Author Archives: Rajan Parulekar

About Rajan Parulekar

I write on different topics like management, book reviews, human behaviour etc. The main objective is to provide a different viewpoint on the conventional topics.

The Ikea Effect – Customer as a Co-Creator of Value

Recently the Swedish Furniture giant IKEA opened its Bangalore store spread over 12 acres at Nagasandra in Bangalore. There was such an overwhelming response that people had to wait for three hours to get an entry. IKEA, a Swedish MNC is a $47Bn company with 458 stores in 50 countries with  225,000 staff. 

The business model of IKEA is  to make affordable and contemporary furniture on a global scale. The pain points in the existing furniture market were:

  1. Traditionally packed furniture was prone to damage during transit.
  2. The cost of transportation was high.

IKEA developed  a flat packaging mechanism. The flat boxes reduced storage space and thus the transport cost. Its target segment were the price sensitive customers.

With DIY ( do-it-yourself)  kits, IKEA helped the customers to assemble their own furniture, eliminated the intermediaries like wholesalers, retailer and thus involved the end customer directly in the value chain. It also decided to manufacture standardized products keeping in the cultural context.

The company takes care in understanding the customer needs.  E.g. ‘Kurs’ was a small bedside table with a drawer. The product did not succeed in the US even though it had a major success in the European market. The market intelligence revealed that shallow drawers with plastic slides was one of the major deterrents. IKEA reworked the design with deep drawers and  non-plastic slides. After 4 years it was a top selling product in the US.

Along with the  furniture kits, the customers are provided with  tape measures, shopping list, pencil and a writing pad. Pick up vans and mini trucks are also arranged for the last mile connectivity. 

What does Ikea do to attract customers?

  1. The company has  built  large stores where you can leave your kids for play activities.
  2. The stores are lit through electricity 24/7 without access to sunlight, a trick borrowed from Casinos; the clocks are either fake or do not tell the right time. – you lose your sense of time  and unknowingly buy more.
  3. The stores are designed in such a way that you only follow one direction you walk from one end to the other.
  4. It puts arrows on the floor to complement the maze layout of the stores. – you need not think where to go next – just follow the arrows.
  5. Impulse Buying: Placing bedsheets next to the beds, pillows next to the sofa persuades the customer in impulse buying. The customer says, “let me buy it now else I have to come once again. “
  6. 30% shoppers go there to eat. In 2017 IKEA made $2.24 Bn on selling food.
  7. Most of the stores are  located outside the city limits. Apart from getting large parcels of land at economical prices for constructing large stores, the customers also tend to think that they need to make their trip worth it. The commitment to buy make them justify the time and petrol spent. This is a cognitive bias called as sunk cost fallacy.
  8. After waiting in a long queue, a customer buys a table, goes home, assembles it;  puts it on facebook showing the efforts he has taken thus giving free publicity to Ikea. Incidentally Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, Daniel Mochon of Yale and Dan Ariely of Duke University have identified a cognitive bias called as Ikea effect where consumers place a disproportionately high value on the product they have partially created. In an experiment conducted in 2011, a group of participants were asked to assemble the Ikea furniture whereas others were shown the pre-built version of the same furniture. The subjects from group 1 ( assembled by self)  rated the price 63% higher than the group2 ( readymade)

Some of the reasons people who do self-assembly are:

  • They feel competent
  • Display the evidence that they are competent.
  • A perception of saving money and thus being a smart shopper.

            As a seller,  you can learn how Ikea has changed the paradigm of customers from recipients of value to co-creators of value. As a buyer, beware of the traps!

Blindspot and Bias

The opening slides in my Value-Selling program read as follows:
The main objective of the program is to help you improve the Top-Line and Bottom-Line performance. When the training program commenced the conversation between the trainer and the participants used to be on the following lines:
T: Is the objective clear?
P: Yes.
T: Do you need any clarification?
P: No.
T: Can I go to the next slide?
P: Yes please.
As I was getting similar responses from different batches, a few programs later, I decided to check my assumptions and asked the group:
“By the way, what do the two terms mean to you?” and most of the responses ( barring a few correct ones) were as follows:
Top-Line : meeting the top boss, closing the order, profits etc.
Bottom-Line: making a cold call, meeting a purchase executive, handling objections, achieving the targets etc.
With a simple profit-and-loss statement, the discrepancy between their response and the right answer was shown. When asked about the learning from the exercise, the response was that the top-line and bottom-line correspond to revenue and profitability respectively.

Welcome to the world of human biases, which are distinctive patterns of errors people make which are systematic in nature, wherein people may be confident even when they are wrong. The above example shows that people were not only blind to a specific concept ( top/bottom line) but were blind to their blindness too. (None of them said, I do not know)

A Chennai based petrochemicals company had set an objective to achieve a top-line of Rs. 500 crores within the next five years from the existing revenue of Rs. 62 crores in 2008.
When asked, the promoters replied that they have a basket of great products, competitive pricing, good location and a rising demand. What they did not factor were poor leadership quality (lack of trust and transparency, frequent squabbles between the CEO and MD,) high attrition rate, lack of proper systems and processes etc. External factors like the market dynamics, petroleum pricing, competition strategy etc were assumed to remain constant or were not considered while setting such a target. The company which had clocked Rs. 62 crores in 2008 managed to reach around Rs 115 crores by 2015 . As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in Black Swan, ‘what you do not know is more significant than what you know.’

Till the 70s, it was assumed that human beings are rational animals who become irrational only under the influence of emotions like anger, fear. The subsequent research in neuroscience and psychology has proved otherwise. Irrationality is an integral part of human nature and is due to the inherent design of the human cognitive processes.

Another bias which affects decision making is the Illusion of Understanding; a variation of which is Illusion of Explanatory Depth–IOED which was coined by Leonid Rosenblatt and Frank Keil.
The illusion of explanatory depth (IOED) is the belief that we know more about the world than we do. When we are asked to explain the concept, then we become aware of our limited understanding.
Fact or process knowledge has a discrete end and can thus be described. Explanatory knowledge which is about opinions and beliefs does not have a discrete end and is difficult to explain. The interesting part is even if your explanation is not sound or comprehensive you feel you understand. You convert a target question ( difficult) to a heuristic ( easy ) question.
During one of our training programs, Pradip, a die-hard Modi Bhakt made a statement: Modi is a great leader. When asked to explain the concept he said, “ because he has many followers.”
T: Are you aware of the numbers?
P: It must be at least in crores; it is difficult to state.
T: A celebrity like a cricketer or a Bollywood hero also has followers in crores. Does it make them great leaders?
P:Forget that. He has performed well in short term and long -term.
T: What is your definition of short-term and term?
P: It can be one year and five years.
T: Did Modi get that time?
P: Yes
T: What are the indicators of performance, and do they indicate a good growth of economy?
P: Frankly speaking, I do not know.
The above is not only relevant for die-hard followers but also for bashers. Taking the converse of a statement, Modi is not a good leader, the basher may also be short of arguments after similar probing. The hatred and the polarization that is happening in the society can be reduced if we can get stumped by the level of our ignorance.

Generally, it is felt that passionate people are more knowledgeable, but the converse may be also true. Passionate people who take a vehement stand on issues like CAA/NRC, Rights of Minorities, LGBTQ, Religious Freedom, abortion etc. tend to focus on only one side of the coin which is essentially to prove a point rather than explore the truth. IOED states that knowledge of a subject might be inversely proportional to your passion and the stand you take. It is easy to state a fact or a process than explaining something in depth.

There is a thin line of demarcation between confidence and hubris. In the world of VUCA ( Volatility, Uncertainty, Ambiguity and Complexity) humility is more important than hubris.
I recollect my interaction with Narayanan, an eminent trainer from Chennai. I enquired about one of his public programs. “By the way, how did it go?” He said, “the program had to be cancelled due to poor response.” What might be the reason? He said, “frankly speaking I do not know. If someone were to ask me a question for a similar situation 20 years back; I would have confidently said the problem has to do with the timing, location, pricing etc. But today being in this field for so long; I do not know why some events succeed and some do not. However, such setbacks do not deter me, it is all a question of randomness which one must factor in life.”

Socrates made a clear distinction between knowledge and wisdom. A knowledgeable person maybe knowing things; however, he may act foolish as he may be too confident in what he knows. A wise person, on the contrary, cannot act foolish as he knows his limitations. He knows what he does not know.
Socrates said, “the one thing I know is that I know nothing.” This was not out of humility, but it was an expression of reality.

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Abraham Lincoln had no choice but to sack one of his army generals for losing a battle during the Civil war for his sheer stupidity when victory seemed almost certain. In his witty style Lincoln said, “He has managed to wring a spectacular defeat from the jaws of victory.”

Congress was the ruling party in Punjab with 77 out of 117 seats under the CM Amarinder Singh. The alliance of BJP and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) had 21 seats.

The alliance partner SAD parted ways with the BJP for the latter’s high-handed approach in dealing with its allies. Moreover, discontent was brewing  for long in Punjab due to the farmers’ protests, the bulldozing of the farm-laws in the parliament by the government, the  sudden lockdown during the pandemic which forced untold miseries  on the migrant workers.

Considering the weak opposition, victory was on the platter for the congress. No doubt, Captain Singh had his follies, he was not accessible there was discontent brewing in the party. But it could have been resolved amicably. But Rahul Gandhi thought otherwise. Navjot Singh Sidhu was thrust upon the state leadership. Captain Singh was replaced by a Charan Singh Channi who did not have much following in the state politics. And AAP created history taking its tally from 18 seats to a record of 92 seats. Is this an isolated instance of stupidity on part of Rahul Gandhi? (1)

In 2004, Manmohan Singh took over as the PM leading the UPA-1.Having completed his first term as the PM, the nation was ready for the Lok Sabha elections in 2009. What were his achievements?

From 2004-2009 the economy logged a growth of 9%, the highest rate for any plan period since independence. He stood up to the manipulations of the Left and the opposition in signing the Nuclear Deal between India and the US.

Despite these splendid achievements, the party high command had doubts of winning the election. Manmohan Singh’s photo was printed on the Election manifesto as well as on the election posters. If the party were to lose, it was the PM’s defeat. Incidentally, a Senior political journalist while speaking to Ahmed Patel confided that Rahul Gandhi was ready to be the leader of the opposition and be the agent of Change and differentiate from Dr. Manmohan Singh (2)

Lo Behold! After 1962,  Dr. Manmohan Singh had become the first PM to have been re-elected with an improved margin. Congress improved the tally of LS seats from 145 to 206. ( 9 more than what Rajiv Gandhi had achieved in 1989)

But then how was this Star Performer treated by the ‘family’? Was he given a free hand to choose his team members? For example, for the finance portfolio, Dr. Singh wanted to  induct C. Rangarajan, the former RBI governor with whom he had battled the BoP ( Balance of Payment) Crisis during the Narasimha Rao regime. Sonia Gandhi offered the portfolio to Pranab Mukherjee without consulting him. Incidentally, Pranab Mukherjee was the ‘architect’ of the retrospective tax regime ( the Vodafone case of Rs. 22,100 crores on Capital Gains and Withholding Tax which the GOI lost in the International Court at the Hague)  which was one of the factors of slowing down of India’s economy  growth rate. It also impacted India’s credibility in the international business (3)

By the time the Lok Sabha elections for 1996 were announced, the P.V. Narasimha Rao-led Government  formed by Congress had delivered one of the most  spectacular performances in a 5-year period then. India was able to overcome the BoP ( Balance of Payments)  crises. ( The foreign exchange reserves rose 12 times from 1991 to 1996) License Raj was abolished, the New Industrial Policy was launched, the insurance and the banking sector was opened to the private sector and the new telecom policy was to usher in the mobile revolution. In fact,1991 is termed as a watershed year, also called as India’s 2nd Independence.

But did the Star Performer who was responsible for delivering such an outstanding performance suitably rewarded? Forget being rewarded or being acknowledged, P.V. Narasimha Rao was humiliated not only when he was alive but even after his death. But did the Congress party or Rahul Gandhi win? Congress lost power despite the best performance delivered by the Rao Government. ( A forgotten Hero or a Ungrateful Nation?)

The three incidents discussed above prove the adage that insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results!

There are different approaches in helping the non-performing executives in improve  their deliverables which include coaching, mentoring, reprimanding or if nothing works, the dismissal. But then how do you deal with  star performers who are already doing well and need no interference? The cost involved when such a Star is demotivated increases exponentially when one is heading a department, an organization, or the nation. In the last instance, the damage is humongous. The article is not about Rahul Gandhi and his personality per se. but more about the orientation of a toxic leader. I come across a common refrain in my mentoring sessions that people do not change the organization but their bosses.

Do  toxic leaders like star performers? The question is not about liking and needs reframing. Can toxic leaders manage the star performers? I doubt as they are afraid of being surpassed by their subordinates which might be due to a deep insecurity and a trust deficit which increases in direct proportion to the subordinate’s achievement.

A concept called Wu-Wei can be helpful for effective leaders particularly in managing the star performers. Wu-Wei is loosely translated as ‘letting-go’ as followed in Tao-Te-Ching which denotes :

  1. An attitude of genuine NON-ACTION motivated by a lack of desire to participate in human affairs.
  2. A technique by which the practitioner may get a subtle control in pushing the envelope.

Some of you might have collaborated with good bosses  who practised wu-wei can consider yourself to be lucky. And those, the less fortunate (?)  in getting the toxic bosses- were you able to realize your potential by moving elsewhere or venturing on your own?

References:

  1. The art of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory – Capt. G.R. Gopinath ( Retd.) , Deccan Herald, 16th March 2022
  2. The Accidental Prime Minister- Sanjay Baru
  3. The Lost Decade ( 2008-2018), How India’s Growth Story devolved into Growth without a Story – Pooja Mehra

Why market pulse is more critical than a superior product design?

In the early 90s, Airbus and Boeing,  the two major players in commercial aircrafts decided to come together to manufacture Very Large Commercial Transport ( VLCT). Later on both the competitors parted ways as their business strategy could not synergize. Ultimately in 1994 Airbus decided to go solo on this venture and the project was codenamed A3XX. And thus the first flight of A380, the largest commercial aircraft happened in 2007 which is a double-deck, wide body 4-engine aircraft with 6000 square feet of usable space, 40% more space than its nearest rival product Boeing B747-8. A380 could accommodate 500 seats in 3-class capacity (Economy, Business and First Class) or 850 in an all-economy class.

With several delays the project cost escalated from the initial 9 billion to 13 billion Euros.

Product Pricing and Positioning: The A380 had a seating capacity which was 5 times the Airbus A320 Neo but the price point was 4X . The List price of A 380 was $430 Million whereas A320 was $107 Million.  The product was received well after its launch. However in the last few years the customers, the airline companies are either cancelling the orders or postponing the delivery dates. The peak production which was at 30 aircrafts per year has dwindled to 12 per annum.

In spite of excellent product features, good quality (50% quieter than competition product) and the right price, why did Airbus started losing on the business for A380?  The anticipated exponential growth in passenger traffic from hub-to–hub was the cornerstone on which Airbus decided to make A380. Hub-to-hub traffic for Air India is like New Delhi–London, for Singapore Airlines it can be from Singapore to Dubai or Frankfurt etc. One aspect that was overlooked was that of the point-to-point traffic. When the traffic between two points crosses a minimum threshold, airlines can afford to have small or midsized aircrafts which is more economical than transferring through the hub.

Even though the air traffic grew considerably; instead of it growing from hub-to-hub it started increasing from point-to-point. For example 10 years back, Air India used to  have seven flights from Delhi to London and passengers were picked up from Hyderabad, Bangalore etc. Now all this airport being choc-a –block, it makes better business sense for airline companies to transport passengers directly from Bangalore to Cardiff/Manchester rather than routing through them hubs like Delhi and London. What is the learning for Sr. management from these?

  1. A technically superior product with better specifications even though necessary is not sufficient for long-term success.
  2. Appropriate price positioning even though crucial need not be a game changer.
  3. Factor X: Identify the factor x which is insignificant today but can become significant in future (that is generally overlooked) which can seriously affect your business strategy. ( In this case it was the point-to-point traffic) In case of Nano car, legend says that Shri Ratan Tata while doodling decided to launch a cheap car while seeing a family of four on a scooter. One factor which was overlooked was for majority of the Indians having a  car was more of an aspiration and a status symbol ( emotional decision) than a cheap car as a mode of safe and convenient transport.(logical decision)  Doodling can sometimes be an expensive proposition!

And last but not the least, there is nothing called as a right or wrong decision. All decisions are evaluated in posterity. Time is the best judge!

Nassim Nicholas Taleb author of books like Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness or Anti _Fragile says for most of us absence of evidence is interpreted as evidence of absence (Please read the book review: Anti –Fragile: How to Live in a world we don’t Understand) http://www.paradigm-info.com/recommended-books) Be Humble!

(Source:  Bigger is not Always Better, Business Line November 30, 2016 by K. Giriprakash)

 

Should You address your customer as Sir/Madam?

“Sir, do you have any requirement of centrifuges?” Said Biswas during  one of the role-plays in our Value-Selling Programs. My partner, Ramiah Daniels and I have been  questioning this habit of sales and service people addressing customers as Sir/Madam (rather than by the latter’s name) for quite a while. The common justifications provided by the participants are:

  1. Customer feels respected.
  2. Easy to build rapport during client interaction.
  3. Customer has to be treated like God.

Can we question  the veracity of the above statements?

As indicated in the figure, the behaviour displayed that is visible is like the tip of the iceberg. What might be the attitude, belief or paradigm underneath ( and thus invisible) such words?

  1. Legacy of the colonial mindset: On similar lines, It was customary to address the judge as My Lord by the lawyers, the practise which has been slowly dispensed with.
  2. Shift in Power structure: As a salesperson when you address the other person as Sir/Madam, you are handing the control to the other person by putting him/her on a pedestal.
  3. NLP Perspective: The basic premise of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, NLP is your body physiology ( neural system -N  which include your posture, breathing rate and the way – shallow, normal, or deep, eye contact, the skin resistance etc.) is determined by thoughts/belief system and by  the words ( Linguistic – L ) you use. The NEURAL affects the LINGUISTIC and vice versa. Both simultaneously run a specific behaviour pattern which becomes your dominant behaviour which is the programming (P). The eye contact is evasive; the voice tone being less confident, displays the obsequious and the servile approach of the salesperson. Is it fair enough to assume that by  addressing someone as Sir/Madam by default, the salesperson has already lost half the battle?
  4. Less Effort: When you address someone as Sir/madam; the salesperson  does not have to take any effort in asking as well as remembering the full name of the customer.
  5. Low Self Esteem: The salesperson feels he/she is the prime beneficiary in a business  transaction by collecting the order, which in turn helps him in reaching the sales targets leading to a low self-esteem.

If the customer were to be  God, does he behave the same way while negotiating hard on the price and the payment terms?

Is there a better way of addressing the customer  by his name? The conventional norm is either prefix Mister with the Surname, or address by the first name. For example, while meeting a prospect say, Ramiah Daniels, you may say, “would you prefer to be addressed as Mr. Daniels, or Ramiah?” I doubt  the customer says, ”you better address me as Sir.”

There are several advantages when you address the customer by name:

  1. Confident Behaviour: Your body language, eye contact evokes confidence. Your handshake is firm.
  2. Respect from the Customer: The customer reciprocates with  similar respect to the salesperson.
  3. Improved Customer Engagement: You may be able to connect with the customer when you listen to his full name carefully. Almost a decade back, I was having a meeting with one Mr. Reginald Borges who was the GM at APW president then.  When enquired about his relationship with Dr. Ernest Borges he said, “ Happens to  be my distant uncle.” Incidentally Dr. Ernest Borges was a renowned  cancer surgeon at the Tata Memorial Hospital in whose memory a road ( at the beginning of a 2-km stretch in Parel) has been named.
  4. Higher Self-Esteem: Remember, in any business transaction, the customer also enjoys the benefits of the products over a long duration which can help a salesperson raise his  self-esteem.

Is there  anything wrong in addressing someone as Sir? Not at all- if you are meeting someone reverential, exceptionally talented or to whom you have great admiration and respect, please follow your natural instincts.

Barring the above exceptions, is it possible to inculcate  the Ritz Carlton philosophy while interacting with regular customers:  ‘Ladies and Gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen?’

P.S.To explore more such learning insights visit: Value-Selling for Premium Products and Solutions commencing on 11th January 2022

The Metaphor of Bicycle Thieves

Cycle, a Marathi film, is a story that unfolds in Bhugaon, a village in Konkan, Maharashtra, circa 1948. The protagonist is Keshav who is an astrologer whom people consulted mostly in times of distress. Keshav provided guidance about his client’s future by studying his horoscope. Quite often if the client were to be in financial distress, Keshav not only used to offer his services pro-bono but also partake of a meal with them. Being a kind and noble soul, Keshav had earned respect and goodwill in his community.

His grandfather, Gopalkrishna was an Ayurvedic doctor who was equally respected for medication and treatment of his patients. A British army officer, one such beneficiary of the doctor’s treatment; gifted Gopalkrishna his cycle while leaving India. Gopalkrishna during his final days bequeathed the cycle, distinct in its bright yellow colour, to his grandson Keshav, the protagonist of the story. 

The imported cycle was a rarity in Bhugaon, and Keshav was proud and possessive of it. Once when Keshav and his family go to watch a Marathi play, his cycle is stolen by two petty thieves, Vitthal and Tukaram. The next day, while riding in the adjoining village, the cycle develops a flat tyre. They go to the puncture shop for repairs, the shop owner recognizes the cycle and its original owner. To avoid any confusion, the thieves claim they are Keshav’s cousins and Keshav has lent the bicycle to them for a few days. Believing them, the shop owner refuses to take any fees for the repairs. On the contrary, he hands over ₹6 to the ‘cousins’ which he owed Keshav. Wherever these two thieves go, they were treated with exceptional hospitality, whether with meals, tea/coffee, or even with an overnight stay. At a school, they were invited as the chief guests, to deliver a motivational address to the students. With each passing day and with such touching incidents their conscience starts pricking. Initially, it was the fear of getting caught; but now it was the affection and love triggering guilt and shame.

In the meanwhile, Keshav was stricken with grief. The only thought which haunted him was why did he lose the cycle and how he can recover it. His wife entreats him to consult an astrologer who says, “Keshav, do you really feel I can tell you the whereabouts of your stolen cycle? People do not expect to hear the truth, but need consolation and encouragement about a brighter tomorrow when they seek counsel from an astrologer.”

While returning home, Keshav realized his approach as a soothsayer with his clients was no different. More than an astrologer, he was a psychologist, a counsellor telling people with encouraging advice like: this time is not right for youthis too shall pass, don’t get emotionally involved with things, do your best and leave the rest, handover your burden to the Almighty, he will take care of you, etc. 

Lost in his thoughts he came across a ramshackle house, walls cracked, valuables scattered all over and the rooftop blown over by a cyclone. To his surprise, he found the house owner quite composed. When Keshav enquires about the tragedy, the house owner says, “Last year when I was going through difficult times; I came to you for guidance, I still remember what you said then, don’t get stuck with things.” It was a moment of revelation for Keshav and his attachment towards his cycle. As a Zen master says ‘when my hut got burnt, I had a clear picture of the moon.’

Bicycle Thief by Vittorio Di Sica was released in 1948. Italy had gone through severe hardship post World War II and was plagued by recession, inflation, and a high rate of unemployment. The protagonist of the film is Antonio Ritchie, an unemployed youth for the last two years. After considerable struggle, he manages to get a job to paste cinema posters on poles and walls. Having a bicycle was a prime requisite for the job. Antonio manages to convince his quarrelsome but loving wife Maria to sell the bedsheets she received as a gift during their marriage, in order to purchase the bicycle. Now Antonio is all set to start his job with a bang. Within a short time, on the very first day itself, his bicycle gets stolen. Antonio is frustrated, runs from pillar to post, at last manages to trace his bicycle and nab the thief. However, nobody believes him, neither the people around, nor the police. And, for lack of evidence, Antonio is not able to regain his bicycle.

As he was walking along with Bruno, his 8-year-old son, he sees a bicycle parked alongside a wall. Antonio’s instincts get the better of him, and he attempts to steal it. To his misfortune, he gets caught and is given a sound thrashing. Bruno intervenes and saves his father from the matter getting worse. More than the thrashing, Antonio is hurt that he has cut a sorry figure before his son. On that fateful day, having lost his job, his bicycle, and his self-esteem before his son, Antonio was in total despair while returning home. Bruno while following his dad, picks up his father’s crumpled hat lying on the road; cleans and straightens it, and with a smile puts it on his father. 

Even though Bicycle Thieves by Sica was made in 1948, and Prakash Kunte’s Cycle in 2017, both films depict life in the late 40s. Italy went through the ravages of World War II, whereas India did not. The thief who stole Antonio’s cycle may have had his own compulsion, like Antonio who tried following suit.

The act of stealing a bicycle is shown from a different perspective, of how attachment to worldly things creates pain, of the pricking of their conscience, that makes Vitthal and Tukaram return the bicycle back in the village, even though not required. Keshav realizes his faith in the Almighty. He returns home with his retrieved bicycle, and he now keeps it afar. In his courtyard, he sees another bicycle. His family members and friends congratulate him for recovering the cycle. While touching the mudguard, he sees the yellow paint is wet. Everyone wants Keshav to be happy. The bicycle was just an excuse to make him happy.

One film discusses the inherent goodness, while the other is about the helplessness of people, which may be an outcome of their prevailing circumstances. Can we be judgemental about what is right and what is wrong? In a way, it is a story for all of us, where someone steals our idea or improves upon our original idea and does not give us credit for the original. In between black and white, there are multiple shades of grey. If you steal from one source, it is theft; if you steal from multiple sources, it is plagiarism or research. ‘Bicycle’ is just a metaphor!

Note:

  1. Bicycle Thieves: Is a 1948 Italian neorealist film directed by Vittoria De Sica. Considered as one of the Top 10 All-Time great films; it had  a major influence on Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
  2. Cycle: Is a 2018 Marathi film directed by Prakash Kunte written by Aditi Moghe and produced by Sangram Surve and Amar Pandit and was screened at Cannes Film Festival

Image Source: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/c5/6e/be/c56ebed6c368d900b30bded63548280e.gif

Socratic Method of Inquiry: The Difference between Knowledge and Wisdom

Socrates was a Greek philosopher (470BC-399BC) in Athens. He did not author any texts, but his disciple, Plato captured his thoughts in the Dialogue

The Socratic method of inquiry was a method of deep questioning which he used to have with his students on topics like beauty, justice, virtue, etc. He never gave direct answers to his questions but expected his students to figure out their own answers. 

Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens, worshipping false gods, and not worshipping the state religion. A 100-member jury was arranged to pass a verdict on his crimes. After a day-long trial, he was convicted and sentenced to death by administering hemlock, a poison. Socrates was told that he could be pardoned, provided he expressed an apology for his deeds. However, he refused to beg for his life on the following grounds:

– This is my life.

– If I had to stop doing what I am doing, I might as well stop living.

– Who knows? Death may not be so bad, as I have no idea of death.

– I am 71 and may not live much longer.

The Oracle of Delphi has delivered hundred-odd injunctions, inscribed on the temple walls, which include: ‘nothing in excess’ and ‘know thyself.’ One of the famous quotes ascribed to Socrates is: ‘An unexamined life is not worth living.’

How is this relevant to us? Most of the decisions; be it the type of education, the place to settle, the choice of spouse or career, are often not taken consciously but are either dictated by parents, society, or the circumstances. When we review the decisions, it inspires us to reconsider our most firmly held beliefs. It may also help us to appreciate other’s viewpoints. 

Circa 1975, a British Manager from GKW (Guest Keen Williams) was visiting a premier Engineering and Research Institute in Bombay (now Mumbai) to interview and select Graduate Engineer Trainees (GETs). Seven candidates from the metallurgy dept were shortlisted. For the group discussion (GD), the topic was the future of cricket in India. The GD was quite animated, the students striking off each other’s arguments with ease. After the GD was over, the interviews commenced. The manager asked the first candidate, “how much phosphorous is there in phosphor-bronze?” The student thought for a few seconds and replied it was 25%. “That is the correct answer. Thank you very much. Can you send the next candidate please?” requested the manager. After coming out, his friends asked him about the interview. The candidate replied that not only was the question a simple one, but by fluke, the answer of 25%, had turned out correct. 

The second candidate was called in and was asked the same question. Lo and behold, the student answered with the same aplomb. After leaving the interview room, the students ridiculed the interviewer for his inadequacy in not asking tough questions, vis-à-vis the IQ level of the students and the brand of their institute.

The story continued in a similar fashion for all of the seven candidates. After the interviews were over, the manager called all the candidates inside and said, “young men, during the group discussion, you were vehemently proposing your viewpoint without either considering or listening to the others’ viewpoint. Our company believes in teamwork. You belong to one of India’s premium engineering colleges. However, even after living with the same group for five years, you do not have any concern for other’s viewpoints. How will you perform in our company with such an attitude? To each of you, I asked a question on phosphor-bronze. You may be knowing a lot of things in life even otherwise. 

However, no person can know and need to know everything. I thought at least one of you would say ‘I do not know.’ Yet, all of you gave me the standard answer of 25%. By the way, phosphor-bronze is a member of the family of copper alloys. It is composed of copper that is alloyed with 0.5-11% of tin and has phosphorous in the range of 0.01-0.35%.I was not expecting a perfect answer, and a closer approximation to the actual value would have sufficed. Even if one amongst you were to express his ignorance, I would have recruited him. I am afraid I am not able to select any of you.”

Socrates made a clear distinction between knowledge and wisdom. A knowledgeable person maybe knowing things; however, he may act foolish as he may be too confident in what he knows. A wise person, on the contrary, cannot act foolish as he knows his limitations. He knows what he does not know. 

Due to his unconventional ways of self-exploration, Socrates was considered a wise man. An elderly gentleman in Athens once said, “no one is wiser than Socrates.” Rather than getting carried away by such flattery, Socrates’ analysis of the above statement was: Either all are as dumb or as knowledgeable as Socrates.

Conventional education aims at stuffing the students’ minds with information; whereas Socrates’ method of deep questioning helps develop critical thinking to question our belief system and assumptions; and so, it helps us understand the statement: ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’ leading towards the wisdom: ‘to know what one does not know.’ 

The profound statement Socrates made was, “the one thing I know is that I know nothing.” This was not out of humility, but it was an expression of reality.

Job, Career or a Calling?

“My daughter nowadays is a bit depressed. Despite doing an M.Sc. in biotechnology, she is not getting a package like her friends in the IT sector,” said my friend Dilip. The approach to work can be described in the following three categories:

  1. Job – People engage in work primarily to earn money. Work is a means to an end.
  2. Career– Apart from money, they are keen to climb the higher echelons in the workplace, get promoted, and achieve higher designations.
  3. Calling – People are driven by the work itself, and work becomes an integral part of their life. Yet, they are not workaholics, and they find fulfilment in work which is an end in itself.

The above approaches lead to three kinds of growth structures:  Logarithmic Growth, Exponential Growth, and Sinusoidal- Exponential growth.

  1. Logarithmic Growth: Here the growth in the initial phase of a job is quite fast, and it slowly reduces over a period of time. When someone joins a job at a very high salary, it may be quite difficult to achieve commensurate growth in the subsequent years.

This is represented by a logarithmic function of 2 where the growth from 1 to 2 years will be similar to the growth from 2-4 years or 4-8 or 8-16 years. ( Fig.1)

2. Exponential Growth: There are some jobs or professions which may not be that attractive initially from a financial perspective, as are jobs in teaching or research. Here the person may have to wait for a long time to see the end of the tunnel. In the article ‘Making of an Expert’ in HBR, Anders Ericsson, Michele Pretula, and Edward Cokely propose that to achieve significant expertise a person needs to spend around 10,000 hours of systematic practise. There are considerable efforts to master the domain and sometimes even to overcome bureaucratic hurdles.  Examples of two eminent engineers are discussed below. ( Fig.2)

How a Chance Encounter with the NCL Director Changed his career:

In 1966, Raghunath Mashelkar completed his B.E. (Chemical Engg.) from the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT), and he had several offers from US and Canadian Universities for post-graduate studies. However, he was impressed with the work of Dr. Manmohan Sharma and decided to do a Ph.D. under him. He completed his Ph. D. in 3 years, and in 1969, with a meagre allowance of ₹10,000 per year, he developed a process of bubble columns which was at one-tenth the cost of international technology. Later, he did some pioneering work in rheology (a branch of physics that deals with deformation and flow of matter) at Salfer Institute. Subsequently, he held a lecturer’s post in Chemical Engineering at a US university.

While in London Velayurthi Nayadumma of National Chemical Laboratories (NCL) called him for a meeting with his director B.D. Tilak and told him the country needed a bright scientist like him. Mashelkar dropped the idea of going to USA and joined NCL, Pune at a Salary of ₹2100.

NCL was doing a consulting project with Indian Organic Chemical Industries Limited (IOCL) Manali, Chennai. IOCL was producing polyester yarn with a bought-out technology from a German Company. IOCL was a given the know-how but not the know-why. The production process, though fast (around 1km/min), was creating intermittent problems. For testing purposes, NCL had applied for a license to import a piece of testing equipment called ‘Weissenberg Rheogoniometer.’  Due to foreign exchange constraints, the proposal was rejected by the government.

Mashelkar and his team devised an innovative way of mathematical modelling and virtual simulation of the production process and IOCL was subsequently able to improve the productivity of its plant.

This simulation technology was not only an alternative but was also considerably cheaper vis-à-vis the conventional technology. Later on, NCL was able to sell this to overseas clients; and the technology flow was reversed. Mashelkar fondly remembers his guide, Dr. Sharma, who used to say, ‘for research, brains are more important than infrastructure.’

Honoured with a Padma Vibhushan, and 44 honorary doctorates, Raghunath Mashelkar was quite influential in revoking US patents on Basmati and Turmeric.

Problem Solving with Available Resources:

After completing his B.E. (Mech.) from VJTI, Anil Kakodkar joined BARC in 1964, as a trainee engineer. He reported to Mr. Subramaniam who said to him, “we have a metallizing gun which has not been used for a long time, and is hence not functional; can you repair it?” Anil said he could and to do so, he asked for a helper, a foreman, and a tradesman. Mr. Subramaniam declined.

The metallizing gun was used for coating aluminium oxide, zirconium oxide, ceramics on desired substrates. After seven days the young engineer was able to make the gun functional. Mr. Subramanian said, “I wanted you to solve the problem by yourself and I am happy you could do it.”

After the nuclear blast in Pokhran in 1974, India became an outcast and could get neither the critical components nor the relevant technology from abroad. Getting even steel tubes from the USA was banned. Under his leadership, BARC developed indigenous technology to overcome the sanctions and thus made India’s peaceful nuclear program a success.

Anil Kakodkar remembers the metallizing gun incident fondly. It helped him develop his passion, and listen to his true calling. He took over as the Director of BARC (1996-2000), and later as the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

The hallmark of exponential growth is that the person works in the same or related domain, and develops exceptional expertise with a steady and systematic career progression.

3. Sinusoidal-Exponential Growth: Unlike the first two growth structures, this type of growth is quite random. When you watch such a person, you may not be able to figure out whether there is a proper career path.( Fig. 3)  An example to illustrate: Rakesh was a student who was at the bottom of the class scoring around 40-45%. After 10th he opted for commerce but had to drop out after the 12th Standard.

Rakesh did a series of sundry jobs from selling vacuum cleaners, books, to working in grocery stores, and even as a waiter in a restaurant. Tired of working for others, he started driving a taxi. Within a few years, he got into the transport business, and after almost 20 years of struggle, he now owns a pan-India transport business worth around ₹100 crores. I happened to run into him at Churchgate in Mumbai three years back. He invited me over dinner to a five-star hotel. Being nostalgic, we were reminiscing the good old school days, the teachers, and our friends. One such schoolmate was a friend called Shivanand, who was the school topper, a merit lister, who opted to become a Chartered Accountant (which he had happened to clear at the first attempt). We were in awe of his intelligence and hard work.

I asked, “Rakesh, by the way, do you remember Shivanand, the school topper? I am told he is also in Mumbai. He must have reached the pinnacle of his career. Why didn’t you invite him too?”

After a long pause, he said, “You are right. He has reached his pinnacle. He is working with our group for the last five years, and last year he was promoted as the CFO. I would have liked him to join us over dinner, but being the financial year-end, he is busy managing the books of accounts.”

I asked, “Rakesh, can you understand the finer nuances of the balance sheet and P&L statement like a professional CA?”

Rakesh said, “I need not, but then how do you think I have brought the company to a level of ₹100 Crores in the last 10 years?” He continued, “Whenever he comes to me with any financial statement and I express a doubt for any specific expenditure; while giving his explanation I do not look at the figures. I look at him to see whether he is bluffing or hiding crucial information. If I feel he is bluffing, I have a choice to get it cross-verified through external sources, paying nominal fees. Remember, whether one is in the business of transport or hospitality, ultimately all of us are in the people business. I may not be able to read the balance sheet fluently, but I do read people with ease.”

For Shivanand, it was a logarithmic growth; whereas in the case of Rakesh, whether his working in unrelated fields or dabbling in a variety of businesses may look random or sinusoidal in the short-term; in retrospect, it is exponential growth. With every venture, even if one were to fail, there is a learning of what one should do or not do. With this, Rakesh moved on to a higher point on the exponential curve. By connecting the dots, one can see the method in the madness.

In short, logarithmic growth is to play safely in the comfort zone, where the love of lucre (package/CTC) is the main driver. With exponential growth, it is the pursuit of a career with a true calling. In the case of sinusoidal-exponential growth, it is to figure out one’s life by trial and error, thereby detecting a sense of purpose.

According to an American organisational psychologist, Amy Wrzesniewski, it is not the work, but our attitude towards work that makes the fundamental difference whether one finds life meaningful or not. It has nothing to do with qualifications, designations, or CTC. A nurse may enjoy working for a calling, while an MBA graduate with a 10X salary may find his job boring.

Are you working in a job, a career, or are you working for a true calling? If so, which growth curve, do you belong to?

Is it the logarithmic, exponential, or sinusoidal-exponential growth structure?

None of these growth structures are inherently good or bad per se. The choice one makes  at any junctures of life may be either one’s own or can be conditioned by the peer pressure, the societal norms, the economic constraints or a stroke of serendipity as in Dr. Raghunath Mashelkar’s case. Whatever the case may be, at this moment as Dr. Wayne Dyer said, ‘You are the sum total of all your choices!’

P.S. : The above article is an abridged version of the session conducted by the writer at the bimonthly forum: Know Thyself – An Inquiry into the significance of Living conducted every 1st and 3rd Sunday at 1100 HRS ( IST) on Zoom.

A Forgotten Hero or an Ungrateful Nation?

On 24th June 1991, three days after swearing-in as the Prime Minister, Prannoy Roy from NDTV while interviewing P.V. Narasimha Rao (PVN) asked him, “Hon. Prime Minister, the country is going through a major financial crisis, you are heading a minority government. You are not in the pink of health. How are you going to manage?” After a long pause, PVN, using Bismarck’s famous quote, replied, “Politics, is the art of the possible.”

PVN took oath as the Prime Minister three days earlier. For 37 of the 44 years since independence, the country was ruled by the first family of Indian politics: Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira, and Rajiv Gandhi. Barring Lal Bahadur Shastri (and Gulzarilal Nanda as an Interim PM) the Congress party handed over the baton of Prime Ministership to someone outside the Gandhi-Nehru family.

Was he the party’s first choice to be fielded as the prime ministerial candidate? The Congress coterie wanted to have Sonia Gandhi to fill the slot. Already undergoing a tremendous shock of the untimely death of her husband and with the security of her children being her major concern, 

Sonia declined the offer. Shankar Dayal Sharma, the then Vice President was the next choice who declined on health grounds. The ambitious Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar could not muster enough support. The mantle felt on PVN only because the party leadership felt he may not last long, give or take one year! It was more of a stop-gap arrangement.

Let alone a strong lobby behind him, PVN did not even have good friends in the Congress party. The man who had no friends did not have strong enemies either, which incidentally turned out to be a plus point in his being considered for the PM’s post. Some external events also were favourable for PVN. The elections in the northern states were over before 21st May, the day of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination; while the southern states were scheduled to vote later. The post-assassination sympathy wave helped Congress clinch142 seats out of 227 MPs from South India. Arjun Singh, one of the main contenders from Madhya Pradesh lost his claim due to the poor numbers of Congress MPs in the North. Sharad Pawar could get support from only 38 MPs from Maharashtra. For the first time, the country was to have a PM from the south. Thus, it was by accident, and a quirk of events; and not by design that PVN became the PM. His failing health was also in his favour, as his party did not expect him to complete the full five-year term.

Foreign Exchange Crisis: In June 1991, the Indian Govt had foreign exchange reserves which were sufficient for barely 3 weeks. With the fiscal deficit running at 8.2%, and the internal debt being 5.6 % of GDP, the country was on the verge of bankruptcy.

The TEAM: 

During the previous 10 years, PVN did not have any inclination towards economic issues. One thing he realized was that the economic problem, being complex and serious, a competent person must be installed as the Finance Minister. I. G. Patel, the former RBI Governor was the first choice, but when he declined, the mantle fell on Dr. Manmohan Singh. Singh was an eminent economist, and he had worked with the United Nations, been an RBI Governor, a Chief Economic Advisor, and the Head of the Planning Commission over separate tenures. A team of competent ministers and bureaucrats were put in place, which included, among others, Naresh Chandra as Cabinet Secretary, Amarnath Verma as Principal Secretary, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and others. 

Crucial Decisions: 

To overcome the serious economic challenges, the minority govt. had to take some quick short-term decisions. One such decision was to pledge the country’s entire gold reserves, while another was the devaluation of the rupee. The long-term decisions included the New Industrial Policy. 

  • Pledging of Gold:

To save the country from bankruptcy, the government had no choice but to pledge gold from its reserves. In the first phase, it was pledged through the State Bank of India on 4th July. In subsequent phases, it was done directly by RBI on 7th, 11th, and 18th July. Overall, 46.91 metric tonnes of gold was pledged to the Bank of England. On 10th July the media received the news. As usual, there was a hue and cry in parliament. Dr. Manmohan Singh explained that it was a fait accompli, and the decision was taken with due diligence and positive intent. However, in the international markets, India’s credibility rose, as financial institutions felt the country was making serious course corrections. That month, India received a loan of USD 221 Million.

  • Rupee Devaluation: 

Apart from the fiscal mismanagement by previous governments, the foreign exchange reserves were getting depleted due to the Gulf war. Saddam Hussein had attacked Kuwait, and the rising oil prices coupled with reduced remittances from overseas Indians started showing a strain on the foreign exchange front. 

Inadequate exports were the other major reason. The exchange rate of $1= Rs. 17.90 was not only high, but it also did not reflect the market reality. Indian products and services were expensive in the international market, thus affecting export earnings. This anomaly needed an immediate correction. 

Within 10 days of assuming office, on 1st July, the Indian Rupee was devalued against the US Dollar, Japanese Yen, Deutsche Mark, and the British Pound by 7-9%. The second devaluation was scheduled for 3rd July. The opposition, including the communists, were staunch critics of devaluation. There was stiff resistance in the ruling dispensation too. Devaluation was perceived as affecting the self-esteem of the country, as well as the government being in collusion with ‘capitalist’ institutions like IMF, World Bank, etc. PVN was under tremendous pressure and informed Dr. Manmohan Singh to stop the second one. When the finance minister contacted C. Rangarajan, the Governor of RBI, the latter said the decision has already been taken by 9 am. The horse was unbolted. To make the bitter truth palatable, the devaluation was renamed as exchange rate correction. The stock markets bounced back with full vigour and the economy started showing signs of recovery. By 1992, the INR exchange rate to the USD moved from 17.9 to 24.5. Subsidy for exports was cut, and to improve exports EXIM scrips were introduced, wherein exporters would get concessions for importing specific goods. This policy framework was done by Montek Singh Ahluwalia and P. Chidambaram, and the decision for this was taken within a day by PVN. 

  • The New Industrial Policy: 

Another major decision was the New industrial Policy which was crucial to economic recovery. PVN had kept the industries portfolio with him. Dr. Manmohan Singh wanted to present the New Industrial Policy as a part of the budget. However, the bureaucrats in the Industries ministry wanted the policy to be presented separately. Sensing that it will be faced with stiff opposition in the parliament, PVN played a smart game. His deputy, P.J. Kurien, (the State Minister of Industries) after the zero hour, requested the speaker of the Lok Sabha to permit him to place the New Industrial Policy before the house. A crucial document that paved the way for liberalization, scrapping the MRTPC act and the license Raj, was presented without much fanfare or debate. The chief architect, PVN did not utter a single word during the presentation. (He who knows does not speakHe who speaks does not know… Lao Tzu) 

Expert committees were formed to introduce fundamental changes in enabling sustained and accelerated growth in the economy. Raja Chelliah led a committee for Tax reforms, and M. Narasimham a committee for Banking Reforms. Their recommendations were accepted; tax rates were rationalized and private banks were allowed to function. 

Allowing private players to enter the banking sector was another major decision. Under normal circumstances, there would have been long debates challenging such a major decision. After all, any major change attracts a great deal of resistance. A great leader can spot an opportunity in a problem. The country was going through tumultuous times after the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992. As BJP was cornered, no party was in the mood to rock the boat. The banking sector was opened to ICICI, HDFC, AXIS, and other banks without much fanfare or debate. In 1993 the aviation sector was opened, and in 1994 the new Telecom policy was launched, paving the way for a mobile revolution. 

When he took over as the PM in June 1991, the country had foreign exchange reserves equivalent to Rs. 3000 Crores. While addressing the nation from the Red Fort on Independence Day in 1994, PVN proudly announced that this figure had reached Rs. 51,000 Crores and the country had averted a major financial crisis. 

Aristotle’s characteristics of Greek tragic heroes mention them as being virtuous, long-suffering, and having a tragic flaw. PVN was a polyglot with fluency in 10 languages. With his sharp intellect, he could fathom problems from multiple perspectives. He appointed competent ministers and bureaucrats to handle complex issues. If needed, he took quick decisions, be it the Rupee devaluation, or the New Industrial Policy. What looked impossible, a Herculean task, he achieved through the dictum, ‘politics is the art of the possible.’

He had to face monumental challenges: here was a man who had formed a government without a majority, there was no real support from within his party which had elected him as a leader, he had no cordial relationship with the first family, and opposition parties were baying for his blood with a series of no-confidence motions. He was aging, and at 70, he was suffering from diabetes, blood pressure, and had undergone a bypass surgery a year before he took over as the PM. He had to suffer it all alone. 

One of the tragic flaws that he could not resolve was the dilemma of accepting the diktats of the first family (unlike his protégé who succeeded him much later) or being a total rebel to walk his path.

Pamulparti Venkata Narasimha Rao passed away on 23rd December 2004. No other person within a short span of five years has brought in such sweeping reforms in the country. Forget the opposition parties, the Congress party disowned him. It was ensured that his corpse was neither brought to the Congress Party Head Office nor cremated in Delhi, and sadly, neither was any monument constructed in the capital for this great leader. The humiliation did not part him even in his death.

References

  1. Raoparv – Prashant Dixit
  2. To the Brink and Back, India’s 1991 Story – Jairam Ramesh
  3. 1991, How PV Narasimha Rao made History- Sanjay Baru
  4. Wikipedia 

Image Source: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.thehindu.com%2Fopinion%2Fop-ed%2Fpv-narasimha-rao-the-subversive-insider%2Farticle31939743.ece&psig=AOvVaw2T3v0CnnHzRFt8-FK08HSv&ust=1624530907623000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAcQjRxqFwoTCJjHrbDHrfECFQAAAAAdAAAAABAk

Ethically Speaking

“Wishing you many happy returns on your sixtieth birthday,” so saying, I called my friend, Mahesh. He replied, “Rajan thanks for the greetings, but to be frank, my birthday is on 5th December and not today, on 2nd April. For the purpose of saving one academic year, this date of 02nd April was indicated by my father on my school admission form.” The above is not an isolated event, it happened frequently.

During the Chemistry lab period in the PUC days, there were experiments on identifying an element defined by sequence; by performing the dry test, wet test, and then the confirmatory tests. The demonstrator used to tell us ‘during exams, don’t waste time on the first two tests; go straight to the confirmatory test, and if you get time, do the previous ones. Bypassing the system with false birth certificates or taking short cuts was the name of the game.

Engineering Drawing was one of the time-consuming subjects in college. Unlike the CAD/ CAM environment today, where designs are made on computers, we had to make elaborate engineering drawings. Each assignment made on an A2/A3 drawing sheet needed an elaborate setup of a drawing board, mini drafter, T-square, compass, divider, set square, etc. It used to take around 2-3 hours to complete an assignment. The practise of GT (Glass Tracing) among hostelites was quite common. The GT procedure was simple. An assignment completed by a sincere student was glass traced by other students. A table lamp was kept in a bucket covered with a glass sheet; the blank sheet was aligned over the completed sheet. The lit lamp helped the student trace the original and the assignment could be completed in no time. The general consensus among the student fraternity was that the guy who took all the effort to complete the drawing in the 1st angle, 3rd angle, and a sectional view, was an idiot, while the people who copied it in one-fifth the time were intelligent and smart.

In one humorous instance, one guy was so ‘meticulous’ that apart from tracing the drawing, he copied the name and the roll number of the original student! The scene is no different today, for several agencies offer ready-made projects for engineering students for a fee.

A certain lecturer used to share with his colleagues, his life-long ambition of becoming a Vice-Chancellor (VC) of a university. Over a while, he moved up the hierarchy of senior lecturer, reader, and finally became a professor. A post for a VC was advertised in the papers. He applied but came to know that, more than merit, caste and money played an important role in the recruitment for this position. He managed to raise around Rs 3 crores for this, yet he was shocked to see the post eventually going to the highest bidder.

Much later, an advertisement appeared for another VCs post. This time, he knew the crucial role of politicians and middlemen. He developed contacts, moved heaven and earth to raise around Rs. 5 crores; despite being questioned by his friends, from an ethics and ROI perspective. The attempt for this second time to the post also eluded him. He committed suicide later.

I used to believe that such respectable positions need not be advertised but were filled by selecting eminent people with exceptional credentials. As Nirad Chowdhury wrote in the Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, an Indian’s faith in a bribe is infinite and unshakable. It is an infallible remedy for all workday inconveniences.

Academicians have used the terms ethics and morality interchangeably. Some people think that morality is personal and normative whereas ethics indicates the standards of good and bad as decided by community settings. It can be also looked at from a perspective of means and the ends. People have their own yardsticks in justifying their actions. As Robert Pirsig writes in the Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good – need we ask anyone to tell us these things? The three examples to illustrate the point are:

  1. Ratan Tata used to say, “Why should I spend time with bureaucrats in Delhi? They are supposed to do their work and I am supposed to do mine.” On the other hand, (the late) Dhirubhai Ambani had a different take. “You offer naivedya to God while visiting a temple. Why not deal with bureaucrats on a similar line?”
  2. The Karnataka Vidhana Soudha has an inscription on its façade: ‘Government’s work is God’s Work.’  I overheard a babu saying, “Anyway it is God’s work. Why should I?”
  3. A departmental store was run by two partners for 30 years. The 2nd generation was to take over the business. The first partner’s son who had passed out from an elite management institute asked his father, “We have learned all the aspects of running a business, the one topic I am not clear is about ethics. Can you elaborate on the same? The father explained, “it is quite elementary. Imagine a lady buys a dress for Rs. 1000 and while paying at the billing counter she inadvertently pays Rs, 2000. Now my son, the question of ethics comes, should we tell our partner or not.”

My niece Rupali Patil teaches in an upmarket public school in Whitefield, Bengaluru. She narrated some interesting anecdotes while conducting on-line examinations. The students are asked to keep the laptop at a specific angle to ensure they do not look at any material on their lap while writing answers. Parents are requested not to walk around or prompt the students while answering the question papers. Some parents have written papers themselves. One audacious father dared to sit underneath the table and prompt the answers. When asked how it was detected, I gleaned that the student used to normally score 10 out of 50, but scored 40 in that exam; he subsequently boasted to his friends how his father had helped him.

While websites like exam.net are used to ensure that students do not lose their focus on the screen, or use the second browser to get answers, by looking down; ingenious means are used to work around the system.

The school being in Whitefield, Bengaluru the following conjectures were thought of:

  1. Considering the location and the school fees, is it safe to assume that a majority of student’s families belong to the upper middle class, well-educated with Graduate/Post Graduate degrees?
  2. Is it safe to assume that the parents are working in renowned MNCs (Indian or International) with well-established guidelines on Vision, Mission, Values, and Ethics policies?  If so, should there be a divergence in behaviour between the professional life of a manager vis-à-vis that of a parent?

Education can be perceived as an end to realize one’s potential, or it can be simply a means to get a job in earning a livelihood. The former makes us look holistically at life, whereas the latter makes it transactional. Philosopher Immanuel Kant says that a rational human being is an end in himself and not a means to achieve something. When our attitude and behaviour are oriented towards means, quality becomes the main casualty.

Abraham Lincoln in his letter to his son’s headmaster wrote:

“Teach him if you can that a dollar earned is of far more value than five found.In school teach him it is far more honourable to fail than to cheat.Teach him to have faith in his own ideas, even if everyone tells him they are wrong!”

On a personal note, now when I call my friends, with trepidation I first ask “Before wishing you birthday greetings, is today your actual or official birthday?”

We set our own standards: “Jahaan hum khade rahtey hain; wahin se kataar shuru hoti hai!” – Wherever I (honorific) stand, the queue starts from there!.

Jai ho ‘Atmanirbhar’ Bharat!

References:

  1. Welcome to a world-class university education : M. Gautam Machiah, Deccan Herald, November 15, 2020
  2. Some midterm answer scripts leave teachers stumped: The Hindu, November 26, 2020
  3.  Image: https://www.123rf.com/photo_54708808_stock-vector-compass-rose-isolated-on-white.html