‘We are still a long way off from becoming leaders in inventions and innovations’

Thomas K ThomasAyushi Kar | | Updated on: Dec 02, 2021
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India must solve its grand challenges before thinking in terms of global leadership: Infosys’ Narayana Murthy

India has progressed well in the areas of science and technology over the last decade but there is still a huge gap with developed countries when it comes to taking the lead in innovation. NR Narayana Murthy, mentor and co-founder of IT major Infosys, spoke to BusinessLine on how India can build a culture of science and research to solve real life problems facing the country. Excerpts:

What do you think is the potential for India in becoming the next technological and innovation leader?

I'm very reticent to use superlatives, and to use words like leaders. Our country is making reasonable progress. But we are still a long way off from becoming leaders in inventions and innovations. My own position is that we have to be humble. Humility is what will help us to learn from people who have performed better than us. I would be very happy if the country can solve its grand challenges before we think in terms of global leadership in any area. Let me talk about a few grand challenges we have — our air is toxic; this has been going on for the last 50 years. Every winter there is problem in Delhi. But we have still not found a workable solution. There is serious scarcity of potable water in the country. Our agricultural productivity has to improve considerably so that we can shift workers from agriculture to low tech manufacturing and services. As you know, about 40-42 per cent of our population is involved in agriculture and related areas while adding only 15 per cent to our GDP. What that means is our per capita GDP in agriculture is only between 35 and 40 per cent.. A person working in agriculture earns only about $750-800 per year. I'm deliberately using dollars because that is what the global comparison studies use. Similarly, our PISA scores — we're among the lowest. That's when Manmohan Singh's government, the UPA government instead of saying that we will solve this problem, they simply said, “No, we will not use it.” Fortunately, the current government decided a few years ago to start working on improving our PISA scores. But I haven't seen any major work in that area. Now we rank low in public health, even when compared with most developing countries. So I personally feel that there is a little bit of humility that is called for. I will be happy if we can overcome at least a few of these problems in my lifetime. What levers do we have to solve these serious problems? There are two levers. The first is to create an environment of positivity and enthusiasm and total freedom for our any researchers and professionals. The second is to bring a competent, transparent and accountable bureaucracy with a focus on speed of action. If we succeed in doing these things, I do believe that we would all help our researchers and professionals to tackle some of the grand challenges that I spoke about and then we can think in terms of becoming leaders.

Many of our young brilliant minds have been flocking to countries like the US. So how do we make sure that India remains an attractive destination for our scientific talent?

Some of our youngsters have high aspiration, they are not satisfied with the opportunities that our country offers. Therefore, they go abroad to seek a more challenging and satisfying life. I personally do not see anything wrong with that. All that I would wish them is that they become model and productive citizens of whatever society they choose to live in and to raise the image of India in every one of their actions. While a small percentage of students leave India our big challenge is to make our country comfortable, and attractive for the majority of Indians who stay back. After all, we are a nation of 1.4 billion people. Let us worry about 99.99 per cent of the people who stay here, let us make their lives more comfortable. What are they asking? All that they're asking for is very simple stuff. They want reasonable quality of air, clean water, and reasonable quality health care. They want safety for women and children. They want affordable housing, they want reasonable quality transportation, they want reasonable quality schooling and college education for their children They want hassle-free public governance and they do not want any harassment from bribes-seeking petty officials. I think these are all very reasonable things that any youngster in our country expects. I also believe that we can achieve it. Therefore, the next stage is to make our higher education system more useful to solving the grand challenges of our country and to make it attractive to foreigners, as the developed countries have done today. Free it may seem a tall order today. Hopefully our current and future generations like you will achieve it. I have not come across a single non-resident Indian, who does not pine to go back and settle down in India and who is not ready to do whatever little he or she can do to make India a better place. I think the challenge is with us, who are in the country, to improve this country and to retain our youngsters. So, we cannot blame those youngsters. We have to see what it is that we are not doing so that those youngsters find our country attractive.

A lot of great educators and thinkers talk about how education systems need to change. But many times, it is a demand and supply issue where educators are nurturing young talent in a way to make them more employable. Do you think the Indian employment, economic and social environment really rewards everyone to think out of the box?

Most developed nations have solved both these problems, that is to educate these youngsters to equip them to become employable, that is the first objective. At the same time, instill in them the abilities of critical thinking, questioning, curiosity, proactive problem solving and thinking out-of-the-box. Now these attributes cannot be developed in isolation of each other. The attributes like critical thinking and proactive problem solving, must become the path to develop employability — that is what we are missing in this country. I am told that the new education policy of Professor Kasthurirangan, aims to develop these twin attributes concurrently. That is the challenge, and I am glad that the NEP will attempt to do it. But the proof of its success, lies in how well we can implement the right recommendations of professor Kasthurirangan committee. It is about making classroom a place for Socratic questioning, discussions allowing curiosity to bloom, applying formal theories for practical applications, and to develop critical thinking. India is generally not known for excellence in implementation, I hope that this time will be able to implement this important new education policy well and in time.

India has always had deep technical and scientific talent which is not necessarily reflected in the number of patents issued. Is this an area of concern?

I do not measure our success, by the number of patents. They are essential but they are not sufficient. A nations success is measured by what outcomes it has achieved, whether it has solved its grand challenges. And brought prosperity, health and happiness to its citizens. That is how we should measure, not by papers and patents. On that count, that I have talked about just now, we have not done as well as we would have liked. However, we have had some improvements, our agriculture productivity has improved, thanks to professor Swaminathan, and we seem to have solved the problem of food shortage at least for the coming few years. However, we are still high on the hunger index, We have overcome polio, measles, TB and several other diseases, that plagued this country for long. We have developed a vibrant software services industry that generates a net foreign exchange of anywhere between $90 billion to $100 billion. We have developed our own vaccine for Covid19, we have sent satellites into space. However, these achievements have all happened due to a very small set of accomplished people, with high aspirations and a culture of meritocracy, hard work, honesty, excellence, discipline, and high accomplishment. Therefore, there is a need for reorienting our culture, so that the majority of our people, buy into a culture of high aspiration, meritocracy, excellence, honesty, hard work, discipline hierarchy of ideas rather than hierarchy of age, pro-active problem solving, curiosity, openness to accept criticism, ability to accept people and nations that have performed better than us. And the ability to accept truth, however bitter that is. Unless we create such a culture, it will be difficult for us to transform the mindset of our talent, to solve our own grand challenges. If we accept such a culture, then we can think of becoming leaders in some fields. I think it is too early to talk about becoming leaders at this point of time.

Even within the field of sciences- interdisciplinary dialogue- a collaboration between specialities has become the need of the hour. Do we see that happening in India?

Interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration, between specialists and among specialists is an area that the western nations and developed nations have excelled in. Today’s problems as you people know better than I do, connect several disciplines, and need such collaborations. It is like participating where maestros in several instruments come together, use the score sheet, operate under the guidance principle of the conductor, and work together to create music that is divine. India is rather weak in teamwork, even Jugalbandi, which is coming together of two equal maestros, is often seen as a competition between the two maestros, rather than collaboration. So, we have to learn from nations that have mastered teamwork. The need of the day is for our research institutions, to create a virtual network of specialists of different disciplines to form such close knit teams, to work together and solve these grand challenges of our country. This requires tools to communicate problems and reports of each group, tools to create database, of reusable body knowledge to improve our productivity and avoid reinventing the wheel. A culture of admitting failures and seeking suggestions of others in the network. And the ability to offer suggestions courteously and without condescension. And the ability to offer citations courteously, and without condescension to colleagues who are stuck with a problem. I hope we will get there and then I believe that India will do a very good job of interdisciplinary work.

Published on December 02, 2021

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