I remember reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig a while ago and reflecting on the nature of Quality as described by the author. Although the ideas described by Pirsig in his meditative narrative weren’t exactly novel, he did paint a layer of clarity over the things we see in day-to-day life, like a lens that magnifies some parts of a specimen and brings to the fore an aspect that simply wasn’t noticed before, even as it stared us in the face.
But today, I was travelling around the streets of Mumbai, and it got me thinking about what sets nations apart from each other, especially the tenuous distinction between the developing and the developed nations. The distinction most certainly isn’t technological — from consumer products to manufacturing techniques, India has everything it needs to be on par with any other nation. In the cases where it doesn’t, there is a penalty of economic cost — we simply have to pay a little extra to get the same benefits. Alternatively, the distinction could be economic, but that explanation doesn’t fit either. While there are plenty of people in India below the poverty-line, there are plenty of rich people as well. But being rich doesn’t make life any easier in India, unless you are so rich that you can literally pay someone to live your life for you.
To take a simple example, imagine that you need to get a new passport, and it takes several hours and several visits to the passport office to overcome bureaucratic hurdles and get the job done. There are no missing pieces that prevent this system from functioning equally well in developing as well as developed nations. Except that you would expect this system to work better in a developed nation, generally speaking.
Or to consider another example, if it takes forty-five minutes to commute one mile in suburban Mumbai simply because the traffic is terrible (because traffic rules are not spelt out properly and seldom followed), whom do you blame? If that commute is important to you, it doesn’t matter how rich you are, such comforts cannot be easily bought. Again, the traffic is not terrible because of poverty, or lack of education, or limited access to technology.
What is missing is something that can be very accurately, if vaguely, described by the term Quality. Look around and you will see people not willing to make an effort to put in their best work, doing a shoddy job simply because everyone else does. They are surrounded by others who accept this situation and get on with their lives as if it didn’t matter. The acceptance breeds indifference, completing the circle.
In many ways, this idea is scarier than the naïve assumption that generating more industrial and agricultural output will magically transform the country into the ideal we cherish in our dreams. It is the people themselves who need to change in some hitherto undefined fashion; simply demanding more resources, more technology or more money does not help in this regard.
Somewhere along the way, we started writing down numbers in spreadsheets and ledgers, and lost track of what is really important to us.