In Meghalaya we revere ‘power distance’  

By Benjamin Lyngdoh


It is a common saying that ‘power corrupts’ and ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’. These days power is a highly sought after thing to the extent that it is viewed as something which is a vital source of satisfaction/gratification. In reality, this is a wrong perception of the word ‘power’. This is because power is defined as ‘the ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way’. It is more about responsibilities and accountability and less about authority. As such, one can infer that having power is not a desirable thing at all. Ignorance is bliss and that is the hallmark of a powerless life. However, this is only a utopia. This is because in our daily social transactions/interactions we ‘believe’ and over time are ‘made to believe’ that power is everything and that without it, we are nothing. We view ‘power positions’ as ‘demigod positions’; that which cannot be questioned/inquired/corrected/dissented. This is the ailment ailing Meghalaya today; that we revere ‘power distance’ not out of respect’, but out of fear, disgust and a sense of defeat. Accordingly, I place the following pointers –

 Firstly, what is this concept called ‘power distance’ and why is it important? Power distance (commonly called ‘power distance index’) is one of the six dimensions of Geert Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory; the others being,  individualismcollectivismuncertainty avoidance, masculinity-femininity, long-term orientation and indulgence-restraint. The theory explains culture and the resulting psyche of people and behaviors predominantly in the domain of cross-cultural communication. That way it is also an apt representation of ‘a people and how they go about their lives’. Here, arguably power distance is the bed rock of all our daily lives. The power distance index can be either of the two opposing extreme limits – ‘high’ or ‘low’. In Meghalaya, the limit in existence is ‘high’ thereby implying that the populace in general accepts the well structured power dynamics and looks up to it to deliver across all facets of life. Power is unevenly distributed; however, no questions are asked; even if power is unevenly distributed to the undeserving. The result of all this is that we tend to behave in a ‘defensive-avoidance’ manner across issues of macro/micro importance; little do we realize that this is a time-bomb for our socio-economic decline.

Secondly, when do we see power distance? The answer is simple; we see it in our conformity and blind-acceptance. In general, the trend is that what the high and mighty say are the ultimate right and the final word. If the people in power say so, then it is so, understood so, perceived so and finally executed so! India and the developing world has been talking about ‘demographic dividend’ for a very long time; but apparently in our small hamlet called Meghalaya there is no weight and respect (or even awareness) about that. There are many talented youth out here who would out-do and out-run our people in positions of power with their sheer tenacity and resourcefulness. All they need is a platform for ‘making their voice heard’. Sad to say that even they are drowning in this quicksand of power distance. Talk about lives ending even before seeing the light of day!

In this Hofstede’s Theory the ‘power distance index’ of India is towards the higher limit (a score of 77). This implies that power distance is inbuilt in the India ethos. In addition, I dare say that in the context of Meghalaya, power distance is highly revered to a point of no return!

Thirdly, let us try and understand this flow of power distance. Yes true, power flows from the top; just as orders are given from the top. However, this is not the real measure of power. The real measure is ‘how the people at the lower strata of society view and perceive power? That is the real crux of the matter. Although some people will argue that power is taken, in most likelihood that is a false premise. The visible fact is that ‘power is given’. But, given by whom? Well, given by us the people. It is high time that ‘the people’ realize that it is us who have created this power distance in the first instance and hence, the situation is now as it is.

The situation looks insurmountable and irreversible now. Be that as it may, the truth is that ‘what is given by the people can also be taken away by the people’. The people have to stand up, speak up and be counted. However, in contemporary times we have names for such ‘status quo challenging people’. They are called rebels and trouble makers and power disrespecting people and dilettante. Do you see? This is how big the problem of power distance is in Meghalaya.

Fourthly, is there any section of the economy/social sector where power distance hurts the most? Well, there is; and no it is not politics or coal mining or NRC or CAB or ILP or the amendments to the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. On the contrary, it hurts the most important and the most dreaded issue of health and education. To the extent possible, these two social sectors must be free from the poison of power distance. Else, where is our human resource development? Here, the channels of communication and engagement must be ever open. It must be two-way. It must be effective towards encouraging change. This is required even more so in the education sector. Students can question teachers and parents can question the educational organization and so forth. This is how a ‘learning organization’ operates and this is how knowledge grows ultimately. This is how education is evaluated from the prism of power. This is how it progresses and develops. As such, if the stakeholders fear to question/debate/dissent an educational organization; that is the worst form of power distance that we can ever contemplate and experience.

 Fifthly, but why is power distance so much of a problem after all? This is because over time across all professions and practices with the gaining of experience and expertise we develop something which is called ‘tunnel vision’. This is when we see and perceive things only from our own isolated point of view. It is when we are unwilling to take others views into account or we are unable to understand other view points. What we say and what we do is the ‘Gospel truth’ and there is not a chance for debate; let alone contestation. As such, what the boss says is right and must be done; when in all probability he/she might be frightfully wrong.

 Then there is the issue of ‘dissent intolerance’. A high degree of power distance exhibits behaviour of doing away with the practice and culture of encouraging dissent. In fact, dissent is required for growth and development of something new. As such, dissent is good and it must be allowed. Alas, power distance will see its demise too over time!

Lastly, this article is not about being anti-power distance. Power distance is good under conditions of responsible and just execution. However, under failures to execute as such; power distance is a bane. This is most true in the case of Meghalaya; where everything is in the hands of the few and the rest just cry/clap/are indifferent from the gallery.

(The Author teaches at NEHU)