In recent years, there has been a small chorus of voices promoting the notion that India is an IT Super-Power. Not only has this been touted by a section of the Indian Press, but it has also found an echo in the writings and statements of Indian NRIs. Undoubtedly, India’s progress in the field of Computer Science has been quite remarkable. The reputation of India’s best IT professionals is entirely well-deserved, and Indian researchers have been publishing some of the best papers in the field.
Moreover, according to a recent article in Forbes magazine, India’s intellectual acumen has now drawn 150 global business giants to set up research and development facilities in India. Not only does the list include important technology companies such as IBM, HP, Texas Instruments, Motorola, Samsung, STMicro and Infineon, but also large manufacturing companies such as GE, Daimler Chrysler, Tyco Corp, and Electrolux. Although not all of these R facilities are working at the cutting edge of technology, several of these centers are critical to the success of the parent company.
For instance Intel’s India Research Center filed 63 patents in the past year, and has now emerged as Intel’s most significant international center, edging out counterparts in Malaysia and Israel. Guillermo Wille, head of GE’s India Research center has noted that GE’s Indian scientists and engineers are working in leading edge fields such as nanotechnology, hydrogen energy, photonics, and advanced propulsion. And in the ultimate compliment to Indian talent, Oracle co-president Charles Phillip said recently: “The kind of intellectual figure you people have is phenomenal… . Yet, before people get carried away by such praise, it is important to ask – how many Indians have the opportunity to excel – and how much does India benefit from this growing contribution to tomorrow’s technologies? First, it should be emphasized that the the vast majority of patents that are being filed by such Indian labs are held by foreign entities. Many of these patents will be used to generate profits for shareholders abroad – not for Indians. Many of the products that will result from these patents will be manufactured and consumed abroad.
Only a small fraction of Indians will get to enjoy the fruits of this intellectual labor. Second, it should be noted that the MNCs who are setting up research labs in India are extremely selective in terms of who they hire. They interview at India’s best colleges and cherry-pick the cream of the crop. Indian students who make it to India’s best science and engineering schools invariably come from districts where education facilities at the primary and secondary level are far superior to the norm.
Children from relatively under-developed and neglected districts in Bihar, Jharkhand, Eastern UP, Eastern MP, North Bengal or Western Orissa are not exposed to a childhood education system that can prepare them for such high-technology jobs. Although there have been touching and inspiring stories of how children of slum-dwellers in Mumbai, Delhi or Lucknow have beaten all odds to top IIT entrance or GATE (or other such nation-wide exams), these are usually very rare instances. Children of the urban poor are seldom able to reach the top of the academic ladder.
This lack of equal opportunity should therefore give some pause to those excited by the long overdue recognition of Indian intellectual abilities. Unless India as a nation can provide a decent education to all its children, pride in the nations best intellectuals will not be uniformly shared. And those left out might easily express their grievances and resentment in quite unpleasant and destructive ways. The acceptance and influence of the Naxal movement in the less-developed regions of India is, at least, in part due to the lack of affordable (and quality) mass education.
It must also be noted that whereas India’s best institutions are producing highly-qualified and very able graduates, such is not the case with many of the new “engineering” colleges that have mushroomed in the Southern and Western quarters of the country. Many of the faculty members of these new private colleges do not even hold Masters degrees. And only a small fraction of the teaching staff has any significant experience (whether in industry or academia).
The average student graduating from such colleges will (in all likelihood) only be capable of routine and low-end work, and only a few highly-motivated and self-propelled students will come away with any substantial knowledge of their field. In fact, the poor quality of India’s junior engineers becomes all too evident when one looks at the workings of India’s local municipal facilities. For decades, shabby design and poor quality construction (and maintenance) have been the hallmark of local Public Works Departments (PWDs).
Invariably, the country’s least competent Civil, Mechanical and Electrical engineers end up in small town PWDs. And now, one can see the same trend in the IT sector. When it comes to using IT efficiently and effectively in government agencies, the situation is near appalling. For instance, in several states, many universities have not yet been able to put up a web-site. In UP and Jharkhand, only a few leading institutions – such as the Indian School of Mines in Dhanbad, IIT Kanpur, IIT Roorkee, BHU-IT and IIIT Allahabad have functioning web-sites.
Shockingly, even universities at some state capitals (such as Bangalore, Patna, Ranchi and Raipur) have yet to come on-line. One would think that if India were truly an IT super-power, at least every institution of higher learning in the country would have a decent website. But barring Tamil Nadu, (where every university has at least a minimally functional web-site), there isn’t a single other Indian state where all the universities have come on line. Not only are too many of India’s universities off-line, the quality of most websites leaves much to be desired.
Many are poorly designed and provide only minimal information. Utterly lacking in aesthetic qualities, they are all too frequently plagued by dead (or inactive) links, and/or confusing navigation. This is even true for Delhi University’s website. Besides, few university web-sites provide the range of information that is available on the website of a typical US university. For instance, although the IIT-Delhi provides a reasonably well-designed website, individual departments do not have their own detailed web-pages.
Whereas it is customary for most faculty members at a US university to provide a listing of all their publications (as well as course notes, a detailed bio-data, and a library of links to important on-line academic resources) – none of this is available at the IIT-Delhi’s website. In terms of using the web to inculcate greater scientific (or technological) awareness and curiosity amongst current or future students, NIT Rourkela appears to do a better job than IIT Delhi with several useful links to conferences and students tech festivals and other items of interest.
In general, most university web sites need to do more to make it easier for prospective students or researchers to learn more details about faculty specialization. The IITs and NITs could take the lead by developing the Net as a powerful new tool for information gathering and retrieval – or as a new vehicle for mental stimulation and world awareness, instead of continuing to rely on the old traditional methods of bookish education. This could also help in the development of new contacts between faculty and international academicians and researchers.
There is also considerable room for improvement at the government research labs. While it is understandable that certain types of research may need to be kept confidential, that is certainly not the case in all areas. Delhi’s “premier” National Physical Laboratory offers a shabbily-organized run-of-the-mill website that provides little substantive information, and few details about the research focus of its community of scientists (let alone a listing of publications or research abstracts). In fact, most such government websites are extremely pedestrian in nature and fail in their job to adequately inform or inspire visitors.
Only a few web-sites – such as those for Goa’s Institute of Ocean Studies (or Pune’s Institute of Astrophysics, or NIT Rourkela) are able to match international standards. While both Jadavpur and Calcutta University provide websites with attractive cosmopolitan feels to them, departmental details are in many cases sketchy and insubstantial. In this respect, a developing nation such Mexico does a better job. Every university in Mexico has a website that is more comprehensive than the typical Indian academic website, and the best are models of artistic design and academic content.
But in India, even the capital’s premiere institutions are unable to meet basic international norms. It is therefore not surprising that the situation deteriorates very rapidly as one goes down to district-level websites. If the country’s “top-notch” institutions are unable to set an adequate example, little can be expected from India’s small-town programmers and administrators. Yet, it might be worth mentioning that some of the better organized district websites are actually more easily navigable than those set up for some of the government research labs.
But exceptions aside, what too many Indian government websites reflect is the Indian bureaucracy’s unfriendly and uncommunicative attitude towards the Indian people: “Tell the public as little as possible… “. Of course, in some cases, it may simply be indicative of a corrupt administration that fears it would be all too easily exposed if it shared enough information with the public. Therefore, before India can fully emerge as an IT Super-Power, there will have to be significant changes in attitude – especial ly at the bureaucratic levels. The “Right to Know” and “Transparency in Government” campaigns are integral to this process.
In addition, there will have to be an increase in funding for equipment, training and continued maintenance and up-gradation of facilities. When it comes to the ownership and use of computers (and other electronic equipment), or spread of web-access, India still has a long way to go. Although there has been remarkable progress in just the last five years, until the benefits of high technology flow to all sections of Indian society – (and raise living standards across the board) – the designation “IT Super-Power” will have a somewhat hollow and dubious ring.