After a long break, I wrote a piece for NitiCentral.com, “Buildings Don’t Matter, Intentions Do.” Here it is below for fold, for the record.
I. UC Berkeley
My alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, is an extraordinary place. It consistently ranks among the top few universities in the world. The Academic Ranking of World Universities ranked it fourth overall—behind Harvard, Stanford and MIT. It ranks world’s second best in science, and third best in engineering, and in social sciences.
UC Berkeley has been a stellar institution ever since its founding in 1868. People associated with it have won 71 Nobel prizes, and scores of top awards such as Fields Medals, Turing Awards, etc. It has been and continues to be a truly great university. Take a look at the wiki entry on UCB to get a feel for how good it is.
The campus is impressive, as you would expect any great university to be. The buildings are architecturally beautiful and the grounds are lovely. Admittedly, parking on campus is a problem but the saving grace is that if you win a Nobel, you get a reserved parking spot on campus close to your office.
You might wonder what explains UCB’s obvious and persistent success. To answer that question, we have to first understand what precisely UCB is. It is definitely not its buildings or any other physical attribute, though they are not irrelevant. Is it because of the people associated with it? Certainly the people matter. But there’s constant churn in them: generations of faculty, students and staff pass through it and yet it continues to have a persistent quality that transcends them all.
The most fundamental description of the University of California at Berkeley is that it is an institution. It is an extraordinary place as I said before but it is not just a place: it is an institution. What defines it essentially is its objective, and the necessary rules and regulations that follow from it. Its institutional structure defines it and determines its success. Its objective determines the rules that govern it and because those are good, the results are good.
Every 50 years or so, the entire set of people associated with it gets replaced but the essential character of UC Berkeley does not change because the objective and the concomitant rules continue to be the same. It is the persistence of the objective and the rules that follow from it that make it what it is.
I have chosen UC Berkeley because I spent eight years of my life there but regardless what’s true about it is also true of any arbitrary successful institution. The objectives and the rules matter for the success or failure of any institution.
II. The Gold Pavilion Temple in Kyoto
Douglas Adams, the author of such fine books as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (in five parts, no less), wrote what is in my considered opinion one of the finest books you could ever read – Last Chance to See. It’s a funny book, as he appears to be unable to write anything un-funny. But it deals with a very serious topic: the loss of biodiversity and extinction of biological species.
I was particularly struck by one passage in Last Chance to See. Allow me to quote that bit in full.
I remembered once, in Japan, having been to see the Gold Pavilion Temple in Kyoto and being mildly surprised at quite how well it had weathered the passage of time since it was first built in the fourteenth century. I was told it hadn’t weathered well at all, and had in fact been burnt to the ground twice in this century. “So it isn’t the original building?” I had asked my Japanese guide.
“But yes, of course it is,” he insisted, rather surprised at my question.
“But it’s burnt down?”
“Of course. It is an important and historic building.”
“With completely new materials.”
“But of course. It was burnt down.”
“So how can it be the same building?”
“It is always the same building.”
I had to admit to myself that this was in fact a perfectly rational point of view, it merely started from an unexpected premise. The idea of the building, the intention of it, its design, are all immutable and are the essence of the building. The intention of the original builders is what survives. The wood of which the design is constructed decays and is replaced when necessary. To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself.
What I call the objective is what Douglas calls “the intention” and that’s what’s immutable. The wood used in the construction of the temple is not material to what it essentially is. The living institution transcends the materials that give it form and shape. The objective is an idea and ideas are the foundation that institutions are built on and with.
Depending on how you figure it, roughly for around 150 years, the geographical area now called India was under the control of the British Empire. It was certainly comprehensively under the total control of the British between 1857 and 1947. During that 90-year period, the rules and regulations that defined India were created by the British. That period is commonly referred to as the British Raj.
The British Raj was an institution like any other. It had its objectives, and the rules and regulations that the British created were consistent with that objective. The objective was to exploit the economy and extract as much as possible. Colonialism is undertaken for profit, not just for fun on a whim.
As it happens, all things come to an end. They end when circumstances change, as circumstances usually do. The British colonial rule eventually ended for various reasons, primary among them was that the cost of colonial rule exceeded the benefits. The Second World War had enervated the Empire and besides, colonialism was going out of fashion around the world. The British left and did not need to be persuaded too much.
There was a change of guard in 1947. All of the British – with some notable exceptions – left for home, leaving behind all the institutions that they had created for ruling the Indians entirely intact. The new rulers took over the task of ruling the Indians quite enthusiastically. The first task at hand was the creation of a constitution of the country.
A constitution is an institution. Actually, it is the most fundamental institution since it defines the basic character of the country. Time was of the essence. I guess considerations of expediency required that the old rules created by the British were incorporated into the constitution of India without changes. And while they were at it, the objective – the British government objective – was also left intact.
IV. British Raj 2.0
Here’s the bottom line. The British Raj ended in 1947, and yet it really did not end. The Britishers certainly left but the objective they had when ruling India – the government domination of the people of India – remained unaltered. The rules and regulations that the British had established in pursuit of that objective were written into the constitution. The government established by the British continued post-1947.
India did not prosper under the British. That’s not surprising because countries don’t usually prosper under foreign domination. Not just countries, individuals don’t prosper under domination. India did not prosper after the British left because the institutional structure did not change. The same old rules, the same old game, the same old outcome. The rape of India started with invaders and foreign rulers creating institutions for their own benefit, and it still continues under those same institutions under the same set of rules.
Sure the names have been changed. The ICS is now called IAS, to quote just one tiny example. But does changing one letter in the title change things all that much? The man who lives in what is called the Rashtrapati Bhavan is not as fair-skinned as the one who lived there before 1947 but skin color is only skin deep. The new rulers still go around in cars with red flashing lights on top, and the relationship between the rulers and the ruled still remains as before.
India did not prosper under the British Raj and it should not come as any surprise that it does not prosper under what I call British Raj 2.0. Institutions don’t change merely because people working in them are replaced. The intentions of the original builders matter, not the buildings themselves. For real change, you have to change the objectives, and the rules and regulations that follow from them.
For India to prosper, the idea of India has to change.