Temples of modern India: The fault lines
Fifties and sixties of last century saw the founding and establishment of a large number of Institutions, Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs), National Laboratories, with best of the brains to head those institutions. These father figures are still counted in who’s who of Indian science and engineering. These institutions were described as “Temples of Modern India” by our first PM. Leaders of those organisations were given free hand to choose the people to man and run them.
Over the period, though they still count, these institutions stopped making the impact as they used to do in their initial heydays. In fact, many of them lost their lustre and some of them appear to be ghosts of their initial self. I am not singling out any particular institution, but the observation is applicable quite generally to a good number of them.
I tried to go into reasons behind their palpable downslides. I tried to enquire from my friends and acquaintances in those institutions. The usual refrain, used to justify anything which is not palatable, is political interference. Political institutions in India are essential pillars of our democracy. But making them as punching bag for anything that goes wrong, is also unfortunately considered as democratic right. More circumspect of them bring forward next excuse, suffocation by our bureaucracy and dwindling of funding. Then global competition, technical and scientific irrelevance in the face of rapid march forward in western world, capitalist take over, China’s long march, resurgence of our distant and tiny neighbours like Singapore, Taiwan. Even oblivion of communism, the world over, is also bandied as definite cause by their diehard supporters. Even seculars and the belief system, considered their antithesis, also are not spared. Excuses galore for justification of decadence except self introspection.
None of them, leading as well as working in those institutions, wants to look towards themselves as possible cause. As my age and experiences, both good and bad, progresse, I am veering towards a realisation.
Let me explain my reasoning. Actually, when employees are recruited in entry level, best of the efforts are made to recruit best of the brains from available lot. Over the period as their careers progress, may be over a period from 4-5 years to a decade, you will see a marked bunching in two broad classes. A set tuns out to be innovative. They bring disruptive changes in methods, processes, technology, capital goods, thought processes. They make those institutions productive, competitive with reduced cost of production, Indian innovations matching global challenges. They essentially build the future, strengthen the institutions to anticipate and prepare for coming challenges. Ideally, they are the people to lead the organisation in future. Any organisation should reward them, uplift them through faster route so that future remains in safe hands. In fact, when innovative people are brought forward into leadership position, their track record works as inspiration to the idea that innovation pays.
The second class will come out to be normal people, who think future is somebody else’s responsibility. They remain in their present and contribute diligently in maintaining the present status of the organisation. In fact, just to run the organisations or institutions, you have to concentrate on many activities, which need not appear glamourous. The types of jobs they find comfort in are: day to day management, running shop floors, day to day marketing, distribution and dealer management, quality control, maintenance of production line, shift management and so forth and so on. They are very useful to run the present situations, resolve day to day conflicts, crises etc. etc. But they are usually status quoists, they get consolation and enjoyment in carrying out repetitive tasks. They thank themselves that they don’t have to struggle to convert imagination to tangible products, like innovative workforce.
Both innovative and normal contributors represent two different personality, psychology and outlook traits. Normal work force and mangers generally outweigh the innovators by quite a huge margin. My personal belief is: a ratio of 30:70 is quite healthy for maintaining the balance between present and future.
But the problem comes from human nature of resentment to their brighter and more successful colleagues, who are into faster tracks. Sometimes the feeling is quite bitter, even resentment is a euphemism for such bitterness. They see the person; they see his growth but they do not want to introspect the reasons behind. Being minority, innovative people are easy targets for suffocation and silent ostracism, initially by colleagues, and progressively by bosses. After all many times, bosses are prisoners of majoritarian subordinates. If the top leadership is drawn from similar innovative class, they have at least some unseen hand to get succour and exhibit resilience to fight out the odds against them and progress in career. However, many of the younger people of this class cannot sustain this suffocation and look for greener pastures. Many multinationals and US universities have these bright people, forced out of these organisations. Further, as the stories of pathetic ouster of bright people, spread as hushed rumours in campuses, less and less people of this ilk are inclined join the workforce. Slowly but surely, the ratio of innovative to normal workforce goes downhill and eventually, sooner or later, over a period of few decades, the normal workforce captures the top leadership. Or should I say, leadership in these organisations are replaced by career managers, snuffing out slowly the ability to face unknown future challenges to the organisation. That is how story of downfall, sometimes demise, of many of such institutions are written as footnotes in history. They are increasingly referred in past tense; none will have slightest remorse for not shedding a tear or two.
The author, Tapan Misra, is a distinguished scientist. Presently he is Adviser Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).