Two days ago on Friday I had I a learning experience. My friend AN who had stopped to visit me in Pune for a few days on his way back from Australia was leaving. AN had worked and studied in Canberra for a few years and is now in the process of settling in Delhi. He was leaving and I went down with his bags to see him off. We had to stop at the shopping complex close by and so decided that we would leave his big suitcase at the gate of the housing complex and come back in a few minutes instead of dragging the suitcase around the place. What followed was instructive at many levels.
It was mid-afternoon and the place was as usual busy with people going about their business. As usual there were three security guards at the gate. I asked them to keep an eye on the bag and said that we’d be back from the shopping center next door in a few minutes. One guard looked alarmed. He said, “Nahin, allowed nahin hai.” He looked at his colleagues to back him up. His colleagues looked confused. The guy kept saying that it was not allowed.
In exasperation I asked why is it not allowed? What harm can come of my leaving this suitcase for a few minutes. I am not asking you to load it on your shoulders, am I? We’ll be back in a few minutes. Noticing my rising anger, one of the guards said indicated that it was alright and we walked away.
AN and I discussed this strange behavior. We could hardly believe that anyone would object to our leaving a bag in their plain sight in broad daylight, and not doing so clandestinely. We were not really strangers out of the blue; I lived in that complex and the security people see me several times a time going in and out. I thought that their behavior betrayed a thoughtlessness that arises from stupidity. If they had thought about it for even one moment, they would have realized that all I was asking was something very ordinary and understandable.
I realize that they not highly educated. But even uneducated people have the ability to reason about simple matters. I have noticed that Indians generally do not take the trouble to think very much about much at all. I am generalizing here about Indians but it may be common in the underdeveloped world. Even in the developed world, one can see rather moronic behavior — such as checkout clerks who are clearly innumerate — but it is not as pervasive as it is in India. Most people in developed countries will be able to offer some explanation of why something is done.
When we returned to take the bag, the guards told me that their supervisor had disapproved of their agreeing to keep the bag. So they’d been instructed by him to get me to write down what was in the bag and sign it. I said that I’d be happy to. I wrote down:
The bag contains one bomb.
Some bomb making materials including three timers.
Three revolvers and 40 rounds of ammunition .6 caliber
One AK-47 and one drone aircraft.
Some clothes and shoes for packing the stuff safely.
Mobile 098123 45678.
Once again, this showed that the supervisor had not considered the matter at all. Asking me to declare what I had in the bag was pointless. If I had reason to hide stuff, surely I was not going to tell him that.
I went up to my apartment, pondering the matter. Is it any wonder that India is poor? There were three people sitting around at the gate of this complex. They had practically nothing to do. They were not producing any stuff. Stuff that one could eat, or wear, or use in some manner. They were providing some sort of security service but they did not have the training to do the job effectively or efficiently. They were told to open the gate for a passing car and close it immediately afterwards. This they did ceaselessly as the traffic was nearly constant. The job that the three of them did could have easily been done by one.
Much of India’s service industry is disguised unemployment. Many elevators are manned in India. A guy simply rides the elevator the entire day pushing buttons for the passengers. People are employed to stand at doors of shops and offices, simply opening and closing them. They are employed but they produce negligibly little. Add up all the negligible production of a very large number of people and then divide that production by that large number of people, and you have a very small number. That number is usually known as the per capita GDP — which in India’s case is about one-fortieth of the average American.
Security is the new thing in services. In the short distance from the gates of the Peninsula Corporate Park in Mumbai to my office in one of the buildings there, I note there are approximately 20 security people. Around 10 at the main gate, 5 at the lobby of our building, 5 in the underground parking (around 40 cars total capacity). Repeat that for the half a dozen gates and buildings and you have a fairly large number of people employed in doing very little. They are providing a service but their value addition is so little that they get paid around Rs 10K (or US$200) per month on average.
Perhaps this is an unfair comparison but allow me to compare, say, services in a rich economy like the US. A blogging platform, Tumblr was started in 2007. It is an excellent service. About 2 million people use Tumblr. Tumblr has 8 employees. That’s it: 8 people producing a service used by 2 million bloggers and perhaps used by 200 million readers. I will come back to why the US is so productive and what it implies. For now, let me get back to my story.
A few minutes after I got back to my apartment, the doorbell rang. It was the security guards’ supervisor, and two of the security guards. We converse in Hindi. Supervisor says, “Leaving a bag at the gate is not allowed.”
Why, I ask.
“Because we have to do security. We do it for your own safety.”
“No, you don’t do it for my safety. What you do does not make me any safer but just causes me hassles. What you do amounts to wasting your time and you waste my time. You have not even thought about this for a minute. You think that by not doing a simple thing that would help out an average person, you are increasing security. It does not help me at all. Have you ever used your brain and thought about it a minute,” I shoot back.
He replies, “But who knows what could be in bags these days. We do it for your own safety.”
“What are you talking about? I am sick of all the shit that I have to put up with just because some idiot feels that it increases my security. My security is not helped at all by your keeping the gate closed all the time. It just delays everyone. If by slowing down traffic one could have added to security, would it not make sense to put barriers every 10 feet on the road. That would make us all very safe, would it?”
My Hindi is not very good at the best of times but when I get irritated and angry, I can barely speak intelligibly. I was angry at the guy. I said that I will report him to his supervisor for not understanding his job. I asked him his name. His name was Suresh. He could tell that I was angry and asked what I thought he should be doing to improve security. That calmed me down. First, I said that I am sorry that I don’t speak Hindi very well and gave the excuse that my mother tongue is Bengali.
For the next few minutes I explained to him that it is pointless to not do something that one would normally do without a thought. All I wanted was to not drag a bag needlessly. So what was the problem? Why was it not allowed? The reason given these days for any intrusion or inconvenience is that it increases security. But actually it does not. I agree that these are not normal times compared to say 20 years ago. One has to be careful. But there is difference between being careful and being absolutely stupid.
Then I went on to make the distinction between “possible” and “probable.” It is possible for me to put explosives in a bag, walk up to the gate and ask someone to keep an eye on it. Everything that is not ruled out by the law of physic is possible. But everything is not probable. A bit of commonsense and all this could have been entirely avoided. It is possible that my suitcase had bombs, just like it is possible that the next time I go out, I could have a horrible accident and die. It is not unheard of that people die in car accidents, just that it is not unheard of that people plant bombs in suitcases.
But if we are unable to distinguish between the possible and the probable, we would be paralyzed into inaction terrified about the possibilities. We could not go out because it is possible to get killed. We could not eat because it is possible to choke on food. We could not bathe because it is possible to slip in the bathroom, hit our head on the toilet bowl and die. Millions of things are possible and of those millions, thousands of them are lethal.
I don’t know the words for possible and probable in Hindi. We had a huge vocabulary gap. Somehow though I think I got the message across. He was not an idiot. He was just an average guy. The gulf that existed between him and me was not limited to just the vocabulary. It was much wider and deeper than the matter that I had only English words to reason with and he probably did not even have the equivalent Hindi words.
I am quick to label people stupid and retarded. But when I do so, I am fully aware of the fact that even if it is true that a person is retarded, it is not the person’s fault. I am tall and I do recognize that I had as little control over my physical stature as a short person has. It would be stupid of me to not see beyond the obvious fact of a person’s physical or mental stature and realize that most of it is beyond their control.
He was standing at the door of my apartment. I probably earned more in a year than what he will earn in his lifetime. I had attended good schools and universities. I was better equipped to reason, to earn a living, to enjoy the good things of life than he was. But it was just the luck of the draw. I could have been in his place and he could have been in mine.
He did not go to some fancy US university to get a PhD. He did not get a chance to get degrees in four unrelated subjects. He did not get the opportunity to read fancy books and travel the world for pleasure. Why not?
Well, he did not get to go to a fancy university in the US because he did not graduate from a fancy technology institute in India. He did not get to the fancy Indian institute because he did not get to graduate from a very good high school. He did not go to a very good high school because his parents were poor. Poor people do not get to attend good schools because the Indian education system is biased against the poor. The government does not allow the system to provide the education that the poor need to get out of their poverty.
Just like I did, he too was born with an average brain and had the potential to become at least as productive as you or I. It was possible but given the reality of India, it was not at all probable. Not just Suresh, the security supervisor, but I estimate around one billion Indians have had their chances of a decent education entirely denied to them.
I understand that the two things — my getting a good education in India and his not getting one — are related. The government has decreed that there should only a few good institutions of higher education in India, and that the majority of Indians will not have access to them. The government has also ensured that primary and secondary school education will be of such poor quality that it would be nearly impossible for those students to qualify to go for higher studies. The government subsidizes the higher education of a small set of non-poor people at the expense of a very large number of poor people who are denied even a good secondary education.
People like Suresh had paid for my education.
Suresh was incapable of simple reasoning not because he was born retarded but because of the system. The system was designed by people who were educated but for some reason ended up promoting retarded policies. Those powerful people are at fault, not this person who was doing the best he can with what little he had been given. The current policy makers are cats of the same breed as before and they continue to make policies that will doom the future generations of India.
Our conversation was at an end. I shook his hand and said namaste and thank you to the three.
The next day — yesterday — a bomb killed a handful at the German Bakery in Pune. I think the retards will make the same noises about not tolerating any terrorism in India. The only thing that will change is that the security of the retards will be increased a bit more — and we all will wait for the next bomb to go off.
Mera Bharat Mahan. AOA!!
Solution to India’s Greatest Failure (May 2009)
Public flogging of the criminals occupying the highest levels of the government will happen a little after hell freezes over or a certain blue-turbaned man grows a spine, whichever comes later. Criminals don’t have an incentive to create incentives that deter criminals. We do have criminals in government, don’t we? A public watchdog organization reports that the new parliament of 543 members will have 143 MPs who have criminal cases pending against them. Of these, 71 have serious criminal charges such as murder. Being charged is not the same as being guilty, of course. But guilt can be established pretty efficiently and quickly, if the system was designed properly. But why on earth would criminals be interested in putting that system in place which would condemn them?
Let’s repeat what TSR wrote (quoted right at the top), “Since no part of the Establishment has an interest in punishing corruption, trying for a more sweeping solution quickly leads into the realm of blind hope.”