Just jobs, no Steve

In his convocation address at the Indian Institute of Science, N.R. Narayana Murthy asked what precisely the alumni of such institutions of higher learning have contributed to society and the world. He argued that in the six decades since the Nehru government prioritised higher education, they had produced nothing that radically changes lives. Significantly, he was not only speaking the language of growth, brands and business value, which defines the current discourse. Rather, he was also referring to ideas, technologies, inventions and innovations which define quality of life and have powered the rise of civilisation. They range from cooking, which gave humans access to wider nutritional possibilities, to the internet, which began as a defence communications technology and is now so deeply embedded in our lives that a section of humanity wants to wear it. But that is precisely the point. The US government appreciated the world-altering possibilities of ARPANET and opened it to public access and private development. Would our government have the imagination – or the heart – to release important defence technology into the wild? DRDO has now made a break by opening up Lakshya, but it is a very small beginning. Indian R&D has suffered, despite considerable funding in some areas, because backers have not been large-hearted enough. Murthy has cited the example of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose labs have helped to define the modern world with numerous inventions, while its Indian peers like the IITs have failed to contribute even a single device or technology which is depended upon worldwide. But the differential owes considerably to the financial encouragement given to disinterested research in the US. Indian labs, on the contrary, are encouraged to focus on work which either increments existing technologies or can be readily monetised. While the government is obviously to blame, corporates who stand to gain have also not partnered very systematically with government and institutions in backing novel research. The education system encourages students to be risk-averse and favour career-specific skills over creativity. Its approach remains colonial. Two centuries ago, the colonial enterprise required standardised workers in industrial quantities, who could be plugged in anywhere in the world and be expected to start playing. However, such workers cannot be expected to be innovative and are a losing proposition today, when value lies in individual creativity rather than the ability to fall in line in an orderly fashion. While the prime minister’s focus on skilling is welcome since it addresses a human resource issue, the government must also think about the huge deficit in innovation. Jobs and the skills to fill them will help our chronically underemployed country, but innovation will accumulate ideas, the coin of the future, and build bankable assets. The first is an immediate need, the second a long-term imperative.



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