chalta hai

“This is not the US/UK. This is India.”

India is still a 70-years-young democracy, give or take a couple of years. My parents’ generation was born in a colonial India and still carries the festering wounds of freedom from centuries of humiliation and demoralization. This has been a freedom wrested at an incalculable cost that we are still not done paying up. This much is an accepted part of our collective emotional psyche.

Yet, there are aspects of the above thinking that have, sadly, become so integral to how we Indians limit our individual progress as well as that of the entire country. Having lived in the West for decades, I find many things frustrating in today’s India. Most of these are the garden variety assimilation challenges that all returnees face and have written about or discussed extensively in many fora. And, rather than give in to the old “chalta hai” attitude or adopting the troublesome routines (e.g. line-jumping, corruption, “eve-teasing“, littering, “bypassing” standard processes/systems, etc.), many of us returnees also tend to speak out against the problems as we encounter them.

More often than not, the offenders smile back sheepishly and comply as needed. Some do willfully continue forward with their offensive behavior. And, then, there are those who think it is their duty, in turn, to educate you on what they consider your unrealistic expectations. This is done in rather interesting ways, the most common of which are as follows:

— Telling you: “See, in India, we/this/they/you….” (this patronizing response is typically from friends or family members who mean well but mistake a lack of acceptance of such behavior for a lack of understanding/knowledge of how things really work here)

— Telling you: “Madam/Sir, be patient.” (this admonition is usually accompanied with varying expressions that can range from mildly insulting to downright offensive)

— Telling you: “Madam/Sir, this is not the US or the UK. This is India. And, if you don’t like it…..” (this last sentence also ends, as you might imagine, in varying ways)

Of these, it is the second one that really gets my goat because it’s less a rationale and more an excuse — a very pathetic one at that. Yes, the Indian democracy is still in its adolescence. But, if your adolescent son or daughter did something wrong and responded to your admonition or attempt to aid improvement with: “I’m not middle-aged yet, so I can do whatever the hell I like and should not be held to any higher standards than the ones I have been adhering to since I was a toddler”, would you accept that? Would you trust this adolescent with any responsibility? With your own physical/financial well-being, say? And, would you trust this adolescent to even actually grow into a mature, respectable individual? Thought not. Then, why do we accept and allow such pathological excuses from our government employees/officials, coworkers, suppliers, et al?

Yes, India has come a long way and there’s still a lot more to accomplish. We are, above all, a highly aspirational citizenry. You only have to watch the latest blockbuster Bollywood movies to get a good cross-sectional representation of what we would like our lives to look like. [Aside: And, in these larger-than-life projections of our hopes and desires, we don’t appear to have any qualms about chasing lifestyles that are rather US- or UK-centric. Natch.]

These commonly-shared aspirations notwithstanding, on a socio-economic level, the great divides based on class, religion, caste, language and so on continue to generate both a rich, valuable diversity as well as communal, terror-filled clashes. So, it’s hard enough to find a roomful of people who might agree with each other on the price of potatoes, let alone agree on the appropriate standards of socio-economic or geo-cultural progress in the country. But, does that mean we ought to give up trying to have those tricky and difficult discussions? Because, surely, such communication and conversation not only builds bridges between individuals but opens up interesting new pathways allowing us to see and tap into the hidden potential that is all around us and, most particularly, within us.

Let me give you a concrete, real-life example. Today, I visited one of the largest government departments in Gujarat. This was after several months of back and forth between officials who gave conflicting information on how to acquire a particular license and after a particularly pointed (though polite) email I had sent straight to the state’s Chief Minister through her website. Given her strong focus on “Gatisheel (meaning dynamic or speedy) Gujarat”, I intended it as constructive feedback and, of course, a request for help. The email had been forwarded to the department head by the website administrator and, initially, got no response. A few days later, I sent a follow-up request directly to the department’s email address with more details and mentioned how I was happy to discuss everything in public media if needed. This generated a flurry of calls and a hasty meeting invite, along with the assurance that I would get the necessary approvals in 2 days.

As it turned out, “2 days” is just a figure of speech (more on these later). But, during our meeting, while I was repeatedly assured of cooperation, I was also chided strongly for expecting US-level standards of process efficiencies. Additionally, when I asked for further help on getting a new, innovative organic product certified, I was told that it was not in the official handbook, therefore, “not in their purview”. I was advised to go to the Union Ministry of Agriculture to get it added to the handbook. Now, consider that, if I had the kind of resources and time required to take on a major Central Government Department, I would have done so, right? And, consider, also, how a response like this is a major deterrent to MSME (micro-small-medium) scale enterprises in this country looking to launch innovative products. In a country where the Prime Minister pushes the great entrepreneurial wave daily, is this an acceptable state of affairs?

Though I thanked them for making the time to see me and for correcting some of the inaccurate information I’d been given by various department employees, I walked away with a heavy heart. I wished that the official who had made the “This is not the US” statements had, instead, just admitted that:

Yes, the process is not clear. We need to provide better-documented guidelines and train our own people so that we don’t waste your time or our employees’ time. It will take time as we don’t have the right resources but we’re working on it by doing X, Y, Z. Thank you for being patient with us this far. Please continue to provide feedback as that will help us become more efficient.

While this is not a resolution, it certainly would have changed our attitudes towards each other and towards the problem at hand. I’m idealistic enough to believe that demonstrating a more positive mindset like this can take all of us beyond lip service to becoming effective change agents. And, I’m pigheaded enough to keep on not conforming, to keep on not wanting to accept and become part of the endemic problems but try to be, as I said, a change agent. This means that, yes, I will get frustrated often; I will whine a lot about the status quo; I will even, with such stances, frustrate others like this government man (and, frequently, my own family members). But, if I don’t, at least, try to make things different, what is the point of all that hard work and effort in going abroad and developing a more global mindset? What’s the point of coming back at all if I cannot do my bit to make things better? If I wanted to just live a contented, complacent life, I could have stayed in the US or the UK. So, yes, I know full well that I’m not in the US or the UK. I’m in India because I chose to come back and try to make a difference.

An important note: Don’t get me wrong…. there are plenty of change agents in this country who are fighting socio-cultural mindsets daily and admirably. I’m simply choosing to stand with them rather than those who prefer to “go with the flow”.

Let me end with these borrowed words from Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore Finance Minister and Chair of the International Monetary Fund’s Policy Steering Committee to the Indian Finance Ministry’s Delhi Economics Conclave:

India does not have time on its side. There’s a race against countries, there’s a race against machines and there’s a race against demography.

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