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Cheap imports and quality-killing cancer

Raja Murthy |

The busy Crawford Market shopping area in south Mumbai offers two divergent tracks for India’s economy and work culture: hunger for cheap, poor quality consumer goods, or invest in better products costing a little more but giving more worth. Therein are two choices for progress or regress: becoming a country renowned worldwide for work excellence, or continue being a hotspot for cheap labour and cheaper standards.

Across the bustling road from the 147-year old Crawford Market, street vendors hawk cheap Chinese imports, from crockery and toys to electrical ware. A coffee mug bought from a nearby shop lasts for years, but a cheaper Chinese version lasts a few weeks, if not days. But we buy them anyway, addicted to choosing quantity over quality. The national consumer motto seems to be “cheaper the better”.

Trade watchdogs have warned about cheap Chinese imports seriously damaging India’s domestic industry and economy. But more pertinent is the consumer mindset that buys poor quality. In demand-supply equation, sub-standard consumer products will thrive as long as consumers value cheaper price tags over better quality.

In October 2017, India-China border tensions perhaps inspired the Indian government to impose some quality standards on Chinese imports – as do many leading economies on all imports. But when consumers themselves do not care much about the quality of goods they buy, the government will not care much.

Cheap quality imports not only hurt the economy, but feed the infamous ‘chalta hai’ (‘anything goes’) mindset – the biggest barrier to Indian industry not owning a globally recognized brand name.
Despite decades of independence and becoming masters of our destiny, despite having a US$ 2.2 trillion GDP and one of the world’s fastest growing economies, India is yet to create an equivalent of a Mercedes Benz or Rolls Royce, Omega or Tissot, a Lindt or Toblerone.

Yes, many multinational brands are being made in India for decades – like Colgate and Nestle – but Asia’s third largest economy is yet to be birthplace of any consumer product known worldwide. India is supposed to be a software leader, but is yet to produce a Microsoft or Google.

Obviously, not all Chinese imports are quality-impoverished, with brands like ‘Haier’ and ‘Vivo’ enjoying legitimate success. In fact, India’s only homegrown brand that is a clear global leader in its field is the Vivo-sponsored Indian Premier League (IPL).

But quality needs positivity not negativity. Some sneer, attack India’s most successful global cricketing brand, unable to appreciate the career and life-changing benefits of IPL for talented young cricketers. Very unwholesome and petty-minded to object to good things happening to others, like so many economically weak cricketers’ families earning prosperity. Quality succeeds – the New York-based Duff & Phelps estimate IPL’s current valuation at US$5.3 billion.

Within a decade, the much-maligned IPL has become one of the world’s top six sporting leagues.Only when more ‘Made in India’ brands earn success worldwide can the ongoing ‘Make in India’ process have greater success. A leading US company once refused to let the Tata Group buy a significant stake because the owners felt associating with an Indian brand would negatively affect their consumer image. No leading Japanese or German corporate house would have received this insult.

Indian-made goods and services need to earn global respect for quality – for India’s economy to graduate from ‘developing’ to ‘developed’. And for quality output, the country needs to start inculcating a quality work culture.

But a quality work culture thrives only in a fertile soil that worships hard work. And few Indian manufacturers invest in the effort, research and resources to make quality products; instead, they desperately cut costs to fit a national market that chooses cheaper quantity over better quality. And cheap quality work has few takers in global markets.

Striving for quality work is the only key to opening the deadlock of crippling mediocrity: the culture of careless work that destroys the working heart of India, like a deadly cancer known but ignored.

For India to be a global leader needs seeing the time when Indian workers are eagerly sought worldwide in leading economies – instead of seeing Indian prime ministers and foreign ministers run to western governments holding begging bowls for more visas for Indian workers.

Where there is more self-respect, there is higher quality of work. And quality work produces better quality of life. The drive for quality has to start from the individual citizen. We can’t change others, but we can change ourselves. Strive hard for quality in everything we do – every task, every time, everyday. Lazy work habits have to vanish in the relentless pursuit for excellence, for seeing a time when the ‘Made in India’ label becomes a stamp of quality. India can do it, because India has the potential.

In schools, colleges, homes, offices, governmental organizations and corporate workplaces, from the street vendor to the five-star hotel chef, from a police officer to an elected leader, from a pizzeria to Parliament, India needs a work-culture revolution. Start cultivating love for honest and efficient hard work, in the rewarding road to high quality. Better start now, for life is wasted without quality.

The writer is a veteran Mumbai-based journalist.