First Person | Toilet Talk

If we haven’t lost the ancient learning of Ayurveda or yoga, how did we lose engineering skills?

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

A few days back a mail landed in my inbox, exhorting me to take pride in my nation. Presuming that I do not take pride in being an Indian, it had a long list of reasons to gently nudge me across the line between indifference and pride. The list had the usual suspects like how the first aircraft in the world was built in India, how the first organ transplant was done in India, the first nuclear weapon was built in India, the first transoceanic bridge was built by Indians, so on and so forth.

I laughed and deleted the mail. I felt no additional pride in my country having read these precious nuggets about our supposed greatness. The reason for this is simple. I can take pride in things I see or experience in my environment. How can anyone take pride in things which have absolutely no bearing on our present? Those who do so, to my mind, have no confidence in their future so they thrive on past glories, imagined or otherwise.

We may have had an absolutely stupendous past, but our present really stinks. And not metaphorically alone. The litter on our streets, a combination of human, animal and vegetable waste, generates an unpalatable stench. And I don’t think building more toilets can remove this stench because our public toilets stink even worse. It is not uncommon to see desperate people relieving themselves in the open spaces outside the public toilets because going inside amounts to third degree. Which is why, when our visionary Prime Minister announced from the formidable ramparts of the Red Fort that by 2019 all Indians will have access to toilets I was not very enthused. Who will clean all these toilets?

Anyone who has used a toilet in any public space, like airports, shopping malls or five-star hospitals (starred hotels not included) would know how reluctantly the cleaning staff, hired especially for this purpose, goes about their jobs. On many occasions, they have the temerity to shout at customers for spilling water on the floor. I have been told by a cleaning lady once to wring my hands dry over the wash basin so that when I walk towards the wall-mounted hand dryer I should not drip water on the floor.

Ah, water, what is that, one might as well ask? Because in most Indian toilets in public places this one commodity which is either in excess (running taps or overflowing flush tanks) or scarce. In either case, it is not available to the users.

The readers will be justified in wondering why such low-brow writing in a magazine on national security? Precisely, if you can’t even get the low-brow right, how do you claim to get the high-tech right? In the same aforementioned speech, the Prime Minister also urged the world to come and make in India. Make what? Anything and everything. Right from shirts and knickers to complex electronic circuitry and jet planes.

It is not my intention to run down my fellow countrymen, but the problem with this is two-fold. One, we seriously lack the capability; and two, we seriously lack the attitude. Because we take pride in ‘chalta hai’ (let’s make do with it) and ‘jugaad’ (improvisation). Why do we need jugaad? Why don’t we get it right? Doesn’t it show that either we don’t know or we don’t care? Ever noticed that everything part of our daily routine is either imported or made in collaboration with foreign companies: escalators, elevators, scanners, even roads.

Take roads for instance. The Delhi-Noida toll road was inaugurated in 2001. And since then, come rain or hail, the road condition has not changed even one bit. The drive is smooth as ever. Reason: It has been built in collaboration with three foreign firms, two of them Japanese. Once in few years, parts of the road are refurbished quietly without disturbing the traffic too much. And even in the worst of monsoons, the elevated road has no water-logging. See the roads anywhere else in India. And let’s not even get into the border roads in the north, which we all understand should be a national priority.

In a recent conversation, the navy chief told me with a degree of pride how much the process of ship-building has been indigenised. It is a reflection of our mental make-up that we accept anything as our own as long as it is being made in India, never-mind if it is being licensed-produced. Maybe in other countries license-production leads to technology absorption and consequently construction of indigenous products. Not so in India. Our public sector units have been producing weapons and platforms under transfer of technology (ToT) for decades. Yet, none of this activity has led to the development of a truly Indian product. Forget exports, even for our domestic requirements!

Amongst the biggest Indian export to the world is trained man-power: our service industry, in which aspiring youth learn to follow instructions given by foreigners.

Of course, I take pride in India; nobody has to tell me to do that. I take pride in its multiculturalism, in its arts, cuisine, landscape, philosophy, yoga etc. But I cannot take pride in imagined technological achievements. Hopefully, one day I will.


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