Chalta Hai India: When ‘It’s ok’ is not OK by author Alpesh Patel is an attempt to look into people’s mind often blamed for the Chalta Hai attitude for the country’s sluggish progress. He tries to find the answer of some genuine questions like can Indians ever shed their Chalta Hai attitude? If yes, then how? And more importantly, how soon?
This book is about why India has a Chalta Hai attitude and he argues that this is what has held the country back from achieving true greatness. Chalta Hai represents attitude like ‘it is ok’, ‘let it be’, ‘this is good enough’, ‘what can I do’,’ I don’t care’. The phrase Chalta Hai reflects traits of complacency, taking shortcuts, accommodating, giving up, resigning or apathy. It makes one wonder if Chalta Hai is one of the main villains responsible for India not growing to true potential and remaining a developing nation for decades.
To do a research on Chalta Hai attitude, he met entrepreneurs, professionals, students, and teachers where debates often got heated and tempers rose. The authors says measuring the prevalence of Chalta Hai in India is not easy because we are a country of contrasts and everything one can say about India, the opposite is also true. For the objectivity of the research, the author chose to focus on broadly three things- the speed at which things change in India, India’s standing versus international benchmarks and the amount of pressure common people exert on demanding change.
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Signs of Chalta Hai never ever leave us in our daily lives. Most of us grew up seeing a garbage heap outside our building, and the filth only grew over the years. Breaking traffic signals, taking wrong turns, parking at wrong places, honking at every opportunity is rampant on Indian roads. The result of this traffic indiscipline is that India tops the list in road accident and related deaths. India’s chaltahai attitude allows us to leave water taps open, bribe liberally, sell fake shoes, leave electric wires open, arrive late for meetings, disrespect agreed deadlines, break queues … the list is long.
Chaltahai strands for ‘isse kaam chalega’, ‘issse accha kyahoga’ (this is the best possible, cannot be bettered) ‘isme kya galat hai’ (it’s ok to do this) ‘galti ho jaati hai’ (pardon the shortcomings) ‘kya kar sakte hain’ (what can one do?) ‘humey kya farak padtha hai’ (it doesn’t affect me, so why should I care?) etcetera.
The British era public works department was formed to build roads. They, however, favored railways because roads were expensive to build and maintain and roads bought no money but railways proved otherwise. In 1951, the length of the Indian road network was 4 lac kms and in 2000, it was 32 lac kms. India added 150 kms of road everyday for five decades that is impressive. When we look at the quality aspect of the roads built, the record is not great. Even today only 53 % of Indian roads are paved, better than Brazil at 14 %, lower than Russia at 80 % and China at 84 %. India has been deploying poor quality roads despite traffic on roads and reliance on roads has been increasing. At the end of 2013, China had 97,335 kms of expressway, the worlds largest of which 12,409 was built in 2012. China has been building expressways at an average of 11 kms per day for the last 25 years. In 2013, potholes in Mumbai peaked at 14,098 and through 2011-2016, the BMC spent Rs 11,000 crores but potholes appear during every monsoon.
Traffic Jam is another bane in cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru, with average commute times varying between one and two hours. India spends 3 % of its GDP on road accidents, higher than what we spend to fight TB, AIDS combined. The fundamental problem is safety is nobody’s baby.
Even with our massive population, our performance in sports has been a mixed bag. Sports administration has not improved in most sports except cricket. India has been slow in professionalizing sports bodies. If we look at Chalta Hai in sports, excellence and winning is 50-50, infrastructure is 50-50, administration, funding, sponsorship, engaging experts are all affected by Chalta Hai. Multiple attempts have been made to revive hockey but failed. When India won the cricket world cup in 1983, the cricket board was bankrupt and the Indian team celebration was help at a Wimpey burger outlet in Piccadilly Circus! Today BCCI is one of the richest bodies in the world.
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In the 1960s Finland changed the education system by making it free, lunches in schools, and supporting children who needed help. In 1950, India has 2.1 lac primary schools; in 2016 we have 15 lacs of them. India added 60 new schools every day for the last 65 years. One of the biggest Chalta Hai attitudes of the school system is the availability of quality teachers. We have 1.7 million untrained teachers in schools today. Around 7.95 lac aspiring teachers failed the basic central teacher eligibility test. In terms of education, the Chalta Hai attitude prevails across the number of schools, quality of schools, teachers, learning quality, government policies etc.
In 1995, McKinsey surveyed 600 Indian executives from 35 major companies. They found that Indians think and argue too much. They are polite but can be over smart. They sound good in interviews but the gap between thought and action is pervasive. The gap between thought and action is so pervasive in India that sometimes it looks despair if weak execution is in fact a deficit of character.
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India ranks first or second in the production of rice, wheat, milk, cotton banana and tea. In 1951, India was producing 17 million liters of milk when the US was producing 53, in 2015-16, India produces, 155 million and the US 96. If the parameter is quality, India does not figure in the top list for most things.
There are 600 television channels in India, highest in the world, but very few of global quality and most of the famous ones are adaptations of international programs like who wants to be a millionaire, Indian idol etc. Developing countries routinely engage specialists to maintain quality and achieve excellence in everything. India is not like that. Producing great quality is linked to having quest for perfection- the ability to have sharp focus on a subject for months or years- till perfection is achieved. There are very few Indian workers who practice the Japanese philosophy “do it right the first time to achieve perfection”.
A jugaadu (a quick fixer) is one who is typically low on skills but innovative, short sighted but motivated, creative but not a perfectionist, a generalist but not a specialist. In 2015, the Uttar Pradesh government floated requirement for the job of a peon. The UP government received 2.3 million applications – 2.2 lakhs from graduates and post graduates and 255 from PhDs. The focus among the workforce in India is often survival in a job rather than taking on a challenge and excelling at it.
A slow and ineffective justice system means that taking any risk to fight corruption to result in an attack on life. Since 2005 when the RTI was launched, a total of 56 activists have lost their lives or have been harassed. India has simultaneous floods and droughts, with 18 % of the world’s population; India has only 4 % of the world’s water! China had a similar water problem but they built 22,000 medium to large sized dams since the 1950s. China accounts for half the dams in the world today. We lack relentless action orientation and just resort to positive thinking (good intent) or taking shortcuts to claim glory.
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India’s aspirations are growing but they are still modest when compared to world standards. The pressure of high aspirations for power and wealth sometimes pushes us to take shortcuts in the form of corruption or cheating. With access to internet and information, Indians are becoming more demanding. One always feels that the government displays Chalta Hai attitude, surprisingly; people and private corporates also display the same Chalta Hai attitude. We are always good at ideation and thinking, but not good at seeing ideas through.