I wrote about this drive more extensively on my Facebook.com/CrookedImagez page. I was off to the alumnus meet of my old engineering college. I was, therefore, in a suitably irreverent and intellectual mood. The loud rock music in the car helped, and as I took a wrong turn, I was sent off on a path that took me 20 kilometres in the wrong direction. No exaggeration. As I drove along the highway, I passed several villages like the one above. The operative word is “highway”, which is why it has been highlighted. The word “highway” means, by implication, a road along which you can drive fast between towns. However, since we do have issues of land acquisition for the purposes of highways, many highways pass through villages. Villagers tend to regard these highways as their own private backyard, and saunter about their business with a casual disdain for the oncoming traffic. When they get mowed down, they protest and a speed-breaker is hurriedly put up on the road. Sometimes this cycle is repeated several times, and you may have about 5 speed-breakers along a 100 meter stretch of highway. Sometimes, these speed-breakers advertise themselves, and sometimes they sneak upon you like an unbidden guest.
It is designed to break speed, and to bring you down to the speed of the slow. We cater to the Lowest Common Multiple, and not the Highest Common Factor. I am not using these mathematical terms according to the strictest traditions of school arithmetic, but follow my logic here. In India, we tend to cater to the lowest level of performance. We do not take the trouble to raise standards.
As per the Global Competitiveness Report that was released in September 2013, India is ranked Number 60 in global competitiveness. We have remained static, nay even declined slightly, over a 3 year period. Singapore is ranked 2, Japan is ranked 9. Among developing nations in Asia, Malaysia is tops at number 24.
Our national obsession, China is now ranked at number 29. In 2006, the gap between India and China was 8 places. This is the last year that I lived in China. The gap between India and China now, is 21 places.
What happened? We have not delivered on critical issues on infrastructure (road, telecom, power etc), ICT, health and education.
We have not built institutions of innovation and fundamental research. Also, true.
We have been laid down by issues of corruption, policy paralysis, and rising rates of crime.
So, while I will, in future posts develop along this theme in various aspects (leadership, “The Last Mile”, sustainability etc), the one point that I would like to raise here, is that competitiveness starts with the desire to be competitive, to excel.
When I lived in China, the one thing that impressed me, is that there was a universal desire amongst all the Chinese I spoke to, to make their country the number one country in the world. This was something that they all spoke off. In the companies that I worked for, they all spoke aggressively of the potential of the Chinese market, whereas most of us Indians would moan and cry about the problems we face. And then, go on to talk about our wonderful culture.
To be competitive, you need to start from within. You need to be better than your competitor, and you do this by raising your own level of performance, by innovating, by building people, teams, cultures, systems, infrastructure, by being alive to opportunity.
While there are many wonderfully competitive Indians, and in cultures of meritocracy, we do exceedingly well. We are also very intelligent.
Yet, we make 5 speed-breakers along 100 meter stretches, to break speed. As a Nation, we need to build the spirit of competitiveness, and build upon this, and not moan about the Chinese, or the Malays, or sigh about how we would like to migrate there.