July 28, 2007

India of his dreams

It is not as if Indians aren’t dreamers; it’s just that parental, peer and social pressures wouldn’t let our brilliant minds deviate, in pursuit of their dream, from a straight-jacket education system.Writing in The Hindu Open Page E C Thomas poses the question: Have you come across any young person who is prepared to drop out of an IIT or IIM to throw himself into unknown waters to follow a dream?

These institutions produce excellent managers, to execute other people’s dreams, elsewhere in the world. Mr Thomas would like to know if India in recent times has invented any product that can be said to have revolutionized the world scene ? We are emerging as the biggest market for cell phone, a product that we haven’t created. Nor have we created digital camera, plasma TV, iPod or DVD. In engineering India makes products engineered by others. Our IT majors, says Thomas, are in effect sub-contractors to elite corporations. We haven’t created an innovative company such as Google, Apple or Microsoft. But Indians are prized for their execution of designs of foreign innovators. The Hindu article cites the instance of Google chief scientist Krishna Bharat who joined the company in 1999.

Mr Thomas would like to see, what he terms, a holly alliance of parents, universities, private enterprise and the state, with a hidden agenda to keep the fire of innovative spirit burning in our brilliant young minds. We must ensure that the best of us do not become available to the highest bidder... More on thes lines in Open Page.. . .

2 comments:

Guru said...

“We are emerging as the biggest market for cell phone, a product that we haven’t created. Nor have we created digital camera, plasma TV, iPod or DVD. In engineering India makes products engineered by others. Our IT majors, says Thomas, are in effect sub-contractors to elite corporations. We haven’t created an innovative company such as Google, Apple or Microsoft. But Indians are prized for their execution of designs of foreign innovators.”

I have thought about this for 40 years ever since Indians started settling down in Western countries particularly in America and making contributions to their economies. I have summed up my thoughts as follows:

1. Even in late 1960s, US universities were starved of bright students undertaking their graduate (postgraduate in English jargon) courses in science and technology. Indian students took advantage of this and given the American natural tendency to encourage the ‘doers’, they got to industries and moved up the career ladder. When silicon chip technologies were perfected in 1970s and microprocessors were taking off, in one industry all the design team which included yours truly were Indian graduates who came out of American universities recently then. To undertake design of such sophistication that microprocessors at that time posed, the industries needed good graduates. The ‘natives’ if I could call those who were white and born in America were simply unable to proceed to graduate studies after spending hefty fees in undertaking their undergraduate studies and accepted mundane non-challenging jobs just to earn and pay off their loans. I should hasten to add that there were no floodgates opened in American industries and universities as the microchip revolution was still in its infancy. America was reeling from the aftermath of debilitating war in Vietnam having lost some of its accomplished young men. America the land of opportunities gave Indian students every encouragement which these students some of them not very bright would never have had in India. For example, one of my classmates who is a top civil engineer and a president of a civil engineering firm now was an ordinary second class student in civil engineering (he was not selected to do mechanical or electrical engineering in our college because of his weak academic background and had to study civil engineering which at that time very few students were interested) who could not go to a top university in America, paid his own fees to do graduate studies and joined construction industry and steadily moved up the career ladder.
2. Even though US has a large population but still inadequate for its large land mass. India with its teaming millions can contribute at any time, say a few thousand readily educated selected and sorted bright students who have completed their undergraduate degrees to universities. Completing an year of master’s degree course, these can move into industries quickly That was exactly what happened in 1980s when microchip revolution was on fast track and software engineering then confined to operating large computers in banks and business sectors moved fast into other sectors in industry as computing power became cheap in the form of availability of microcomputers.
In 1980s alone thousands of young Indian undergraduates left for US, and it is in this exodus that one finds the top engineers in American industries. These talents were lost to India.
3. Very bright Indians are intellectuals and not innovators for a number of
reasons. One of them is India has been a third world country for a very long
time with all the political and social maladies that go with it. India still does not
have the strong industrial infrastructure that can rival the West. Besides, the
usual political tail wagging the industrial dog, innovation of the
kind that can revolutionise any aspect of practical human life has never been the
strength of India. Even Indian successful IT businesses are working for
somebody despite their chiefs claim that they are innovators. No new operating
system is produced in these sweat shops that can rival Microsoft XP and Vista
and Linux. The IT CEOs and their cohorts are making money working for
others.
Some of the best institutions like the IISC has produced very bright aeronautical
engineers many of whom has been working in Indian aerospace industries for
decades. Still India has not developed home designed fighter aircraft which can compete with the best in
America, France and Sweden. People may say about Agnis, satellites etc.. but
yet they are not in the league of US counterparts.

Finally, I can see a dangerous twist brought about by the IT craze (I have been an IT specialist for decades I should add) that permeates the country. Many innovative areas where India excelled are being swept away by the IT storm. Sciences and arts are examples. I wonder whether the young and bright kids
in India today are still interested in careers in science and arts.

guru said...

In a sister blog which also posted the words of Thomas, bloggers seem to equate innovation to services and miss completly the nub of the argument. Their examples of Infosys and Wipro are not like Thomas I would consider as innovations as they are glorified subcontractors, good examples of outsourcing. My argument has been that innovations of the kind Thomas alluded to does not fit with Indian psyche which works well with these companies when they hire Indian Engineering graduates who are satisfied in a career their parents would approve.
They work their way up to become principal scientist,Vice President etc. and not leave to set upanother innovative brand product. The Vodafone company was created by a pioneering Englishman and what Sarin its Indian boss is doing now is working to make the company perofrm better - in otherwords working FOR the company promoting an already innovated brand. He is no different than an Indian software engineer who is interested in a career in Google, Apple or Microsoft. Innovators have a different mindset, for them innovation is antithesis of a safe career. When Bill Gates was involved in the CP/M operating system in early 1980s, every one knew sooner or later he would come up with an innovative product. He did when he released the first Windows Operating System.

There are plenty of opportunities for Indian scientists working in India, a country blessed with sunshine for months in a year, to innovate in solar energy. But as I said with the IT fever gripping the country and young men and women with their heroes in NRN and Premji
one can be sure this will not, and in about 25 years Indian homes will be fitting novel solar panels invented by an innovator in a Western country.