Tuesday, February 19, 2013

India: The Quest for A Professional Society

India is exciting. Despite all the gloom and doom, mainly because of the stalled economy and the broken expectations, that pervade the media in London and New York, life is getting better in India. Yes, despite the corruption, the still creaking infrastructure, the never fully completed projects: The life has got better for most people, in absolute terms, and it is getting better. This is one thing I noticed, traveling around Indian cities, after a gap of more than a year. Indeed, one could argue that the life has NOT got better as much as it COULD HAVE BEEN, but the explosion of opportunities is real, the better roads are better than yesterday's, the cinema halls are more glitzy, films are slicker, there is a greater choice of newspapers and TV channels, there are more seats to study engineering and management, and more jobs, than there has ever been.

This is no attempt to hide the failure. We can indeed endlessly talk about wasted opportunities, and indeed there were plenty of them. The political leadership is abysmal, and there is no end in sight as most smart people flee politics. There is a large disenfranchised population which has taken up arms against the Indian state and has been waging war for almost two decades, and this has gotten worse and gone out of hand, primarily because of opportunistic political leadership. But, while the small incremental improvements in urban life hardly makes prime-time news, the confidence of average Indian is noticeable: The opportunities are all real, the ascendancy of middle classes are all real, and the aspirations are all real. 

The real debate, therefore, is not whether India is getting worse - no one seems to think it is - but how to keep moving forward faster. One present and clear danger is the Middle Income Trap, that life gets better for a while but then stops, something that the media fears that India has already got into. Indeed, the costs have become higher, particularly wages and real estate, and some of the backoffice jobs are now being sent to lower cost locations in Indonesia and the Phillipines: This may eventually wipe away India's fabled advantages in services, and cause urban poverty yet again. However, there is no real evidence that this has happened just yet - yes, some jobs have gone to Manila but hardly for reasons of cost - and the magic formula for continued prosperity should be sought elsewhere.

One persistent theme throughout my visit to India was the observation how people are not interested in doing a good job. We may celebrate Jugaad innovation and the resilience that this represents: However, some urban Indians seem to be indulging in Jugaad not because they don't have a choice, but because they can get away with it. There are too many people doing a mediocre job, without pride or ambition. One perceptive policy-maker pointed out to me that most people hate the job they do: The man driving a taxi hates driving a taxi, and wants to have nothing to do with it. A software company boss talked about how programmers do not like to programme, and would rather become managers as quickly as they can. One parent complained to me about his son being a salesman, which he did not consider to be a gentlemanly job. This, rather than the rising costs, may pose a greater danger to India's competitiveness.

I shall argue that India has experienced, in the recent years, a decline of the professions. In the eighties and nineties, even when the economy was stalling, there was great prestige for various professions: The Chartered Accountants ruled supreme, the Lawyers were still respected, the Doctors were well loved and often famous, the teachers were still the gurus. Even the Development Officers of the Life Insurance Corporation, India's state-owned insurance giant, and the officers of state-owned banks, had a professional halo: These were difficult positions to get, it bestowed privileges but also demanded certain responsibility of action. However, the rapid expansion of professions since then had a detrimental effect: Not just the magic of bank career or a Development Officer job is lost, but also the solid traditional professions, the Accountants, the Lawyers, even the Doctors, have lost the reputation of competence and responsibility, somewhat justly. The gurus have surely fallen, just as the academic expansion has reached an unprecedented scale, may be because of that. The free-for-all, Jugaad culture of the last decade lowered the professional prestige and premium, and eroded the incentives to do a good job: This may be Ivan Illich's idyll, but hardly the road to a stable, prosperous, growing society. I shall argue that the greatest threat to India's continued prosperity will come from its weak professional society, and conversely, the guarantee of prosperity lies in professionalising society.

Surely, this is not about another socialist scheme of government bureaucrats and fat-cat businessmen cooking up some evil scheme, though we can't rule out the government and the businesses if a professional society has to emerge. It starts with a consensus about doing a good job, respecting and loving the professions that one is in, an educational endeavour more than anything else. However, this does not happen in isolation, and the other parts of the society, the administration, the businesses, must subscribe to the same values and accept the value of expertise, to create incentive for professionals to emerge. Growing bigger faster is fine, but it can't come at the cost of dilution of professional standards, as it happened in India.

I shall sign off in this note: My visit to India has now ended. I believed that the creation of a professional society is the biggest challenge, and the greatest opportunity, facing the country. There is a lot of conversation about higher education, and a lot of money being spent in vocational education, but without the concerted effort that it takes to create the professions. So, anyone can teach, despite the fact that the government is spending money on training teachers. Instead of creation of new professional classes, marketers, HR practitioners, it is being de-professionalised, with anyone pretending to have marketing experience assuming the teaching and practitioner positions. The professional associations are absent, primarily because of the lack of government patronage: However, there is great demand for professional qualifications from UK, USA or Australia, but often serviced by dubious organisations from these countries who are in it for a quick buck. This is where the efforts of employers and administrators must now be directed, because the waning of professional competence is the surest sign of a long term decline of India, Indian businesses and its people.

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