Is India becoming a country of mediocrities?

Long way to go

Is India becoming a country of mediocrities?

At a glance, it seems ridiculous to even contemplate the fact that India is moving towards
mediocrity! From being an agrarian economy in the 1940’s we have moved towards being an economic superpower with great strides in industry, infrastructure, technology, services etc with the crowning glory being our democracy which has allowed free enterprise and industry. In a 2009 survey of 2400 senior Indian managers by London based Legatum Institute, said India was poised to become by 2030.

And the list goes on. In GDP terms, India is at present the 12 largest economy in the world and the 4th largest in Purchasing Power Parity terms (PPP). We also have the tremendous advantage of a young population. According to a former CEO of a multinational company who was quoted in Businessweek, the growth of India’s  under-25 people population will act as a secret weapon for the future. The logic is simple.

Fast population growth equals a younger workforce, and a younger workforce equals a more dynamic workforce. And the Indian advantage is already in place. The Ministry of Labour and Employment figures show that in 2000 itself, the median age in India was 24 compared to 30 in China, 38 in Europe and 41 in Japan. With the advent of technology permeating every aspect of our lives today, the learning curve for transition from an education to a working environment has been drastically cut.

The Good, bad and Ugly:

But if we were to step back and look at the picture in depth, we will find that the good aspects outlined above are overshadowed by the bad and the ugly that our country has across every segment of its society. Let us take the economic segment first. We still have a long way to go.  The population in agriculture is around 54 per cent of the total population, or around ½ billion people. But they contribute only 17 per cent to the GDP.

According to a recent World Economic Forum study China and India ranks poorly in health and primary education, labour markets, technological readiness and macroeconomic stability. China ranks ahead of India in 80 per cent of the sectors surveyed, with an overall rank of 29 compared to India’s 49 out of 133 countries.  Our only solace is the competitiveness edge we have in the financial system and innovation. But these are not factors which will take the country ahead.

Why Mediocrities?

A very large chunk of our education system is mired in corruption with teacher absenteeism at a rate of 25 per cent, which is the second highest in the world after Uganda, according to a new Unesco report. Literacy levels lag many developing countries, including in sub-Saharan Africa. China’s literacy rate is 90.9 per cent, Kenya’s is 85.1 per cent while India’s is 65.2 per cent. Rampant child malnutrition poses another threat. Some 46 per cent of all Indian children under three years old are malnourished.

However, these are development factors which can be redressed. Where the disaster lies in what we call the ‘Arrogance of well-being’, which will make us a country of mediocrities in the next 20 years.  To understand this, we have to view the attitude prevalent in our country in the ‘Pre-1990s’ and ‘Post-90s’. The entire generation of Indians brought up in the early 1990’s were used to protectionism, the license raj, and a protected market.

Although for 40 years the authorities told them about the importance of being  self sufficient, nobody really liked the sub-standard offerings in the market  from outdated ambassadors to technology. It took years to get anything from telephones to cars to admissions in schools and colleges. But the entire generation of Indians’ brought up in the Pre-1990’s period understood that they had to strive harder to get a better standard of living.

Mediocrity, apart from the government and public sector, was marginal. But this was never a problem for the country. A country’s development  depends on its private sector, and these were the people who did not want the country to go back to the days of protectionism and mediocrity. So in the post liberalisation period of the 1990’s, we had a strong private sector available with a  capacity to take on any liberalisation comfortably. This was across the spectrum of Indian economy from doctors, engineers, to entrepreneurs. If our economy is doing so well today, it is because of this generation which is making the difference.

But we will not be so lucky with the post 1990’s generation. Majority of them are so used to India as a happening country in the world, that concepts of quality, persistence and success against the odds have become outdated concepts. No one really cares that the rest of the world is playing catch up very hard.

In the next 20 years, we will start going backward because of the arrogance of our low expectations and quality which are touted as the opposite.  An example for this  is Sania Mirza, who received enormous adulation, sponsorship and celebrity status in our country. But Sania was never better than the 30th ranked women tennis player in the world. We can understand this happening with the top 5 players in the world. But the 30th ranked player?

Competitive world

Another example is the commonwealth games, where our Indian athletes gain a number of medals, but cannot even qualify for the heats in the Olympics or World championships. And the best example of course is cricket. Apart from a very few talented players like Tendulkar, Dravid and Kumble, rank fresher’s who probably would not even qualify for another country’s cricket team make as much or more money than World Billiards Champion Geeth Sethi or World Chess Champion Vishwanath Anand.

What is worse is that this mediocrity is becoming our standard while a large part of the competitive world is increasing their qualitative bar. This is where we are sure to lose out. The size of our market, our young population, or our middle class will not be able to compete with countries which are moving forward as quickly as well.  Today protectionism is not possible. With the internet, any time and location constraints are being totally overcome. Our previous generation could compete and hold their own with anyone in the world.

This is why Walmart, Sears, and a host of other companies are still struggling to compete with Indian entrepreneurs like Foodworld, Bharti and Reliance. This is why  the likes of IBM and Accenture are still getting tough competition from Indian IT companies. But in the next 20 years, we will very likely become a country of mediocre contributors to the Indian economy, with the activity being generated from factors outside our country. The complacency we see presently combined with corruption and a large market will take us in this direction must faster than any conspiracy theory.

So how do we reverse this problem? The answer is in the three pillars of quality, innovation, and entrepreneurship. There is no concept of quality in the country today from education to governance, and this must change. Entrepreneurship does not get any support from the government or other organisations, and this much change. If we sort out our quality and entrepreneurship, the innovation will come automatically. But is anything being done in this direction? At present the effort is negligible. Let us hope we don’t leave it too late.

(The writers are promoters of Truemen Management Consultancy Services Private Limited)

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