Every day on social media, Indians indulge in their favorite pastime – Solutionism. Your flight was late? Of course, the cause is the lack of Air India’s privatization. Your Swiggy order was late? The restaurant doesn’t follow Six Sigma. But this behavior goes well beyond posturing on the internet. The single most common Indian response to anyone describing a problem is an immediate “You do one thing…”.
That magical “one thing” is the subcontinent’s other great, albeit lesser known contribution because what everyone knows is step two of the “one thing” phenomenon – Jugaad. “You do one thing” is almost always followed by a short cut, hack, regularly unethical, non-scalable idea that the world celebrates as Jugaad. The darker side of the “One thing – Jugaad” industrial complex is that we never really solve large and complex problems in any meaningful way.
Like the terrible quality of service from mobile service providers. (Were you expecting a thesis on a more serious social problem after that build-up? Apologies.)
Some weeks ago, I had a conversation with my wife that went roughly along the lines of
Me: (dials her number)
Mobile operator: (in Tamil) The customer you are trying to reach is currently unreachable due to national security reasons. Please try again
Me: (dials her number again). (Rings)
Me: Hello. Hello.
Me: (Dials again) Hello. Hello
Me: Oh finally. Ok, listen, my phone is about to die, so note this down carefully. I got a call from the bank. They threatened to withdraw all our money and burn it in a bonfire and post the video on Facebook if we don’t link our Aadhar to our bank account. So can you take my aadhar card copy and take it to the bank tomorrow and get that KYC (Kankutthufy Your Customer) thing done. And also, I’ve forgot to turn off the gas, so make sure you don’t use the butane blowtorch at home today.
Me: (Phone dies from running out of battery)
So, after several such unsuccessful attempts to communicate with the family using a cellular device, I called my service provider. After navigating through an IVR designed to ensure that I do not come into any contact with a carbon-based life form, I chose an option that suggested that I might be interested in upgrading to some newer, expensive plan. The IVR immediately yielded control to someone speaking English in a Gurgaon accent. I then told him that I was having trouble, you know, putting my mobile phone to use. He said that I had to choose a different option from the menu because his was the “sell more expensive call dropping services” department . I said – “Ah, ok, I’d like to cancel my connection then”.
He panicked and then immediately transferred me to the “technical department” that was in charge of call-dropping in my state (Tamil Nadu). That guy then asked me what issues I was facing. I told him – “Um, I am unable to talk to fellow human beings”. He said – “we are sorry for your bad experience sir, we will help you. Please tell us the GPS coordinates where you have this problem. I gave him my home and office address and he told me that he will send an engineer with Ghostbuster equipment to “test the signal” at those locations.
A day later, I got a call from the Ghostbuster guy.
Him: Hello, … … hear ..?
Him: Hello. Kek…..?
Him: Sir, whether … …. landline?
Him: Sir, you ……… …. compl… can you tell what .. … issue?
Me: In the immortal words of Senthil, this is the banana
After a week, we have a family discussion and decide that paying this service provider for seamless city-wide call dropping was not a sound idea, so we would all take advantage of TRAI’s gift to the empowered Indian mobile customer – PORTING.
I took the lead and messaged PORT to 1900 from my phone.
It immediately rang.
Guy: Sir, we noticed that you made a Porting request. Can I know what the reason is?
Me: Continuous call dropping
Guy: I’m sorry… …. ….help….fix…issue….chance
Guy: We ….fix…inconvenience..
Guy: Sir, whether…. … landline
Me: Do you see the Inception-level irony in me not being able to describe the problem I have due to the problem I have to the guy whose job is to validate the problem I have and keep me paying to continue having aforementioned problem?
I sat through the “We are willing to do anything to retain you as a customer” call, stood steadfast, and said NO. With great sadness and resignation, my mobile service provider of 15 years let me go. I asked them what the final bill amount was. He consulted a lunar almanac and explained, with the pseudoscientific authority of an astrologer fixing marriage dates, how my billing cycle would intersect the orbits of Jupiter’s moons and therefore how, right now, I’d be paying the previous month’s bill and 15 business days later, I’d get the final bill.
A week later, I was on a new network. The sunlight seemed brighter, the air crisper, the signal bars full. The word “Connecting…” disappeared from my WhatsApp window and forwards about Vedic nanotechnology downloaded seamlessly. Days passed. 4K videos streamed. Life was good. Till an ominous SMS arrived from my new service provider.
It said something to the effect of – “you have a pending bill of Rs. 3000 with your previous provider. Please pay it to ensure continued service”.
I ignored that SMS along with the one about Thai massages and plots of land in Thiruvallur, and then one day, another SMS arrived, to the effect of “I told you to settle your bill with your old provider and now we are compelled to cut you off.”
So I called my new provider and told them that I was in possession of a receipt that proved to God, Man and the Holy TASMAC Spirit that i had settled my final bill.
The man told me – “Sir maybe you might not have paid attention, but they never settle the final bill in one shot. They would have explained with arcane astrological references that there will be another actual final all reals final bill that you have to settle.”
With my face adopting a “Vadivelu realizes that he has been put in a tricky situation” expression, I said “Ahaaaa” and drove over to the nearest “Customer nursing and terminal illness care center” of my previous provider and asked them what the actual final mother promise final payment was.
He said “532 rupees as calculated by solving this complex integral involving prorated rates as influenced by the retrograde motion of Mercury”. Adopting the “Keemedi” variant of the skeptical Vadivelu face, I showed him an SMS from my current provider that the all reals mother promise final bill amount was in the vicinity of Rs. 3000 and asked him if the difference between 3000 and 532 was another bill hidden in the Ark of the Covenant. He assured me 532 was indeed the final deal and my separation was indeed confirmed.
I handed him the cash in the manner of Beemboy vs Avinashi, and he gave me a hand written paper receipt. I asked why not something printed out. He said “no saar you are not a customer in the systeth anymore so I can’t do printout. For you, only 1 kg tomato bill from Pazhamudhir Nilayam”
I then scanned this bill and whatsapped it to my new provider and then he told me something interesting. He said that he will forward it to a neutral third party who adjudicates porting situations where people switch without clearing final final all reals bills!!
Of course, my earlier provider had no incentive to make it easy for me to settle my dues and switch, and I’m quite certain my current provider likely does the same to its dissatisfied customers. And it’s a perfectly Indian solution to introduce a bureaucratic middleman to fix a problem arising from initial bureaucratic meddling by a government that unfortunately operates in what is largely a zero-trust, self-centered culture. Companies don’t trust customers and customers don’t trust anyone and the only reason third parties exist is that the mutual distrust both parties have for them cancel one another.
Think about this. Even to reach my service provider, I wasn’t going to obey the rules of obfuscatory navigation that the company put in place in their IVR because they weren’t making enough money to afford more people in their call-centers. I used a jugaad (which came from a “You do one thing. Press the option for upgrade and they will always find a human being to talk to you” suggestion from a friend) to get to a human being nonetheless. The company then used a hostile process design aimed at making it hard for me to switch despite the presence of governmental regulation and this cycle of small scale tragedies of the common continued unabated.
Those from a left of center economic persuasion will argue that if there was no regulation, the telcos would collude and screw you. Those on the right will argue that a truly free market would have magically sorted this out in much the same way that a beaker of amino acids will spontaneously react and form life. And those in Silicon Valley will offer Blockchain as a solution to this problem.
But, this is India. Nothing is really that simple. No one trusts anybody and middlemen (like these companies whose sole job is to adjudicate billing disputes among customers who switch between telcos!) exist everywhere. You can’t fully solve a universal lack of trust with technology, economic policy or law. Every solution is practically an evolutionary step-by-step tinkering that balances trust (and its lack thereof) in a complex web of relentlessly selfish players.
So you do one thing. Stop solutionizing.