South Asia
     Jan 22, 2005

Dialogue for development
Remaking India. One Country, One Destiny by Arun Maira

Reviewed by Chanakya Sen

One may be forgiven for harboring misgivings about a management consultant's book on accelerating India's economic development. What could Arun Maira of the Boston Consulting Group offer other than the beatnik mumbo-jumbo of management literature? Surely, efficiency in a corporation is no prototype for development of a country of India's dimensions. By the time 10 pages pass, though, Maira makes you sit up and notice. He is not drawing the typical arcane business school diagrams and pyramids. His unique perspective that inclusive development depends on serious dialogue is a welcome intervention into the stale discourse on India's economic progress.
The stunning upset in India's April 2004 general elections indicated the groundswell for inclusive development spread out to rural areas and poorer sections of society. "If the benefits of change do not reach many, people will get dissatisfied again and throw out the incumbents." (p 16) Maira's belief is that the country needs to unlearn prevalent ideas and adopt new processes of participative learning to include the average Indian in development parleys.

The broader the diversity of stakeholders, the greater is the imperative for skills in aligning their actions. A war on poverty in India depends on a new model of leadership that works without strong authority but blends varied interests. India has millions of leaders motivated by deeper aspirations in villages, schools, factory floors and market places. "The key to make change happen is motivation rather than analysis and plans." (p 50) Genuine leaders set high standards, expect good performance from all, give the tools workers need and never accept anything less than the best. Pride in work and pursuit of excellence can overcome India's record of shoddiness and ordinariness.

India would benefit from productive dialogue among leaders representing different income levels, occupations and political affiliations to create a shared vision. It is most essential to reach alignment on a few fundamental objectives and principles. Without heartfelt commitment, vision is reduced to mere decoration. Therein lies the necessity of participation in crafting a developed India.

The "second generation" of economic reforms relate to labor laws, subsidies and prices of utilities, issues that impact a much larger set of stakeholders than the first round of reforms. Leaders are those who shape the whole in ways that fulfill the aspirations of the individual parts. Charismatic and authoritarian leaders ignore participatory processes and end up with half baked solutions. Twenty first century leaders should stop considering India's huge population a liability and instead turn given factors into comparative advantages.

Indian business persons have to play a role more complex than that of companies in developed countries in facilitating inclusive development. They should "compassionately connect with conditions in the communities around them" and reverse the post-1989 mantra that the business of business is merely business. India Inc should look beyond core business activities and investor interests, and be responsive to society's broader needs of health, education, environment, water, infrastructure and governance. Failure to reach a contract between business and society leads to breakdown of trust, loss of reputation and heavy financial costs.

In the 1960s, business was not considered a respectful vocation in India, mainly because industrialists failed to win the confidence of the masses. The House of Tatas stood apart in the public mind for tangibly building modern India. Maira joined the conglomerate in 1964 due to its impeccable reputation of telling the truth, caring for the ecology, respecting common property and placing national goals above personal greed (the converse of Enron-led greed). JRD Tata's values, anathema to economists like Milton Friedman, simultaneously kept two goals in sight - "creation of not merely personal wealth, but wealth for society". (p 134) The Tatas were one of the first Indian companies to stand up to foreign competition in the 1980s, beating back the Japanese in the light commercial vehicles sector. Their social contributions - institutes of higher research and education - did not fetter market competitiveness.

Two principal indicators of the health of an economy preferred by businesses are stock market indices and rankings of foreign rating agencies. Such lenses blind companies to remain "out of touch and not know what is really going on in the country". (p 126) Holistic indices that integrate quantitatively measurable and qualitatively perceptible factors are lacking due to a "conceptual emergency". Many are unwilling to question the reigning orthodoxy for fear of being branded grass chewers.

Maira asks, "When would the liberalization of the Indian economy benefit the poor? How long should they be patient? And the political question is: how long would they?" (p 64) Strategically, India's polity cannot hold its course of privatization without sharing benefits with the poor. A new format of business organization in which the poor are engaged in larger numbers as free agents, not employees, is one way out. A humane conversion of monolithic corporations into "networked enterprises" can raise the purchasing power of India's poor. "People are the only appreciating assets in an organization. They should be managed accordingly and not as components of technical processes designed by engineers." (p 166)

Resistance to change can be surmounted "when there is a deeper and higher aspiration". (p 82) Vision, directly connected with people's personal aspirations, generates the torque for change and achievement. The Japanese people's strong desire to make their country the global frontrunner in industry led to the Total Quality Management miracle under Dr Kaoru Ishikawa.

Transformations thrive on new theories and principles, not just new routines. Toyota's Production System dissolved hitherto insoluble dilemmas in manufacturing management. The best way to learn is in the line of fire. "The apprehension of failing creates emotional and cognitive tension and spurs willingness to consider new ways." (p 96) Leaders use crises as crucibles to discover new strengths whereas others get crushed. India has to evolve an innovative approach suited to its peculiarities. "This is not a problem of economics but of societal learning and of leadership." (p 151)

Growth in India must "splash around" incomes and jobs because there may not be time for it to trickle down. To sustain its lead in knowledge-based services, policymakers must concentrate on India's professional and vocational educational systems. Rural roads, telecommunications and entrepreneurship have to be stimulated, recognizing the special skills of women. Urban improvement schemes have to be sui generis, since Chinese or Singaporean-style imposed models are unsuitable to Indian democracy. Maira advocates a "middle-out" as opposed to a "top-down" approach.

Both in India and in the US, Maira decries "dumbing down of communication amongst leaders and the masses". (p 185) A more efficacious method than "downloading communication" is dialogue to learn, not debate to win. In prevailing debates, representatives of people from various walks of life are barely granted the right to participate. The amount of high fidelity communication in such conversations is meagre, although democracy implies listening to the needs and wants of all. India must worry about "the disease of poor communications because its society is more vulnerable to fragmentation". (p 192) In the absence of concerted action in this field, India will continue to stagger from "more information and less wisdom, much entertainment with less content". (p 197)

Simplistic calls for increased "political will" to carry out reforms are naive. Maira strongly recommends another class of WMD - Ways of Mass Dialogue - to synchronize multifarious interests. This dialogue must not be trapped within the limitations of the cacophonic parliamentary channels. Such a process was successfully experimented with in South Africa in the early 1990s, when groups from academia, business and politics congregated to discuss a multiracial future.

The current growth trajectory of Western economies demands an ever-ascending influx of knowledge workers and skilled professionals, presenting a historical opportunity for India. Remote services (outsourcing) and importation of customers (medical tourism, educational services, leisure tourism etc) are two impressive income earners that India can prioritize. Alternative approaches to centralized planning have to be devised, as predictability and control techniques succeed only in closed systems. Models that obtain commitment, not enforce compliance, are the keys to resolving the Indian economy's endemic flaws.

Assembled from Maira's columns published in the Economic Times, this volume sells the vision of a super capitalist India where narrow competition is subordinated to a new humanism. It offers novel ways of thinking about trite development paradigms. Never before has the canker of India's economic woes been summarized as the lack of empathetic listening and talking.

Remaking India. One Country, One Destiny by Arun Maira. Response Books, New Delhi, October 2004. ISBN: 0-7619-3274-7. Price US$7, 236 pages.

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