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In Search Of Excellence:WHERE ARE THE INCENTIVES?, by Dharmendra Nath (Retd IAS), 30 Apr, 2010 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 30 April 2010

In Search Of Excellence



By Dharmendra Nath (Retd. IAS)


Ostensibly we seem to be suffering from a surfeit of excellence. It is strewn everywhere around us as a part of almost every name. We are surrounded by all kinds of institutions of excellence, Schools of Excellence, Colleges of Excellence, even Colleges with Potential for Excellence under a UGC scheme. If excellence was a matter of nomenclature only then there would be no problem.


‘Water, water every where, not a drop to drink,’ perhaps describes our situation aptly and also the limitations of a short sighted name-based excellence policy. Such a policy clearly raises unrealistic expectations and runs the risk of giving less than promised.


Harvard, Yale, Massachusetts or Oxford and Cambridge do not describe themselves as institutions of excellence; they are so rated by the people. In our own country before the craze began nearly a decade ago, we had widely known and respected institutions of excellence without any mention of it in their names. Everyone knew and flocked to them. In fact, their names defined excellence.


Of late, however, we are seeing excellence more in the name. Are we thereby replacing efforts to achieve excellence with excellence bestowed from above as a baptismal gift? Do we read excellence in names only and are quite unable to recognise it in its true colours?


A look at our performance paints a rather dismal picture. Our institutions of excellence are frequently manned by contract appointees, who are paid even less than the regular ones. This is ostensibly done in the name of scarce resources. But how do we hope to attain excellence without adequate compensation? As for money, there is no shortage of it in the country today. Turn any stone and you will find a hoard beneath it.


Commonsense says that contract employees are to be paid higher than regular ones partly to compensate them for the future uncertainty and partly to offset various other benefits that regular employment entails. But that does not seem to bother us. We would not like to recognise this and instead we merrily recruit those who are prepared to rough it out or to shortchange the system. This necessarily excludes the best and reduces the size of the talent pool tapped.


If our search for excellence is genuine it can be no excuse that there are long queues of applicants even under the present regimen. We all know that we can buy any thing cheap, only we have to compromise on quality. But that surely is not the road to stardom.


The bard of Avon said ‘What is in a name? A rose called by any other name will smell as sweet.’ We do not seem to subscribe to that at all. We try to put it all in the name. He also said ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them’. From the evidence around us it appears that we are earnest believers in the third route to greatness. Greatness is to be bestowed rather than achieved.


Not only with institutions, but in other walks of life too we seem to place a disproportionate faith in names. So we call ourselves Suyash,Vishal and Pragati. Our shops and establishments are named Santushti, Samarpan and Niramaya. Our residential colonies follow the same pattern Rameshwaram, Indraprastha etc. Our food articles and food supplements are similarly named to support their high-flying claims. A body trimming food supplement currently being advertised is suitably named Fatgo. For nutrition you clearly take Nutricharge. Are we so full of ‘hollow men’ and hollow institutions and such great believers in names?


The logic seems to be: just put it in the name and every thing else shall follow. Taste of the pudding is in the eating. Whoever said that? Not we. We would not like to go beneath the surface.


Name and face value carry such a lot of weight with us. Does our cultural orientation favour profession over practice? Swayed by profession and tall promises we see around us a lot of gullible people taken for a ride by conmen and fake salesmen. We read of those stories in the newspapers all the time. Turning ashes into gold!


It has been said that nothing compares with the misery of holding a position and not deserving it. That too does not bother us. In personal life the effort by and large is to get there by any means and not to look back or reflect too much on why and wherefore of things. But is that the road to excellence?


Even so, tall claims without substance will not delude even the credulous for long. And surely this kind of hide-and-seek entails loss of precious time and opportunity. We should be considering some alternative approach. For example, we could go in for some kind of an open grading system, something like star-rating of establishments. One could grade institutions on a star scale and also provide for some incentive scheme to improve star-rating. These ratings can then be assessed and reassessed periodically. That is far more likely to generate widespread excellence.


Building and maintaining incentives to excellence in the society is an ongoing task. The issue should therefore be taken seriously. To illustrate my point I will cite just one instance where we did away with an existing system of incentives to excellence.


We once had a system, perhaps by accident, to motivate achievement in public services. There were Municipal services, then State services and finally Central services, all with different grades of pay. Municipal services had the lowest grades, then came the State services and finally the Central services, which had the highest grades. People strove to improve their position by moving from the lower to the higher one. That provided an incentive to excel, to do better. In the name of equal pay for equal work we did away with that. Now almost all grades are the same and the advantage of an inbuilt incentive system has been lost.


Let us take a lesson from this. Communism has already inflicted a setback on our search for excellence for long by limiting human concerns to food, clothing and shelter. Human horizons cannot be limited in this way. Education, health, culture and self-improvement did not figure in their list of human aspirations. They never realized: ‘What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like A god! the beauty of the world………’


Let us not dither nor delude ourselves. Let us put in place an open hierarchy of institutions to nurture the competitive spirit in them and to encourage superior performance by whoever can. Bestowing the honour of excellence in name is ill-conceived and counterproductive.—INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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