Letter from… Milton Keynes

Letter from… Milton Keynes

Chris Langridge (right). Photo: AP

Many Indians, I am afraid, don’t like to hear that many of our problems have complex solutions

Sidin Vadukut

First Published: Sat, Aug 20 2016. 11 40 PM IST

And thus another edition of the Olympics winds to a close. India has won a silver and bronze that has sent the country into paroxysms of patriotic pleasure. And rightly so, I think—an Olympic medal is an Olympic medal. The competition does not automatically get easier or harder based on the nation you hail from. Swimming doesn’t get easier because you are American. Athletics doesn’t get harder because you are Indian. All medals are the outcomes of a complicated combination of things. Which bring us to the topic of today’s letter.
In between P.V. Sindhu’s and Sakshi Malik’s triumphs, the Olympics helped to generate great levels of national self-indignation. And this, inevitably, led to Indians—you, me, Shobhaa De—indulging in what I think is a particularly Indian form of solutionism.
What do I mean by this? Firebrand technology writer Evgeny Morozov is a staunch critic of modern-day technological solutionism, something The Guardian defined as “the idea that given the right code, algorithms and robots, technology can solve all of mankind’s problems, effectively making life “frictionless” and “trouble-free”.
My definition of Indian solutionism is slightly more global in terms of agency but local in that I confine it to Indian problems. Indian solutionism is the idea, perhaps increasingly widespread, that all of Indian problems boil down to one or two drivers that can easily be rectified if only certain agents would modify their behaviour. We see this solutionism in play during every moment of national indignation.
After the Nirbhaya case in Delhi, there were clarion calls for India’s patriarchal society to change its approach to women. Social change. That was the motto. If only our society would bring up men better, with greater respect for women, then things would improve. Others, including this writer, disagreed and brought up that mythical concept—law and order reform. You can’t wait for societies to change, this second group said. You need to create strong disincentives for violence against women “Lo aa gaya law and order waale!” critics of this approach chortled.
And then we moved on to the next indignation. A video clip was circulated widely recently in which Prime Ministerial Candidate Narendra Modi, not to be confused with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, suggested a simple solution for India’s Olympic medal problems. Just gather a bunch of sporting Indian Army jawans, train them, et voila! As they say in Delhi, medal hee medal.
More recently, Olympic indignation has led to an exciting new bout of solutionism. We would win so many more medals if:
1. We had a sporting culture.
2. Parents didn’t obsess over engineering or medicine careers for their children.
3. Sporting administrators would actually bloody do their jobs.
4. Private parties would spend more on sports.
5. If anybody at all would spend more on sports.
Et cetera, et cetera.
How wonderful if things just worked that way. Flip a few switches there, change a little society here, overhaul a little bureaucracy there, raise some funding here and boom! Medal hee medal.
But life is complicated. The Olympics is complicated. Everything is complicated. Consider the case of Great Britain’s National Badminton Centre (NBC) in Milton Keynes. The centre opened in 2000 with a view to create a world-class British badminton team. At Athens in 2004, Britain won a silver in badminton in the mixed doubles event. It seemed like an auspicious start.
Twelve years later, things are still moving along slowly. Shortly before his bronze medal match in the men’s doubles, British player Chris Langridge told the BBC that he wished more people would just play badminton in Britain. More interest, he suggested, would substantially improve chance of a British medal at the Olympics. Langridge went on to win the bronze. Only the second British medal in badminton since the NBC opened in 2000.
Last year, Badminton England announced that it was shelving a plan to build a brand new badminton complex in Milton Keynes because of a funding shortfall of just £4 million. Hopefully the medal in Rio may help towards that cause.
I bring up this story to show how winning a medal is a complex thing. The UK has, by any definition, a sporting culture. Badminton England has the infrastructure both centrally and all over the country, and is run frugally. (The NBC can be hired for conferences and meetings, for instance. An added source of revenue.)
Sports administration in the country is reasonably sound. And private and public funding is generally not impossible to come by. Also, it is a rich country. And yet, an Olympic medallist laments on television that enough people don’t play the sport.
In India these complexities get… more complex. Install everything I listed above and we will still have problems. Researchers have noted that young sporting talent require not just good genes, supportive parents and investment but also the right nutrition, the right mental coaching and lifelong hand-holding. And even then sporting success is a matter of chance.
But this is the kind of thing, I am afraid, many Indians don’t like to hear. That many of our problems have complex solutions.
Our obsession with solutionism, I think, comes from a few sources. The first is a general ignorance of how things operate. And by things I generally mean government. The Indian government is an astonishing beast. And it works in truly mysterious ways. The less we know about how it operates the more we are prone to think that it functions like a machine, with predictable inputs giving predictable outputs.
However, this is changing somewhat thanks to the deeply entrenched pro- or anti-Modi positions that people take. This behooves at least some investigation into, say, what rural electrification really means, et cetera, et cetera. But overall, we remain impatient for change. We see other countries reaping medals at the Olympics and feel let down by… something.
Secondly, Indian solutionism is probably a reflection of the kind of people who mostly populate Indian social media and the kind of content they—i.e., me—consume. There is a certain un-messy neatness to the solutions we get in TED Talks or Malcolm Gladwell books. Or to the cause-effect relationships we experience when we travel abroad on work or holiday. Everything seems so simple and straightforward. Why doesn’t India do the same?
Thirdly, and lastly, I think this penchant for solutionism is borne out of impatience. Nobody wants to hear that it will take a generation to make India safe for women or 24 years to start winning serious medals at the Olympics. But maybe it will take that long. Life is complex. India is a complex country. Impatience is a good thing, make no mistake. But it can become an awesome power when coupled with some resolve and appetite for complexity.
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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