What is holding back India's progress?


Awdhesh Singh (अवधेश सिंह)
Awdhesh Singh (अवधेश सिंह), former IRS(Customs & C. Excise/GST) Commissioner at Government of India (1991-2016)
I recommend reading this.

Rajan Singh
Rajan Singh, Ex-IPS Officer, IITian, Wharton MBA, CEO at ConceptOwl


Israel’s population is less than that of Bangalore City. A country not even the size of a city in India would obviously be behind us in science and technology. Because of India’s much larger pool of scientists, it is way ahead of Israel in cutting edge technologies. Predictably, Israel imports a huge amount of high tech defence equipment from India.
WRONG. I was joking. You knew that, right?
India is nowhere compared to Israel in technology. We are buying advanced defence equipment from Israel, which has no resources to speak of, other than people.
What about Singapore or Hong Kong or Taiwan? How are they so ahead of India economically?
This is the age of knowledge, the age of excellence. Having one brilliant scientist is better than having 1000 (or 10,000) mediocre ones. Numbers don’t matter, quality does. You see the same thing in Olympics. Countries the size of a city end up getting more gold medals than India.
I am not writing this out of self-pity or to sow a seed of despair. Absolutely not. But we need to stare at reality in the face, and not bury our head in sand, shouting slogans about our past greatness (real or imagined).
The first thing we need to remind ourselves is that a country’s size is an advantage only if citizens have a thirst for excellence, and are educated, skilled, and productive. Else size makes you a struggling dinosaur which cannot lift its own weight.
Today there is only one way for a nation to become affluent: develop and market cutting edge technology. Period.
How did USA become so affluent? Every time you buy a laptop, do a search on internet, spend time on social media, or use a smart phone, a tech company like Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Intel, or Microsoft in the US gets richer. Money is transferred from your wallet to these companies directly or indirectly every single day. When these companies have more revenue, they hire people in well paying jobs, and prosperity spreads.
That is why Palo Alto is so affluent, but a Jehanabad or Bilaspur is not.
But that brings us to the next question: Why is India not excelling in science and technology? After all, there are so many of us. Statistically, some of us have to be intelligent and smart. Is it the lack of resources? Or is our DNA defective?
Let us find out. Start with the quality of research in our universities.
Here is a hypothetical question: There are two new aeroplanes which have to be taken for a test flight. And you are the lucky pilot. One plane is developed by a team of Stanford scientists, the other by scientists at some university in India, say Kanpur university (or pick anyone you like).
Which plane would you choose to fly? I would go for the one by Stanford University, even though I know nothing about the people who developed it. As a pilot, I am putting my life on the line.
Some might say I am biased or pro-America or whatever. I don’t think so. I don’t want to die in a test flight.
A vast majority of the research done by our Universities is mediocre, or below mediocre. I was a student at IIT and I did not meet too many PhD students fired up to do pathbreaking research. Some PhDs were waiting to clear the relevant exams like UGC/CSIR, get married, and get a safe government job in some college. Somehow publish one or two papers, somehow complete the PhD, somehow do this or that…
When I was a student at Wharton, one evening I was talking to some IIT friends, who had become professors at University of Pennsylvania. They were lamenting how sub-par the research coming from India was, including some of the stuff from IITs. This is a widespread perception, not that of one or two.
I am not belittling the sincere researchers, whether at IITs or other universities. I am in fact rooting for them. But the reality is that they are a minority.
Why is that? Is it the lack of facilities? No. A solid ‘no’. There was a time when we could have blamed it on facilities, but not today. Most (not all) research needs access to internet and computers, and science journals. We have that. Interactions with other scientists at conferences, summer programs etc. also are not a problem.
There might be some differences in technical resources, but that is not the reason why we lag. We are lagging because we lack the quest for excellence. We lack the daring to go all out to do world changing research. We put the friction of bureaucracy in our science institutions. We fall behind because mediocrity is not punished, and brilliance is not rewarded. Survival is what motivates us. We settle for ‘good’ in a world where good is not ‘good enough’. We are happy with the Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar award; the thirst for Nobel Prize is not there. We don’t even think we can get there. We give up before we start. We don’t fight.
Most of us work for pension and salaries, not because we want to do something. Even in DRDO, for every scientist who sacrifices his life slogging, there is probably another who just chugs along. The hard working souls carry the weight of stragglers, and our bureaucracy.
What else do we lack?
Risk taking. We all want safety and job security, even if it means giving up on a meaningful life. We want to avoid failure, and in that process we are guaranteed a mediocre life, which is the biggest failure.
Imagine if some college kid in India had suggested giving up a job to launch a startup like Twitter. Parents and families would have revolted. No offence, but most VCs would also have said, “What a stupid thing to do? Sending 140 character messages? Why would you need that? Why not use Facebook or email or blogs?”
The reality is that failure is part of innovation. Risk is part of progress. Pain is part of success. It is a package. Take it or leave it.
It is about time we start thinking about it. Let us not live in past glory, which is mostly in our head. Let us smell the coffee, and see the world for what it is. We owe it to our citizens who are struggling for livelihood.
Teach our children to take risk and go for excellence. Be the best in whatever you do. Ask questions. Don’t accept the status quo.
When the teacher doesn’t give marks because your answer doesn’t match his/her answer, don’t bother. Give the right answer anyway. Don’t be afraid.
Let us start by ramping up science learning in schools. Stop this rote learning for God’s sake. Encourage students to ask questions. Let us develop concepts. Encourage rigour and problem solving, and not shy away from mathematics. Science does not have to be only animation and fun.
Remember: Soviet Union was able to single handedly keep pace with the whole of western world despite its terrible bureaucracy. Why? Just look at any Russian high school book on science and math, and they will blow your mind away. That is why. Even today students in India use Irodov’s Physics book for entrance preparation.
Let us not be apologetic about hardcore science learning. Not everybody has to study science or math. Let children pursue whatever they are passionate about. But to those who want to pursue Science - give them the opportunity and motivation to shoot for the stars.
Cut the fat out of our science institutions. Bring in the culture of perform or perish. Let high performers go up rapidly, and let the mediocre ones be removed. If the LCA project takes 40 years, heads should roll. Everyone should be accountable.
Stop this mediocrity. Stop this ‘it is good enough for India’. Stop this quest for the ‘consolation prize’.
Get rid of this thinking that innovation can only come from California. Our scientists and engineers are working in world’s best corporations across the globe. They will come back when they see better opportunities.
Our heroes should be scientists, innovators, artists, and people who blaze a trail. Rank and age should not matter, contribution should.
This will not happen in a day or a year. But if we start now, in 20–30 years we can change India.
China was once just like India. They started low-tech mass production. Now they are going head to head against the US, even in high technology. They are not there yet fully, but are surely getting there. Now they are building and exporting fighter jets.
If China can do it why can’t we? Just because we are a democracy? Nonsense. Let us demand more from our politicians and leaders. More importantly, let us demand more from ourselves.
India will change if we change. If I change. If many of us change. Not by shouting slogans, but doing things differently in our daily lives.
When we work with sincerity and integrity in our daily lives, our children will imbibe our behaviour. This small seedling will one day become a giant tree, which will spread shade and happiness.
Will we change?

Rajan Singh
Founder and CEO, ConceptOwl

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