Japan not just about Shinkansen

The bullet train project, we are told, involves technology transfer. But will it involve culture transfer as well?

Published: 12th October 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th October 2017 07:23 AM   |  A+A-

The champions and detractors of bullet trains are both off the track. Passenger safety will not improve one bit for stalling Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream push for state of the art technology in Indian locomotion. Nor will bullet trains, per se, lug India into the wonderland of development, as Modi wants us to believe. It could even happen that mega projects like this, which stand rooted in a well-defined cultural matrix, prove costly and cruel disasters, if the required cultural and characterological nuances are not aligned to it.

It is universally acknowledged that technology is culture specific; the more exotic, the more so. Fire, which inaugurated human civilisation, belongs to the order of technology. The word ‘technology’ is derived from the Greek root ‘techne,’ which means skill. So, whatever lends itself to the exercise of human skills, as fire indeed does, is of the order of technology. The farmer’s plough, the blacksmith’s anvil, the housewife’s needle: all belong to technology, but technology well-snug in local culture. Technology and culture exist in a mutual relationship.

Technology grows out of a culture and, in turn, drives that culture. Karl Marx defined Homo sapiens as Homo faber, or tool-making creatures. Several philosophers since Marx have lamented how the tools man makes tend to degrade him into a slave of technology. The bullet train project, we are told, involves technology transfer.

But will it involve culture transfer, complementary to the technology transfer envisaged? All of us have witnessed how the citizens of Japan, in the wake of the massive earthquake that jolted that country, behaved with exemplary civic discipline. We know how orderly the Japanese are in every aspect of life and work, how sensitive to keeping the environment clean, and how courteous in their dealings with each other. We also know how enthusiastic they are about their country, which is quite different from the patriotic fever that is being currently inflamed in India. Japanese patriotism involves enthusiasm for their country and has ingredients like a robust work culture, collective responsibility, integrity and national solidarity.

Perhaps the most important cultural virtue that we need to import from Japan is the irreducible responsibility that the state has for the welfare of all citizens. It is strikingly symbolic that two events happened in close proximity to each other: the inauguration of the bullet train project and the Elphinstone tragedy. This eminently avoidable tragedy that claimed 23 lives and traumatised scores of passengers should alert us to the monumental indifference of the state to its responsibilities towards citizens.

The PM is preaching to the nation only on one half of the equation, what they owe to the state. This is very un-Japanese. Bullet trains need to run on tracks of a well-defined culture of governance in which the rights and duties of citizens are matched in an even-handed culture of governance. We are far away from that goal. As citizens we must endorse the PM’s push for integrity and transparency in our dealings with the state, as in paying taxes honestly.

Demonetisation and GST had to be resorted to, to ‘compel’ integrity and to ‘extort’ legitimate taxes from citizens. These earth-shaking measures are primarily pointers to our inherent unwillingness to be honest and responsible citizens. It is dishonest to blame the PM and his team for the tremors these measures caused, as long as citizens and establishments of diverse sorts remain unwilling to be transparent in their dealings with the state. We can’t go on accumulating black money and cheat on taxes, and not invite draconian measures upon ourselves.

Yet, I believe the PM is on a wrong track, even if I can understand why he has adopted it. He has chosen to wield the stick of intimidation. But coercion is a notoriously inappropriate tool for character formation. Coercion operates only on the surface; whereas character is formed from the depth up. What belongs to the depth of character-formation is ‘enthusiasm’ and motivation. This looks a long-route, as compared to the shortcut of fear. Fear as an instrument for reforming national character was tried once—the infamous internal Emergency—and found to be a malady rather than a remedy. This is not to say that ‘stick’ has no place in the public space and that thoroughfares should be strewn only with ‘carrots’. Citizens invite sticks when they trample on carrots.

Be that as it may, one thing is certain. There is a generic incompatibility between bullet trains and the current model of patriotism and nationalism. The latter, unlike the former, works on a regressive mentality. It erects animosity in place of shared enthusiasm. It deflects attention from the duties that the state owes to citizens.

We have to choose between the two. When trains derail and stampedes breakout on foot overbridges, labels disappear. Only blood and tears of suffering remain. Governance, to be responsible, needs to discern the connection between the magic of bullet trains and the logic of bullock carts. Much of the nation—at least 60 per cent of our population—live in scattered godforsaken conditions of rural and tribal under-development, where life trundles in bullock carts.

They too are citizens. Even as we leapfrog to ultramodern technology at astronomical costs, bullock carts too need to be mended and maintained. This is not a matter of minting tokens of populism like gas connections, bank accounts and fanfares on rural electrification, laudable as all of them indeed are.
But the two wheels of the rickety bullock cart—livelihood and education—are, all the same, standing still. Modi needs to put his shoulder to them as well.

Valson Thampu 
Former principal of St Stephen’s College, New Delhi


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