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PERSPECTIVE

Looking for the signs of progress

GOUTAM GHOSH

How do we take stock of the quality of our lives?

Photo: K. Pichumani

No space for a smile: The rush to keep up.

WHAT really are the indicators of growth, development, or progress? Conventional wisdom directs you to look at the gross domestic product. If that does not satisfy your appetite for a perspective, there is the gross national income (to discover how international trade raised or crushed the financial well-being of a nation), then the per capita national income; and thereafter the bundle of goods and services that a person with access to resources equal to the per capita national income can command. And more.

Statistics

To make one's gut sense even more sustainable and defensible, one may look for the quality of life index and discover whether, and by how much, this index crept up or slipped over a period of time. The search can be a nightmare to a statistically disinclined person, and certainly so to someone who cannot do much more with numbers than basic MADS (multiplication, addition, division, subtraction) or DAMS, whichever you prefer.

Fortunately, the signs of progress are not restricted to a stable of statistical tables, indices and mind-scrambling coefficients. The signs are everywhere. They are so common that we tend not to notice them. We take them for granted.

Take the railway booking counter, for instance. With numbered chairs for ticket seekers, there is little that the adventurous can do except coming as a group (as travel agents do) to usurp the seats and prevent others from booking their tickets. Endless corrections are made on reservation slips till the final outcome is as legible as a code hidden somewhere within a block of dark noodles. They get their tickets nevertheless. Which means that deciphering the cryptogram is obviously commendable work by amateur cryptologists — the booking clerks.

If you consider a service higher up in the social pecking order (airline tickets), the service is more systematic — based on token numbers displayed on electronic displays, with tokens supplied at the enquiry counter. The on-line booking facility has helped shed the flab of queues at airline booking offices.

Road users constitute a steady sign of the nation's progress. On the supply side of facilities, there are agencies that install macadamised surfaces.

The woeful shortfall at times in the quality of the surface is hardly an indicator of a nation's progress. It highlights instead the failure to monitor quality — for whatever reason.

On the demand side we have road users. The lack of patience and discipline stares at those who wish to see. The slowest moving of all road users are the pedestrians.

Instead of treating them with respect that is evident in nations considered to have progressed and developed, pedestrians on Indian roads are considered a menace — and treated with contempt and belligerence by others. A car or truck will rarely stop for pedestrians, unless uniformed traffic constables usher them across.

Vehicles weave in, out and across at the signal because none wants to miss the green. Large vehicles veer towards the left lane from the extreme right to take a left turn, caring little whether vehicles behind are blocked for precious seconds — the timer keeps ticking all the while — during the robbery of rights. This is an indisputable sign of lack of discipline. The chagrined lot slam on the horns (musical or cacophonic) — a certain sign of lack of patience.

No space for the slow-moving

The amber light is not taken as an alert for road users to slow down for the red but as a prompt to shoot across as fast as possible. The passage right seems to exist for a few seconds after the signal turns red as latecomers join the rush — to avoid waiting at most 180 seconds during peak hours.

In this race there is no empathy for the slow moving road users, including cyclists. India can take pride in its population of bicycle users for whom no State provides an exclusive right-of-way or a pathway.

Where traffic managers have tried to streamline the movement by placing concrete blocks on carriageways, many users violate the inviolable lane to form a bulge at the traffic signal.

In their spirited move to beat the light, they block the free movement of others behind them who could take the free turn — usually left. Can you deny that this is a sign of indiscipline and lack of patience?

What about public transport? State corporation local buses are more than packed during peak hours, and even if they aren't buses routinely skip scheduled stops to avoid taking school children and office-goers. Probably because students are free riders sanctioned by the Government, and office-goers are monthly ticket holders. So both groups will not add to the commission that the crew earns everyday. Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, the U.S.-based cognitive scientist, would probably assign this to inactive mirror neurons.

Ways of saving money

Though only a handful of cities in the world are blessed with waterways, and India certainly has an overwhelming share of this, waterways here are lined with garbage bags and disposables that should have been tossed into civic body-provided concrete bins in almost every area of a city. As it is cheaper to let sewage out into the waterways than paying the civic body for treating the sewage and letting out the treated effluent into the waterway, many citizens take the cool option — to save money every year.

It is not that people in developed countries do not ever have the need to empty their bladders while at a public place, but Indians seem to be chronically attuned to empty their bladders more frequently than canines on the street. Even in death there is no respite from the gripping signs of progress as unidentified middlemen professionally harvest the grief of the bereaved at crematoria and cemeteries.

So the signs of progress, you will agree, are many more than what conventional wisdom would agree. Self-discipline, patience and politeness (that is much more than wearing a plastic smile and singing a "Hi!") are surely signs of a nation's status of progress and self-confidence of its people.

A different indicator

The ability to smile is a confirmed stress buster, physicians insist. Cardiologists and cardiac surgeons say that stress is a silent killer, and an incredibly high level of stress can instantly cause cardiac infarction, killing a part of the heart muscle (myocardium) instantaneously without killing the person or making the person any wiser about what really happened deep within the body.

Don't the signs of progress titillate you? Of course, you say. But will you continue to smile at yourself if you found yourself acting involuntarily in such a show?

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