How can the government help me? Challenging the “mai-baap sarkaar”

Over the last few days, I have had the extraordinary opportunity to address literally hundreds of students and youngsters at workshops across the country on entrepreneurship. Can you guess the one common refrain that has taken me by surprise? It is a question that invariably gets asked in during the open Q&A session – tentatively at first – then supported by more voices.

The question is simple: “What can the government do for us?” My instinctive response to such a question is to relate the Reagan quip, “I am from the government and I am here to help!” That sometimes falls flat. And it usually does not convince the audience.

That is the point at which I realise they are actually serious about this question. They do want to know about government schemes for entrepreneurs and what “facilities” are available to them. They are genuinely curious about the various “benefits”, subsidies or grants can they avail of.

Now, I have always believed that a smart entrepreneur is one who will never say no to an easy (and generally benign) source of finance. And I have nothing against the government trying to help entrepreneurs. It should; it must.

My problem is with the psychology of dependence that appears to have become ingrained.

My worry is that the idea of a “mai-baap sarkaar” is now deeply entrenched even among the educated and the enterprising. So strong and persistent is this belief in our society that it seems to have poisoned the minds of the young as well.

It appears to me that a large number of youngsters, instead of relying on their zeal, their energy and their creativity to carve their future, are now beginning to expect the government to help them –  even when they are trying to do something entrepreneurial – and something different.

And this mentality – or dependency – on a “mai-baap sarkar” appears so deep that I (and fellow activists striving for a smaller, less stifling government) now face the uphill task of convincing an entire generation that a government that does least is probably the best – and most effective government; Not a govt that interferes and tells you what to do (via tax benefits and subsidies) and what not to do (via permits and regulations); Not a government that tries to uneven the playing field by allowing you access to cheap capital (thus making you inefficient) or that stifles your ability to be nimble and agile by not allowing you to hire and fire workers as your business environment demands.

And if they really wish for help from the government, they should begin by asking the right questions. Such as, why does almost every small and mid-size business faces a daunting shortage of skilled manpower and managers & technicians with the right skills & attitude.

How do we get rid of this frame of mind, this “mai-baap sarkaar” paradigm?

I wish I knew – and I wish it was easy. In the meantime, I am trying.

Trying by sharing with them thoughts on regulation, subsidies, licenses, permits and quotas. By reminding them that someone always has to pay for everything the government does.  By telling them that a disproportionate share of the expenses by government usually falls on people who can least afford it – such as youngsters like them who wish to start a business.

And by emphasising that the “burden” of government can be very heavy – which is why it takes 11 steps on an average, to start a business in India. And these 11 steps take about 89 days. You read that right. 89 days.

Next week, more on this; specifically why politics matters – to entrepreneurs too. Jai Hind, Jai Bharat!

Somewhat Related: The coming Jobs War and my own tiny effort: Illuminate!

P.S. This post also appeared on the ToI Blogs.