Social criticism as a trigger for innovation
The democratic society can measure its success in decentralizing and opening up the decision making processes by the extent to which it invites and welcomes open social criticism. Unfortunately, the team of Anna Hazare or government or other institutions, everybody seems to believe, that entire truth is on their side. Willingness to discuss, debate and learn to create innovative solutions is going down. On the other hand, the other young people care less about the authority and are able to voice their views quite freely. But, the fear of authority is still very rampant. The disagreement is often considered a sign of disrespect. The admission of inadequacy does not make us vulnerable. But, diffidence towards dissent can choke the feedback channels and indeed make us vulnerable.
On the nuclear energy issue, we are aware of the risks and an open debate will do no harm. Many years ago, as a part of first year course, we had several colleagues from the atomic energy establishment and political parties openly discussing the pros and cons on the subject. There is no system which is completely foolproof. Therefore, recognition of risks and developing mechanism to deal with it will help in taking bold decisions in such matters. There is a tendency in the public administration to convert a problem of risks into uncertainty when they want to disown the responsibility. And do the opposite when they want to exercise control. We have to be careful that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. If the leaders in mid 60s had not taken the risks of importing large quantities of Mexican wheat seeds, green revolution would not have taken place. Similarly, if the computer scientists had not taken the chance when export of super computer of India was sent, the PARAM, the Indian parallel processing super computer would not have come about. In each case, there was a lot of criticism, but the criticism did not deter initiatives although the degree to which we could have learnt in each case may have varied.
The criticism of institutions of higher learning in the country has become a fashion with many public speakers. It is not that they don’t have an argument. They have. It is true that most of elite institutions are capable of doing far more than they have done in combining excellence, relevance and inclusion. Having said that, how do we handle criticism so that a genuine free thinking takes place at every level. If mediocrity takes over the dominant culture, then surely no institution can remain outstanding for so long. One reason why many great institutions begin to decline is the unwillingness of those at helm to learn from below, take pride in achievements of others and overcome the tendency to become self referential. Their mediocrity becomes the currency by which most measure their transactional value. It is time to recognize this cancer and implant or empower the antibodies against conformity, compliance and too much congruence with downward spiral of lower expectation, and lower achievements. Mediocrity thrives when one feels threatened by excellence and finds ways to stifle it, or bypass it. Redeeming feature of our society is that there are enough antibodies and renaissance is still possible.
If we can overcome the need for social adulation, we can also accommodate much more social criticism. These are two sides of the same coin, as somebody said. Hunger for social praise and intolerance of social criticism tend to go together. Let the leader make the choice. Society seems to have made up its mind. Reforms are inevitable. Every institution has to become more accountable, inclusive and relevant.
Anil K Gupta