FORESIGHT AND ATTENTION TO DETAILS
About four years ago, I was travelling in a train from Chennai to Tiruchi, in a chair coach. A seat near me was vacant and a tall European gentleman came and sat near me. I asked him whether he was a Dutch. He said yes and was surprised. I told him about the joke I heard at Amsterdam from a former Netherlands Ambassador to India, as to why Dutch men have to try to be tall. We talked several items thereafter. He had lost his colon in an operation and therefore has to keep on drinking water. Many of his young Indian colleagues, travelling in a group, used to come and take a water bottle from him, as he had a huge stock.
He said that he had a software business in India based at Hyderabad and was going with colleagues for attending a marriage of one of the employee somewhere away from Tiruchi.
FAST CHANGING INDIA: TWO UNCHANGED FEATURES
In reply to my questions, he gave considerable insights about his experience in India since 1995, when he first visited. He was impressed by the speed of change and growth and lots of human energy unleashed everywhere; he was happy to see the income levels of average people going up over the (more than a) decade; he has seen the pace of telecom growth; internet penetration; the cars; air travel etc... Most of his remarks were well studied and thoughtful.
I then asked him a question: 'What are some things which have not changed, if at all there is any?' He thought for a while and then replied: 'Yes there are two items: One, though India has placed in position lots of infrastructure and services since 1995, there is always a severe deficit. India seems to be pushed by crises from the demand side unable to meet the demand; only when it becomes impossible to manage, there is some expansion or addition of new services etc... As a country, it appears, there is no desire to cut this vicious cycle of gap, once and for all by putting in place the supply of infrastructure and services to a point where there will be no crises for the users. It appears there is no will; the system seems to have trained itself for crisis management, fixing things just to solve a current crisis.'
I tried to explain away to him by saying that we being a democratic country with vibrant media, various pushes-and-pulls lead to a situation of wait-and-see. I myself was not very convinced of this and he did not fully accept it, though he did not say so bluntly to me.
'The second item unchanged in India is', he said 'the remarkable lack of attention to details. Over a decade, I have seen better and better hotels. More services. More features; but still in the bath room some latch will not fit the hole well and some patch add on is given; or a switch will have a problem or a plug with some mismatch of hole. But it is not only at the so called low skilled workmanship; but also in high skilled tasks I deal with. My Indian staff is excellent; they are sincere; intelligent; hard working; but even after years of training, I cannot send the work finished by them directly to the customer. Some small mistake will be there which may be there in a small item but which would irritate the client! This inattention to details seems to be an unchanged feature!' I agree with him; we exchanged notes as to which countries were best in attention to details.
MANTRA FOR ACHIEVEMENT
If India has to achieve in this competitive globalised world, giving better life for all Indians in a sustained manner, we need to master the art of FORESIGHT; not by saying bombastic vision statements or catchy phrases or unrealistic dream statements. It is a statement of nearly possible, yet very challenging future NEED AND DEMAND and as to how we can go there from the present, here. The chances of its success is higher when we had given ATTENTION TO DETAILS at the time of formulation of the FORESIGHT and also all the way emphasized during the execution: the need for attention to details. It should be built in as a part of project planning , monitoring, human resource development, HR policies of rewards and punishments etc...
AN EXAMPLE OF RETAIL SECTOR
A remarkable article combining such a FORESIGHT along with ATTENTION TO DETAILS, as applied to the RETAIL SECTOR was by Dr. N Mahalingam in the last issue of Kisan World. It was not a call for stagnation in the current way of the retail sector with its inefficiencies. But it did analyse the whole of the supply chain and loss of jobs if bang-bang type of competitive pressure such as through FDI is exerted on the existing system. It gave a detailed alternative foresight with a detailed plan.
Some of the protagonists of FDI rightly bring out the benefits of modern supply chain infrastructure (better storage, cold chains, quality management checking system, IT systems etc...) and the advantages to the consumers. All these would require financial investments. And over a period the cost of investments have to be recovered along with interest on the capital. It is to be paid by the supplier (farmer) and / or consumer (buyer) in the long run, be they in domestic or export markets.
New jobs indeed will be generated, as the protagonists point out. Yes indeed, in the new supply chain management systems, the new malls and those who work in it. The qualifications required for this will not be the current traditional unskilled (low cost) labour, who are in the new system seen as inefficient (in economic terms).
True if we look at it in cold terms of labour productivity. But what about the human costs of the lost incomes for many of these 'low-productive' families in the supply chain or in the kirana shops or the street hawker who comes with four cycle-wheeled carts (the highest technology) she / he can command.
Can they all be covered by NREGA purely in terms of cold calculations of budget availability? How difficult it is, to administer? Why then shift the tax money in an economically inefficient manner and also growing the number of persons who are subsidy dependent?
I am not very sure whether these details have been worked by the protagonists of FDI. Most of the economic policies are addressed at the macro level as to how much investment comes in, how the GDP grows, how many new potential jobs are created (no method of assuring it, 'as the market forces will take care') how much new tax revenues will be generated etc... economic growth is vital; efficiency human economic activities is vital and therefore induction of new technologies and new business and management techniques as also changes governance systems, as we have advocated all through in these articles. But it cannot ignore the total dislocation of incomes and lives of millions of persons who are traditionally dependent on it for centuries.
The approach we suggest does not mean resisting changes; or opposing changes, but the changes have to unfold in a manner that will be in a phased manner; by preparing people for it through awareness, training, providing new avenues, helping the transition all the while making them to do work (not receive doles!). If public (Government) expenditure is required for effecting this evolutionary change (sure it will be required as nothing comes for free in this monetised world!), that is well spent. It will save people from the severe agonies of 'Bang-Bang' adjustments due to structural reforms or sudden market forces unleashed on people through policy changes. This is not a call for the PLANNED ECONOMY of Yester years of license-permit-quota inspector raj which totally choked the economic growth and kept many millions in continuing miseries of the subsistence economy inherited from the several stagnant centuries of the past.
We need to unleash the 'animal spirit' but simultaneously prepare our people to face changes.
Even now, with the new policies of FDI in retail sector announced, what are the plans to ensure 30% purchases from the local sources? I won't be surprised if the foreign procurer (rightly) complains about the lack of 'quality' in Indian domestic sourcing! 'Standards' in which they were operating, are different from what the foreign MNC will demand! (recall our article on Standards in an earlier article). At least are we from govt sources trying to help Indian MSME's, farmers, labourers, traders, middlemen and others to rise up to the new standards? Is there a detailed plan of action?
Otherwise, in all likelihood, new forms of cheating will emerge: Import or smuggle cheap foreign goods which may suit the new FDI procurement standards, put an 'India made' label, pack with Indian address and sell! Thus the value addition in India will be very low and more Indian jobs will be lost.
Also many protagonists of FDI in retail also point out that only 30% of Indian retail market will be taken over by FDI retail chains in urban areas and rest will be safe. How long? How long can one keep consumers from towns and rural areas from the lure of 'better quality' products from the FDI especially because that will be told as 'The Quality' by TV channels and news paper advertisements? Initially they will enter those market as 'rejects' and slowly capture these town / rural markets.
We are not against all Indians getting better quality products / services to consume. Our question is: are we now at least preparing the other 70% Indians now itself so that they can compete in a 'level playing ground'. Our approach should be to train all Indians to face competition not by preaching or through vision statements but by getting into the DETAILS OF CHANGES ENVISAGED IN THE FORESIGHT.
Will we at least do it now, after having missed this opportunity after 1991 liberalisation and globalisation which turned out to be a shallow one without developing strengths in depth in the Indian economy, industries and human resources and skills?
TECHNOLOGY, EMPLOYMENT AND ECONOMIC GROWTH
Many persons ask me about the achieved progress of India Vision 2020 as articulated by Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam and myself in the book brought out in 1998. It was a result of a major national level exercise in detail, in many sectors by Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC) during 1994 and 1995. The twenty five volume reports gave the FORESIGHT and DETAILED PLAN OF ACTION upto 2020, for deepening the technological strengths and corresponding management strengths in India's various sectors: agriculture, manufacturing industries, mining and materials, energy, health care strategic and military systems, services, etc... It was not for isolation nor was it for total self-reliance and self sufficiency, impossible in the modern world for any country.
It was for developing certain core strengths in phased way so that in the globalised world India can plan a truly competitive role and all Indians increase their productive capabilities thus raising up in their income levels. Unfortunately these details, (which need to be orchestrated by Government policies and financial / administration support systems) were neglected. We lived with a macro growth which was shallow, predominantly. We neglected manufacturing and other primary / secondary sectors like mining, energy etc... We neglected modernisation of coal and iron mines. We neglected water and related technologies. We neglected electronic manufacturing and therefore ICT sector is growing mainly with imported hardware and licensed software. In defence the local production plummeted, with India becoming the largest importer of defence hardware and systems.
Yes, technologies came in embodied forms and with lower end value addition done in India. No wonder employment did not keep pace with economic growth, which depended more on financial transactions, foreign investments in existing Indian companies as shares, out sourced businesses executed in India etc... So far so good. But do we have the innate strengths to grow after 20 years of liberalisation and globalisation. Answer is No! We need more infusion of foreign technologies, and therefore foreign investments (as they would like to benefit from their investments) and management skills.
Without developing inner economic strengths for our people in terms of their improved skills, continual learning, new managerial and administrative systems, we continue to harp on macro level actions and try to solve the pains of dislocated labour force through welfare measures which appear more like gimmicks given the hugeness of the number of people who are dislocated from the main stream economics (marginal farmers, unskilled work force, mismatched educational institutions etc...)
Economic growth is a must. We need a two digit growth of GDP. But it cannot be shallow for long; it will burst, which is what is happening for India. The fact of under development in most parts of India, and the huge unmet demand from people for better life, are in fact a great boon for India, if we can focus our economy and its growth around meeting these domestic challenges through modern market driven economy with limited public (Government) support given to help the transition in a few sectors, as discussed in this article and the earlier ones.
Employment should not be of a nature to reward the inefficient or in the form of welfare doles. It has to be productive.
Technology has to be selective to meet the needs of Indian economy and to meet the global competition (outside in export markets or domestically to face imports and foreign MNC's). In this process we should prefer those investors (foreign and Indian) who maximise value addition in India and shift at least part of the dislocated labour force through suitable training, for efficient employments. All these require foresight and attention to details, in all sectors, not with a broad brush approach but with a clarity of sculptor. We should also remember the diversity of India and one-size-fit-all solutions will not work. North-Eastern states for example will need one type of actions, Bihar another; even within the states there would be difference. WE NEED TO HAVE A FORESIGHT AND ATTENTION TO DETAIL FOR ALL OF THEM.
Then a great modern India will emerge though the small chisels of millions of people of India.
Y S Rajan