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Is India an inefficient nation?

Debraj Bhattacharya

Updated: November 14, 2012, 1:34 PM IST
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A few years back I was travelling from Lucknow to Kolkata by train. There was, as always, a shortage of tickets, and therefore for the first time in my life I bought a first class coupé ticket. As the train reached Varanasi, a middle-aged German couple entered the coupé. They were on their oriental India romantic trip. They were mesmerised by the order within chaos of the Indian roads, and deliberately chose to travel by train. They were absolutely delighted by the slowness of the Indian trains. They loved the fact that the train would take about twenty hours to reach Kolkata from Lucknow. To make things better for them, the train began to move slower than the normal speed and therefore the phenomenon of "late" started - late by 2 hours, then late by 3 hours, then late by 4 hours - the German couple loved it. It gave them all the time in the world to enjoy themselves. I had a book with me and kept on reading it, knowing that this is going to be one long journey.

When the train reached Bihar, there was some demonstration and the train stopped. This was at night, so we did not know about it as we were asleep. In the morning we came to know that the train will be more than 12 hours late. Suddenly, the German couple lost all their romance for India's slowness and chaos as now there was a distinct possibility that they would miss their flight from Kolkata for their next destination. Unfortunately, for them the train slowed down even further and their heartbeats became faster, faces became redder and eyes became tenser than before. Finally, when the train reached Howrah, they calculated that they have just about enough time to rush to the airport, no time to walk around Kolkata as planned before. They told me before leaving that this was their last journey on Indian railways. I smiled, knowing that I am not that fortunate. I will have to read many more books while travelling on many more "late" journeys.

Surely this is a story that does not sound unfamiliar. Everybody in India would be able to rattle off stories of late trains, buses which do not start on time, government officials who do not come to office on time, letters which are delivered late or not delivered at all, weather forecasts which are off the mark, roads which are not made properly and then not maintained, so on and so forth. We joke about this but Indian society also has a remarkable tolerance level for inefficiency. In recent times there has been lot of public outcry about corruption and rightly so, but have you heard anybody going on a hunger strike or satyagraha against inefficiency? The answer surely is no.

Yet, it is perhaps time to start a more serious discourse on how inefficiency hurts our attempts at developing India. We need a national discourse because among many other issues it is a phenomenon that has an important impact on poverty-related issues in the country and it is not just a matter of inconvenience to some foreign travellers. To take just the obvious examples - Government of India prides itself on its flagship programme Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme. The Economic Survey of 2011 proudly rattles off figures of how many person days of employment have been generated, how many SC/ST/Women have found work etc. What it carefully hides is how many days out of the promised 100 days of employment it managed to deliver. The best states have managed around 50 days, that is, half of the promise made. Yet, here is a scheme for which there is no shortage of money, a state can get as much money as they want if they deliver the goods. Is there any system of punishment for a state or a district which fails to deliver MGNREGS? Is a District Magistrate likely to lose his job if his/her district performs poorly? Of course not. Will the media put this on the front page? Only if there is a political angle to it, otherwise why bother? Sometime ago about 250 districts of India were identified as backward districts and a scheme called Backward Region Grant Fund was initiated. Was it possible to transform any of these 250 backward districts? Don't ask such stupid questions.

We are in fact somewhat lucky that MGNREGS has a web-based data base which the public can see for themselves and calculate through simple arithmetic how a district is doing in terms of performance. For most other schemes, however, we cannot even get such data. Is National Rural Health Mission delivering its promised goals? Try to find out and you will enter a maze of data. Is Indira Awas Yojana able to achieve the housing needs of the people below poverty line? You will need a grant to do a research first. If Sarva Shiksha Aviyan fails to (to put matters crudely) spend the allocated amount would someone sit on a satyagraha and would the television channels start beaming live coverage? No, it is not even inside page news, just another day in office. Would there be rallies, processions, prime time television discussions if the irrigation department fails to achieve its targets? No, we are an inefficient nation after all. Inefficiency is so all-pervasive that only when 50 people die in a train accident that it becomes news.

Compare this experience with China and Brazil. In both countries poverty reduction policies, in two different ways, have been implemented with as much seriousness as their pursuit for Olympic Gold or World Cup glory. These countries also suffer from corruption but are moving ahead at a much faster pace towards the status of a developed country. Some would say that they have already reached there. Inefficient India may miss the bus because of the potholes in the roads that we build.
First Published: November 14, 2012, 1:34 PM IST