Article: The 'By Indian Standards' Conundrum: An acceptance of incompetence


The 'By Indian Standards' Conundrum: An acceptance of incompetence

By Indian Standards' or BIS is never evoked to inspire a higher standard or aspire to greater achievement

The Delhi metro is a matter of general rejoicing, even with all the accidents that occur in its construction


As leaders in our own spheres, we must be intolerant of mediocrity; be extroverted enough to look at what other countries and cultures have done and achieved


Amongst the curious phrases that have evolved in India’s continuing struggle with the English language, none is more meaningless than the robust favourite “By Indian Standards.” It makes no sense. Either you have standards or you don’t. The insertion of a third, Indian, option, is actually an advance justification for failure, an acknowledgment of mediocrity, and a contentment with the status quo. None of these are particularly laudable, but the tragedy is that they are perfectly acceptable to the Indian society at large. For ‘By Indian Standards’ or BIS is never evoked to inspire a higher standard or aspire to greater achievement, it is a surrender to sloth and circumstances, an acceptance of incompetence as the true glue of our unity in diversity.

The self-congratulatory euphoria that accompanies the ‘Sea link’ between Worli and Bandra in Mumbai is a case in point. In the first place it is a bridge, just a bridge. But that does not suit the innate grandiosity of the national character, and so, it has to become a sea link. Secondly, it is not even particularly long, and thirdly, the technology to accomplish this piece of infrastructure is over 50 years old. To continue this miserable train of thought, China makes one such bridge – it is a bridge in China, not a sea link – each month and sometimes they are up to 40 km long. There is no fuss over these things there, which is perhaps why they have just displaced Japan as the number 2 economy in the world and are poised to oust the USA by 2030 to become the new numero uno of the world economy. A senior expat at BASF once rhetorically asked when India would come out of its ‘sea-link effect’!

Mild and outdated accomplishments in the world are still matters of pride here, for everything is subsumed by the reality of BSI. The Delhi metro is a matter of general rejoicing, even with all the accidents that occur in its construction. I remember this jubilation well; it was manifest when Calcutta had not yet become Kolkatta and got itself a metro. There was then the much talk of the efficiency and general cleanliness of the new system, which is in itself a depressing memory, for functional societies should not have to trot out such things as accomplishments. Today, the air conditioning is off, half the stations have inadequate lighting and squalor is creeping back. The seats are cracked, the overhead handles unpainted and beginning to rust, the glass grimy, the windows open to the dark dankness we rush through but it is India’s first Metro and that is all that seems to matter. The underground rail is Victorian technology for God’s sake. But when a train that travels at 60-70 kmph is classified as super-fast, such estimates about the metro rail do not seem so ludicrous anymore.
One of my friends lives in Pune. He was consumed with laughter as he described a scene he witnessed outside the Defence and Research Development Organization or DRDO stationed there. Five satellite dishes were being transported into the complex and were being brought in by bullock carts! Ancient India lives on in every aspect of our life; it is not a metaphor for enduring cultural and psychological transmission that gives a society its identity but a prosaic physical reality. Recently, an organization proudly put into its newsletter that as part of their socially responsible initiatives they had given away 25 stainless steel bullock carts to villagers near their site. The appalling aspect of what should be a ridiculous story is that they were right. This new cart will actually improve the life of the recipients, increasing both efficiency and effectiveness as well as reduce repair and replacement cost and time - BIS!. Both sides in this transaction seemed unable or unwilling to acknowledge the sheer preposterousness of what was going on.

A possible explanation for this tendency was put forward by a visiting Japanese expert on Kaizen. After the training was over and the participants had given him a tasteful Indian gift to carry back to Japan, he announced, “I will draw for you a typical Indian.” On the board he made a figure with a huge head, a large mouth, torso with a pot belly and spindly legs but no arms. When this was pointed out to him he said, “I said a typical Indian. Very good thinking - too much talking, no action taking. You cannot implement what you have learned. Arigato.”

While all this is not very flattering, our attempt is to first acknowledge the shortcomings and thereafter correct them uncompromisingly. As leaders in our own spheres, we must be intolerant of mediocrity; have a larger view; be extroverted enough to look at what other countries and cultures have done and achieved. To learn from others because many others have a lot to teach us just as many centuries ago we had a lot to teach to the world. To not remain introverted will be our first big step towards changing ourselves and thereby our nation.

Take an example. It is clear to all that China is our main military and economic threat. Yet our introvertedness is pathological where we hardly know enough about them. In all my interaction with corporate audiences I ask them whether there is any in the audience who speaks Chinese; whether anyone of them knows somebody who speaks Chinese; whether they know of a B-school or college or University that actively teaches Chinese; whether they know what has been happening in China in the last 72 hours (now that we have 24 hour news channels!) – the answer invariably is ‘No’.

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Topics: C-Suite

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