Every problem has a gift in its hands,” wrote Richard Bach. Several wise people have urged us to keep looking for the silver lining to any cloud, however dark it might be. India is today in a situation where it is relevant to examine the applicability of this advice to deal with the current economic chaos.
When economic pundits and world leaders are in conflict, with startlingly different views on how to deal with the current global crisis, anyone can apparently make a case for any course of action at all, as the entire spectrum is being covered by way of solutions. Let me add mine to the general pool.
The euro zone is in serious trouble, not the least because Spain and Greece are going down the tube like Ireland and Portugal did, but because Germany – the one country that appears to have withstood the crisis using old-fashioned ways of austerity and frugal spending – is being maligned as a sinner among nations! China, the powerhouse of the recent past, is exhibiting serious fault lines that make it a less favoured place for foreign investors. West Asia, ever on the brink of war, is building arms and arsenal of mass annihilation, making it another dangerous place for investors. The US, India’s major partner, is fortunately showing positive signs of recovery.
The entire world – and its wealthy aunts – is desperately looking for a relatively safe place to invest its hard-earned money. India must use this world economic crisis as an opportunity to showcase itself as the safest country – at least in relative terms – for investment. What do we need to do to achieve that?
In attempting to answer this question, let me relate a true-life example of what a small country like the Seychelles did in the early years of the last decade. Following a successful intervention to help transform the country’s national airline – Air Seychelles, when they climbed to over 90 per cent in the Net Promoter Scale (as compared to world-class organisations such as Ritz Carlton, whose scores have hovered around 70 per cent) – I got involved in an exciting project initiated by the president of the country, François Rene. This remarkable political head of state wished to institutionalise a service ethos in his country, saying: “My country is primarily a service economy, with tourism its main industry. Our economic well-being is dependent to a great extent on our becoming a preferred country not only for tourists to come but also, more importantly, for foreign direct investment to flow in. We need international businessmen to do business with us and invest money here.”
The year that followed was an unbelievable one for all of us who were involved in the project. We began with detailed market research to assess how their government’s customers viewed them, and what they were happy, or unhappy, about. About 50 focus group discussions were held, each with specific segments of the government’s customers — from foreign customers such as bankers, hoteliers, etc to local customers like teachers, taxi drivers, old-age pensioners, patients in government hospitals, traders, travel and tour operators, entertainment providers and local artisans. Through these focus groups, several key problem areas were identified.
We presented these findings to the president – with unedited quotes – on issues such as corruption in high places and ministers acting like royalty rather than service providers; red tape that tied up decision-making and made investors go crazy; and poor facilities and services that beset every aspect of life in the country. In less than half an hour, the president endorsed our findings and urged us to present them to his entire Cabinet and all the senior bureaucrats. A blitz of interactive sessions were held in the following six months to cover thousands of people employed by the government, public services and parastatal organisations, with the sole purpose of institutionalising a service ethos in the country. Hundreds of specific actions were agreed upon, and also acted on, to achieve dramatic improvements in service levels. The results were overwhelmingly positive.
What that small country could do, India can certainly do, although it would take us a longer time to achieve similar results. Rather than let the enormity of the task overwhelm us, we ought to be tempted to follow a similar route — to institutionalise a service ethos in all institutions and branches of the government that have an influence on making our country the preferred one for foreign direct investment. For that, we do not have to achieve great standards. Given the dire situation elsewhere in the world – the euro zone, China, Russia and many other regions – we can make a quick impact if we provide relative stability.
The most difficult obstacles would be the petty squabbles between some pygmy-like political leaders, who would stand in the way of ensuring political and economic stability in order to safeguard their little patch of turf. If only our leaders could get together in a non-partisan manner and agree that irrespective of which parties win in the coming elections, they will persist with an economic strategy that is transparent and stable and makes India a safe region for investment and growth, then we would be halfway towards being the first country to come out of the current crisis. The Sensex climbing 30 per cent within a year from now would be a distinct possibility.
People in authority who are in a position to rise above their petty perspectives but fail to do so ought to ask themselves these questions: “When you are 80 years old, and your granddaughter asks you a question tantamount to why you were sleeping on your watch, what answer would you give?” Also, “when you are at that age and realise that, thanks to the inaction of you and your ilk, India has missed the greatest opportunity it ever had, what would you feel?” And, “now that you still have time to do something so that you are able to face your granddaughter’s question as one who at least tried his/her best, what should you be doing differently — from tomorrow morning?”
The writer, a former corporate executive, was the founder-director of the Centre for Service Management at the University of Buckingham, and is now MD of Chennai-based VSM Consulting Services. firstname.lastname@example.org