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Are Indians really dumb?

August 10, 2004 12:49 IST

'The whole process where people get an idea and put together a team, raise the capital, create a product and mainstream it -- that can only be done in the US. It can't be done sitting in India. The Indian part of the equation is to help these innovative US companies bring their products to the market quicker, cheaper and better, which increases the innovative cycle there. It is a complementarity we need to enhance.'

-- Nandan Nilekani, CEO, Infosys, quoted in The New York Times, March 7, 2004.

Translated into plain English, this means 'Indians lack creativity and cannot come up with the ideas to create and sell a product. Indians can only do the backend slog work that helps US companies create and sell their products.'

How about this?

ISRO -- the Indian Space Research Organisation -- is the result of Dr Vikram Sarabhai's vision. Its first rocket, like the one in the picture, was launched 40 years ago. Over the past 40 years, a multi-disciplinary group of electronics, mechanical, electrical, civil and chemical engineers has designed and built 32 satellites and three generations of launch vehicles culminating in the GSLV.

This was done with almost totally indigenous R&D, battling US sanctions. Each time that a technology or component was unavailable, ISRO went ahead and developed it on its own. ISRO's satellites help India in telecom, television broadcasting, weather forecasting, disaster warning, telemedicine, education and fishery. Technologies in areas as diverse as optics and artificial limb manufacture have been developed and transferred to Indian industry.

Jamsetji Tata wanted to make textiles in Nagpur in the 1800s with the cotton grown there. Nagpur had no textile industry then, and in Manchester Jamsetji was told that Nagpur's weather was not suitable as it was too dry. He said, 'Alright, I will bring the Manchester weather to Nagpur.' He imported humidifiers and started India's first textile mill in 1874.

When Jamshetji started the Tata Iron and Steel Company and wanted to export steel rails to Britain, a Britisher called Sir Frederick Upcourt said, 'Do you mean to say that Tatas propose to make steel rails to British specifications? I will undertake to eat every pound of rail that they make, if they do that.' The Tatas did manage to make steel rails and export them to Britain. Upcourt must have developed a massive case of indigestion). In World War II British tanks were called Tatanagars because the steel was made in Tatanagar.

To paraphrase Nilekani, Vikram Sarabhai and Jamsetji Tata got an idea, put together a team, raised the capital, created a product, and mainstreamed it. They did it sitting in India, 40 years and 125 years ago respectively, when India's technical capabilities were far less than they are now.

So we now have two Indias.

One has a severe inferiority complex and is unwilling to do anything creative because it thinks it is incapable of it. It thinks being called the back office of the world is the ultimate compliment, missing the implied insult in the word back. It thinks its ultimate destiny is to do all the slog work of the world.

The other is confident about its capability, dreams big dreams, then goes ahead and translates the dreams into reality. There are innumerable success stories like ISRO and Tata Steel in India today, in manufacturing, electronic hardware, pharmaceuticals, software, fashion design, or any area that you can think of. The problem is that these are not highlighted. Creative individuals and organisations who are developing products or technologies with a lasting impact are unsung heroes.

To be a hero in India today you just have to make a lot of immediate money. Creativity is irrelevant, and maybe dreamers like Vikram Sarabhai and Jamsetji Tata would be considered fools.

When you dream a big dream, maybe a small part of it gets translated into reality. If you do not dream at all, what do you finally get in reality?An entrepreneur must have self-confidence bordering on arrogance. Why is it that this confidence is missing in the heads of India's biggest software companies?

Back to the Raj?

Every Indian child's history textbook says something to this effect: 'During the British Raj we exported cheap raw material to Britain, then imported the finished products at a much higher price. We were paying for the value addition done in Britain, and the Raj prevented us from doing the value addition here. We were being exploited by the British.' The IT industry is considered to be India's biggest success story, but in reality 99% of it involves the export of cheap (human) raw material and the import of expensive finished products.

We are happy if Microsoft starts a development centre in India and employs a couple of thousand people. We develop the software modules that go into Microsoft Windows XP at a low price, and then pay through our noses to import the finished Windows XP.

There is no British Raj to exploit us today, so what prevents us from doing the big value addition here now instead of exporting cheap man days? Why are we exploiting ourselves? The standard argument is that the software industry is evolving, and will 'move up the value chain.' There is, however, no evidence of any motion up the value chain. Some of the biggest IT companies are on the contrary regressing into BPOs. Everyone is happy making a lot of money today, and there is no thought of tomorrow.

Another argument goes: 'Oh, but see how much foreign exchange the IT industry is earning for the country.' Agreed, we are making a lot of money selling our time, but we would be making many times this amount selling our creativity through technologies, designs or finished products.

Current government policies, value systems and the education system are creating a whole generation of people who believe they are second class professionals unfit to do anything creative. During the Raj the British convinced us we were fit to only produce raw material and not finished goods. They'd be proud of us now -- we've learnt the lesson very well and are now convincing successive generations too.

In today's India Jamsetji would probably have said to Frederick Upcourt, 'Maybe you have a point and I'm taking a big risk trying to make steel in this Third World country. I think I'll just sell you the iron ore from my Noamundi mines. Besides, I can start selling you the ore from next month itself, while it will take me 5 years to build the steel plant and start making money.'

So are we really dumb?

A century ago, Jamsetji Tata took some foreign visitors to the Majestic Hotel in Mumbai but was denied entrance because he was an Indian. Jamsetji simply resolved to build a hotel that was even finer, and which would not discriminate against people on the basis of colour or race. Today when we lose software outsourcing contracts and get thrown out of the US, we go back and beg to be allowed back in instead of fighting back by being more creative than them.

We need drastic changes in the education system and in government policies to reward creativity and value addition. Changes that produce creative people, visionaries, dreamers, people with guts, like Vikram Sarabhai and Jamsetji Tata.

We are definitely not dumb. We just have to stop thinking that we are.

Earlier column by G V Dasarathi: Bangalore: Silicon Valley or Coolie Valley?

G V Dasarathi