When the second rate sets the standards

Once on a site visit to a newly built hotel in Lucknow, I was appalled at the poor quality of construction: misaligned brickwork, crooked walls, windows in ill-fitted frames, light switches fixed without switch plates, broken tiles plastered over with cement. Despite pointing out the flaws, the contractor failed to understand what all the fuss was about, but finally agreed to remedy the mistakes. In the redone version some weeks later, he stood proudly by all the flawed items that had been diligently corrected; but unfortunately, he had spread his mistakes liberally and carelessly to other details: a misaligned mirror, cupboards that wouldn’t shut, window polish smeared on glass. In a place where these are acceptable standards of construction, it seemed futile to point out the errors, or suggest their correction.

Second rate has always been the only measure of quality in India, and the presence of anything first rate often leaves people gasping with surprise. When the Delhi Metro first opened nearly 12 years ago, the look of mild shock on the commuters said it all. How was it possible that a public transport of such clinical efficiency with immaculate stations and train interiors could be conceived and built in India? Isn’t it for the same reason that something as innocuous as a new bus depot or a flyover is inaugurated with unusual fanfare?

Copy and paste

So used is the Indian mind to borrowing the best from other cultures that the assumption that local skills are incapable of producing anything of value has been sadly stapled to our psyche. Two decades ago, Indian businessmen travelled abroad to European and Japanese industrial fairs merely to pick up items that could be duplicated in India at a fraction of the cost, and then resold to the country of origin. Grimy workshops in Ludhiana and Surat were kept busy duplicating Japanese machine parts, American denim, and English cutlery. It was a matter of great national pride that the world’s most successfully selling items and ideas could be copied in India. If we were second best, at least our copies were first rate.

Reflection of government services

Second best was particularly true of government services. For much too long the country’s public systems functioned on an ad hoc basis, given to chance, political whim and a promise of inefficiency. After Budget sessions, expansion of public rail was guaranteed, if only to the home village of the railway minister, as was a highway to the hometown of the minister of roads. That Air India could only be a second-rate airline, and a Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT) watch a third-rate product was obvious from the government’s endorsement of both products. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems could never function efficiently because their adoption to Indian conditions was neither studied, nor completed to detail. Systems for food distribution, or utility transmission would not work for reasons of inefficiency, incompleteness and corruption. Roads and highways fell apart after the first monsoon shower for similar reasons. The history of being second rate has been so deeply ground into the Indian psyche; it is now part of the real character of being Indian. There is an implicit mistrust of something that works, does not fall apart, is efficient and is visibly differentiated in its design and presentation. Surely it must be foreign, or assembled by foreigners.

A taxi I often take from the stand near my house has had a cracked windshield for the last three years, but despite the potential dangers of injury, the driver refuses to change it. An information booth erected for the Commonwealth Games four years ago, lies abandoned near the taxi stand, its shattered glass front still displaying an old sports schedule. The ramshackle, unmade and incomplete character of our towns is largely the result of a similar unwillingness to see urban situations as important parts of our lives that may need correction and order. Things persist because they are allowed to persist. Houses are left incomplete, bricks and cement lie piled on roads, cars are parked on sidewalks, drains clog and burst.

In the surge to make new India accountable, the character of the old India will doubtless play a major obstructive role

Only when an eight-year-old schoolgirl fell into a manhole in North Delhi and died did the authorities feel compelled to provide a cover; not for any of the five years when the manhole had remained coverless was a complaint lodged. Had the girl survived with only minor injuries, perhaps no action would have been taken. The psychology of such callousness is the outcome of an inbred recognition that public life is of little value. It neither occurred to the municipality nor to the residents of the house across the street that they were in any way responsible for the impending tragedy.

In the surge to make new India accountable, the character of the old India will doubtless play a major obstructive role. At the heart of Narendra Modi’s ‘Swachh Bharat’, ‘Smart City’, and ‘Make in India’ campaigns lies the indomitable problem of public attitude — one that through rigorous training, or denial, or hope is unlikely to simply go away. Unfortunately, the intrinsic nature of each of these three transnational exercises relies on a change of attitude — an outlook that encompasses a wider public dimension. For too long the Indian mind has mistaken Modernism for Modernity. The mere transposition of style, the making of fancy structures — glass malls and six-lane highways — has been seen by most as enough to make India Shine in the 21st century. Yet the glitter and sparkle of steel forms only a technological replacement for the old brick and monsoon stained walls, and as symbols of the rising affluence, they can hardly rescue a culture from its provincial ways of thinking.

Certainly, a corrosive and relentless expunging may create small artificial pockets of international efficiency and design — a highway here, an airport there, an industrial township somewhere else — but the persistent belief in second rate continues to mark the country as a stagnant third world backwater. When private enterprise flourishes, it does so in a public garbage heap. Without a serious dose of civic pride and public participation, there is no guarantee of success for any of Mr. Modi’s multifaceted campaigns.

Sadly, only the home remains a special space, protected, loved and enhanced with privilege. Outside the family compound, public space is condemned to squalor; people desecrate monuments, abuse road privileges, electrify fences, dump trash in parks, encroach on land, build gated communities, barricade streets for marriages; in other words, exploit or self-regulate when civic regulations are missing, or can be flouted without consequences. Without rules, any and all private actions can be easily enacted in the public realm, including the most rudimentary acts of personal violence, molestation, and rape. When the streets are just disjointed piles of material, people and actions, even bombs and explosives can easily be hidden in the mess.

The antidote

The importance of an active life of public participation can be the only antidote in such a dismal scenario. To create a flourishing awareness of civic purpose and responsibility in the space beyond the private house, and make people — and not just the government — feel accountable for its design, upkeep and well-being is the only way to bring an altogether changed attitude, and raise standards. If not to first rate, then close enough.

While living abroad in the 1980s, whenever I returned home, my airport arrival was always greeted with a range of reassuring visual signals that said very clearly that I had landed in India: the airline bus rattled and squeaked on a potholed tarmac heading to the terminal. Inside, four makeshift immigration counters were lit in the late night arrival by a lopsided tube light hanging on a cracked wall, partially whitewashed. As the immigration lines grew, the lone official manning the four counters would break for tea. Standing amidst the foreign crowd, in a wasted, unmanned hall, I would feel immediately comforted by the familiarity of India — no service, no welcoming pictures, no washrooms, no fuss. A realistic portrait of the country, it immediately prepared you for what was to come — the unlit outside, the fight for a taxi. As the broken Ambassador taxi rattled through uninhabited scrubland beyond the airport, you still felt entirely safe and secure; this was home, if slightly second rate. Delhi’s new T3 terminal leaves you wondering if the India outside the building will be as slick, efficient, safe and first rate as well. It takes but a few steps to find out.

(Gautam Bhatia is the author of Lie, A Traditional Tale of Modern India .)

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Printable version | Nov 23, 2020 1:07:00 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/when-the-second-rate-sets-the-standards/article6713258.ece

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