Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Stuff Indian People Like #5: Rituals

Most of us are aware that this is true from the context of the Hindu religion, which has a multiplicity of gods that are everywhere and in everything, so there is always this god or that to pray to for any situation that you are facing in life. Word is Amir Khan's latest film even satirizes this point.

But as I've alluded to before, if you look around Indian society, rituals have penetrated so many everyday things as well. Recently I've been writing a bunch of checks from my personal Indian bank account. To properly write a check in India, it's not enough to write the name, date, amount, and then sign. You also can't make a single typo and scratch anything out, or else the entire check is void. Plus you have to make sure you write 'only' after the amount and cross out any unused space, write "A/C payee" in the top left corner with two diagonal lines around it to double-ensure that the check will be deposited, and cross out the "or bearer" line to triple-ensure. And since the bank still doesn't believe you want to actually transfer money to somebody, you may get a phone call to quadruple-ensure. I swear, I got an "Are you absolutely positive?" phone call from my bank asking to process a check I had written. I was dumbfounded.

Because of all this I get so nervous when I write checks, which is ridiculous because it's just writing a check! I'd be surprised if I've had to re-write more than 5 checks out of the hundreds or more I've written in my entire life, but in the last 2 months I've had to re-write 2 out of 5. I think the thing that gets to me is in the back of my mind I feel like the bank is looking for any excuse to reject rendering the service they exist to provide. That makes me annoyed, which makes me flustered. I get this feeling repeatedly while doing everyday things in India.

Another ritual I've been engaged in recently is signing up for services with a phone company. For the past 2 months I have been trying to upgrade a phone line we subscribed to with Airtel for our research project. Note that I am trying to upgrade, meaning I want to pay Airtel more money than we currently do, but even for that they are falling over themselves in ineptitude. The ritual works as follows: every day or so I call up the Airtel representative that has been "working" with me, telling him how we needed the upgrade a month ago and asking what the status is. Then the rep apologizes and assures me he's trying his best, giving me one of a rotating list of excuses: he's been sick, he's waiting on approval from his boss, his boss has been sick, there is a death in his family, there is a death in the family of his boss. Then he ends by promising he'll get back to me within a day with a resolution. Every day he makes that promise, and like clockwork every day he breaks it. The craziest part of all is that this guy has to be aware that after 2 months of this natak, all he has produced is a raggedy trail of broken promises. And yet he continues the ritual, each day with a zeal that makes me kinda sorta believe that maybe this time he means it.

I was talking to Anjali about this and she said this is standard operating procedure in India. You have to follow up with people multiple times to get what is seemingly a simple job done, even if it is the single job that person is trained to do. So really you can't delegate work in India in the traditional sense. You still have to keep that ball juggling in your own hands because you have to remember to remind people to do their own work.

In Anjali's experience with Gramshree, it took 9 years for a shift to occur, where the group of people just below the top management took initiative and could be relied upon to carry out work without follow-up. She said it has to do with how people are educated here. People are trained to fall into line, to conform. Out-of-the-box thinking is not valued. There is an intense culture of bureaucracy and hierarchy, and I think in such an environment people are dis-empowered and lose personal drive and initiative. People are always at the mercy of some looming superior or the other, it's like a glass deewaar. And perhaps people eventually come to depend on that deewaar to nudge them forward.

I have a theory that the hierarchies and associated rituals that are deeply rooted in Indian society are a by-product of over-population. When you have so many people, creating structures and uniformity is a coping mechanism for getting things done. Have millions and millions of students applying for a limited number of college seats? Create a rigid set of standardized tests and only let in the top X scores. Have too many bank checks to process? Create a bunch of quarks to check-writing that give more chances to reject the check. The positives are that the system moves and the imposition of standards and protocol gives the perception that there is quality control going on. The negatives are that the system by definition does not adequately serve everyone, and the people become ritual-oriented, a trained population of hoop-jumpers.

As with most things, it seems the antidote is a revolution in how people think, which can come from a revolution in how people learn.

UPDATE: Coincidentally, Trishna recently posted an incredible valedictorian speech from an American high school student arguing that her own education to date has been a training in being a worker, trapped within a slave system of repetition, not a human being.

Read about other stuff Indian people like here.


  1. I'm eager to experiment with management techniques to change this mentality. I got some great tips from the guys at persource on how they've done this with their own staff, so far.

    The really tricky question is: How do we best develop a new mentality in folks where you don't have a direct reporting relationship, such as these service providers?

    I recently gave up opening a Citibank NRI account (specifically an "NRE" account) after their employees, in both the U.S. and India, consistently gave me false information, screwing up my application. This, despite the fact that I had two NRI accounts with Citi 5 years ago.

    My current plan is to return to the U.S., target Citi's biggest competitor for the NRI accounts market, and sit down with a rep face-to-face to get all the documentation settled.

  2. Can totally relate to the check cashing madness. State Bank of India has yet to cash a single check I've sent to India. This is particularly frustrating because I find out only after a.) recipients fail to get their money & call OR b.) SBI charges me Rs. 55 - 75 for their failed attempt at cashing the check, and then sends me a statement 3 months later.

    Several times last year, I wrote checks to myself to access cash, given that SBI couldn't get my ATM card to me, and even then, go through about 30-40 minutes of identity-checking, signature matching, and byzantine baton passing before they'll give me my own money. Even then, I get hit with Rs. 55-75 if I cash a check outside Gujarat!

    Honestly, its not even worth the call to India to straighten this out. And its not even worth taking my money out of SBI to another bank as service is usually poor everywhere.

    Indians love to build temples. In many ways, banks and other institutions are great temples of incompetence, complete with rituals that go through the motions but fail to deliver any real juice.


  3. Neil, this is too funny. Dont worry, down south in Bangalore, I am going through the same bang-my-head-on-the-desk motions. FYI-- icici is notorious for creating layers of redundancy. But what I want to know is, Why are you still writing checks? I have never once needed to write a check here. Just use my debit card or cash. I just got rejected for a PAN card. Maybe we should combine our knowledge together and post some tips/best practices for others.