What makes it difficult for us to spot talent?

It is heartening to know that the Magsaysay award winners from India this year are Bezwada Wilson & T.M. Krishna for their yeoman service in manual scavenging in KGF and propagating Carnatic music in slums of Chennai.

The flip side of this is Wilson and Krishna were never recognized by the Indian establishment till date. These are not isolated events. Kailash Satyarthi who shared the Nobel Peace prize in 2014 along with Malala had a similar fate in India likewise.

One of the main premise of this article is as Indians do we have the ability and the intention to spot the talent as well as the achievers?

A number of people had to do google search on Kailash Satyarthi after his Nobel to know about his work and him.   Saif Ali Khan the noted(?) actor had the temerity to say that Satyarthi did not even get a Padmashri, how could he get  a Nobel? Incidentally Saif was a Padmashri recipient.  His mother Sharmila Tagore Khan being  the Chairperson of the Censor Board then might be just a coincidence!

In 2008 an unknown scientist delivered a talk on ribosomes in IIT Madras. The auditorium was almost empty with hardly 300 people. The next year the same person spoke on the same abstract topic,  but this time the auditorium was overflowing with  more than 3000 people eager to listen to this scientist. How come this person become a celebrity within such a short span?

He was none other than Venkataraman Ramakrishnan,  the recipient of Nobel prize in Chemistry ( for studies on the structure and functions of ribosome ) in 2009. The media in Tamil Nadu claimed he was Tamil as he was born there,  the counterparts in Gujarat claimed he was a Gujarati as he studied in MS University,  Vadodara. Some journalists and Indian students  even had the courage to ask him what did he do to earn a Nobel? He found the question a bit embarrassing  and said there is no such  formula. The Indian Govt. Conferred Padma Vibhushan on him in 2010.

Look at this : Hargobind Khurana won a Nobel in Biology in 1968. One year later he received the Padma Vibhushan. Mother Teresa was honoured with Nobel Peace prize in 1979. Bharat Ratna was awarded to her in 1980. For almost 40 years prior to that Mother Teresa was working for the underprivileged through  her Missionaries of Charity which she started in Kolkata.    Professor Amartya Sen won the Nobel in economics in 1998;  next year he was conferred with Bharat Ratna. Now some unknown (?) person- Ms. Wangani Muta Mathai ( 1940-2011) was  a Kenyan environmentalist and a political activist who started the green belt movement. She was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2004. The Indian bureaucrats lost no time in recognizing her achievements. She was awarded the Indira Gandhi peace prize in 2006.

Why is it difficult for the Indian establishment to spot not only the talent but also the great achievers?  The second point is honouring someone after he/she receiving the Nobel is a bit of paradox. Neither the person who may receive it may appreciate it to that extent ( Nobel being much well known and respected across the globe), nor does it raise the prestige of the Indian  awards.

The inadequate drive in identifying the achievers may be:

  1. Politics superseding merit: Every year the list of Rajyotsava awardees go on increasing, in Karnataka. Getting an award has become more important than doing some significant work.
  2. Looking at life as a means to an end : Valson Thampu in one of his article made an interesting observation. He says that we Indians look at everything as a means to an end. The students study not for the sake of knowledge ( means as an end in itself ) but to score marks to get into a prestigious institute. ( means to an end). No wonder Byju’s classes will get crores of rupees as funding to help students get into IIT. What one does with education has become secondary. So one studies to get marks so as to get into a good college and then to get a good job!
  3. No obsession for Quality : Getting a job, a contract through recommendation is far easier than getting it through merit! I was working in L&T three  decades back and one of the senior managers narrated an interesting anecdote about Holck Larsen one of the founder directors of L&T.  Larsen’s servant at home once said to his master, “ Sir,  my son has completed his ITI apprenticeship training. Your recommendation can make a great deal of difference for my son to make his career in L&T.“ Mr. Larsen gave him the necessary letter.

After a month the servant said, “ Sir in spite of your recommendations, my son has not been selected.” To which Mr. Lasen replied, “ I had given clear instructions to the personnel manager that your son can be selected only if he meets the specific competencies as required by the job description, and I am sorry I cannot do anything about it.”  No wonder L&T is an iconic engineering company due to such visionary leaders. Can we think of any Indian owner/CEO even having a such an attitude towards quality or merit?

I worked with the Toshniwal Group,  a Marwari company in the early eighties and later with L&T. Both the companies started approximately at the same time in 1948 as trading houses.  Even though the Toshniwals were the pioneers in instrumentation,  the group withered away as the focus was mainly on  family interest. In every subsequent generation,  the group went on splitting. L&T moved from strength to strength.

So every year, I look forward to the  Magsaysay award winners which help me to understand the true achievers who are making a silent yet a significant change in the society not only in India but also in Asia!

Rajan Parulekar , rajan@paradigm-info.com; 98450 14098

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