Narayana Murthy, the doyen of Indian IT, drew both praise and criticism for his address to the graduating students of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) last week. In the speech titled, "How can you, the graduates of IISc, contribute towards a better India and a better world?" he raised a number of thought-provoking points.
He asks (and then answers):
"...what the contributions of Indian institutions of higher learning particularly IISc and IITs, have been over the last 60-plus years to make our society and the world a better place. Is there one invention from India that has become a household name in the globe? Is there one technology that has transformed the productivity of global corporations? Is there one idea that has led to an earth-shaking invention to delight global citizens? Folks, the reality is that there is no such contribution from India in the last 60 years."
There is plenty of truth in Murthy's words. The last great discovery that was made by an Indian in India was the Raman Effect by CV Raman. The Raman Effect has opened new frontiers in spectroscopy, and discoveries and inventions based on his work are being made even to this day. Thousands of papers are still being written on the applications of Raman Effect -- a true landmark in science.
There have been several other discoveries and papers from Indian institutes, but far from earth-shattering, unlike, as Murthy points out, the work MIT has done in the last five decades. Sadly we must consider the fact that India has probably lost its creative edge in science.
It is also a fact that Indian institutions have neglected research, and papers by Indian scholars are under-represented in international journals. Even Chinese universities have a much stronger ranking than Indian ones even though they started quite late.
"The owners and senior executives became millionaires and had little time for innovation. Narayana Murthy and other biggies of IT have to answer for this."
Looking at this from another perspective, Apple Computers led by the legendary Steve Jobs came out with outstanding products like the MAC computer, the iPod, the iPad, the iPhone, with the tradition of innovation continuing even after his death with new products such as the Apple Watch. Jobs was personally involved in all the products Apple created including the selection of the processor, the software, product design, the styling, the colour etc. He had the ability to form outstanding teams of engineers who worked long hours on these exciting products. Steve Jobs revolutionised music, the telephone and so much more. There are other great examples in the US like Microsoft, Xerox, HP, Adobe and a host of other small companies which have come up with other great products and software. (Incidentally both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were college dropouts!)
We can also question Infosys, TCS and other computer companies which employ some of the best students from Indian universities. Why have no great inventions or original products come from them?
Narayana Murthy started a small company with a few other like-minded youngsters and later grew it into the largest IT company in India. Many other firms came up and Bangalore became the IT capital of India, gaining international recognition. India was suddenly a name to be reckoned with in technology and outsourcing. But although we can be proud of this accomplishment, no original innovation has emerged from any of these IT companies even though they had the best engineers in India and a lot of money. The owners and senior executives became millionaires and had little time for innovation. Narayana Murthy and other biggies of IT have to answer for this.
While Korea's Samsung and the Chinese mobile company Xiaomi (which was founded just five years ago) are trying to take over Apple as the leader in smart phones business, it is surprising that no Indian product has been able to make a similar impact in the world. This is despite India being a leader in the IT industry.
India is emerging as a major regional and world power and will be the most populous country in three more decades. It is thus important that Indian universities also earn international recognition by encouraging basic and applied research in science and technology. As Narayana Murthy mentioned in his lecture it is important that we eradicate illiteracy and improve school education, which lays the foundation of a child's knowledge and thinking.
The challenges faced by India are immense but the country is well poised to face them. After all, India, which was dependent on the US for food (wheat), overcame this lack by the green revolution in which the scientist M S Swaminathan played a major role and today we have become a country which is surplus rice, wheat and grains.
Let us hope that Indian universities will improve and innovate. As will companies like Infosys!