Thursday, November 11, 2004

India and Innovation

You might have got those emails. About India's contribution to the rest of the world, be it in mathematics, in astronomy or numerous other fields. Unfortunately, most of these inventions, discoveries and innovations are from Ancient Indian times.

I've always wondered what has been happening since!

It took a few years for me to realise that a number of great things that have happened in India in modern times have not been individual contributions or products & ideas. Most of the creative, innovative things that have happened have been in the social realm.

The first census that happened in independent India was in 1951. The literacy rate in India then was 16.7% and in 1991 it was 43.3%. Why that low even after 40 years? Maybe this number would enlighten: the population of India in 1951 was 361 million, in 1991, 83,606 million! Phew! What happened? Suddenly, after India gained independence, the population exploded! Barring risque comments, the actual reason were primarily due to improved healthcare. The death rate per thousand population has decreased from 26.6 in 1955 to 9 in 2000. Wow! That's a remarkable 66%! What happened here? Increased healthcare for India meant a number of developements in medicine, eradication of major epidemics like malaria, and of course, focus on educational instititutions, both medical and otherwise and better food production and distribution systems.

Somehow, when Indians think, write and criticise about India, they forget the fact that they are able to do so primarily because of a number of social incentives which were taken soon after our independence. If it weren't for institutional education, medical and infrastructural facilities which were created in the early years after independence, I might not have been sitting halfway across the world, writing this blog today.

Although learning these facts was certainly consoling, I was still feeling despondent for a number of reasons. Many, many Indians who are well educated and have travelled all over the world, have been successful outside of India, but there haven't been many success stories of Indians in India.

A recent article, for example, listed 9 Indians in MIT's top innovators' list. Smruti Vidwans has a new approach to develop drugs against tuberculosis and Vikram Sheel Kumar developed interactive software that motivates patients to manage chronic diseases such as diabetes and AIDS.

Of course, neither of them are in India, so I was wondering if it would ever be possible to create Indian greats while in India!

So, it was really heartening to see Wired coming up with a wonderful article about "India Emerges as Innovation Hub".

Two of the notables - Shekar Borgaonkar and his team are building what they call Script Mail, a device that makes electronic communication easier for people who speak languages that can't be typed on a standard keyboard. And Kirti Trivedi, from IIT Mumbai, has built what he calls a "compact media center" for schools without enough computer equipment to go around. Although it costs a steep $3,200, a single unit can tutor a large classroom of nearly 100 students in schools that cannot afford multiple personal computers. Considering tha a computer in India costs over $500, this is certainly a more economical alternative.

Of course, there are many, many things that can be done in India. Things that can be improved. Sometimes the number of hurdles left still to cross seem daunting and it never seems like an achievable goal. But I think, slowly there is a realisation creeping in. That things can change. That we can create, innovate, think up new ways to solve problems which have dogged us for years.

The interesting times are just beginning!


Blogger Sandeep said...

Ok.... First of all most of the people on your referenced articles (their brilliance is un parralelled undoubtedly and may they continue to keep their country cousins proud) are using their mojo for the Yanks or the Japs or the Frogs.... which is all very good. Arguably, this buys us some covers on TIME, a write up in the economist and Entrepreneur and some rants with Lou Dobbs.

But I'd much rather some of the cats, you included would come and solve this DAMNED FLYOVER problem in the Airport Road - 100 Ft. Road junction. We made the bloody house on Ring Road to be able to get to the office in 12th Main in about 5 minutes. Apparently, to solve this awesome rush hour "choke-point", the authorities have decided to start flyover (cloverleaf) construction, promptly dig up the roads and then stop the work (except for regularly updating us on the moving finish date - currently March 2005). Now the congestion is causing wear and tear issues on all people who have to travel that route, there is maintenance work going on on the remaining road, the pollution is incredible and it takes 45 minutes on a good day to cross the light.

Bangalore - IT capital, beacon of progress, home to some of India's brightest minds have among its candidate for mayor a 7th standard pass, 8th standard pass and a PUC fail. One of these doyens' platform is that quite simply he will declare his platform if he gets elected!!!!

So while I am not in anyway denigrating India's great leaps and the work of so many Indians (in so many places other than India), I'd much rather we got a few less reviews and buckled down to problems of consolidating our vastly overused infrastructure and reform (by draconian measures, if necessary) our pathetic polity. Also, while we are at it, FIX THE FRIGGIN FLYOVER..... GRRRRRRR.....

12:18 AM  
Blogger abhijit said...

Yes, Sandeep, there are many, many infrastructural issues facing India. In fact, those are the main things that, in my opinion, are holding back a huge amount of development. That, and political will.

My aim in the article was to point out people who are doing a number of things for India despite the tremendous challenges they face (including commuting to work!)

12:55 PM  

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