We, the underachievers

V. Venkateshwara Rao | Updated on July 18, 2012 Published on July 18, 2012


As a young management student in the early eighties, I was quite impressed by Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory in behavioural sciences.

This theory is most often displayed as a pyramid. The lowest levels of the pyramid are made up of the most basic needs, while the more advanced needs are located at the top.

Starting from bottom, the pyramid consists of basic needs (food, clothing and shelter), security needs (financial security for old age, secure future for children, stability in life, etc), esteem needs (personal esteem in society, feeling of accomplishment, etc) and ultimately self-actualisation (a process of growing and realising one’s full potential as a person), in that order.

One must satisfy the lower level needs before progressing on to meet the higher level needs. Unfortunately, progress is often disrupted by failure to meet lower level needs.

Our society

We can look at the Indian society in the light of this theory in the following way: The poor constitute the basic-needs level of the pyramid; the middle class is at the security-needs level; the elite are at the esteem-needs level; and unfortunately few have reached the self-actualisation level.

Even after 65 years of independence, more than half of India’s population is still at the bottom of the pyramid, struggling to ensure that they have enough food and a piece of land to call home and are unable to move to the next levels.

Instead of imparting the necessary skill sets to the poor to fulfill the basic needs on their own, our Government is still half-heartedly meeting their basic needs through welfare schemes such as subsidised food and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

Though the middle class is increasing, it is finding it difficult due to lack of opportunities and poor risk taking to graduate beyond the security needs. For generations, the middle class is struggling to provide good education and jobs to their children or to save for creating a nest egg for their old age.

The elite

The elite — be it the political class, the industrialists or top bureaucrats — are stuck at the ill-conceived ‘esteem needs’ level. They perceive esteem in power, money and Swiss bank accounts. They are unable to act as “trustees” of wealth and power. For them, wealth and power are ends in themselves. Hence they are unable to turn out to be the self-actualised.

The poor are unable to collectively raise their voice and tell this to the political class: “Don’t give us doles, but give us skills. Don’t give us fish, but give us a net to fish.” Hence, they are eternally struggling at the basic level of the needs hierarchy to fulfil their physiological needs.

The middle class is unable to take necessary risks or trod the untrodden path to move beyond security needs. If they cannot afford to pay Rs 50 lakh as bribe to get an MBBS seat for their ward, they will settle for a cheaper dentistry course. If their ward is unable to secure an IIT or IIM seat, they will push the child to try for a second-tier institute.

But they do not have the stomach for risk taking for attempting to build an enterprise or, say, to venture into politics.

All classes in India are “underachievers”.

(The author is a finance and management professional.)

Published on July 18, 2012
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