Atanu Dey On India's Development

It’s the Little Things, Stupid


It is time to come clean and reveal what this blog is all about. The most apt subtitle for this blog titled “On India’s Development” would be “It’s the Little Things, Stupid.” Here’s why.

According to me, this is India:

1. India is an under-performer. A land and people of great promise basically in ruins. It’s not too late but there isn’t much time left either.

2. India needs to start adopting good ideas. There are good ideas. Some of them have to be imported. There are no trade barriers to ideas. Adapting and adopting foreign ideas is a good idea.

3. India needs to start paying attention to the little things.

The first is sometimes discussed by others. It is not done too often because it imposes a personal cost. You don’t get invited back to parties. The second is discussed very infrequently. Ideas are felt to be not as important as objects. But the “ideas gap” is much more debilitating than the “objects gap”, as Paul Romer will tell you. The ideas gap will forever prevent development. This is a pity because unlike objects, ideas are freely available. You don’t have to be rich to afford ideas; you have to be smart enough to pick them up wherever you find them.

When the occasion arises — and that means frequently — I do point out the evident under-performance of India relative not just to the developed countries but even relative to developing countries. But that is not my main focus. It comes after my focus on ideas.

However, ideas themselves are secondary to my main focus: on little things. Very few people talk about them. I believe little things that make the big difference. Surveying the large archival pile of stuff that I have written over the last seven years, I see that I have been stressing those little things. One could miss them. Actually that’s why they are called little things: you don’t really notice them unless you are looking for them.

The US is a pretty good place to see how they do stuff cleverly. The US is great in great big things like rockets to the moon and supercomputers and such like. But more than the flashy bits, the small almost inconspicuous bits are also impressive to me. I believe that the US is so successful because it gets the small bits right. I frequently refer to the US simply because I know it as it is my second home (and I love it almost as much as I love India), and also because it is in some respects the polar opposite of India. There’s much that India can costlessly learn from the US.

Now that I am done with the preamble, let’s get started with the little things. Henceforth I will number the articles for easy reference.

§1 Where the streets have no name.

Like scores of times before in various cities and towns in India, last time in Mumbai was no different. I spent about an hour searching for a friend’s place I had never been to before. Another friend of his that same day also spent an hour searching, asking people on the road, and generally helping the mobile phone companies out. Everyone who’s lived in India will have many stories of time wasted figuring out how to get to point B from point A. The streets have no name. So the instructions are algorithmic, approximate, vague and confusing.

Add up the hours wasted, the frustration, the waste of fuel, the uncertainty — and do this for a few million people every day — and you end up with a pretty sizable loss. It is totally preventable. All that needs to be done is to put street names on street corners on lamp posts. This idea does not rival brain surgery for complexity. Street names are not some new-fangled invention that does not exist anywhere in the world. No path-breaking innovation is required. But it does not happen in India.

What happens are asinine proposals. One was to make Indian roads electronically intelligent. I am not making this up. I don’t have that perverted a mind. From July 2004, “Seduced by ICT“:

Recently I came across a news item which said that they are looking at solving Mumbai’s traffic problems by making Mumbai roads “electronic intelligent roads.” I don’t have the slightest doubt that it would involve huge outlays to the tune of millions of dollars and lots of people will make lots of money up and down the line providing expertise and hardware and software for this hi-tech venture. I am also convinced that it will not make the slightest effect on the congested Mumbai roads because it is not the roads that need the intelligence but the people designing the roads that need to be intelligent.

Recommendation: Put signs with street names on them for people to know where they are. Suddenly we will be able to give and get instructions such as, “Go for a kilometer on Mahatma Gandhi road and then make a left on to Sanjay Gandhi road, and then the second right on Jawahar Lal Nehru marg. Go for about 300 meters and then just past the turning for Indira Gandhi lane, you will see the house on 52 Jawaharlal Nehru marg. Got that? OK, see you in 20 minutes.”

More to come.

  • Sandeep

    The example at the end was full of Gandhi family names… LOL :D

  • a

    I completely agree with you on the importance of getting the small stuff right since the cost there is negligible compared to the various other things that need rectification if not a complete overhaul.

    People in India have been for long been denied basic amenities & infrastructure to lead a decent & dignified life (especially the poor ones) with the result that they have very little expectation from those in power who ought (rather than busily lining their pockets by misusing public funds) to have made the amenities available. Once the expectations have been constantly set and held low, there is no demand for the small stuff (that should have been made available as a public good) and hence it’s supply is comparable.

    I think there should be some sort of a mass movement to make the powers that be accountable as to why the small stuff is so difficult to get right. But given that the citizens of India are in a state of stupor, that seems highly unlikely.

  • Rex

    I like your dig at La Family with reference to street names at the end. Then again, every city in India has an MG road named for Mahatma Gandhi, with the exception of Delhi, where it actually means Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road!

  • amar

    The last example is a good reminder that all the gandhi-nehrus are leading us nowhere and need to be removed.

  • Manish

    We are people with big ideas, please do not distract us with this “little thing” business ;-)

  • Aneesh

    While I agree with you broadly about the little things, I disagree to some extent on the ‘Where the streets have no name’ bit. The reason is simple – logistics. Many areas of big cities in India have grown in such a way that especially the old areas have far too many by-lanes and small streets. If we begin naming/numbering all these, it would lead to enormous confusion, because neither is it feasible nor would people warm up to the idea of finding directions by names/numbers of streets in such areas. People have always gone by landmarks and abstract details for complex old areas of big cities and I believe that is the best way.

    In fact, google maps made a big change in the way it gives directions for Indian cities for precisely this reason. For more, see:

    The subtle point that I wish to emphasize here is that, not every ‘small thing’ necessarily works the same way for polar opposites.

  • Asheesh


    A thought provoking post. I have long wondered why we cannot import simplest of ideas. Since we are on the topic of streets here are a couple more –

    1. Why don’t we have turn lanes? even on new roads! Do we not have engineers with any kind of brains? wouldn’t it be wonderful not to have half the road blocked by vehicles waiting to make turn against the traffic?

    2. Why do our sign go red-orange-green? Why not just red-green as they do in US? it makes sense to go green-orange-red, we do not need to go to orange between red and green

    I can go on, but I completely agree that it is the little things that make the difference. I think to a large extent we the people of India (me included) have to take the blame as well, since we leave all decision making to the thugs and keep hoping that someone will come up with good ideas. I especially have this question for the people born between 1947-1957 (this is typically our parent’s generation), how did they become so docile? Why did they not take to the streets against the disastrous decisions of the govt? I cannot fathom this and as you said not a particularly popular topic to be discussed.

    Keep doing your bit. I am trying to figure out how to do mine hope to find the answer sometime.


  • Kaffir

    1. Why don’t we have turn lanes? even on new roads! Do we not have engineers with any kind of brains? wouldn’t it be wonderful not to have half the road blocked by vehicles waiting to make turn against the traffic?

    2. Why do our sign go red-orange-green? Why not just red-green as they do in US? it makes sense to go green-orange-red, we do not need to go to orange between red and green

    Asheesh, let me ask you two sets of questions.

    1. Do you know who represents you at the local/municipal/district level etc.? Who would be responsible for the decision to change the lights from red-orange-green to red-green, and how would it happen (steps, bylaws etc.)?

    2. I’m curious – what specific *actions* have you personally taken in terms of civic engagement in your neighborhood (to improve it and implement such ideas as you mention above) in the past 6 months? How many hours do you spend every week/month on such activities (you can include reading about and discussing such issues in your neighborhood)?


  • Yoga

    I read few more write ups in this blog about this…
    One thing you mentioned before was the obsession with cell phone contacts for emergency…and a list of numbers to call for each crime…placed in stations, etc…

    Recently I read a news item in Hindu on TB helpline and as usual it had a huge cell phone number…

  • Ravi

    I have read this plan some where. Lets say this is hyderabad.Each box below represents 1km. Each box may have many streets. Lets say i am in H11 and my friend asked me to come to H26 sr nagar 2. Without even looking at map i know that it will travel max 7 km (H11–>H16) 6 km and (H16—> H26) 1KM.

    | | | | | | | |
    H11 | H12 | H13 | H14 | H15 | H16 | H17 | H18 |
    | | | | | | | |
    | | | | | | | |
    H21 | H22 | H23 | H24 | H25 | H26 | H27 | H28 |
    | | | | | | | |
    | | | | | | | |
    H31 | H32 | H33 | H34 | H35 | H36 | H37 | H38 |
    | | | | | | | |
    | | | | | | | |
    H41 | H42 | H43 | H44 | H45 | H46 | H47 | H48 |
    | | | | | | | |

    Number should be given to each intersection. SR Nagar is in H26th sector.

    | |
    | H26 | H26
    | SR Nagar 1 | SR Nagar2
    | |
    | |
    | |

    This standard across all India make traveling a cake walk. That will boost tourism.


  • m2iu

    Good ideas and I hope the lawmakers will take note. Unfortunately, I don’t think there are any experts in city-planning or for that matter, in any field of governance in India or is there? If there are experts, I guess their voices are silenced by the corrupt majority? This is what the governments in India say to common people – If you can’t have bread, eat cake.