The Tathagata on “It’s the small stuff, stupid”

By and large, I am coming around to the conclusion that Indians must be amongst the most hardworking people on the planet. They are not lazy. At least they are not physically lazy. If there is an easy and simple way of doing something, that is not for Indians. Find a process that is tedious, complicated, involved, and pointless — Indians apparently will not only design such a process, but for the most part accept it without a complaint.

Thus have I heard that the Tathagata once said while sitting under the bodhi tree:

Hard work and hard thinking are substitutes, O Bhikshus. The harder you think, the less hard you have to work. Conversely, O Bhikshus, the less you think, the harder you have to work. Therefore, if you find someone working very hard at some trivial task, you will find that that person has not bothered to put any thought into whatever the **ck he or she is doing. Thus the Tathagata asks you to examine whatever the **ck you design very carefully so that all sentient creatures that are involved in the process will not have to work hard and can have some spare time to contemplate the universe and attain Buddhahood just like the Tathagata did.

So there you have it. Straight from the Tathagata’s mouth. You may ask why he keeps referring to himself in the third person. Atanu doesn’t know. Must have something to do with the fact that when you are a Buddha, you are allowed to refer to yourself in the third person. Atanu always says that. And then you ask what is with that “**ck”. Well, Atanu thought that he would clean up the Tathagata’s language a bit and replace the “heck” with “**ck”.

Thus have I heard that the Tathagata continued:

The Tathagata would urge you to examine, by way of illustration, you phone bill and your gas bill. Scan your bank statement. Notice how astonishingly brainless the whole shebang is. You will note that the more brainless it is, the harder you will have to work to pay your bills or to contact your bank. Surely, O Bhikshus, enlightenment will miss those people by a mile, if not more.

I take the Tathagata seriously. I examined my MTNL phone bill and my Citibank account statement. The Citibank statement was brainless as pointed out by the Buddha. It said on the back, “Reach us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week” and below that it showed an icon representing a phone with the legend “Call Citiphone”. No phone number was mentioned. Lots of fine print followed. I desperately scanned it for a phone number. Finally, right at the bottom of the page, after lots of totally pointless text, in very very fine print, it noted the number for Mumbai as “(022) 9628962890”. I called that number and was promptly told that it was not accessible.

I examined the MTNL phone bill. It was crammed full of strange information in big bold print such as:

“CONSOLIDATED STAMP DUTY PAID BY ORDER NO.
Mudrank 0415/745/CR143/M1 dated 20-02-2004″
“SERVICE TAX REGN. NO. :- AAA CM 0828 RST 001”

On the back, it listed the names of five suburbs you could pay your bill by cash or check. It did not give any addresses; just the names of the suburbs. Thankfully, it did mention the times: between “10:00 hours and 16:00 hours.” It is the customer’s job to find out where their offices are. Included with the bill were a couple of glossy inserts.

One of the glossies said:
easy payments
BILL PAYMENT CENTER
Convenience is now closer to home!

What was the great convenience, you may ask. They had machines at some locations in Mumbai where you can go and enter your phone number, scan the barcode on your bill, stick in your check, and get a receipt. High tech solution to a trivial problem but one that involves traveling by car, train, or bus. I expect that it would take a person about two hours on average to pay the phone bill. It has not occured to the designers of this sainted system to allow people to put their checks into an old-fashioned envelope, stick a stamp on it, and mail it to then.

I examined my Mahanagar Gas bill. Same story. You have to travel somewhere to pay the bill in person. You cannot mail in a payment. Cost of mailing a payment: Rs 2. Cost of having to pay in person: Rs 30 for tranportation plus 2 hours of time. I estimate that there are at least half a million gas customers, 5 million MTNL customers, and a few odd million other customers of various services that require payment in person. Let’s round the total number of bill payment per month in the city of Mumbai to 10 million. In a year, about 120 million bill payment transactions have to take place. Let’s do the numbers.

Transportation costs: 30 times 120 million is Rs 3.6 billion, or Rs 36 crores. Time cost: 240 million hours, or 30 million 8-hour working days. Or about 2 full working days for every man, woman, and child living in Mumbai paying utility bills. An estimate of the money cost of the time: assume that working adults spend time in paying bills and that the average productivity of Mumbai adults is Rs 50 an hour. So 50 time 240 million hours works out to Rs 120 billion or Rs 1,200 crores.

Here is the punch line: it is a numbers game. It may appear that I am going on about a trivial thing: the ability to pay utility bills by check instead of in person. But because of the numbers of people involved, it adds up rather quickly. That represents economic waste — waste that a poor country such as India cannot afford. Mumbai’s transportation systems are overloaded beyond imagination. Requiring people to travel to pay bills is asinine to put it mildly. No doubt the idiots who design the system don’t have to travel and stand in line to pay the bills perhaps. But why don’t the millions of customers complain? Because, I suspect, that they are hard working people. Unthinking certaintly but they are not lazy.

Two things keep getting reinforced in my head the more I observe India. First, the economy is not focused on how to get things done with the least effort. Maximizing effort is another side to the whole issue about employment. The focus is not on production, it is on employment. Because so much of the effort is totally pointless and wasteful, we don’t have sufficient production. Another way of stating “less production” is “more poverty”. We are poor because we don’t produce enough because we are busy doing things which could easily be avoided.

The second, the people in India have not paid sufficient attention to what the Buddha said. The Tathagata was a very sharp guy. He did not become enlightened for nothing. (This ‘nothing’ is not to be confused with the concept of shunyata or emptiness which is central to Hinduism and Buddhism.) We should heed what the man said. For instance, check out Einstein & Buddha: THE PARALLEL SAYINGS which “is an inspired effort to meet the 21st-century challenge of developing a synthetic world view” according to a reviewer. I close this one with a favorite quote from the Buddha.

Multitudinousness of objects have no reality in themselves but are only seen of the mind and, therefore, are of the nature of maya and a dream.
— Buddha

It’s the Small Stuff, Stupid

An ironic bit of popular wisdom goes

  1. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
  2. It’s all small stuff.

In the context of economic development, I totally agree with the latter bit, but strongly disagree with the former bit. If we don’t sweat the small stuff, we don’t have much hope of managing the big stuff since the big stuff is exactly what arises from an aggregation of all those small bits of stuff.
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The Four Noble Truths

Little drops of water
Little grains sand
Make the mighty ocean
And the beauteous land

I think the time has come to speak of little things. Things that add up like little grains of sand and little drops of water. Individually, they seem irrelevant and inconsequential. But they matter very much in the end.

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Saturday evening plans included meeting friends for drinks at the Cricket Club of India near the Churchgate station. Karthik said it was so close to the station that anyone would be able to tell me. I asked but there was no address he could give me. I arrived at the Churchgate station well on time. Then for the next 25 minutes I tried to get to the Cricket Club of India.

It was not more than 10 minutes walk from the station. But not having an address, I had to rely on asking people. They generally waved in various, often contradictory, directions. Finally, after a couple of mobile calls to Karthik, I arrived about 10 minutes late at the CCI.

It does not take a genius to figure out that without numbers and addresses, it is difficult to locate a place; that it is wasteful and frustrating. It is not as if addresses and numbers are a modern new-fangled invention that requires all sorts of fancy high-tech equipment and massive amounts of capital spending to put in place. Any idiot with half a brain can figure out that without a proper addressing scheme, people waste time and effort needlessly. Yet, I notice the almost universal lack of a rational street addressing in India.

Sure, in business cards you see addresses printed. But it is not an address but rather a description of the general neighborhood. “In front of this, and behind that, and near to the other, and opposite something else, close to the cinema.” The addresses generally run into 4 or 5 lines. Even then you are not likely to find it in a hurry.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This morning, I thought I would call the Confederation of Indian Industries offices in New Delhi. I am invited to speak at their 6th Social Summit Dec 17-19 “National Conference on Corporate Social Responsibility” in Bhopal. It was supposed to be just a simple call to ask for a list of participants.

After over an hour of my time and significant costs in long distance charges, I still don’t have that information. I had no idea of how difficult it was going to be. I dialed the number, it kept ringing and then the phone system finally timed-out. I called again a few minutes later. It was busy. I tried all four listed numbers; they were either busy, or were not answered. I tried again after a while. This time someone answered. They mumbled something, as if they were answering the phone while asleep.

“Hello, is this CII?”

“Yes.”

“I am trying to reach Ms. xyz.”

Without a word of reply, I find myself listening to muzak. It goes on for few minutes. Finally, someone picks up the phone. I could hear the person talking to someone else in their office with the phone off the hook and I was kept waiting. I hung up after a few minutes. After a while, I re-started the whole process. After another 20 minutes, I was finally speaking to someone. Left a message asking for information.

Later in the afternoon, when I still had not heard back from them, I started the whole thing once again. This time I lost my cool. When the operator answered, I said, “Listen to me carefully, and don’t transfer me before you fully comprehend what I am looking for.” Then I carefully explained her job to her.

To cut a long story short, this was not a 2-bit fly-by-night operation I was trying to reach. It was an industry association representing thousands of firms. One would have expected a little bit of professionalism. They don’t even know how to answer the phone. Their shabbiness is astonishingly blatant. Surely, this is no professionally run organization.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The two anecdotes illustrate a larger point that I would like to make. I submit that for India to develop, there has to be a change in our outlook. We need to think very carefully about what exactly the problems are and then think very deeply about what are the appropriate solutions for them.

Economists like to remind people that learning by doing is a very powerful device. If you are at the fore-front of some technology, the only way to learn is by doing and making mistakes and so on. But I believe that if you are not at the cutting-edge, then learning by imitating is the way to go. It does not require a rocket scientist to keep ones eyes open, note very carefully how others have solved a specific problem, and simply copy that solution if it is applicable. That way you don’t have to pay the price of having to discover the solution and yet you get the benefit of having the solution. This is the advantage that can come of being a late-comer. Among siblings, it is often the case that the second born appears to be sharper than the first born because of this learning by imitation.

Development economists often wonder about the so-called convergence hypothesis, that is, developing countries grow faster than developed countries and eventually catch up. One of the factors that governs the rate of growth of an economy is the level of knowledge. Information internalized leads to knowledge. Now these days information is no longer a really big secret: it speeds around the globe at electromagnetic speeds. Why is it then, one wonders, that the poor countries cannot use the information effectively to increase their growth rates and pull themselves out of poverty?

My contention is that merely having knowledge is not enough. The system has to be attuned to make use of that knowledge for it to be useful. In a very broad sense, it is larger ecology of the society that determines whether a give bit of knowledge or technology will be useful in a society or not. The tranfer of knowledge is a much harder problem than the transfer of technology.

In other words, you could very easily import a million PCs and tons of software from some advanced industrialized country. Or you could import the technology and build them locally. Will that have an effect on the growth rate of the economy? Marginally at best. But for real change, you would also have to the way things are perceived. That is a much harder problem to crack. It is harder because it is a soft issue — it deals with people, their belief systems, their emotions, their understanding of who they are, their ambitions and hopes, their fears and insecurities.

I come back to my original position: ICT merely provides the tools. How to effectively use the tools is not part of the software package. That cannot be imported in a box any more than merely stacking books on quantum physics in your living room makes you a physicist.

We have to change our view. Two and a half millennia ago, the historical Buddha Gautama had outlined an Eight-fold Path as the Fourth Noble Truth. While all of them are important, the most important in my opinion is that of Right View. We have to find the right way to view the problems we face. Only then can we take the first steps to fixing them. My fear is that we are too eager to rush in with technological fixes to problems that are primarily sociological.

It is ironical that we have not learnt a lesson that was taught in this land by the Buddha. He was unhappy about something. So first he decided to fully understand what the problem was and state it unequivocally. That was the First Noble Truth, the truth about dukkha. Then he figured out the cause and called it the Second Noble Truth. Then he did what I would call an existence proof, that is show that a solution does indeed exist. That was the Third Noble Truth. Finally, the Fourth Noble Truth with its Eight-fold Path.

The lesson we should have learnt is that of the systematic application of reason to any problem. First, define the problem, then understand the cause, then show that the cause can be eliminated, and then finally outline the solution.

So my advice to all those who are ICT-trigger-happy, think before you fire up the internet browser. The answer may not be there at all.