Living in Mumbai, I am somehow bound to the “Will Mumbai become Shanghai?” phrase and all its connotations and interpretations. Before I come to my submission on our state of great expectations, a few words on the Shanghai syndrome.

First, Mumbai should look for a new phrase. That’s because, to my mind, Delhi has already become “Shanghai”. Sure, Delhi is not a port city or the commercial capital. But using the usual extrapolation of Shanghai to mean high-quality infrastructure, visible administrative determination (for whatever reasons) to clean up a mess and so on, Delhi scores.

Delhi is the only city in India where there are visible infrastructure improvements in short periods. Sure, Gurgaon residents are howling about the extra hour they spend on the approach to Delhi, but if you ask me, I see the men and machines working day and night to find some solutions. Unlike Mumbai, a city that took three decades to decide to build one bridge across a creek.

Just A 50% Chance..

Now to narrate two somewhat disparate examples. Remember Mumbai’s highway road signs (amidst crumbling or dug-up roads) requesting you to bear with the present for a better future? I don’t know about you but when I read them, I expected solutions that would fundamentally alter the road infrastructure in the island city. Far from it. As I see it, this high-decibel signage mostly meant that some roads or pavements would be re-layered. Yet, here I was thinking life was going to fundamentally change.

Allow me to shift gears. I happened to be in London the day Tata Steel announced its bid for Corus. It was interesting to see local media reactions. It was clearly a big thing. People wanted to know what would happen to Corus if the Tatas took it over. I didn’t know the answer. I still don’t, particularly now that it may not be the Tatas who will take over Corus.

Nevertheless, it struck me that ever since the Tatas threw their hat in the ring, their victory has been pretty much taken for granted by most of us—with the possible exception of Tata Steel brass and perhaps their investment bankers. Turns out as things stand they have only a 50 per cent chance, or is it less?

Expectation Overload

My point is this. We are in a constant state of expectation overload. In the case of Mumbai’s miseries, expectations appear so high that the outcome is laughable. Equally, albeit a little differently, in the case of a Tata-Corus, expectations have run ahead of reality. The Tatas may or may not be responsible for this but surely many others are.

And it goes on. From the unfinished Golden Quadrilateral highway project and government-sponsored advertisements which highlight announcements as achievements to erratic cricket performances and newspaper headlines that suggest something has already happened as opposed to “yet to”, we are in a perpetual race to declare conclusion or victory. The two are not necessarily congruous but the malady is common.

When the GQ project started, we were told to get ready to cover 1,000 km in 11 or 12 hours like on roads in the developed world. Guess what, thanks to litigation-induced blockages, we might actually take longer than what was planned. In any case, the gap between induced expectation and actual delivery runs into years, sometimes decades.

Where's The Word Gloom ?

Having said all of that, it’s still fine to over-expect in some areas, I mean you can keep expecting India to win at cricket or Sachin Tendulkar to score a century. It might happen (or won’t) but no one’s the wiser. It’s a little different when it comes to more fundamental issues of economy and infrastructure. We expect a Shanghai but fail to question the basic problems in civic infrastructure.

Now, a little digression. Exactly a year ago, I was sitting with Harvard Business School professor Das Narayandas at the HBS campus in Boston. Gazing at the falling snow outside, we were discussing, what else, India. “Is India Shining all over again?” the professor asked me. It was a rhetorical question, I realised.

Narayandas had this to say. The word gloom didn’t really exist in the Indian lexicon, referring more to those who were economically privileged and had benefited from the recent economic boom. As we go into 2007, I think of his words again. Whether it’s crumbling Mumbai or our global business aspirations. Or my concern, taking off from Narayandas’ posers, that our record GDP quarter growth numbers will make us believe we’ve cracked it all, already.

Plunging Ahead..

And so I ask, are we plunging into another new year overawed by the past, expecting miracles from the future ? Without rolling up our sleeves to solve the basic problems that still plague our existence? Are we assuming conclusion when we are far from even the beginning of the solution. If you ask me, my first thought for 2007 would be to set right expectations, individually and collectively. That way, we will achieve more and be less dissapointed when things don’t happen. Like realising how Mumbai will not become Shanghai. And accepting that even a Delhi can get its act together.

This article first appeared in Business Standard


Lubna said…
Hi Govind,
Happy new year. As someone posted on my blog - the era of sms greetings and ecards is long over, now it is posting on the blog. But believe me, this greeting is sincerly meant. - Lubna
Anonymous said…
Govind, your write up evokes mixed reactions. In part, I believe that much of the hype about Shanghai is created by media or those who seek to control them by overt or covert means. It is the obsfuscation of the issues; much like the FUD (Fear Uncertainity and Doubt) techniques employed by the corporations.

We do aspire for 'developed' countries' standards without really putting the plan in action. It is the classical Nehruvian school of action. If you give everything that people really want, with what promises would you get elected next time around?

Much like the intelligentsia, it's easy to blame the system. Without realising that we are very much part of the system all the while.

If you wish to set an agenda for the new year, I believe that we could collectively get together to vote out the undeserving candidates. Much as this sounds idealistic, it can be brought around in action if people start thinking about it all the same.
Hi Govind, Happy New Yearand thanks for the comment on my blog.
I'd say the expectation for 2007 runs like this:
No farmer suicides happen all year, no one sleeps on the pavements and get run over by drunken drivers and everyone is happy, Mumbai will not be flooded and will have plenty of good clean water supply. All cities in india will be de-congested, pollution free, with good roads, good electricity supply, no sewage problems, fabulous airports, generally things that work without any need for bribing anyone.
I expect our politicians to wake and do something drastic to improve the lives of the common person.
Oh, wait a minute, this is all a dream. These expectations don't fit in a country that boasts of a fabulous economy, GDP growth, "India shining", sensex at an all time high, Indian companies gobbling up overseas majors in huge deals. Is there a big gap between hype and reality? I guess our expectations for 2007 should be not to expect too much!
Anonymous said…
Here are a few predictions for 2007:

* The hype about India will continue. People will continue to expect Bengalooru to become Singapore and Mumbai/Delhi to become Shanghai. Neither will happen and all emerging Indian cities will continue to be plagued by the same ills. We will continue to repeat our mistakes when building cities.
* Infrastructure will continue to be woefully bad and woefully short of what is required. There will be plenty of proposed plans for infrastructure development and few will get off the ground. Those that get off the ground will take years to complete. And when complete they would have become irrelevant because infrastructure needs would have burgeoned many times over by then.
* People will continue to have more disposable incomes and the car buying spree will continue. But with awful road/highway infrastructure, our streets will become hell on earth.
* We will still not have a culture of innovation despite the media's effort to portray otherwise. There will continue to be idiots who will use stray efforts in tiny pockets of India to prove otherwise.
* Social problems in the form of regionalism, caste based politics, religious fanaticism, corruption, etc will continue in greater earnest.
* There will be no solutions to the Kashmir dispute.
* There will be continued apathy towards terrorist attacks.
* Corrupt cops and a crawling judicial system will conspire to make sure the poor citizens of this country are denied justice very often.
* Cops will still ask you to blow in their face to check if you've been drinking.
* You will still have to bribe your way through most common civic necessities - a water connection, a land records document, sewage connections, etc.
* There will continue to be more and more idiots who continue to chant the India Shining, "Let's get together and make a change in this country" slogan.

In short, the common man's strife will continue despite the media's effort to paint a rosy picture of this country. All this is depressing, but these ought to be our expectations if we don't want to be severely disappointed come 2008. The only way to stay optimistic about this country is to have no expectations at all.
Arun Cavale said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arun Cavale said…
Hi Govind,

I had penned something on this phenomenon sometime back on my blog.

Basically, we are a nation of escapists: we hope,expect and demand somebody else to arrive and magically cure all our ills (Sidebar: wonder if it has anything to do with our upbringing on a diet of Dashavtaars/avtaars of gods..).. while we fail to realise that that somebody is you and me.

On another day and time, you might want to question if this very failing is also the biggest strength of India - the eternal optimism of "postponed greatness" that you see in even the most wretched Indian.
Anonymous said…
Very nice article. Thank you for sharing it. Mumbai will be on top if we can get rid off the rampant corruption. It is very difficult to do business in India. Mumbai is better than the north, but it is still daunting.

Mumbai on top by 2015
Govar said…
It is very disappointing to see that bureacracts give out such as mumbai to shanghai in 2010. It is even more disappointing that mainstream media picks up these news articles and makes a fuss out of it. Eitherway, I don't see anything fundamentally chanding in the next 10 years for the bottom 25% of the population.
Hi Govind,
You have talked about a fundamental problem with the Indian society about the hype that we create. I want to ask you, can you truly honestly touch your journalistic heart and say that you and your fellow journalists are not responsible about the hype that gets created. Didn't the media channels go gung ho with articles about How India was taking on the world now and how we are acquiring so many companies all around the world, even before the deal was finished?

The media is to be squarely blamed for its ability to hype, a case in point, India's victory in the First test in SA was heralded as the dawn of a new era, unfortunately dusk wasn't too far behind.

So, why not the journalists of India take an oath in 2007 not to create unnecessary hype?

Govind, the arguments put forward touch a raw part of any Indian and especially a Mumbaikar. I cannot stand to see my city being ripped and r@ped by politicians.

And thanks once again for sharing your thoughts with us.


Anonymous said…
Shame on you NRIs,like Anup Murthy, who never do anything for the country but still criticise. Why do you want to not do your duty to India? At least there are some bureaucrats to try to make a difference, but you do NOTHING. Shame on you
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