Dr. Vikram Sarabhai Memorial Lecture
Dr. Vikram Sarabhai Memorial Lecture
Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad
March 7, 1978
MANAGING SOCIO-ECONOMIC CHANGE :
THE ROLE OF PROFESSIONALS
DR. V. KURIEN
National Dairy Development Board
Anand 388 001
Somewhere in the great beyond, which he knew so well, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai’s spirit must be having a good chuckle – at the sight of me, addressing this august audience on such an ambitious subject as mine today: “Managing socio-economic change: the role of professionals.” Would that Dr. Sarabhai were still with us – he would have done this job much better than I… But there was a strong reason for my accepting the honour of making this memorial address.
If it were not for Dr. Sarabhai, probably I would not be here today.
But first, allow me to tell you how I came to know Dr. Sarabhai – not, perhaps as an intimate – but in a way which taught me the true quality of the man. In the early 1960’s, Dr. Sarabhai and I met to discuss the organisation of rural television. He expressed his point of view. I expressed mine. In short, we disagree — and, what was worse, a little heat entered into the discussion; rather strong words were spoken – perhaps a little stronger than either of us had intended – and so we parted, our differences still unresolved … That night, quite late, my telephone rang. To my surprise, it was Dr. Sarabhai. He said “Kurien, I have been thinking over what you said this afternoon – and what I said, in reply. I feel badly about it. That’s why I’m telephoning you. I’m sure, if we get together we can resolve our difference”. So we did get together. We did resolve our differences.
And I learned something of Vikram Sarabhai’s greatness…
Subsequently, we met a number of times, mainly to discuss rural television. Then I met Dr. Sarabhai, quite by chance, in Delhi. He asked me what brought me to that wicked city. I told him the sad truth: I had come to submit my resignation as the newly appointed Chairman of the Indian Dairy Corporation. I explained that I had been asked (or instructed) to accept a Maharashtraian IAS Officer as the managing Director of the Corporation, since I was a Gujarati. I was not prepared to be the Chairman of the Corporation if I could not select the Managing Director – hence my intention to resign.
Dr. Sarabhai would have none of it. How could I resign he said – and so on. My sense of outrage evaporated under Vikram’s “treatment”: his wonderful mixture of no nonsense purposiveness, combined with an irrepressible sense of humour… It seemed no time at all before I met, along with Dr. Sarabhai, some powerful friends, to whom I explained the reason why I intended to resign. I was told to forget it: that no such pressure would be put on me.
Vikram’s word could not be doubted – and he assured me that my newly-won powerful friends were undoubtedly expressing the will of the government of India. So I returned to Anand, still Chairman of the Indian Dairy Corporation.
So far as I know, Dr. Vikaram Sarabhai never told anybody that story – and I have not told it publicly until today.
It came to my mind – and I decided that I should tell it today – when Dr. Samuel Paul, the Director of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, kindly suggested to me the title of this address. I should be grateful to him for this, because I could think of no title which would be appropriate as a memorial to Dr. Sarabhai. And I decided to start this address with my personal experiences with Dr. Sarabhai, because they tell many things about his greatness – and also because they illustrate the dilemma of the professional.
There I was, being told that I should accept an instruction – in this case, to take a Maharashtrian Managing Director – because “ I was a Gujarati”. Now, that really was a compliment in a way – that I should have come to be so much accepted as a Gujarati. But, in that matter, I had had before me the example of Mrs. Mrinalini Sarabhai the gracious lady from the South, whose presence here today is an honour – and to whom I would like also to pay tribute on this occasion. She showed the way, how I should learn about and respect the culture of Gujarat, where I had settled, to live and to work.
The dilemma of the professional
When I recounted the story of my near-resignation as Chairman of the Indian Dairy Corporation, I said that this illustrated the”dilemma of the professional.” By that, I meant; the professional sets himself a certain course – or has it set for him. Thereafter, he is impelled along the path to which he has committed himself. He cannot abandon that path and still call himself a professional.
For example, if you are employed by farmers as a professional, to manage their assets on their behalf, then you commit yourself to the farmer’s interest. You know the goal: the farmer must come into his own. That is what you, as a professional, have accepted.
There is no doubt about this matter. To “profess” means to be committed – committed to the mastery of a science, a system of thought – to an “ethic”, if you wish. A professional is one who keeps to that commitment – he pursues the mastery of his subject all his life.
In modern society, all over the world, the role of the professional has perhaps never been more difficult than it is today. More than ever before, the professional faces manipulators of power, those who prefer expediency and short term profit, rather than hew to a principle. They fear change. They have a vested interest in the status quo – so how can they be expected to pursue principles? Especially principles which lead to socio-economic change for the benefit of the under privileged. Yet these are the very men with whom the professional must deal. They dominate the structure in which the professional must work. He is a part of their system. That is the dilemma of the professional in “managing socio-economic change”.
But even the phrase “socio-economic change” has pitfalls. What about technical change? Can it be that we prefer, these days, to talk about socio-economic change because we distrust technology? Surely, for over a century, mankind has been caught up in a tide of technical change. This technical change is so far-reaching that it seems almost to have become the dictator of socio-economic change. It is as technology itself were so new deity.
Now, the humane-ness of this new diety is being questioned. Do the benefits of modern technology justify its dreadful price? — a price which many communities pay in terms of social and economic deprivation.
Sometimes it appears that we have lost our optimistic belief that technology can be our servant. Instead, there seems to be a pessimistic fear that modern technology has become our master.
I believe that this is a form of running away. It is an unprofessional abdication of one’s commitment to a mastery of one’s subject. The dilemma of the professional includes the problem of how to apply technology to the needs of the community at large, against forces which would confine its benefits to their own narrow interest-groups.
For example, our sub-continent could not support its 700 million-odd inhabitants, were not for our advances in agriculture and industry. These advances are too slow. Their impact is too limited. But they are advances in modern technology – and they are the life-support of our sub-continent’s massive population. The professional’s job is to ensure that we are the masters of this technical change – and to see that this technical change serves the socio-economic objectives of the community at large.
The professionals (in India and elsewhere) have not done this very well so far. In the nineteenth-century, changes in agricultural technology accompanied urbanisation – and it seems that the social costs of urbanisation were more acceptable then than they are now.
Today, this process of urbanisation is seen at being socially self-defeating. Moreover, our own society’s will – or, some say, our blood-minded determination—to produce more people faster than we can produce more food, seems to be the result of the break-down between the objective knowledge which society possesses and the collective drive of the society at large. “We know,” the argument runs, “ that we should not multiply – but multiply we shall.” If that was really what our people were saying, perhaps we professionals could take some comfort from it. It would absolve us of responsibility. But, of course, it is not true. It is simply that we have failed to enable the society adequately to master modern technology – to use modern technology for the promotion of the socio-economic change which society needs. We professionals must accept our share of the responsibility for that failure.
Professionals and the elite
Consider, for example, the remoteness of our professional lives from our villages. There, each successive generation is borne into the rigidity of case; each generation must bear the rapacity of the money-lender and the merchant – and, very often, the random cruelty of nature: floods, famines and pestilence.
And yet, the majority survives. And, these days, many of them build, they adapt their society – and they become increasingly aware of their objectives. In this, they often seem to be more successful in mastering technical change than most of us are in the cities. In other words, there is in the villages some collective wisdom, for which the professional’s knowledge is not a substitute.
This is why the divide between the professionals and the villages is so serious. If we do go to the villages, it is to “study” them, to do good for them – but not to become of them.
We self-styled professionals have enjoyed a higher education, we have acquired at least the outward trappings of learning – usually by some accident of birth or biography. This un-deserved advantage gives us access to the decision makers, to those who decided how the cake will be shared out. In other words, we have joined the elite – and the elite enjoys privilege unrelated to merit; its culture is therefore inward-looking and on the defensive.
The whole apparatus which we have erected isolates us from the majority. Look at our towns and cities. Inevitably, there is the “new” Delhi, the “new” Ahmedabad – and, indeed, the “new” Anand – with well laid-out street, shaded by trees (in conformity with our best, twentieth century dedication to “ecology”) – and with all the regulations duly observed, as to the space required between each pucca dwelling.
That is where we live.
Outside this golden ghetto, we are only too are of how the rest live: in seemingly endless mazes of tenements and shanties: ill-drained, un-aired and over-crowed (no ecology there). Between the golden ghetto of the elite and the fetid slums of the majority, there is a thin, protective belt of “middle-classism”. A bare minimum: just enough to convince the poor that they escape the misery which urbanisation has imposed on them.
Now wonder the elite turns its face resolutely away from these realities. We concentrate on being fed and clothed increasingly well – and the food which fills us, the fibre which clothes us, comes from where? From the villages, where farmers produce it for us—in exchange of what?
The gap between our cities and our villages has been widening for many years. Yet we have acted as if this could go on forever. But it cannot go on forever – and the professionals should have been the first to say so. Instead, the professionals have preferred to join the elite, to enjoy the fruits of the elite, while the going is good.
A pessimistic view of the elite
The going is not likely to be good for very long. Looking on the dark side for a moment, let us consider the elite. It appears to consist of five groups:
The bureaucrats, jacks of all trades and masters of none except of the so-called administrative machinery (which they themselves have erected).
The politicians, manipulators of words and images, so pre-occupied with the maintenance of their power that they can spare no time to learn how to use it to the benefit of the community (which is why they depend on bureaucrats, to give the machinery of government an appearance of motion).
The academicians, who gave up the process of learning long ago – and who therefore have to spend their energies on deceiving successive generations of students into thinking that they are really “learning”.
The contact men and the industrialists, the self-styled masters of Industry, who pursue the gains of industrial production without the application of industriousness and productivity.
The technocrats and management experts, who varnish our feudal and mercantile businesses with superficially glossy layers of modern management’s trappings and terminology.
Admittedly, this is a pessimistic view of our elite – but, classify them as you will, that is how they usually appear to me. Moreover, each of the five groups has a vested interest in its own survival – and also in the survival of the others. Unless they stick together, they cannot retain their privileges. Yet, no one can profess to anything when he is committed only to the preservation of his own advantage. If we professionals have fallen into that trap, then we cannot serve as professionals until we climb out of it.
The exceptions: a cause for more optimism
Fortunately, no part of a dynamic society is wholly bad. In every walk of life, we know that there are good men, men who have not committed themselves to false gods. Moreover, for every famous name that comes to mind, we know that there are literally hundreds of unsung heroes, who may be known only to their immediate friends and colleagues – but who are remembered because they have retained their integrity and commitment.
The organisations which I have the privilege to head have developed only because of such exceptional men. The famous among them are names familiar to all of us:
The late Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who, as far back as the early 1940’s, told the farmers of Kaira District, among others, that political independence alone would not serve their purpose – that they had to have economic independence too.
Shri Tribhuvandas Patel, an early follower of Sardar Patel, who accepted the mission which the Sardar entrusted to him, to go out and help the farmers to organise their own cooperatives – and who gave up the promise of city life to do so.
And our late Prime Minister, Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri, who refused to be hemmed-in and insulated from the rural majority – and who, as a result, insisted that a central body be formed to replicate the cooperative structure which has, since then, came to be know as the Anand Pattern of Cooperatives.
I can name only these today – but I could tell you also of known men and women, including many professionals, whose commitment has been a key factor in enabling our organisations to advance, to the extent that they have advanced.
Institutional structure for technical and socio-economic change : one example
How far have we advanced? Permit me to outline briefly the main characteristics of the institutions which I serve and which I know best. They are a modest example, at least, of how an instrument of technical and socio-economic change can work to the benefit of the majority.
The most important of these institutions are popularly referred to as the Anand pattern cooperatives. They have four characteristics which are particularly relevant to us today:
They are based on a painstakingly put together set of village cooperatives. Thus, in each village which is involved, the producers have come together and have selected, from among themselves, a set of leaders who decisions they thereafter accept, whom they trust to protect the interests of the producer-membership as a whole.
There may be in any District anything from 20 to almost a thousand village cooperatives – all of which commit themselves to the collective membership of a Union of Cooperatives, though which they own such facilities as a dairy plant – and, most importantly, through which they hire for themselves professionals: managers and technologists to run their dairy plant, veterinary doctors to look after their animals – and so on.
Thus, this institutional structure serves as the vehicle, to bring modern technology to the service of even the poorest rural producer, who thereby gets into his own hands the instruments for technical and socio-economic change.
Lastly, an over-riding characteristic of these institutions is the fact that they are directed by the chosen representatives of the people who won them, the producers. The institution is, therefore, a dynamic and ever-changing structure for the exercise of self-determination by our rural people.
Like all institutions, this structure – now known as the Anand Pattern of Cooperatives – is never perfect. But I have dwelt on it particularly, because it does put committed professionals directly to the service of farmers. And this is not by any means wholly a matter of ideology. Ideology is there, of course – but it is also a fact that the veterinary doctor who cannot cure animals, or who does not arrive on time when an animal dies – is dismissed. The manager who cannot run a dairy plant is dismissed…. just as the producer who conducts a private milk business, “on the side”, is ineligible to represent his fellow members! This means that there is a reciprocal acceptance of discipline, between the producers and the professional – and the professionals who accept that discipline are not “trapped”: they can practice their profession truly.
“Success” breeds hostility
One or two Anand pattern Cooperatives are not enough to bother the elite. But if such an instrument of change appears to be getting into the hands of millions of farmers – that is a different matter!
…When Lal Bahadur Shastri saw the Anand Pattern of Cooperatives at work at our villages, he committed the Government of India to its replication in all our milksheds. A central body was set up, the national Dairy Development Board. That was in 1965. And I can tell you that, until 1970, the national Dairy Development Board was unable to set up a single Anand Pattern Cooperative!
In 1970, the Indian Dairy Corporation was formed, with control over the resources required – and, jointly, the Indian Dairy Corporation, with the National Dairy Development Board, launched the programme popularly known as “Operation Flood”. Under it, seventeen Anand Pattern District Unions and some five thousand Anand Pattern Villages cooperatives have been established: that is, village cooperatives in approximately 1% of our village.
The replication of the Anand Pattern of Cooperatives encountered the hostility of the elite. Politicians, bureaucrats, academicians, contact men, industrialists, technocrats – yes, and management exports – many in each of these groups opposed formation of these cooperatives. They poured scorn on the idea that illiterate farmers could ever manage anything. They revolted from the idea that professionals should be hired employees of the farmers. In other words, their selfish interest in the status quo overrode their professed commitment.
Slowly, however, this opposition has been overcome. How? By the commitment of what was originally a small band of dedicated professionals – and by the fact that a structure had been erected; a structure in which professionals could work with dignity, maintaining their professional integrity.
Urbanisation : a part of the dilemma
Many professional suffer because of the urban orientation of their education and their social experience. Many even fear that to turn to the countryside would be a backward step for them. Fear is a powerful dilutant of commitment.
And commitment is required, if one is to work for farmers. Villages are not idyllic havens. Poverty and repression do not always bring out the natural nobility of man. Many of our villages have narrowing societies; they are dominated by a set of elders who have little claim to positions of leadership, except the dubious qualification of age.
No wonder young people flee from the villages. They know that the streets of Ahmedabad are not paved with gold. Not for them, at least. It is what they are leaving — not what they are coming to – that drives them to the city.
In this sense, the parasitical nature of our urbanisation is supported by the narrowness of village society, by the repression of the village gerontocracy. But these are the very reasons why, for the next generation, both our rural and our urban societies must change. The flight from the villages must be staunched – and the destructiveness of our urbanisation must be reversed – if the process of modernisation is to have any socio-economic meaning for the next generation. But whether this can be achieved depends, to a great extent, on whether the professionals resolve the conflict in their own stance on urban-rural relations.
The role of the professional
Problems arising out of our present urban-rural relationships must be the business of professionals. Solving these ships must be the business of professionals. Solving these problems calls for management of technological and socio-economic change. And, looking at these problems, one can see the main elements in the professional’s role in solving them.
There is, of course, the conventional ethic of honesty and diligence. It is the necessary condition for success in all roles (but perhaps the professional has the greatest need for it to be in-built within him, because the has to discipline himself).
In addition, the professional has five tasks, if he is to play his role in the management of change:
- First and foremost, the professional has to be true to his “science” and committed to the unending pursuit of a mastery of his subject: that is the ethic of the professional.
- The professional ahs in his hands the instruments of change, the essential tools which society has to command, if it is to achieve the change which it requires. The professional, even though he commands these tools, has to use them not for himself, but on behalf of the society at large… Managing on behalf of others: that we can call the professional focus.
- The professional has to perceive – and even anticipate – the needs and aspirations of his constituency, gathering their diverse threads together and resolving any conflicts in them. The professional accepts the needs and aspirations of his constituency as the spur which drives him on, continuously seeking to improve his own performance… An internalised vision of our constituency’s world, which lies outside ourselves: that we can call the motivation of the professional.
- The professional has to be aware of the bureaucracy that he and his colleagues are forever building, allegedly to serve others, but always with the tendency to be self serving. When he finds that he has erected his own bureaucracy, he has to tear it down and reform it. Rejecting the old and exposing himself to what is new: that we can call the revolutionary role of the professional.
- Lastly, and in summary, the professional has to keep in his mind the difference between what he wants the world to be and what the world is, remembering that large endeavours are only the sum of many small parts. He deals with a kaleidoscope of policies, administrative practices, work cultures, techniques and technologies. Through this kaleidoscope, the professional has to keep clear in his mind his perception of the social and economic impacts of the technologies which he commands. Only then can he give purpose to the majority’s awareness of what constitutes desirable change…. A perception of the real world which is neither romantic nor pessimistic: this we can call the clarity of mind which is the basis of professionalism.
There are five characteristics of the professional’s role in management of change: the ethic of mastering one’s subject, a focus on other’s needs, an internalisation of the exterior world one serves, constructive iconoclasm towards one’s bureaucracy – and clarity of mind about the many seemingly small elements which make up great endeavours.
To some, what I have said about the role of the professional may sound like rather lofty words. To others, what I have said may seem to be only a repetition of what the professional will already have worked out for himself. In either case, I am keenly aware that none of my words can resolte the dilemma of the professional. That, each of us has to do for himself.
For the professional who tries to do so, there are some factors in his favour. For one thing, many of our farmers still retain their faith in the professional. They have not yet developed the cynicism which prevails in the city. So they are willing to give the sincere professional a good chance to prove himself.
The same cannot always be said of our urban elders, especially those who head the organisations in which the young professional must work. Many of these “leaders” are those who have embraced the attitudes – and the fruits – of the elite. When these are the men who are in charge, how is the young professional to develop his standards and maintain his integrity?
There is no easy general answer to this question. But if we take the particular instance which I have touched on today, there is at least a partial answer. I have discussed the role of the professional in managing both technical and also socio-economic change. I have tried to show why I see this role as being especially important in reversing the destructive aspects of our society’s urban-rural relationships.
For the professional – especially the young professional – who commits himself to working for the farmer, the issues involved are clear. The majority of our people are rural and the majority of them are poor. It is time that the farmer comes into his own. The professional who commits himself to this objective can work for farms – and he will never go far wrong, he will never lack allies – and he will always find a deep satisfaction from the trust reposed in him by the village people whom he serves. To the young professional especially, I say: “Serve the farmer – and he will enable you to preserve your professionalism, because he respects it and because he values your integrity.”