In 1985, when I was studying at India’s premier business school, set up in collaboration with Harvard Business School, the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM Ahmedabad), our Professor of Organization Behaviour (OB) Area was Prof. Pulin Garg. One day he told us a very interesting story which has remained in my mind all these decades. He told us that some years earlier Ford Foundation, the American NGO, did a project to help village farmers to enhance crop yields by using metal plowshares instead of their traditional wooden ones. They adopted one village and set up their experimental and control plots. The experimental plots were plowed using metal plowshares, made from cast iron, while the control plots were plowed in the traditional way using wooden plows. They monitored the crops over three cycles and proved to the villagers that simply by using the metal plowshare, their yield would be enhanced by over 20%. I won’t go into the scientific details of why this happens here but will suffice to say that this benefit was made clear to the villagers. The day before they were to leave the village to return home, the Ford Foundation people called for a meeting with the village Panchayat (Council of Elders) and asked them if they were happy with the experiment and believed that the use of metal plowshares would benefit them. The Panchayat members and all the villagers agreed that they had watched this experiment and had no doubt about the benefit of the metal plowshare. The Ford Foundation people were delighted and as a parting gift, gave the village enough metal plowshares for all the farmers. The villagers were very grateful and thanked them profusely for their generosity. Three years later, Ford Foundation returned to the village to assess their project to see how successfully it was functioning. To their complete astonishment they discovered that nobody was using the metal plowshares. They asked the Mukhya (head of the Panchayat) what had been done with the plowshares that they had gifted the village with. They were taken to a storage hut and shown the plowshares, wrapped in sacking, stacked in one corner.
‘They are safe Sir’, said the Mukhya.
‘But why are you not using them. We came all this way to teach you this better way of farming. We proved to you that this way is better and you all agreed. We gave you the plowshares as a gift so that you wouldn’t need to spend any money to buy them. But you are still not using them, why?’
‘Sir we are so grateful to you for coming all the way from America to teach us. You are big people. We are nothing compared to you. Yet you took all this trouble for us. You are Mahan (great) people. We are very grateful to you.’
The Ford Foundation project leader tried his best to get an answer out of the Mukhya but any Indian who knows our culture and the trouble we have with direct rejection or criticism will understand, he got nowhere.
This is where my professor came into the picture. When he heard this story, he offered to go to the village and find out what was really going on. Ford Foundation needed an answer for their project report, so one afternoon Pulin arrived in the village.
Let me tell you the story in Pulin’s own words,
‘I arrived in the village and the Mukhya welcomed me. Naturally we don’t simply start asking questions as soon as we arrive. So, I drank the water they gave me, then tea. I was honored by being invited to stay with the Mukhya in his home, but opted for an empty house which they used for guests (usually Revenue Department officials) because when a stranger stays in a Jat home, it is a lot of hardship on the women, who are in purdah (veiled). I had a bath and changed into a new dhoti (Prof. Pulin Garg always wore a dhoti, even in class at the IIMA) and we met for dinner. We chatted about everything under the moon except the Ford Foundation experiment. They knew why I was there, but the propriety of the culture must be maintained. You don’t ask the guest any questions and the guest will not tell you why he is there until the basic hospitality is over.
After the evening meal was over, we sat and smoked a hookah when I opened the topic. ‘I believe the Americans were here to show you some new farming ways!’
‘Yes Sir, such nice people. They came all the way from America to teach us how to plow our fields.’
‘What did they do?’
‘They took two fields for their experiment………….(he gave Pulin a detailed description of the entire experiment and admitted that the yield was 20% higher with metal plowshares)
‘Are you happy with what they showed you and are you using the new plowshares?’
‘Sir, we are convinced that their method is superior but we can’t use the metal plowshares.’
‘Why can’t you use them? Is there any problem with the design? Is it difficult to use them? What is the problem?’
‘Sir, there is nothing wrong with the design and it is not difficult to use them. But we have another problem if we use them.’
‘Sir, we have a family of carpenters in our village. If we use the metal plowshares, they will lose their livelihood. So, we decided to remain with our traditional method because their well-being is our responsibility.’
Pulin told us, ‘Then I made the biggest blooper of my career. I spoke to them like a management consultant. I said to them, ‘But that is simple. You will get a 20% higher yield. Out of that just pay them what they normally earn by sharpening your wooden plows.
The Mukhya looked at him with a mixture of amusement and pity and said, ‘Sir you are one of us but you don’t understand us. Forgive me for saying it, but you are not in touch with your village. We can’t do what you said.’
‘Why not?’ Pulin was not one to accept defeat so easily.
‘Because Sir, they are artisans (Kareegar) not beggars (Bhikari). We can’t simply give them money and they won’t take it. It is not a matter of money. It is a matter of dignity and pride (Izzat ka sawal hai) Sir. They are our brothers and we can’t do this to them.’
Pulin said to us, ‘This was one of the biggest lessons I learnt in my career of consulting about the importance of culture in acceptability and applicability of solutions.
The lesson for me when I reflect on this story from over 30 years ago is even more importantly in the context of our interpersonal relationships. Over the years and decades this lesson has only become more and more clear, more and more urgent. That is why I believe that we all need to become villagers. Naturally I don’t mean that in a literal sense of going back to living in villages and farming the land, though let me say that it would be a wonderful thing to do if we could. I mean that we need to start thinking as villagers; at least like the villagers in this story. Thinking about others, as a part of us.
Let me explain. There are three principle differences between village and urban life. A village is a living being. It is whole. It functions by interdependence and understands how every element fits into the larger scheme of things for the whole village to prosper. In a village everyone has a place and every place is valuable and appreciated. The three elements of being a villager are to think in terms of:
- Mutual responsibility
- Mutual liability
- Mutual accountability
This produces a sense of community which is expressed in terms of shared feelings and reactions i.e. Gaon ka beta ya gaon ki beti (child of the village), Gaon ki izzat (dignity of the village) etc. That is why it is only in a village that you have a Panchayat. Mutual decision making by a group of respected elders (not necessarily in age, though age does play a part in selection to the Panchayat, all other things being equal) who are trusted to consider the welfare of the whole village when deciding a matter. I know that what I am saying here doesn’t cover the issues with caste discrimination but I beg your indulgence and request you to consider this as an example, which may differ somewhat from reality but still holds true. The difference in terms of caste privilege and discrimination is something to be addressed and eliminated to get to the true benefit of what I am describing here.
Cities and urban living on the other hand are the embodiment of the modern individualistic society that we have created for ourselves, much to our own detriment. It is not to say that everything about a city is bad. It isn’t. But one sure characteristic of the city is that it is all about individualism. Of disconnect between people. Of people living on their own, without concern for those around them, imagining that they are free of them and owe them no responsibility. The biggest icon of this mentality are the thousands of expensive houses in cities surrounded by abject poverty. How can anyone build and live in a million dollar or billion dollar house in the middle of abject poverty, unless he feels no connection at all with those living in squalor all around him? This is not an indictment of the individual but of the urban mentality. The tragedy is that there are thousands of such houses in Mumbai, Dhaka, Johannesburg and almost every other city, which are far removed from their neighbors. They are like fortresses in hostile territory and can’t exist without electric fences, guard dogs and security agencies. Huge disparities in wealth that don’t produce discomfort or compassion or concern for those who don’t have enough are a typical product of urbanization. The reason I mentioned this is to draw your attention to my contention that the problems of our world today are the result of global urbanization. It is the ideology of urbanization, not so much about real cities. Even villagers seem to aspire for it. This is the outcome of urbanization in the mind, the unbridled growth of individualism without any concern for the other, the neighbor, even the family. Suicide is a very common cause of death of wealthy singles in America and Japan and the cause of that is loneliness – the other face of individualism. We have all heard the term, ‘Global Village,’ which refers primarily to the fact that thanks to technology, distances have shortened and communication has become much faster. While this may be a way to look at things, in my view, it is more useful to look at the term ‘village’ in the more fundamental sense of what it is that makes a village, a village. It is not size, but identity, mentality and relationship. It is not affluence or size.
I have stayed in very affluent villages in Northumberland in the UK and very small cities in the United States. I was the defacto ‘headman’ of a ‘village’ on the bank of the Berbice River in the Amazonian rain forest, in Guyana. My life for ten years as a tea plantation manager was all about being the head of a village that comprised of those who worked on my plantation. Work, as it was, for me was not merely production of tea but of managing the affairs of people, counseling and arbitrating in marriage disputes, running a creche and primary and secondary school, a hospital and officiating at every religious function on the estate, irrespective of whether that was my religion or not. It was the finest hands-on training in human relations that you can imagine. It is how you think, feel, relate and see yourself in relation to others, that makes you a villager or a city dweller.
Globally speaking, if we look at our problems today, they are all related to lack of compassion, not lack of resources. We have enough wealth to ensure that not a single person goes to bed hungry, every child is guaranteed basic education, every home has clean water and electricity and every person has access to good healthcare. But instead we have 8 people (all men) whose net worth is more than the combined assets of 50% of the rest of the world. We have countries which over produce grain and dump it into the ocean while there are other countries which have millions living on the edge of starvation or starving. We have countries which are unable to produce food to feed their own people while we have others, where farmers are paid to leave their fields fallow so that the price of grain doesn’t fall due to over production. We know about EU’s butter mountain. It is price and profit, which drives decision making. Not compassion or concern for those whose need for survival must surely be more important than making money. We have countries whose defense (really offense, but called defense) budgets exceed their budgets for education, healthcare, elderly care, scientific research and housing, combined. This means that the country invests its assets in destruction instead of construction. That this is the case of even some of the poorest countries on earth, is an indicator of the individualistic mentality that I am talking about. Decisions are made to help the rich to get richer, not to alleviate suffering or develop those who need development.
I believe that it is necessary for us to become villagers. You may say that this is easier said than done. That is the usual reaction I get when I say these things. But my response is very simple. If I were to ask you, ‘Show me a way in which we can create a world where just 8 people will own more wealth and assets than 50% of the rest of the world’, you would say that I was crazy. You would say that this was absolute nonsense and simply couldn’t be done. Yet that is exactly what we have managed to create and that too in less than 100 years. It is my contention that if we change our focus from individualism to concern for one another, reversing this situation is not difficult at all.
The change must begin in the home. It must be reflected in how we treat our neighbors, especially those not related to us directly or indirectly. It must be heard in our conversations. Our conversations are the best diagnostic tool to identify our operative culture. It must be seen in our manners. It must be a heading in our budgets; spending on others. It must be felt by anyone who comes into contact with us. Being a villager begins by getting rid of strangers by making friends with them. In a village everyone knows everyone else. That is why there is very little crime in villages. Crime is difficult because you don’t steal from friends and you can’t escape from those who know you. So, get rid of strangers by getting rid of strangeness. Make friends. Friendship is built on trust, so build trust. The nourishment of friendship is giving and in that everyone receives. So, give. Make it a habit, to give something to someone every day. It is not about money or material giving. A smile is a gift. Opening a door is a gift. Offering to help is a gift. Sharing food is a gift. Believing the best about your neighbor is a gift. Give gifts, because this brings hearts closer.
I submit to you that we need to see the term, ‘Global village’, not as a statement of what we are but of what we need to become. We must become a ‘Global village’, not because of technology but because of caring and compassion and mutual appreciation and respect. Being a villager is not about the size of your house or whether it has a grass roof or mud walls. It is about how we think and feel, what we believe about each other and what we see as our duty towards our neighbors. We need to go back to our beginnings and become villagers and shed our urban covering. We need to meet each other, recognize each other, appreciate each other and acknowledge how each one of us is essential to the other for him or her to fulfill their lives. This is not philosophy or wishful thinking. This is the reality. It is only when we understand how we need one another that we can hope for global peace and harmony. The Prophet Muhammad (Peace be on him) said, “You are all like one body. When the head pains, the whole body feels the pain.”
That is what we need to realize, that we are one body. It’s time we see this.