We are performing, but, almost everyone seems to feel that we could do much better since we have all the necessary ingredients in India to make us excel.

This is the text, as it was, of an invited lecture that I delivered at the one day conference held at Nehru Science Centre, Bombay, India on 24th of May 1992.  The theme of the conference was “Why We Underperform in Science and Other Fields.” The speech is being published for the first time by me.

india hungry for economic power Why We Under perform As A Nation?

Good Afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen!

It gives me great pleasure that we are gathered in large numbers here to-day to discuss a subject of vital national importance. I am, indeed, grateful to the organizers for extending the invitation and for giving me this opportunity to talk on this. We are performing, but, almost everyone seems to feel that we could do much better since we have all the necessary ingredients in this country to make us excel in many fields. Where then are the deficiencies? What are the short-comings? What should we do to improve upon the present? How to excel and be ahead of others in certain fields instead of having Indian versions of foreign ideas and products? How to remove those drawbacks, those obstacles which are hindrances to our true growth?

I have been reflecting on this matter for quite some time and I think the root cause of all these is really a crisis of national character, a crisis of values, a crisis of confidence and faith at the leadership level. If things are alright at the top, they will be so at lower levels because in a system, which inevitably is hierarchical, to a greater or lesser degree, everyone tends to toe the line.

I shall now relate a small episode from the great Sanskrit epic Ramayana. When Sri Rama asked Hanuman to visit Lanka and give him a report of his findings on Lanka so that he would plan his military strategy well, Hanuman on return gave a very vivid description of Lanka like how Lanka was well fortified, how it was well equipped, etc. On hearing this, Rama got worried. How to conquer Lanka and rescue his beloved Sita? Then, Hanuman advised Rama: “Lord, do not worry. Everything is there in Lanka, but one thing is not there and that is character. Therefore, Lanka would crash and there is no room for your despondency.”

hanuman searching sita over ocean leap Why We Under perform As A Nation?

But what is this character that we are talking about? By this I mean a person who sees not only his own interest, but also the interest of others, be it in an organization, a community or a whole nation. A public figure in the service of the nation is only a pratinidhi (a representative, a substitute) and he should not become nidhiprati (proclivity to amassing wealth, treasure). Such a person should no doubt be capable, but more important than that, he should have a good, well-motivated character. His intentions should be good. And, this he can have only if he has a holistic view of life and the world and view things in totality and not in isolation or parts.  He should follow the dictum

Vasudhaiva  Kutumbakam

 [Meaning: Earth or a kingdom (vasudha) is verily or exactly (eva) like a household, a family (kutumbakam)],so that others too can emulate him. It is by imbibing such a quality that a public servant occupying a very high office becomes a true leader and befits the position he holds. Once we comprehend and agree to this, everything else becomes transparent.

Coupled to this absence of a national character is the loss of our tradition. An established tradition is absolutely necessary for a nation to have self-esteem (swaabhiman), if it wants to scale great heights. One good aspect of an established and unifying tradition is that it does not create conflicts in our minds in so far as the value system is concerned. The end result of these types of sustained conflicts is the disintegration or breakdown of the system (damnation). The system can be an individual, a section of society or an entire nation.

 Samshayaatma Vinashyati.


(Meaning: A doubting or irresolute mind perishes and comes to nothing)

Here, samshaya is not merely doubt. It represents a totally confused mind, a state of indecisiveness. Such a person does not know the right course of action, for his mind is too confused to think and act clearly. We did not witness conflicts of this magnitude at the national level in the pre-independence days because we were still rooted in our own value system. Even during the British Raj, when native Indians were looked down, conflict of this kind was practically non-existent. This was due, partly, to British’s interference with our value system only at the peripheral levels, and partly due to the British themselves being very clear in their minds about what they were doing. They did not suffer from any mental hang-ups. Therefore, if we aspire for excellence and betterment of our lot, we have to work towards re-establishing this lost tradition in a new avatar.

Opium weighing opium wars india british china Why We Under perform As A Nation?

It is now well recognized and widely accepted that the major hindrance to our rapid development is corruption, the all pervasive corruption. One factor that has contributed a great deal to this in our public life during the post-independent era is the license-permit system and the monopoly of the government in the core sector of our economy. In this system, power is centralized and permission to start a new venture is often not granted based on the merit of the case but by some undefined extraneous considerations. This, over the years, has led to large-scale corruption and lop-sided development. If a particular region or an individual has progressed much better than others, it is not so much because of any extraordinary quality or superior performance, but, because of such considerations as kinship, clannishness, manipulative ability, vested interests, etc.

As an example, I cite what happened in the case of Paradeep Port many years ago. Japan had agreed to fully develop a deep port at Paradeep, to lay the railway lines, as a matter of fact to do all that was necessary, and then hand over the entire thing to us provided we supplied them with a few million tons of iron ore every year. But the Centre did not approve the project. What happened as a result? The benefits that would have accrued to the region were lost. There are many such examples in our country in all fields and at all levels: from micro to macro. Observation and analysis of events of this type naturally lead us to the question of decentralization, regional autonomy, national integration and alternative forms of political system.

We are glad that the compulsions of situations have made the present government (PM late P. V. Narasimha Rao) to take a step in the right direction by liberalizing some of our economic policies. This, I think, should reduce the all-pervasive corruption in our public life and bring about improvements in quality of life. Though, high-level corruption is unlikely to be fully eradicated, growth is expected not to be scuttled as much as it was before. But we have to watch and see. It might not be inappropriate, at this stage, to recall the difference of opinion that the late C. Rajagopalachari (Raajagopaalachaari) used to have with the late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on the ground that the system of permit-license would lead to large-scale corruption in public life.

corruption in bureaucracy Why We Under perform As A Nation?

Coming to projects and programs, every project if it is to be viable and take proper shape has to have some prime features such as a proper allocation of funds, a time-schedule, requisite manpower support and institutional recognition. Time-schedule will not only mean a time-bound program, but would also mean reviewing the projects periodically to find out, say, if there is a need for changing the strategy of work, etc. These considerations lead us in a natural way to topics like accountability, time-and resource-management, management development programs, etc.

project management Why We Under perform As A Nation?

Now a talk on a subject like this can go on and on. Therefore, let us pause here and ask ourselves the question: “Do we have any remedies?” Obviously, and you will agree with me if I say that there can neither be a remedy overnight nor the remedy can be simple and straightforward, since the problem is  Herculean and is of a very complex nature. Since the good health of a country depends on the good health of persons who are at the helm of affairs, a basic change in the character of these persons is necessary. If this is not possible, then these people need to be replaced by better ones failing which the system is very likely to collapse.

In this context, I have a few ideas to put forward:-

We should devise and build systems that are more practical and workable, systems that would take into account the innate nature of man, his culture and his native genius rather than replicate systems from outside, or build idealized systems. This is because no matter how excellent a system is to start with, it will soon be abused. As a result, either the system will decay very fast or will not work on ground. I shall elucidate my idea a little by way of an example. It is a natural trait of all human animals to congregate, to nucleate based on kinship, language, religion and so on.

Now instead of allowing this to happen and then fight over it, suppose we frame laws and rules which give proper and adequate representation to all regions in the country in all fields, keeping the process of selection in a given field the same for all, this will put a check on the growth of various regional and caste lobbies which are rampant everywhere. This in due course of time will also help in removing the existing regional imbalances, thereby paving the way for national integration. The top positions must not be the monopoly of a few regional groups. If this continues to happen, I fear large-scale violence in society, and political break-up of the country may become a distinct possibility.

We have to ensure that there is accountability in all walks of life and at all levels. Those in positions should have the courage to owe up responsibility if and when such a situation arises.

make in india  Why We Under perform As A Nation?

The existing procedures for processing information for various purposes should be simplified and streamlined so that work is completed speedily with minimum wastage of time, energy and money. This will make the system more efficient and its functioning smoother.

We should all think, act and behave well, i.e., we should be true to ourselves in our own spheres of activities irrespective of our level and status. We should not have contempt for those who are less privileged than us.

With this I conclude the talk. But, before I wind up, I would like to say that the main purpose of my coming and talking to you here today was to stir your conscience and imagination, and to contribute to increasing the level of awareness of the problems which are indeed very grave. If I have succeeded in this endeavor of mine, I would feel gratified.


By Dr. Sachidanand  Das

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