Business Today

Points of light to pools of light

Arun Maira        Print Edition: Jan 6, 2013

Some time ago, when India was Shining, Indian citizens had a vision. They saw a pond with buffaloes wallowing in it, and little children standing around the edge. The buffaloes were the big leaders of the nation - the political netas, ministers, senior bureaucrats, economists, and other experts.

Arun Maira
Arun Maira
The citizens had been counting on them to make things happen for their benefit. But these so called leaders were wallowing in their debates and ego clashes, unable to agree and move together on reforms that would improve health, education, and livelihoods for the waiting children.

But the citizens also saw another vision, once they looked away from politics-related headlines and macroeconomic numbers. It was one of fireflies rising. They saw many individuals, some young and some old, some women and some men, some with little education and some with foreign degrees, some in villages and some in towns, who were making remarkable change happen in their own lives and the lives of the community around them. These fireflies were leaders of change, little points of light, who with their own energy and passion were bringing light into the lives of others too.

These are two contrasting pictures of the different approaches towards bringing about change in India. Big leaders wallowing in a pond on a hot summer day - the 'official', top down approach.

In diverse and democratic India, change for the people can be brought about with the energies of entrepreneurial people around the country

The other, unofficial approach: millions of fireflies rising on a hot summer night creating light amidst darkness. India has many fireflies now - many points of light - showing a way for others to follow. But India's challenges are so vast and time is so short. We must turn points of light into large pools of light. we must 'scale up' the impact of change and with it brighten the India story.

The sputtering of India's economic growth has rung alarm bells for economists and rating agencies. India must attract investments in infrastructure and industry. Though attracted by the potential of India's market, investors are turned off by the difficulties of getting things done in the country.

Projects are stuck in tardy processes of approval and trapped in inter-departmental wrangles. Consequently India remains near the bottom when countries are evaluated for ease of doing business. Very poor coordination among agencies, poor implementation, and leaky delivery systems are also root causes of the unsatisfactory state of India's health education, and other public services.

Three scenarios of the country's progress are described in India's 12th Five Year Plan. In one, called 'Muddling Along', growth in the Plan period averages 6.5 per cent. A persisting political logjam could result in a second, more undesirable scenario with a 'Falling Apart' of the growth story, in which growth falls to five per cent. In the third, the desirable scenario, with alignment amongst stakeholders, 'The Flotilla Advances' and growth accelerates to over nine per cent in some years, averaging over eight per cent in the Plan period.

There is widespread need in India to convert confusion into coordination, contention into collaboration, and intention into implementation. Easier said than done, many say. It is in our culture to be argumentative, they explain.

And democracy makes it difficult to get people to work together, they add. Nevertheless, in a highly diverse as well as democratic country, such as India, consensus is required for all stakeholders to move together, to move forward and do so faster. This consensus cannot be commanded.

We need another mechanism specifically designed to bring people with different perspectives together - to listen to each other, to distil the essence of their shared aspirations for their habitation or their organisation, and adopt the critical principles they will adhere to in the work they must do together.

A model of a process for rapidly improving a nation's capabilities to get things done systematically and democratically is available in the Total Quality Movement (TQM) of Japan. In less than two decades, Japan, which had a reputation for poor quality and low cost products, became the international benchmark of quality in many industries and several of its public services too. The essence of the TQM movement was the deployment, at several levels in many organizations - especially at the 'shop floor' levels but at higher levels too, of simple techniques for systems thinking, cooperative action, and continuous improvement.

Within the 12th Plan there is a description of a similar transformative process to improve capabilities in the country. This process, described as the India Backbone Implementation Network (IBIN), can improve results in many sectors of the economy. The architecture of IBIN is along similar lines as the TQM movement. The experiences of other countries, such as Korea and more recently Malaysia, which have systematically improved capabilities of coordination and implementation, has also been considered while developing IBIN to fit India's conditions.

The tools and techniques that will be deployed by the IBIN movement will be in some respects similar to TQM, but updated and customised for the objectives of IBIN with its emphasis on techniques and tools for collaboration, coordination, and implementation.

India's next decade must be a decade of collaboration and implementation to improve the health and education of its large population, and to rapidly multiply opportunities for better jobs and livelihoods for India's growing millions of young people. In diverse and democratic India, change for the people can be brought about with the energies of entrepreneurial people around the country. Therefore India's strategy for change must multiply the fireflies - the points of light. Let their stories be told to inspire others. But this will not be enough. The strategy for change must also bring people together to collaborate, to combine their energies and resources, and scale up outcomes into large pools of light.

The writer is Member, Planning Commission and author of "Remaking India: One Country, One Destiny"

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