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Ramesh Jude Thomas

The author is president and CKO, EQUiTOR Value Advisory

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Corruption Is Not Our Biggest Problem

The real killer in a gutsy, gifted nation like India is low standards. We revel in mediocrity at every twist and turn. If we believe we can get away with less we will. By and large

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For the last two months since the Big Mo ran the demonetisation thingy, I've been thinking about ill-gotten gains. Are we a corrupt nation? It is undoubtedly a pervasive and debilitating symptom in the system. But is it the disease? Is it the leit motif of our society? We generally berate ourselves as being a corrupt ecosystem. We also lay all the blame for our troubles as a country at the doorstep of this symptom.

I would profess that corruption is rife and undesirable. But is it the real reason why we are still a developing country. In spite of all our 56" chest beating, we still account for less than 3% of the world economy. For a country that has 17% of the world's population. Our share of global trade is even worse at 1.62%. And our take of global market value trails our GDP by 70 basis points. Why? Someone like the US and China have institutionalised big ticket corruption. And yet together dominate the global economic narrative.

To argue this threadbare, lets look at it through the lens of corruption itself. Consider the building of an Olympic Stadium. Say India and China at the same time. The budget is allocated, the contract is awarded. Big money will exchange hands under the table on both sides of the Himalayas. Lets not kid ourselves. But there will be a one big difference. You guessed right.

The two will be built to very different standards. The Chinese one will be state of the art (remember the Bird's Nest) in terms of architectural standards, materials used, time management and finish.

Do I need to do an embarrassing comparison ? Do you still think our largest problem is corruption?

If you believe this is a government sector problem alone, think again.

Here's a typical story that most of us are familiar with. We make a down payment for a flat and then commit our next 15 years of sweat and toil to the builder and the bank. The brochures are great and they offer you the moon in 1800 square feet within 12 months. After a year your dream home still looks like a world war 2 target. After 24 months and wars of words, you get a compromise because every one needs to move on.

Now think of the banks who fund this. I have to go and apply for a change in my floating rate with a fee attached to effect the change, after the bank has announced a rate cut. Why isn't it automatically changed as they would if it was the other way round? They don't need to make an application to me when the rate goes up, do they.

I'm sure you, dear reader, can think of a a hundred instances of shoddy, low standard responses you have experienced. From institutions, commercial organisations, housing societies and even family members at times.

The real killer in a gutsy, gifted nation like India is low standards. We revel in mediocrity at every twist and turn. If we believe we can get away with less we will. By and large.

Here's an outstanding exception. I grew up in Calcutta and I crave the street food from there. Here in Bangalore a little place called Kitchen of Joy serves authentic Shinghara ( a Bong samosa) , chop and bhaader chai in the evenings. The other day when I asked for my favourite Shinghara they said it was not available for a week. I was aghast and dejected but was curious about the week. So they informed me that the guy who makes it was on leave in Asansol and there was no one else to make it like him. Here's my point: they could easily have retained their volumes with a make good substitute cook. Many may not have known the difference. But these guys appreciate that the basis for their existence was their authenticity for the nostalgic like me. They refused to lower the bar. They don't want mediocrity.

How many of our famed businesses can lay claim to this culture? The old Air India under JRD, the original business class of Jet, the millionaire brownie from Theobrahma. We have spoken about these in the past in another context.I'm only saying that if we languish below the radar, please don't blame it on corruption. The answer is somewhere else.

Here's to a truly high standard 2017 for each one of you !

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corruption Demonetisation gdp growth