Lazy? Who? Me?

Lazy? Who? Me?
Naale (tomorrow), or its equivalent in any other Indian language, is perhaps one of the most popular words in the country, especially if one is dealing with the government. Laziness has permeated so deeply into our psyche that the concept of ‘here and now’ does not exist in our vocabulary. Why do today what you can do tomorrow, has become an accepted philosophy.

Whenever one visits a government office to get a file cleared or avail of some service, the standard response is “naale banni” (come back tomorrow). Naale need not necessarily be tomorrow; it could mean the next week, or even the next month. Like their bosses, files too are bitten by the laziness bug and it could take them months, if not years, to travel from one desk to the next.

At the entrance to Vidhana Soudha, the seat of power in Karnataka, is a prominent inscription, ‘Government’s work is God’s work.’ Perhaps, civil servants take this literally and leave all their work to god, while they kill time. Fortunately, there is an antidote to laziness that works miracles almost instantly. It is called ‘speed money’ or ‘lancha’ in Kannada. The moment you grease the palm of an officer, he immediately drops his cloak of laziness, while files that earlier refused to budge suddenly grow wings.

Incentives play the same trick in the private sector. “Performance and incentives are directly proportional to each other. Incentives can swing even the laziest employee into action,” says an HR head. This applies across the spectrum and percolates down to farm labour too. “Labourers pick less than 100 kg of coffee per day when they are paid fixed daily wages. But when they are paid on per-kg basis, they pick around 250 kg in the same duration, because they tend to earn more,” says Coluvanda C Thimaiah, a coffee planter in the outskirts of Madikeri, Kodagu. Apparently, money can remedy sloth. In contrast, the productivity of small farmers who till their own land because they cannot afford paid labour, is much higher.

Lacking steps

What has prompted a debate on the subject of laziness is a recent survey by Stanford University which lists Indians among the laziest people in the world. While Indians take an average of 4,297 steps a day, the Chinese, who are considered the least lazy, take 6,880 steps. Indian women at 3,684 steps, walk even lesser. Most Indians would rather use a car or two-wheeler for neighbourhood shopping than walk, however short the distance is. While the survey may have many infirmities, it nevertheless underlines the perception that Indians are generally lazy.

Bengaluru’s well-known fitness expert, Santosh Kumar, however, disagrees with the conclusion of the survey. “In India, right from our childhood we are conditioned to work hard, rise up the ladder and build a security blanket around ourselves and our families. This often leads to a compromise on good lifestyle, socialising, recreation, not to mention exercise and sports. This is often misinterpreted by Westerners as being lazy. While Indians have a long way to go with respect to physical fitness compared to the rest of the world, they are becoming a lot more conscious of the need to exercise and look good. But to term us lazy is farfetched and bereft of facts,” he argues.

Taking up for women, Sapna Lekha, a corporate professional, says, “Whoever calls us lazy should survive a day in our kitchen preparing a variety of dishes for each meal, let alone running the household.”

While it may be wrong to paint all Indians with the same brush, it is also difficult to shake off the tag of being languid. Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, remarked recently, “As a critic, I sometimes feel people in India are lazy. You should work hard. Look at the Chinese, they work very hard.”

A living example of this is the Tibetan colony at Bylakuppe in Mysore district, where Tibetan refugees who escaped from their homeland following the Chinese invasion in 1960 were allotted 3,000 acres of barren land by the Karnataka government. By the sheer dint of their hard work, the refugees transformed this parcel of land into an agricultural bowl and made Bylakuppe a very prosperous township and a centre of tourist attraction, putting the local ‘lazy’ Indians to shame.

Bharat Ratna recipient CNR Rao feels Indian scientists are lazy compared to their counterparts in countries like Japan, South Korea and China. “We are generally a lazy lot. If a person is upset with his superiors in Japan, he would work for an additional two hours. But in India, we stop working,” he said at a function a few days ago.

Indian techies are normally considered hardworking and have carved a niche for themselves in the Silicon Valley, but they too have not been able to escape the taint of being sluggish and slow on delivery. When British Airways had to cancel hundreds of flights recently after a systems crash possibly due to power failure, the Staff Union sought to find fault with the outsourcing of IT services to India. And one of the adjectives used against the Indians was ‘lazy’.

If scientists and IT professionals are accused of lethargy, can academicians be far behind? A senior professor of Mysore University, who does not want to be named, explains, “It is true that 60 per cent of the teachers bunk classes in State universities. The work load of teachers in India is much lower than those in the West. While there can be no comparison between the quantity and quality of research papers submitted by Indian and Western scholars, the output of teachers from Asian countries like Malaysia, Philippines, China and Japan is much higher than our academicians who have a lackadaisical attitude.”

Indian journalists too have lent themselves to criticism for being laidback by increasingly resorting to ‘arm-chair reporting’ and ‘kite-flying’, that is, manufacturing stories which are often speculative, from the confines of their office, and attributing them to unnamed sources. “In many international publications, several man-hours and intense legwork go into the production of a story like the Panama papers, but in India, most reports get done over the phone. A journalist is the happiest if he is given a press note from which he can copy and paste. There are many exceptions to this rule, but most scribes in India fall within the lazy bracket,” says a journalist-turned-PR-professional.

The work-ethic of Indians has attracted ridicule in countries like Germany and Japan which place a high premium on discipline, precision and speed of delivery. I G Chinappa, who worked as the general manager (South) with an Indo-German optical company, says, “We, in India, could never meet the production target, and our German counterparts would mock at us for our poor output. Similarly, in Japanese-owned automobile companies known for their high level of efficiency, the productivity is always lower in Indian units. It is in our nature not to work hard.”

However, in many parts of the world like the United States, the Indian diaspora is respected for its dedication, loyalty and hard work. “Indians are known to accomplish their assigned tasks much faster than an average American. We do not waste time on our cell phones, in idle chat with colleagues, or around coffee dispensers. We are known for our work culture and high level of integrity,” says Anuradha Gajaraj Lopez, an Indian-American settled in California.

Quick to adapt

Indians are normally versatile and are known to quickly adapt to their surrounding environment. An Indian who would not dare to relieve himself on the streets of Singapore for the fear of punitive action, would most likely not hesitate to rush to the nearest wall when in India. A person who drives recklessly on Indian roads would scrupulously follow traffic rules in the United States. Our behavioural pattern appears to be impacted by the culture of where we live.

Says noted Bengaluru-based nephrologist Sankaran Sunder, “One of my sons who is an oncologist in Singapore puts in 80 hours a week, while another who is a radiologist in the UK where there is no pressure on targets, clocks only four-and-a-half days per week. Often, our output is not determined by our laziness, but by the work culture prevailing around us.”

Avinash Thombre, professor, University of Little Rock, Arkansas, agrees that the so-called lazy Indian can excel if a conducive atmosphere is provided. “Indian researchers who come to the US are rated very high and hold several patents in their names. Here, the academia relates to a strong culture of seeking innovation in all aspects of life from engineering and technology to social sciences, for which enormous amount of human capital and funds are devoted. In Indian academics, there is a culture of following the tradition which is not conducive to innovativeness. Thus, an academician who is considered below average in India can be a super-achiever in the US.”

While one section strongly believes that Indians generally have a lazy disposition, the other has a diametrically opposite view. And while the verdict is yet to be out on the subject, Sushanto Banerjee, a Delhi-based senior corporate executive, pipes in, “If we are lazy, how can our population be so high?” In procreation, there is no procrastination. With that, we rest our case.

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