Anybody who has watched the quick succession of aircraft landings and takeoffs at Delhi or Mumbai airports would be aware of the time precision required. An air-traffic-control error of less than 30 seconds could be disastrous. Yet, the entire civil aviation sector, including passengers, takes such clockwork operations for granted.
The same cannot be said about the railways or other means of public transport in most of India. Nor can it be said about our social behaviour as a nation, where being on time for a meeting, party or wedding often puts you at risk of being ahead of the hosts themselves.
Often, not being on time is also seen as a power statement—it's a mark of status to have a roomful of people wait for your arrival.
We, as citizens of India, seem to believe that we are "like that only", culturally hardwired to say "chalta hai" as a catch-all pardon for anything slipshod. As a visitor once wryly observed of Indian timeliness, "two minutes" here could mean anything from "right now" to an eternity. But habits and a "culture" of lateness are not encoded in anybody's genes. It's not about nature, but nurture. And that could change.
Difficult as it is to believe, the Japanese were known for their ambivalence towards time just a century ago. In fact, the big societal change that turned Japan into a nation always on time took place only after the shock of World War II. In a paper titled Japanese Clocks And The History of Punctuality In Modern Japan, Takehiko Hashimoto, a professor of history and technology, maps out its transition from the tardy to the time-bound country it is today.
When the colonizing West encountered the Japanese East on factory shop floors, at train stations and at shipping docks in mid- to late-19th century Japan, Westerners found that "the Japanese worked with an apparent indifference to the clock".
Sensitivity increased after being on time in schools, factories, docks and work places became mandatory. But in their private spaces, people were still on the "variable hour system of seasonal time".
How did that change? Cheap quartz watches on every wrist, a realization that time is money, social movements, and a leadership push in 1960, when Japan's then prime minister Hayato Ikeda galvanized the country to double its national income in a decade. It was largely over the 1960s that Japan transformed its consciousness of time and what it meant for daily life.
If the Japanese could throw off the sloth of the past without any cultural loss, so can we. The conditions are ripe for a sharp habitual shift in India—a prime minister who is leading citizens to break centuries-old habits like open defecation, a buoyant middle class, 300 million aspirants to the mid-income bracket, and a national desire to shed all that held us back, so that a quantum leap can be taken for prosperity.
Some signs of change are already visible. Metro trains run mostly on schedule, the government issuance of passports, driving licences and other such documents are now time-bound. A major digital push aims at removing the human interface that delays services which citizens have a right to.
Changes at the workplace may take a while to reach the wedding pandal, but don't write off the possibility. Success is not inevitable, but maybe 25 years later, the world will be saying, "If it's on time, it's Indian."