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Like this only: Producing champs from scant resources

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CHIDANAND RAJGHATTA Musings on life, politics and economics from TOI's Washington correspondent

Greg Chappell must be the most hated man in India today after, let's see ... Ajmal Kasab? He's prodded us where it really hurts, launching what one report complained was a "vicious attack" on Indian culture that he said did not foster leadership skills because kids were not encouraged to think independently and make decisions. Chappell also feels Indians lack team spirit and prefer to avoid responsibility because they have a culture in which "if you put your head above the parapet someone will ... knock your head off. "

There is much to quibble about Chappell's pop psychology and spurious sociology, but the truth is, if the same observations had come from an Indian, we wouldn't have been in such high dudgeon. So set aside leadership and decision-making for a moment, we are an extraordinarily thin-skinned people who can't take the slightest criticism from foreigners without looking deep into motives and fishing out conspiracy theories.

Now, is it possible that Chappell may be right - or that his opinions are founded on the basis of his experience and deserve to be heard with respect no matter how disastrous his stint as an Indian cricket coach may have been? After all, Chappell prefaced his remarks by pointing to cultural differences between Indians and outsiders, and who would know culture better than a buccaneering Aussie?

Jokes aside, let us acknowledge for a moment that our education system, if not culture, has all the wrong emphases. This point has been made repeatedly by our own educators, and in this column, which has pilloried our learning-by-rote system that values compliance, conformity, and consistency over original ideas, creativity, and out-of-box thinking.

At a recent TED (Technology Entertainment Design) mindfest, an annual creative solutions' confabulation, Tom Rielly, the organisation's Director of Partnerships, mused about the poor quality of applications he gets from India for TED fellowships. Although India provides the largest number of TED fellows (nearly 100 out of 266), the numerical heft is mainly on account of a one-off TED bash in Mysore in 2009 and the country's demographic bulge. Otherwise, large numbers of application from the subcontinent are not worth a second glance (of course, the US offers the other extreme of this: the puffed-up resume full of vacuous claims).

This, Rielly contends, is mainly because of the overemphasis in India on academic grades and marks rather than innovation and originality. "We are really looking for the mavericks, the iconoclasts. It's okay they went to IIT so long as they are doing something awesome with it . . . like making a low-cost healthcare device, " Rielly said in an interview last week in Long Beach, California. TED, he maintains, is not interested in management consultants, lawyers, finance people etc;it's pointless to send resumes that show you as an IIT or IIM graduate with great grades if you haven't done anything else in your life.

Indeed, admissions offices in many US colleges and universities, where Indian students are sought after for their industry and diligence (and lately the dollars they bring in) also despair about the lame applications from India. The desi flubs begin with that awful, outdated term "bio-data" or the archaic "CV" (for "Resume" ) and go on to list a boring chronology of schools and grades. The weakest part is usually the essay that offers no vision, ideas, or clarity. Yet, if more students from India make the cut in US universities than from any other country (save China), put it down to our demographic muscle: just our college-going /US-bound constituency is larger than the population of many countries!

Still, the reason Indians succeed to the extent they do also comes, ironically, from Chappell's own pop thesis - the survival instinct (not putting one's head over the parapet). It reminds me of what the Indian technology guru Vinod Dham, formerly of Intel, once told me. Born into a situation of chronic scarcity and deprivation, our survival instincts are finely honed, he explained, recalling our use of public transport (before the proliferation of private transport). A public transport bus in India never halts at the bus stop because it is already overloaded. So as a commuter, your radar is always on high alert to make the 50-yard sprint either side of the bus-stop where the bus slows down momentarily to disembark a passenger. You make the run, get a toehold on the bus, someone hauls you in by the collar, and you squeeze in.

Then, he sighed, you go abroad, and what do you find? The bus not only comes on time, it has plenty of space, it comes to a halt in front of you, and the driver even lowers the steps so you can get on.

So yes, Chappell has a point. We are not perfect. But there is something to be said for a system that still produces the occasional champions from scant resources. Things can only get better from here on.

chidanand. rajghatta@timesgroup. com

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