Picture this: A Tata Nano zips by you in a Manhattan Avenue. At Harvard, you see every Tom, Dick and Harry crunching data in their swanky new thirty-five dollar tablet computer. Doesn’t it ring a bell? Doesn’t it depict India’s profound superpower ambition and what could come of it? Boy would that also kick in barrels of national pride. However, truth is on the flip side, (and quite often under-hyped) we’ve got it all fragmented and flawed. The ambitions have been blocked from swift progression. They may happen albeit very, very slowly.
The essence of the problem lies in a five-letter word: “Cheap”! There have been some exceptions, but time and again, someone in India hits a brainwave of producing something that’s destined to be “cheap”, imbued with unfinished and barebone attributes. We’ve got a plethora of cheap goods in the market, and increasing by the day. What’s been intriguing me even more is the way this is evolving into a culture, making India synonymous with “cheap”. Garnering much attention at the recently concluded Delhi Auto Expo was an apparent ultra cheap vehicle by a notable Indian two-wheeler manufacturer. The “four-wheeler” – as they describe it, resembled plain sheets of metal stuck together; awful to say the least and stripped down to the extent that even Fred Flintstone’s Stone Age vehicle seems more appealing and advanced. Critical reviews were negative, but that sadly matters not for some of these corporate money munch-kings. The iconic one lakh rupee Nano rode on similar lines, only that compared to the former, now feels way more premium. A program initiated by the government had aimed to supply ‘ultra low cost’ tablet computers to every child. The idea surely sounds great, but that’s about it. Besides, look at the complexity; there was low cost, now ultra low cost, and who knows, maybe super ultra low cost tomorrow?
Smart suit clad executives would gleam proudly at ‘international’ accolades and countless photo-shoots, acting like they’re responsible for the second coming of Gandhi. Covering up for their rather disastrous looking products, they’d eject heartwarming narrations of how the “Indian masses’ thirst for a better quality of life has been fulfilled” – whatever that means - and how “hundreds of man-hours have worked hard to make this product possible”. Surely, you’d be left wondering how all those hours of hard work only came up with something as shoddy as this? Isn’t it a direct insult to Indian innovation? But wait, you can’t settle down with your thoughts. They brainwash you into how great the product apparently is for the country and you, till you’re forced to ditch your rationale and go by them.
No, I’m not against the aam-aadmi, or his ambitions. In fact, I think the Nano is a remarkable engineering feat. I also duly appreciate its team for tumbling the toughs to make it see light of the day. However, neither are such products needs of the hour and nor are they what the world expects from a country as dynamic as India. Taking the Nano’s story as a perfect example: the way it had been hyped and anticipated unfortunately worked out to be inversely proportional to how cash registers in its showrooms are now ringing
The base point is: no one wants cheap stuff. Seen zipping in that tiny Pokémon-like thing isn’t something that most people like, Indians per se. Going by history, philosophy and every myth possible in the Indian status quo psychology, we may bargain, but cheap isn’t how we like our things. It’s just that it is forced upon us. The prosperous India that once existed was known for its exquisite prowess. The Taj Mahal is only one among the finest examples of how our culture embraced so much of passion for perfection, quality, artistic craftsmanship and meticulous creation. And that made our civilization enviable and distinct.
So how is the cheap price tag achieved? Simple. By compromising substantially on quality, safety, craftsmanship and technical advancement: all that would actually take India forward. As far as the question of claims of the ‘masses’ goes, I’d quash them, because we lack the basic infrastructure in the first place. The countrywide quality of roads need no mention, and as far as tablet computers go, at this price all that is offered is only barebones technology. The battery wouldn’t last longer than three hours and, considering the targeted majority user base; we have people with access to electricity for barely an hour a day. In fact its underpowered – too inefficient to replace old worn out textbooks and help children lighten the bag. Connectivity to Internet is the next major downside, in a country that secretly wants to ban social media. Going by the creator’s claims of accessing online content, our default 2G networks are overcrowded and insufficient to carry that magnitude of data. So where exactly has the sensibly useful innovation occurred? In making it cheap? The focus, I believe, shouldn’t be on cutting costs, but on how much improvement can be made while maintaining an affordable price, and there should be a push toward that. We then need to spend time and money (there’s a lot of it by the way) to get the whole country connected to the basic necessities and infrastructure – quickly, without compromises on quality. That way, lives of people would improve collectively two-fold and they’d be able to afford the right things at the right times.
Another important consideration is: this time when India’s garnering international attention isn’t like the time of Industrial Revolution. Back then; Britain was in unanimous control of almost the entire world. It had arguably everything: material and intellectual. Human rights issues or technology sharing agreements weren’t even in question. It had an obvious monopoly, and a lot of advancement happened. India is unfortunately not in such a scenario today. We are not lucky to be the only country with the advantage of a rapid development monopoly and countless colonies for resources. For every thing we do, right or wrong, rightly or wrongly, there is an entire global watchdog community. Almost every developing country today, particularly the key competitors in Asia or South America, has the ambition coupled with an insightful view of the world market at large, at least one or more superpower aide(s), and of course wholesome access to free and open technology. Since what and how we produce judge us, we’re in danger. In this age, which country made it, seldom maters.
As I write this, I faintly recall the words of Steve Jobs: “Teens (Americans) don’t care whether its Made in America, if they’d get something better”. I think this statement applies to India too, with a multitude of global world-class brands. The slightest of gaffes will affect the reputation of the entire country’s local manufacturing sector, and will eventually create a stereotype of Indian products – a big black mark that will be difficult to erase. China sort of took that road, and here they are: facing terrible human rights and similar issues off what they manufacture due to their erstwhile obsession with cheap goods. I think they’ve realized their mistake now, and have started to work against it. For India though, it’d be even more devastating because China’s infrastructure happens to be much more advanced. They are also strong in their research, something that’s barely happening here. India needs to earn international acclaim by creating tremendous technological/skill advancement and innovation to outshine other nations. I believe there is the intellect and will for that. Affordable costs should only be seen as one important factor in the package, and not the purpose.
We need to advance by producing quality products at value for money price points, than stripped down versions for ultra cheap prices.