Mediocrity Rules

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Now we Indians have yet another dubious distinction. We can boast of the largest ever power blackout in human history. Ironically, this took place at the time when one of the greatest festivals of human endeavour, the Olympics are on in another part of the world. In the games we, a nation of 1.2 billion have managed only a fraction of the medals won by even a tiny country like South Korea. Whether it is infrastructure or sports – any other field for that matter – it makes one wonder how can we be so content to revel in our mediocrity? 

Lack of accountability is one cause that comes to mind. The minister who presided over the historic blackout was, the very next day, promoted to what is virtually the number two slot in the cabinet. To add insult to injury, he dismissed the incident as nothing extraordinary – and has the gumption to claim kudos for the swift restoration while “it takes four days even in a country like the US”. (Which, incidentally, is a gross misrepresentation of facts – it took 4 – 16 hours to restore the largest blackout in US on 14 Aug 2003). As for the people actually responsible for the lapses that led to the failure – it would be a wonder if they are ever identified, let alone penalized in any manner.

Forget the blackouts – admittedly rare, unforeseen incidents. What about the water-logging of roads of our national capital every monsoon in the absence of proper de-silting of drains?  Despite huge inconveniences to commuters and fuel worth crores of rupees being wasted in traffic jams, no action has ever been taken against the officials responsible for maintenance of drains. If the Municipal officer in charge of every stretch that gets waterlogged is suspended or sacked, I am sure no amount of rain the next year will be able to flood the roads.

So, whether it is selecting sports teams for international events or keeping our streets clean – the lack of accountability is everywhere. And what are the reasons for this? The ‘chalta hai’ attitude that is ubiquitous is linked by some to the basic Hindu philosophy of Karma or fatalism. The gist of it is that everything is pre-ordained – so no matter how hard we try, we can’t change what is written. And what is written is the will of God, and He in His wisdom knows best, so everything will ultimately turn out for the best. This basic philosophical root probably leads to lack of accountability that contributes to mediocrity.

One also wonders whether mediocrity is now completely ingrained in our collective consciousness and / or the environment of our country. After all, we are used to birth being greater determiner of rewards than merit. Being born to wealth and influence helps anywhere in the world. But here, being born on the lower end of the social spectrum also guarantees you a season’s ticket to admissions, jobs and promotions without too much botheration about merit. Problem is if you are towards the middle of the spectrum. A large section of the meritorious middle class finds itself without requisite educational and professional opportunities. This gap in demand and supply legitimizes the use of any means to grab the scarce resources – false certificates, cheating in examinations, proxy candidates, bribery. Every day you hear of novel ways in which people try to beat the system and get ahead. One only wonders what the outcome would be if all this ingenuity and resourcefulness was used in the right direction.

The theory of our collective consciousness being the reason behind mediocrity is belied by the fact that Indians do exceptionally well abroad. Silicon Valley is full of examples proving that given the right environment, Indians can excel. In fact, they manage to surpass other ethno-religious groups – as per a recent VOA News article, “Hindu-Americans have the highest socioeconomic levels among all religions in the United States”. Probably the key to their success is an environment that gives due credence to merit and performance. Is it any wonder that all the Nobel Laureates of Indian origin post independence have been non-resident.

Then again, every once in a while someone comes along and proves that excellence can exist even in our non-conducive environment. We have enough examples from private enterprise, public sector and all other walks of life – Narayana Murthy, Azim Premji, Nandan Nilekhani, E Sreedharan, Anna Hazare to name a few. These are people who have managed to succeed despite the same obstacles and environmental challenges that everyone else bemoans.

What can we do to create conditions for creating more Narayana Murthys and Sreedharans? What can change our present consciousness and environment of mediocrity? We need an environment which values excellence – where individual and organizational accountability exist. Rewards and consequences of performances are fair and swift. Merit is recognized and given primacy. We also need to have more exacting standards – stop glamourising the losers and underdogs and also stop disproportionately idolising small time victories. Most importantly, each one of us should hold ourselves, and everyone around us to high standards – and make a loud noise when those standards are not met.

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