Monday, January 17, 2011

A Culture of Progress?

(As posted on, adapted from my earlier post 'Culture and Progress')

As I write this column Pongal is being celebrated with fervour around Chennai. Pongal is a giving of thanks for the harvest, a celebration of the cow and a renewal of hope. For most of India this is not an abstract symbolism of a bygone way of life but anchored in a day to day reality. Yet I wonder about the joy of Pongal when crop yields are among the lowest in the world, our milk yields lag most Asian countries and farmer suicides are constantly in the news.

Where does the hope come from? On the first day of Pongal – Bhogi Pongal - it comes from worshiping Indira in the hope that it will bring good rains in the next year. The second day it comes from the worship of Surya for an abundance of crop and the third day is a dedication to the cow that gives so much of itself. And then of course let’s not forget the hope of the free Pongal bags and bonuses given out by the State government. After thousands of years of these prayers, and decades of government freebies, it appears to me that altogether this strategy is just not working.

When my father was alive, long before I got involved in microfinance, I would accompany him at times to the villages where he would gather people just to share his point of view. As a child my father spent his holidays in his native village. He was also the first of his family to travel to the United States for graduate study. The contrast gripped him. He would tell the villagers about the American pilgrims and how they got together and took responsibility for their own progress. How they built and ran their own schools and hospitals. They didn’t wait for the Gods, or the government.

So in 2003 my father started a project he called ‘Village Mission’, the idea being to galvanise villages to take responsibility for their own progress by providing seed grants and management guidance for services (such as a small clinic and vocational training centre) that they would run in an operationally sustainable way. The economics worked out on paper. When I inherited these projects in 2004 I spent hours in the two villages where the pilot was in progress talking with the village head and various key people. Yet they would not take responsibility for it, even though they all agreed that these were essential for the village and had come up with their wish list themselves. ‘You build and run it.’ they would tell me. ‘Our people will worship you as a God.’ The pilot failed.

In thinking about this failure I realize it’s not that people are lazy but that so much of our cultural ethos as a country is built around waiting for God and government. At the extremes our village folk take vows of hardship and expend tremendous energy in the desperate hope that their wish will be granted; going so far as to roll in the hot sun for hours or put hooks in their backs and drag stuff around. No surprise when our mythology and tales revolve around elusive Gods granting boons for sacrifice and penance. And our news revolves frequently around announcements of government subsidies and freebies.

Contrast that to the classic Americana that carries the legacy of the pilgrims. Bob the Builder exhorting to eager toddlers ‘Can we build it? Yes we can! Can we fix it? Yes we can!’, and past President John F. Kennedy urging its citizens to ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’.

Culture matters. It’s what determines the nature of conversations that take place and what gets done – the system dynamics. And the jury is out; a culture of waiting for God and government is not a culture of progress.

So maybe it’s time to change our stories and create more role models of progress. And instead of a frenzied worship for rain and good yield and a celebration of the fruits of our physical labour, perhaps it’s time to begin celebrating the fruits of our minds.


  1. We dont want to create another America, but make India stronger without changing the ethos. Your post paints a picture of India's poor as being an ignorant, unwilling lot which is not completely true. We need to find out what they need from them before taking a high handed approach and assuming what the poor will benefit from. Maybe you are yet to go through life experiences that will bring wisdom to your approach to things. I see your approach as very tunneled and highly US of A centric.

  2. Dear Anonymous: Why does the author of this blog have to be old to offer a perspective on the challenges of our vast rural population? We should be grateful that someone is pushing with energy to impact these people. You say we need to find out from the poor themselves what they want. Have you asked? Do you know of a study or report that has asked? If so, please share. Let us not wait a lifetime before we seek to help others make change for the better.

  3. Satish - Life experiences does not mean turning old. You can 40 types of experience in 4 years of repeat the same experience for 100 years (this is something Churchil said).

    Yes, I do have experience of working with rural and urban poor and it is with that credible experience that I am making my point. It is important to be wise more than just being knowledgeable about these things.

    You may want to read the book titled Three cups of tea, which is by an American has worked on Education with people who didnt have access to it in Pakistan. He time and again points out to the importance of considering the local context, milieu and thinking before concluding on anything.

  4. Dear Anonymous

    Thanks for talking about the book "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson .I am sure that it will help people from abroad understand first the ethos /habits of people belonging to third world countries before starting their development work . Pushing down an American way of thinking to them will not work , however noble the intention may be . This soil is different and the people are different but it does not mean all is right with the people here but we need to first understand them and approach development work in the way they are more comfortable in dealing with .

  5. Dear Anonymous: I definitely appreciate your focus of driving change through the lens of the people you want to help. And I consider anyone who will come on a forum such as this as a brother – we share a common passion. But let us not doubt the innate intelligence and self-worth of a rural Indian, any more than we would a US Ivy League graduate. The graduate may have more information or exposure to tools for analysis than the villager, but I am comfortable that a villager here can consider new concepts without losing his or her identity. It is a large world and much good thinking has been done. Better to get the fruits of rigorous analysis to the poor quickly, for their own consideration, than to go on endlessly asking them to consider what they cannot. I have faith in them that they will not be less Indian for confronting new ideas.

    Also, Anonymous, please don’t underestimate the value of the work of Madura. It appears from their website that they already interact with many crore villagers. Certainly then the opinion of their executive staff is seasoned by these interactions. Their work has the value of being both proactive and informed. I for one am grateful for the voices of someone like Dr. Tara, for her refusal to accept what is the status quo – and to feel a need to push harder for quicker results.

    In just five years some 10 year old villager will be 15, and his family will need him to earn a living, one way or the other. Let’s challenge his mother’s world view today, not tomorrow.

    Satish J

  6. Satish - Looks like we seem to concur than differ .. your sentence ' let us not doubt the .....' is what I said in my post.

    I dont see any reason to bring Madura here since my comment is only on the author's post and nothing more. I am sure all MFIs are doing a great job as I witness personally. I never said that the rural Indian will become less Indian if they confront new ideas. No point going all over the place.

    Peaceful warrior - In three cups of tea, the situation with the yak says it all, doesnt it? The importance of wisdom .. :)

  7. Happy to see a debate! Perhaps I might clarify that this post was not meant to advocate a completely American point of view for rural India but to point out by contrast some of the attitude issues that hinder progress in India. Cultural sensitivity is extremely important. To get a feel for how we approach change in a culturally sensitive context, take a look at our film at