about children’s ability to read and do arithmetic. The good news is that the old bogey about children not attending school is gone. 93.4% of village children are in school. You could argue that 1.3 crore children are not in school, which is terrible, but I prefer to celebrate the achievement. The gender gap is also happily narrowing. In 2001, 65% of the kids-out-of-school were girls; this has come down to 55%.

The bad news is that 35% of India’s rural children between ages 7 and14 cannot read a simple paragraph, something they should have learned to do in the first school year. 52% cannot read a simple story, which they should have learned by grade 2. 41% cannot either do two digit subtractions with borrowing or divide three digits by one digit. Given the atrocious state of government schools, these are not surprising results. The optimist might even argue that at least two out of three kids can read a paragraph and one in two can read a story; and 1 in 4 can subtract and 1 in 3 can divide. Children in private rural schools, who constituted 16% in the sample survey, scored 10 percentage points higher.

There are some surprises in the data on states, but overall rural India is behind by 2-3 years. This is deeply disappointing for a nation that aspires to heights. Also, we won’t know how badly off we are unless Pratham benchmarks these results with those of other countries. Curiously, the very act of testing brought the whole village together. Children wanted to be tested. Mothers wanted to know, “can my child read?” One village patriarch cynically told Pratham volunteers that they were wasting their time. But when he discovered that none of his three children could read, he practically fell off his khatiya. It was a shock to many parents and communities that that their children had been left behind.

Why Rani cannot read is because we don’t focus on outcomes. Official policy forbids primary schools to test kids as it might hurt their self-esteem. Children are automatically promoted till class 5. It does make sense not to want to create excessive anxiety of an annual external exam in the very young. However, parents, children and even teachers, do need feedback. Unless you test the child, how do you help the child to improve? How do you know if the teacher is doing her job? If the child knows when he is bowled out on the cricket pitch, why not tell him when he is bowled out in class? Instead of stopping IIM-B from going to Singapore, the Minister ought to be thinking about these questions—and why 3 out of 4 children cannot subtract.