The Pros and Cons of Preparedness

Trip Start Jun 13, 2005
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Trip End Dec 05, 2005


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Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Pros and Cons of Preparedness

I'm sitting at the dhaba near Ranakpur Temple, waiting for the Jodhpur bus. It's lovely here, especially after the rain that lasted most of the day. There's a river across the road which was probably dry until a few days ago, now flowing with fresh rainwater, and at least a dozen bird species in the surrounding greenery vocalizing their appreciation of the shower.

The bus ride here was one to remember: the windows were steamed up so I couldn't see much, but I caught glimpses of lush hills populated by a few small villages; it's hard to believe this is the desert state of Rajasthan and not the tropical South.

The bus leaked rain through every seam in its metalwork and the passengers spent the three hours dodging drops of water from the ceiling. It got me thinking, not for the first time, about the Indian attitude towards preparedness.

Monsoon season occurs at the same time every year and, although the last few seasons have been unusually dry, there will be at least some days during that time when everyone will get a good soaking. But despite the forecast season, monsoon manages to sneak up on everyone, catching them seemingly completely unawares: roofs will leak, rubbish-clogged gutters will flood, water will run into buildings and vehicles through windows, floors and ceilings. It often surprises me that I don't see any leaking umbrellas.

And it's not just the rain that sneaks up: a bus, which passes the same dhaba at the same time every single day, with 30 passengers all wanting chai at the same time and in a hurry, will take the dhaba-wallah totally by surprise every time. He'll have been lying on his daybed, rising to make a chai now and then for the odd passing driver, and when the 30 passengers show up for tea, he won't even have the water on the boil. If he's having a good day, he'll have enough milk to hand; often he'll send someone to buy it as the bus turns up.

And the tailor who promised your work would be ready by 5pm will, as you enter his shop at 5.30, pick up your cloth and start cutting the pattern whilst you stand there shaking your head helplessly.

The approach is to fix it when it's broke and not a moment earlier. Hence there must be visible evidence of a leaking roof - puddles on the floor and suchlike - before somebody fetches a ladder. The slashed bus tyre must actually blow before anyone wonders whether there's a spare. Plan A - the only plan - must fail spectacularly before Plan B is even conceived.

Clearly this approach plays a key role in India's reputation as one of the most chaotic countries in existence, and is likely the cause of numerous road deaths, domestic accidents and myriad other issues. But it has its up-side too. The unpreparedness for any event means that, when said event occurs, contingency plans often come together faster than they might in a more "prepared" environment. In a "prepared" country, Plan B will be formulated, documented and authorised well in advance. When Plan B fails, Mr Prepared is flummoxed and paces the floor wondering where he went wrong, why it didn't work and who to approach for suggestions and authorisation of Plan C. Mr Unprepared, given the same scenario, never had a Plan B. He takes his first look at the problem when Plan A fails, and immediately comes up with Plan C, his mind being uncluttered by Plan B. I suspect this lack of forward-thinking and contingency planning may actually facilitate a lot more of the "thinking outside the box" so craved by the Western world.

That's the practical up-side. The spiritual up-side is that people here are able to live in the present because they're not spending all their time forearming. "Forewarned is forearmed", we love to say. So we forearm against death, financial loss, illness, accident and even against each other. We forearm against every aspect of life, to the point that we're armed to the hilt against life itself.

And when we're not forearming, we're thinking about it, or benchmarking our preparedness against that of our neighbour. And we wonder why we don't find time to live....

Chaotic it may be on this side of the world, but there are certainly some valuable lessons to be learned here - moderating one's preparedness perhaps being quite a significant one.
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