Living in Mumbai, I am somehow bound to the “Will Mumbai become Shanghai?” phrase and all its connotations and interpretations. Before I come to my submission on our state of great expectations, a few words on the Shanghai syndrome.
First, Mumbai should look for a new phrase. That’s because, to my mind, Delhi has already become “Shanghai”. Sure, Delhi is not a port city or the commercial capital. But using the usual extrapolation of Shanghai to mean high-quality infrastructure, visible administrative determination (for whatever reasons) to clean up a mess and so on, Delhi scores.
Delhi is the only city in India where there are visible infrastructure improvements in short periods. Sure, Gurgaon residents are howling about the extra hour they spend on the approach to Delhi, but if you ask me, I see the men and machines working day and night to find some solutions. Unlike Mumbai, a city that took three decades to decide to build one bridge across a creek.
Just A 50% Chance..
Now to narrate two somewhat disparate examples. Remember Mumbai’s highway road signs (amidst crumbling or dug-up roads) requesting you to bear with the present for a better future? I don’t know about you but when I read them, I expected solutions that would fundamentally alter the road infrastructure in the island city. Far from it. As I see it, this high-decibel signage mostly meant that some roads or pavements would be re-layered. Yet, here I was thinking life was going to fundamentally change.
Allow me to shift gears. I happened to be in London the day Tata Steel announced its bid for Corus. It was interesting to see local media reactions. It was clearly a big thing. People wanted to know what would happen to Corus if the Tatas took it over. I didn’t know the answer. I still don’t, particularly now that it may not be the Tatas who will take over Corus.
Nevertheless, it struck me that ever since the Tatas threw their hat in the ring, their victory has been pretty much taken for granted by most of us—with the possible exception of Tata Steel brass and perhaps their investment bankers. Turns out as things stand they have only a 50 per cent chance, or is it less?
My point is this. We are in a constant state of expectation overload. In the case of Mumbai’s miseries, expectations appear so high that the outcome is laughable. Equally, albeit a little differently, in the case of a Tata-Corus, expectations have run ahead of reality. The Tatas may or may not be responsible for this but surely many others are.
And it goes on. From the unfinished Golden Quadrilateral highway project and government-sponsored advertisements which highlight announcements as achievements to erratic cricket performances and newspaper headlines that suggest something has already happened as opposed to “yet to”, we are in a perpetual race to declare conclusion or victory. The two are not necessarily congruous but the malady is common.
When the GQ project started, we were told to get ready to cover 1,000 km in 11 or 12 hours like on roads in the developed world. Guess what, thanks to litigation-induced blockages, we might actually take longer than what was planned. In any case, the gap between induced expectation and actual delivery runs into years, sometimes decades.
Where's The Word Gloom ?
Having said all of that, it’s still fine to over-expect in some areas, I mean you can keep expecting India to win at cricket or Sachin Tendulkar to score a century. It might happen (or won’t) but no one’s the wiser. It’s a little different when it comes to more fundamental issues of economy and infrastructure. We expect a Shanghai but fail to question the basic problems in civic infrastructure.
Now, a little digression. Exactly a year ago, I was sitting with Harvard Business School professor Das Narayandas at the HBS campus in Boston. Gazing at the falling snow outside, we were discussing, what else, India. “Is India Shining all over again?” the professor asked me. It was a rhetorical question, I realised.
Narayandas had this to say. The word gloom didn’t really exist in the Indian lexicon, referring more to those who were economically privileged and had benefited from the recent economic boom. As we go into 2007, I think of his words again. Whether it’s crumbling Mumbai or our global business aspirations. Or my concern, taking off from Narayandas’ posers, that our record GDP quarter growth numbers will make us believe we’ve cracked it all, already.
And so I ask, are we plunging into another new year overawed by the past, expecting miracles from the future ? Without rolling up our sleeves to solve the basic problems that still plague our existence? Are we assuming conclusion when we are far from even the beginning of the solution. If you ask me, my first thought for 2007 would be to set right expectations, individually and collectively. That way, we will achieve more and be less dissapointed when things don’t happen. Like realising how Mumbai will not become Shanghai. And accepting that even a Delhi can get its act together.
This article first appeared in Business Standard