Friday, June 17, 2011

In the end, the difference between Europe and us is in the quality of people....

There is no point in saying that there is a huge difference between Europe and India. Everyone knows that there is just no comparison between the two. That’s why we all rush out of India whenever we can get a chance to. There is no doubt a huge difference in the quality of infrastructure....and yet, much more than infrastructure, it’s the difference in the quality of people that stands out.

As soon as I landed at the airport in Bombay last night, this became clear. The cabbie I had engaged to pick me up at the airport was sleeping on his watch. Four phone calls to him and he refused to pick up my calls. Just as we were about to hail another cab, something must have woken this man up. So he calls up. Instead of accepting that he had slept off and admitting to his mistake, he lies and says that he had called me four times and I didn’t pick up the call! His cab was dirty, the seats never dusted in the last several months. He honked loudly. He swore at people on the street. His shirt buttons were open and he was smelling lousy. You get the picture! Just a few hours back, the cabbie at Barcelona came sharp at 4.30 am, mouthed some pleasantries, helped place the heavy bags in the cab and professionally went about doing his job. He was dressed smartly, his cab was clean, the radio was working and most importantly, he obeyed all the rules on the road and didn’t honk even once in the 25 km long journey to the airport. I had no choice but to make the comparison as I landed....

Sure, the roads in Europe are much better. The signals work. Everyone else behaves well; so the provocation on the driver is much lesser. Agreed. But, I have seen many narrow streets even in London. I have seen dark alleys in Rome. I have seen big crowds in Barcelona.....none of that makes Europe even a little bit less lovely than it is. The difference is not in the infrastructure alone. The most important difference is that this European driver was definitely much more cultured; probably better educated even. I remember that Economic Times ad of a few years back “One day you are reading the paper; the other day, you are in it”. Much in the same way, this European driver was a mere driver one day; on a different day, he could be a tourist in another country himself. Also notice, how I instinctly said “mere driver”.....that’s how our society is different from theirs. No one in his country would say that of him. There is a pride in the work that he does; something that doesn’t exist here in our society at all.

Usually, there is a financial explanation to better services in Europe. You pay a lot more and hence get a lot better service. Not in this example. I paid 45 euros to this Barcelona cabbie....some Rs 2,500 or so. I paid about Rs 1700 for this Indian cabbie.....frankly, given the kind of service I got, I shouldn’t have been paying even Rs 170.....I tipped the cabbie 5 euros.....I usually tip about 5-7 euros to my driver on late Saturday nights. So really, it’s not the money in this transaction that was responsible for the shoddy service.

What’s true of this cabbie is true of 99% of the people in our country. We are uncouth; in many cases downright rude. We speak loudly. We chew and spit paan, we make aweful sounds from our throats, we shit and urinate on the streets, we honk incessantly, we leave our bathrooms dirty, we stare at people (especially women) and when we are not doing all this (rarely), we are still extremely impolite, arrogant and aggressive. This is true of 99% of our society. Leave out a few PLUs (!) (People like us), and we can make that statement of the rest of our country.

In large measure, it is to do with our 200 years of Brit rule and the thousands of years of inequality and repression of the previous times. Our caste system makes many citizens second and third grade the day they are born. Entire job classes suffer the same fate. Why do we complain about dynasty in our politics.....when we have the rule of dynasty in almost all jobs that exist in our country? A farmer’s son will likely become a farmer; a car cleaner’s, a car cleaner. Unfortunately, while untouchability has disappeared (at least in the urban areas) from the country, this version of untouchability has stayed back. We simply haven’t been able to accept our people as our own.....irrespective of where they come from.

Our education system is pathetic. I read that Spain is accused of having the worst education system amongst the developed world. What about our education system? Do we even care to teach our students basic decency and conduct in our schools? Do we even bother to teach our students basic courtesies? Basic discipline? Or do we just spend time in mugging up syllabus? We all know the answer to that.

There is also this huge difference in the attitudes of people to sharing wealth. I have written about this earlier. Rich people in our country simply refuse to voluntarily part with their wealth even in small doses. They set salaries of their domestic help based on “market forces”; setting it at the lowest possible figure. There is almost a sense of pleasure we get at having negotiated the figure down to as measly a sum as possible....sometimes, it becomes the topic of discussion between friends! We spend thousands of euros buying things for ourselves when we go abroad......yet when it comes to buying something for the driver or the domestic help, we cringe. Distribution of wealth is a serious issue. Many would say that since we have ourselves come out of deprivation only some years back, we are insecure. But in a country that’s growing at 8-9% per annum, why do we have this insecurity? Is anyone in this country really afraid that they will lose their jobs or their annual increment will be less than 15-18%? I think it’s just an excuse....deep down, we practice our caste mentality with respect to our sharing of wealth also. We pay huge margins to wealthy distributors who sell costly goods.....but when it comes to poor people, we squeeze out the last bits. This is the reason why there is some merit in considering a compulsory CSR charge for corporates.....This is also the reason why I hate to call Anna Hazare a Gandhi. In his time, Gandhi often went on hunger strikes against his own people. Would Anna even think of doing that????

The real truth is that we are a hundred years behind Europe in terms of the quality of people. We’ve pretty much caught up in absolute GDP terms......but we have a century to go before we start becoming at least a little polished (in the past I have written it will take three generations for us to see the difference in quality.....and I do still retain that more logical number). Even our GDP needs a qualification. It’s per-cap GDP that matters more than absolute GDP.....given our population size, we will need to be a $50 trillion economy to compare favorably with the developed world. That’s at least a century away! Even that figure will be breached one day.....but whether our minds will become more progressive or not is a certainty that at least I won’t survive to tell.....


  1. I loved the line :yet when it comes to buying something for the driver or the domestic help, we cringe. (i wonder some times, why cannot people take that step).

  2. What worries me Prashant, is that even in a century when the GDP is 50 Trillion odd. Will people realize that there is a better way to behave or will that sort of uncouth and uncivilized conduct become a norm of sorts? - Aditya