Friday, August 13, 2010

The question of expertise

There is a ship floundering off India’s premier port, Mumbai. Its containers allegedly packed with petroleum products and perhaps pesticides, are spilling over into the sea and washing up ashore. Yet, the port seems to have no expertise in handling the accident. A Dutch company has been hired post-haste to deal with the problem. And what of the Coast Guard which has often displayed numerous exercises on how to manage oil spills? No one knows what it is up to.

India is set to jump into the company of the leading powers of the world. The presence of half a billion poor is supposedly offset by a 200 million strong middle class, allegedly as good as any in the world. But a little bit of introspection will reveal that the country seriously lacks all round abilities and expertise in a range of areas that are required for the functioning of a modern and sophisticated society.


We have often witnessed the folly of self-proclaimed expertise of our Defence Research and Development Organisation or the Department of Atomic Energy. But there are a host of other areas where the gaps exist. On Tuesday there was an item in a leading newspaper about the serious lack of vascular surgeons in India. According to the report, Orissa, MP, Bihar and Manipur have no vascular surgeons at all, neither does any government-run hospital in New Delhi. This country, that exports doctors to half the world, has a serious shortage of expertise in an area that would help tens of thousands of people who, because of diabetes or accident-related injuries, lose their limbs.
A corollary of the problem is the inability to manage large projects— to mobilise a large number of human and marshal resources towards a particular objective. For obvious reasons, this ability is often most manifest in war. So its shortcomings have been visible India. Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh who commanded the western army in the Indo-Pak war of 1965 termed its outcome as “a sickening catalogue of command failures.” While in smaller units Indians fought superbly— witness the Poona Horse in Phillaurah— larger units failed to gel. The Kargil mini-war was a big success precisely because it was won by a huge amount of bravery and the tactical skill of our small unit commanders.
The experience of executing the allied invasion of Europe in June 1944 or fighting the battle of Stalingrad came after a lot of blood and tears, but it did. No one would want such circumstances to build expertise, but successful generals do require leadership and managerial skills which, in turn, come from societies which understand the need for them.
Is it any surprise that the Commonwealth Games is such a shambles? There is, for one thing, no one commander. An essential element in the management of large projects, or a battle, is a clear line of command and, of course, accountability. Here we have the Organising Committee Chairman Suresh Kalmadi telling us that he was not in charge of procurement or of the construction of the stadia. And of course he was not in charge of the civic works. But who was? Was it the CPWD run by the Union government, the Union Ministry of Sports, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the NDMC or the Delhi government?
Not surprisingly, the same lack of clear cut lines of authority mark the management of most of our cities which are, predictably, in a mess. There are mayors with no power, and a chief minister (Sheila Dikshit) who is not in charge of law and order or of all the land use of the state she is elected to run.
It is not as if Indians inherently lack expertise. There is an enormous amount of ability in the self-effacing men who run our space programme so well. The ONGC, NTPC and many public sector companies have skills in abundance. The expertise that E. Sreedharan has marshaled for the Konkan Railway and Delhi Metro projects is too evident to recount. There is no dearth of expertise and managerial skills in our private sector, for example, in running airlines, hotels and information technology companies.


In part, the expertise comes from within a well-rounded society. Ours which is so cursed by chronic poverty, with such large patches of illiteracy and so riven by caste is bound to have a problem. Reading a book on the British use of deception in World Wars I and II, it struck me that the British expertise in camouflage came from its schools of design and arts, and that the top cryptanalysts that they fielded and who made a key contribution in winning the war came from Cambridge and Oxford. In other words, civil society provided the crucial ingredient that was then melded into the war effort of these societies.
By contrast, a great deal of expertise and abilities in India are confined to the government system. Whether it is agriculture, food storage, universities, airlines, broadcasting, healthcare, the stifling hand of government limits them all. It is difficult to find an expert who can independently and intelligently comment on not just high falutin’ issues like nuclear power or submarines, but simple things like environment and town planning.
Clearly, the one message that we get from this is not only the need for the development of our universities and civil society institutions, but their existence as truly autonomous institutions.


The big problem is the way we are administered. No matter what reforms the government claims to have carried out, it still depends on a generalist administrative cadre. A sophisticated society has public administration specialists, professional managers, hospital and education administrators, works engineers and so on. They do not have a general fit-all cadre of bureaucrats who manage an army one day, an airline the next, and a broadcast network the day after, because it is not humanly possible for a person to have the high level of specialisation to manage institutions in such varied fields.
But the old order has the country in a tight grip, whether it is health policy management, education, airlines or the military, all suffer from the lack of managers who can deliver results. The sad part is that the failure of the IAS-oriented administration system is visible in the condition of public health, education, agriculture and general administration in the country, but no political leader has had the time to bell the cat and set things right.
This said, we need to enter a caveat. We must be wary of fetishising expertise. Indeed, the last five years have shown us how on the advice of highly acclaimed experts and officials, the US made war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has succeeded in making a mess of both.
The failure of economic and finance experts is even more manifest, especially since among their number are Nobel laureates who shaped theories that led to the collapse of the world economy in 2008.
But the country does need to advance in a well-rounded fashion. And this means the development, and celebration, of expertise, or, if you want to put it another way, high-end abilities, in a range of areas— project management, environmental engineering, medicine, public administration, military, agriculture and food policy management. Without this, you can convince yourself that you are world class, but you will not convince anyone else.
This appeared in Mail Today August 11, 2010

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