Wishes for a new world – 2/ Imagination & Governance

May 5, 2020
Mahesh Bhat
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Many of my posts on social media on the current situation  have been met with questions such as, “Do you have better solution?” – No I don’t have a solution for this problem other than saying we could planned better, avoided the panic and mitigated the economic devastation. My answer can well be – “I didn’t create the problem? did I?” .. A lot has been written about the current issue, hence I thought of writing a series of essays on what a future would look for. Not because a pandemic has hit us, but we must create a better world. This is the second in the series.

Social media debates have been raging between supporters of the central government and critiques. The former argues that the central government has handled the current crisis well and says that the latter has to find holes in everything the government does and that they have no positive words about the government, which indeed is doing a good job. While the critiques keep saying that the government wasn’t prepared for the looming pandemic and when it hit us, scurried about an made several blunders – hurried decisions taken without much thought (they didn’t have time to think) and reversed when there was a large hue and cry by the media and people, causing endless stream of confusion.

I fall in the second group, though I do have positive words about things well done. E.g.: I am happy about the actions taken by the CM of Karnataka when Islamophobia became far too much in the media and minds of people. He met the religious leaders, took them into confidence and warned of stern actions on people who were spreading communal hatred and or fake news.

Well, coming back to the the pow wow between the two groups – let me offer an explanation. Before I venture into the hazardous waters, let me also say that I have worked interacted with politicians, worked with bureaucrats and other government officers on issues relating to environment over the years. I know how governments and departments work and how the ‘system’ thinks and acts.

There is a serious lack of talent in the government and the various departments. Most of the bureaucrats who drive policy lack imagination. Vijayanatha Shenoy, the founder of Heritage Village, once told me about a delegation from the department of Culture who had visited him. They had gone to his Heritage Village in Manipal to figure out if they can replicate the model elsewhere in the state. ..”They won’t be able to do anything” he told me later.. “One needs to a dreamer, these people have no such abilities” (“ಮನುಷ್ಯನಿಗೆ ಕನಸು ಕಾಣುವ ಶಕ್ತಿ ಇರ್ಬೇಕು, ಇವ್ರಿಗೆ ಎಂಥದ್ದೂ ಇಲ್ಲ“) he added rather dismissively. He was right. I have sat in front of civil servants and heard them say things so shocking that made me wonder what were they doing in that department. They didn’t have the faculties to see things obvious or they just didn’t want to. Well, situation hasn’t changed at all.

The lack of imagination and the ability to think critically played out in the 90s and the first decade of the 21st century in Bangalore. I wrote in my essay, ‘Whose City Is it’ in the book Bengaluru/Bangalore – In First Person Singular (2012) “Our politicians forgot the arts too. Political and business leaders dreamed aloud of converting Bangalore into a Singapore. They said they would bring wide roads, flyovers, tech parks, air conditioned malls and more to Bangalore. And people applauded. No one seemed to understand that Bangalore needed to be Bangalore and not Singapore or Beijing.” The ill conceived thoughts, plans and the resultant mad growth is the reason why Bangalore is a mess today.

Governments need top minds to work – after all they make laws, policy and implement them. Look at our ministers and the kind of statements they make. Would you have employed them in your organisation?

However let me also say with confidence that about 25% of the (this number is not backed up by any study, it’s just a hunch) politicians, civil servants and other government officers/workers don’t fall into the above mentioned category. They really don’t fit into the system. But, they are the sincere, smart and talented lot. They are there to make a difference. And they do make a difference and run our country.
I would salute Murli Manohar Joshi for bringing in a stellar programme like Kishore Vygyanik Protsahan Yojana (KVPY), Jairam Ramesh for protecting the environment when he was the minister of Environm & Forests, Indira Gandhi for Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, P V Narasimha Rao for bringing in Manmohan Singh into the government, Atal Bihari Vajapeyi for making Arun Shourie minister. Among civil servants, our own Captain Manivannan comes to mind. He has transformed all the departments he was asked to head. Transformation of BESCOM into a wonderful customer centric organisation is a shining example. Sadly his successor was unable to match up to the high standards set and BESCOM has since slid down to an unresponsive public utility.

Lack of the ability to think critically, conceptually, developing the ability to empathise, to see beyond the surface are some of the qualities needed to be ministers and civil servants. Sadly we lack these abilities. Then we have the ‘squelchers’ – this name was give to people who divert and derail human creative energy, posing roadblocks, acting as gatekeepers and saying ‘No’ to new ideas, regardless of the merit, by urbanist Jane Jacobs. We have multitude of squelchers in our governments. This is evident in our policies and implementation. Thoughtless decisions followed by U turns and U turns. Our district administrations are supposed to have  ‘disaster management’ plans. Many of them are available online. If you read them you’ll know that they are nothing but ‘copy-paste’ jobs. We have not had a ‘pandemic’ plan at all.

All of the above addition to the inability to listen to the people on the ground have lead to the current mess we find ourselves in Covid-19 or not.

The root of the problem lies in our education system. I will explore that in my next blog post.

Many organisations, governments and individuals spend most of their time in doing things that are important and urgent – aka fire fighting. We have to move to the quadrant of important but not urgent. That’s when we will start working towards helping ourselves.

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