Wednesday, October 12, 2011

NYT Blog: Why no Indian Steve Jobs?

The New York Times blog on India has an item asking, “Where’s India’s Steve Jobs?” The writer, an Indian journalist by the name of Samanth Subramaniam who seems to cater mainly to foreign magazines, admitted it was perhaps a “hollow, even narcissistic, question" because "Brazil hasn’t produced a Steve Jobs; neither has China, the Philippines, Zambia, Australia or any one of dozens of countries around the world.”  But he proceeded to address it anyway.

In doing so he did not hazard a personal opinion on the matter but noted several from a supposed expert, a business consultant on “knowledge societies,” who blamed India’s failure to produce a Steve Jobs on the inadequacy of our educational system, the years of “flirtation” with socialism, and the incapacity of the Indian economy to support success on so grand a scale.

The piece is a textbook example of feel-bad journalism.

First, consider the false presumption that Indian entrepreneurs have failed to innovate spectacularly.

As Raghunath Mashelkar pointed out in his excellent book Reinventing India (Sahayadri Prakashan, Pune, 2011, 403 pages Rs.499., there have been many cases of huge success.

There is Narayana Murthy’s Infosys, founded in his small apartment with Rs10,000 in capital, growing to a valuation of Rs. 60,000 Crores and vaulting into the front ranks of the global Information Technology industry.

There is Mumbai’s Dabbawala tiffin delivery system, a daily miracle of business organization without parallel anywhere in the world.

There is Dr. Kurien’s “white revolution” that helped make India the world’s top milk producer and Dirubhai Ambani’s soap company that emerged from a Mumbai chawl to become India’s largest business conglomerate.

There are the anonymous scientists of C-DAC who developed an indigenous supercomputing capacity in three years after Cold War politics denied India access to the Cray XMP-1205 in the 1980s.

There is the Indian Space Research Organization, overcoming the same Cold War restraints to design and build domestic capacity from scratch, making India one of the leading nations in the field.

As Mashelkar's book noted, innovation has also thrived outside the organized sector and without government support. When the National Innovation Foundation set up three years ago under his chairmanship organized an annual competition, it received over a thousand submissions the first year and 16,000 the second year. The winners included illiterate and semi-literate people. An illiterate farmer won with a disease resistant pea he had developed, another with a cardamom variety that now accounts for 80 per cent of the crop in Kerala; a high-school dropout got an award for building a complex robot.

 The problem in India is not that we lack success stories but that we do not celebrate them and do not see ourselves as winners. Despite awards ceremonies to recognize excellence and the occasional programme on successful people, our mass media focus consistenly on the negative. Even in reporting the grand and glamorous success of the Indian film industry, the largest in the world, they emphasize the negative. Their label, Bollywood, focuses on the monkey-see-monkey-do aspect of Indian films, ignoring their homegrown verve and grace. Can you imagine the Japanese media labelling their film industry Jollywood? Or the Chinese describing their’s as Chollywood?

The other side of the mass media projection of India as a semi-comic failure is a consistent promotion and celebration of the meretricious foreign. Our major television channels are slavishly imitative of Western trends, with much of the programming lifted from British sources. People are so used to this that few are aware of how bizarre it is, or indeed, how subversive. HBO India is running a month-long programme of James Bond movies sponsored by Tata Manza, with daily email updates on “Bond Girls” delivered to your computer.

The “HB007” promo promises to trace the “evolution” of the “licensed to kill” operative over the years. I am pretty sure it won’t include any reference to the real-life license to kill that Britain exercised in India, targeting not oversize “Bond villains” but Indian freedom fighters, with vast collateral damage. The death toll, if we include the punitive “man-made” famine of 1943 in Bengal and the engineered Partition “riots,” runs into the millions.

As Mashelkar says, the problem “is not the Indian mind but the Indian mindset.”

No comments: