It is time to come clean and reveal what this blog is all about. The most apt subtitle for this blog titled “On India’s Development” would be “It’s the Little Things, Stupid.” Here’s why.
According to me, this is India:
1. India is an under-performer. A land and people of great promise basically in ruins. It’s not too late but there isn’t much time left either.
2. India needs to start adopting good ideas. There are good ideas. Some of them have to be imported. There are no trade barriers to ideas. Adapting and adopting foreign ideas is a good idea.
3. India needs to start paying attention to the little things.
The first is sometimes discussed by others. It is not done too often because it imposes a personal cost. You don’t get invited back to parties. The second is discussed very infrequently. Ideas are felt to be not as important as objects. But the “ideas gap” is much more debilitating than the “objects gap”, as Paul Romer will tell you. The ideas gap will forever prevent development. This is a pity because unlike objects, ideas are freely available. You don’t have to be rich to afford ideas; you have to be smart enough to pick them up wherever you find them.
When the occasion arises — and that means frequently — I do point out the evident under-performance of India relative not just to the developed countries but even relative to developing countries. But that is not my main focus. It comes after my focus on ideas.
However, ideas themselves are secondary to my main focus: on little things. Very few people talk about them. I believe little things that make the big difference. Surveying the large archival pile of stuff that I have written over the last seven years, I see that I have been stressing those little things. One could miss them. Actually that’s why they are called little things: you don’t really notice them unless you are looking for them.
The US is a pretty good place to see how they do stuff cleverly. The US is great in great big things like rockets to the moon and supercomputers and such like. But more than the flashy bits, the small almost inconspicuous bits are also impressive to me. I believe that the US is so successful because it gets the small bits right. I frequently refer to the US simply because I know it as it is my second home (and I love it almost as much as I love India), and also because it is in some respects the polar opposite of India. There’s much that India can costlessly learn from the US.
Now that I am done with the preamble, let’s get started with the little things. Henceforth I will number the articles for easy reference.
§1 Where the streets have no name.
Like scores of times before in various cities and towns in India, last time in Mumbai was no different. I spent about an hour searching for a friend’s place I had never been to before. Another friend of his that same day also spent an hour searching, asking people on the road, and generally helping the mobile phone companies out. Everyone who’s lived in India will have many stories of time wasted figuring out how to get to point B from point A. The streets have no name. So the instructions are algorithmic, approximate, vague and confusing.
Add up the hours wasted, the frustration, the waste of fuel, the uncertainty — and do this for a few million people every day — and you end up with a pretty sizable loss. It is totally preventable. All that needs to be done is to put street names on street corners on lamp posts. This idea does not rival brain surgery for complexity. Street names are not some new-fangled invention that does not exist anywhere in the world. No path-breaking innovation is required. But it does not happen in India.
What happens are asinine proposals. One was to make Indian roads electronically intelligent. I am not making this up. I don’t have that perverted a mind. From July 2004, “Seduced by ICT“:
Recently I came across a news item which said that they are looking at solving Mumbai’s traffic problems by making Mumbai roads “electronic intelligent roads.” I don’t have the slightest doubt that it would involve huge outlays to the tune of millions of dollars and lots of people will make lots of money up and down the line providing expertise and hardware and software for this hi-tech venture. I am also convinced that it will not make the slightest effect on the congested Mumbai roads because it is not the roads that need the intelligence but the people designing the roads that need to be intelligent.
Recommendation: Put signs with street names on them for people to know where they are. Suddenly we will be able to give and get instructions such as, “Go for a kilometer on Mahatma Gandhi road and then make a left on to Sanjay Gandhi road, and then the second right on Jawahar Lal Nehru marg. Go for about 300 meters and then just past the turning for Indira Gandhi lane, you will see the house on 52 Jawaharlal Nehru marg. Got that? OK, see you in 20 minutes.”
More to come.