Last Thursday I hitched a ride from Pune to Mumbai in a friend’s car. Don’t be dismayed; this is not one of those personal blog posts “What I had for breakfast last week Thursday” types.
We set off bright and early in Nitin’s Mahindra Scorpio, a largish SUV-type car. The car is alright on a well-paved road but you get bounced around like crazy on badly paved pot-holed roads, especially if you elected to ride in the back seat like I did. For nearly 200 kms, we bounced along with only minor stretches of adequately-paved level road. Around half of the journey was on what is called the Pune-Mumbai “expressway.” You can maintain speeds of up to 120 kmph on that stretch, except for those bits that wind through the mountainous Western Ghats around Lonavla.
Most people seem to take horribly constructed and terribly patched roads for granted in India, just as they take the severely congested chokingly narrow streets with bumper to bumper traffic as totally normal and acceptable. The other day, when I was remarking on this fact, a friend responded, “India is an under-developed poor country. You should not expect to have good roads like they have in rich countries.” That, I realized, is a telling comment. My friend is an intelligent, educated person. Yet he missed what I consider a foundational fact about the world we live in.
He believed that because India was an underdeveloped economy that the roads were bad. He got the causality wrong. It is because the roads are bad (among other things) that India is a poor economy. That distinction is important. In fact, I think that being able to make that sort distinctions is one of the most important skills that our education system should impart, and which it consistently fails to do. Nearly everyone with normal intelligence would be able to figure out the flaw in the statement, “People are sick because they are in the hospital” and would correctly note that “People are in the hospital because they are sick.” But when it comes economic development, they accept all sorts of nonsense without a peep.
[Footnote: I have written in the past about the nonsense about PCs and development. Regular readers of this blog will see the connection.]
The important implication of this is that if you wait to become developed before you improve your roads, you are likely to wait a little longer than forever. In other words, development follows good roads (among other things), and not the other way around. So, first fix the roads if you want to develop. More generally, a good transportation system (roads, railways, ports, airports) is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for development. While we are at it, we may as well note that a good educational system is also a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for development. It is silly to say that we will have a good educational system after we have become developed, because if you don’t have a good educational system, you will not develop, period.
Anyway, back to the Pune-Mumbai road. As we made our way through the winding roads near Lonavla, I noted a peculiar thing. The pavement seemed OK if you were not too finicky about it being too smooth. The bouncing around was not bone-jarring; it was merely a steady vibration somewhat like you were sitting on your washing machine as it was spinning with an unbalanced load of clothes in it. Just the sort of thing that induces a pleasant drowsiness. Tough luck if you are the driver, however. The peculiar thing I noted was that the winding road was not banked properly. As the road twisted and turned going up and down the hills, it was mostly level. At places there was a very minor degree of banking but not sufficient for the recommended speed, and worse still, at some places, the banking was contrary to what it should have been.
[Footnote: Banking a road means that seen at cross-section, when the road curves around a bend, its outer edge is higher than the inner edge. The degree of banking and the severity of the curvature of the bend determines the speed at which the bend can be safely negotiated.]
I am not a civil engineer with a specialization in highway construction. But anyone with the most basic understanding of mechanics can notice that banking of roads ensures stability of the vehicles as they negotiate a bend. It is not rocket science. All over the world, if one cares to notice, roads are banked so that it is safe to travel at the designated speed. The Mumbai-Pune expressway was the pride and joy of the state built at enormous cost. But the designers and builders had built something that was not just costly but also dangerous. They did not think.
They had not thought and clearly it was dangerous to drive on it at a reasonable speed. You had to slow down into a crawl if you did not wish your vehicle to slide to the outside of the curve, which you would not have to do if the road was properly banked. As we drove along at even moderate speeds, I found myself thrown around the car by centrifugal forces. I realized that many of the accidents we see around those bends were because the road was improperly designed.
So this morning I was not the least surprised to read in the papers the following item:
Traffic on the Mumbai-Pune expressway … was thrown out of gear for over 20 hours since late Tuesday night after a 100-tonne generator slipped off a trailer and fell on the road … [at] the Bhor Ghat section.
Consider millions of dollars of loss in terms of lost time and damaged equipment. That the generator has to be totally written off is a first-order loss. Then there is the loss of time and energy from the traffic jam and diversion of traffic, which is a second-order loss. There are higher order losses: the factory or power plant that was waiting for the generator will suffer a loss, for instance. In a modern economy, losses propagate and accumulate. If one did a rough estimate of the total losses incurred over the life-time of the badly designed Pune-Mumbai expressway, it could amount to tens of billions of rupees. All because of the utter and sheer stupidity of the people who designed it.
I have often argued that national poverty can be seen as the result of collective stupidity. It is a stark realization and it makes me very uncomfortable. It is outrageous and many people find my baldly asserting the possibility that Indians are collectively stupid very offensive. It is as if I have claimed that their mama was so fat that she fills the Gap when she goes shopping, and besides she wears combat boots. Ok, I agree that I am deliberately provocative when I make that claim. Truth is India is not alone in being poor as a result of collective stupidity; all the other poor third-world over-populated countries also suffer from collective stupidity induced poverty.
Poverty, as has been pointed out, is the result of two gaps: the objects gap and the ideas gap. The objects gap is when you don’t have sufficient stuff–the stuff that you eat, wear, live in, make things out of, and so on. The ideas gap is when you don’t know how to use the stuff you have very effectively. It is about not mixing what little you have properly and making a mess of the whole thing. The ideas gap arises from being too stupid to not even copy what others have figured out.
So which is primary: objects or ideas? I think ideas are primary. Even if you have little, you can do well if your ideas are good. Conversely, even if you are given a lot, if you don’t have good ideas, you end up achieving pathetically little.
Where do the ideas come from? Some from us, definitely, but mostly from others. No one is so smart that we can figure it all out by ourselves. What we need to have is the attitude which says, “I will seek out smart ideas, adapt them to my needs, and adopt them. I don’t care who it was who came up with the smart idea, I don’t care about how old or how recent the idea is, I don’t care whether is domestic or foreign. As long as it is a good idea, I will go for it.”
I think in the end, just as the success or failure of an individual is to a large extent dictated by his attitude, the collective attitude of the people matter. Being xenophobic is a dangerous attitude, as is the attitude of insisting on total and uncompromising self-reliance.
Did India at some point collectively forget the ancient Rig Vedic invocation, “Let Noble Thoughts Come to Us from All Universe”?