India’s problem-solving problem

When a fallen tree obstructs the road, do you stop to move it? Or do you drive around it?

Two days ago five child marriages took place in Chachiyawas, on my doorstep. Ten spritely children, blessed with potential, were needlessly bound and chained. My community knew it was wrong, but they know that it will happen again. This is India.

Last week a colleague was subjected to attempted rape by two men, both drunk. The attack happened on my campus. Friends showed indifference or blamed the victim, a ‘loose’ woman who messed around with other men. Eyes roll; people sigh at my naivety. This is India.

In February, a friend was killed when his motorbike was hit by a van, a needless death caused by a myriad lack of road safety measures and awareness. There was no police investigation to find the driver and no campaign to improve road safety. People were distraught, but the circumstances were soon forgotten. You see, this is India.

I don’t have to study India’s problems to know what they are. They hit home every single day. I’m overwhelmed with a checklist – a checkbook – of problems I’m fighting to resolve. But with each endeavor I make to solve those problems, reality creeps in; I can’t fix India in a year.

Neither can my friends. This is India. It’s their excuse.

The road to Ajmer is pretty, lined with desert; imposing mountains on the horizons. The dry ride on the back of a motorbike evokes an era of Texan cowboys. But pleasant daydreams are rudely interrupted by potholes and loose rocks. At times the road ceases to exist, or diverts across the bush where it becomes an impasse. Still, the route carries traffic, government buses, heavy trucks, laden tractors and camel and cart.

It’s important that it remains operational. So the government strips the tar and lays a new road. And for a few weeks the road is fine.

Then the cracks start appearing, most often in the same places. New routes are carved through the bush. Government buses dodge motorbikes and potholes in tandem, and accidents happen. The government strips the tar and lays a new road.

The problem is quickly fixed, but it’s not permanent. The tar is a cheap, patchwork solution. And patchwork solutions are applied everywhere to solve bigger problems than poorly managed roads, like corruption.

Many Indians consider their politicians corrupt. It’s a big issue and requires real solutions. Political scandals involving the Commonwealth Games, 3G phone licenses, and illegal property deals have bought down senior government ministers and members of parliament. Innocent officials are tainted by association; the profession is considered undesirable.

So structures have been set up to fight it. The police already exist, so their powers are reinforced. To monitor government, an anti-corruption body is set up. Extra legislation is brought in to increase accountability.

But here’s where it goes wrong. Each of these can be subverted with more corrupt practices, with more bribes, more kick-backs, and more under-the-table deals. Corruption is now so engrained that these patchwork solutions don’t fix anything; India’s bureaucracy can be peeled back one layer at a time, like a piece of appliqué.

In March 2011, India’s top anti-corruption official, Polayil Thomas, had to resign after being accused of corruption. And for each of the five child marriages mentioned earlier, police were complicit in a cover-up. My district doesn’t just look like the wild-west; it is the wild-west. When I ask friends why this isn’t reported, they are apathetic. This is India.

So corruption is a problem, and a big one at that. It’s an epidemic. But India’s patchwork solutions don’t start or stop with efforts to fight corruption.

In booming cities, houses built to accommodate burgeoning residential demands inevitably fall apart, becoming safety hazards because the materials used are poor quality and hurriedly assembled; unsustainable farming in Punjab uses pesticides that increase short-term harvests but damage long-term yields; and across Rajasthan wells are built deeper and deeper to gain short-term access to a water table that will soon be depleted.

When you bring these together, it becomes clear India faces a bigger problem than corruption, than broken roads, than a collapsing water table. India has an endemic problem-solving problem. And it starts with a preference for short-term fixes over long-term solutions.

But it’s even bigger than this. You see, to fix a problem, especially a problem-solving problem, you have to identify the problem. In this case a problem-solving problem. Confused? Join the club.

I’ve encountered several fallen trees on journeys across India, most of them on the road to Ajmer. I consider them a problem, but my friends don’t. This is India.

By driving around fallen trees – at times an awkward enterprise – the problem of the tree-in-the-road can be ignored. The road is still navigable, making the tree a mere inconvenience for passing traffic. And it’s not an inconvenience we need to remedy because driving around the tree is still an option.

I recently conducted an intensive two-week training course for teachers and faculty I work with. Through my year of service I’d identified several areas of training with one central agenda: to develop the problem-solving ability of staff.

The second day – Accessibility Day – required staff to adopt disabilities for a two-hour adventure course around the campus, where they would interact with different people and environments. The three groups were given artificial disabilities to make them deaf and mute, blind, and physically disabled.

My learning objective was for teachers to understand problems faced by disabled children on our campus. If they understood those problems, I thought, they could propose solutions. In our first post-activity reflection, I asked them to list the problems they faced.

The feedback was startling. Of all the groups, only one – the physically disabled group – acknowledged difficulties caused by their disability; that they could not access areas restricted by staircases while in wheelchairs. When I asked about rocks and sand, they were considered minor inconveniences.

The other groups had difficulty recognising problems they faced. They found the task hard, but they couldn’t explain why. The blind group had navigated the entire course with the help of the one team member who was sighted (for safety reasons). Being blind had become a slight inconvenience. When prompted, they acknowledged that staircases were an issue, but with care, they could use them.

The deaf group, instructed not to speak and with ear plugs in their ears, apparently had little trouble communicating because they were able to perform charades, deflecting that deaf and mute inconvenience. Their biggest problem? They didn’t face any.

While their disabilities remained inconveniences they could – with a little effort – find a way to work around them. They found the easiest option and ran with it; just like the government road, just like the extra bureaucracy, and just like the tree in the road. Even my teachers are inflicted by India’s problem-solving problem.

A bus rolls by. Most of the windows are broken, the passenger door no longer exists, the rear ladder is barely attached, and the exhaust is ungodly. But the bus still moves. These are inconveniences, and inconveniences do not need fixing. This is India. Inconveniences are not problems.

Child marriages are a problem in India, and organisations like mine spend time visiting villages to talk to communities about why they are wrong. Last weekend, friends on campus invited me to attend the child marriages in Chachiyawas. So certain were they that everyone would attend, they closed the kitchen and canceled dinner.

As I rejected the invitation out of principle, my friends started to laugh. I was being idealistic, lofty, bringing my liberal values into this traditional wilderness. But work had turned into play. Staff were no longer going into the village to explain why child marriage was wrong. I was being naïve; this is India.

The partisan nature of professional and cultural responsibility is a huge problem. But the staff hadn’t even considered it. To them, this was as different as night and day, they hadn’t connected the dots. When I pointed to the contradiction the air fell silent; staff looked stunned, as if I’d broken their world in two. When faced with an undesirable truth, the human reaction is denial.

When a female colleague was sexually assaulted last week, my friends knew it was wrong, because that’s what they teach every day; that a woman is equal to a man. But they blamed the woman for her role in the incident, for her ‘loose’ ways. She was, to them, a slut.

One perpetrator was sacked immediately, but his community didn’t ostracize or shame him. They claim his dismissal was unfair. They continue to laugh and joke about the incident, because she was asking for it. It is her who is ostracized. Her boyfriend has since had nothing to do with her.

The next day, our social campaigners tell people over loudspeakers that women should be treated like respect, they hang banners showing why women should not be housebound, and they tell husbands that their wives should be given the right to work.

Manisha is an excellent special educator who is invested in her work. By day, she preaches equality to our children; she is a fantastic advocate for inclusion. But in November she will marry, and at the insistence of her family, she will quit her job to remain at home. She’s almost oblivious to the contradiction she’s facing. But there’s a glimmer of realization. Shrouded in defeat, Manisha asks a question. This is India, what can I do?

These are huge problems. The activists I work with perform great work in order to solve problems of social injustice. But at home, they undermine the solutions they are working towards. It’s not intentional; there is an incredible disconnect between their professional and cultural responsibility.

Like the teachers in my adventure activity, they have trouble identifying the problem. But when the problem is presented, my colleagues experience denial. Manisha knows what she should do; but tradition dictates otherwise. This is India.

So India’s problem-solving problem is a cerebral morass. Of all my anecdotes, the causes and consequences are no doubt related. The matter is simple; together, India faces a massive problem-solving problem.

I’ve been here a year and I’ve done things I’m proud of; I’ve built features to make the campus more accessible, I’ve taught teachers to be more inclusive, I’ve invested time and energy to create new employment opportunities. But I haven’t helped India tackle its endemic problem, the problem-solving problem. I’m just fixing problems for them. After eleven months, my work is not sustainable.

Now helping friends fix their problems has become a priority, made obvious during my recent training. What’s going to happen when I leave? Who is going to advocate for long-term solutions over short-term patchwork? Who is going to identify problems they consider inconveniences? Who is going to point out contradictions between role and responsibility?

India’s problem-solving problem has become my problem-solving-problem problem. It might sound philosophical, but this problem better have a solution.

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9 Responses to India’s problem-solving problem

  1. Pingback: India's problem-solving problem | Simon McNorton | Solve Math & Science Problems - Solveable.com

  2. OMG! Is India really that bad?

    • Simon S. McNorton says:

      Hey Kieran. It’s not that bad! Really, there are a lot of problems, but there’s a lot going right too. It’s the same in every country! You should visit with your mother!

  3. My mum said that we might be going there in the future.

  4. rkkall89 says:

    Casually came across your post. I am an Indian working in Germany, and many of your observations are true and make sense. As an engineer I have noticed that there is a type of problem-fixing that many Indian engineers take pride in: they call it ‘Jugaad’ (equivalent of a hack , or a temporary patch up fix). Ask around about this term, people might show you what they mean by it. Sometimes, so much pride is carried around with Jugaad (wrongly so) that it becomes a permanent solution :/

    Alles Gute!

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