India: My journey and the road ahead
Date: Friday , September 21, 2007
I was in India this past week, as the country celebrated 60 years of independence on August 15, 2007. This presented an occasion to reflect on the changes in India over the past few years and envision the progress that I hope will continue in the years ahead.
I left India in 1982 after graduating from the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi to pursue a graduate degree in the U.S. I often tell people (half jokingly), that I came to the U.S with one hundred dollars and a one-way ticket. These were all of my worldly possessions back then. In addition, I carried with me a spirit of discovery in pursuit of a dream – an aspiration to do research in my domain of interest at an excellent university alongside some of the best talent from around the world. An academic fellowship from Cornell University on an F1-student visa provided me the opportunity to pursue my dream.
Over the past twenty-five years or so, I have maintained a close connection with India, both personally and professionally. Much has changed technologically, politically, and on the societal front in India. Unfolding in front of us is an India that has transformed from a solely agrarian economy to a high-growth economy catalyzed by technology. Twenty-five years ago, I had to “book a long distance call” from New Delhi just to speak with my family in Southern India for five minutes. I remember having to wait all day in the proximity of a wired phone just in case the call I booked happened to go through that day. Talk about being tethered! Today, India adds 6 million cellular subscribers every month. Today, connectivity and mobile communications empower people in remote and rural parts of India to access new ways for commerce, healthcare and education. All of us have heard about India’s position as a leader in global information technology. However, did you know that with a GDP growth rate of 8.5% India graduates about 450,000 engineers every year, and has the second largest English speaking technical talent in the world after the U.S.? The United States graduates 70,000 engineers every year and all of Europe about 100,000. Numerous Indian-Americans are contributing to major scientific advancements in universities and corporations globally.
Twenty-five years ago, global companies like Motorola barely had a presence in India, due to the political and regulatory constraints. With the liberalization of the economy in 1991, multi-national companies now have a better framework for investment and market development. Today, Motorola has established strong research and development centers in India with thousands of engineers and strong academic partnerships with the nation’s leading technical universities. Motorola’s India engineering centers develop nearly 40% of the software used in all Motorola mobile phones worldwide.
Despite all of the progress, there are things that need to improve further in India. Basic business-enabling infrastructure such as airports, highways, uninterrupted power, traffic management with car-pool incentives, and pollution control are sadly lacking. Unless these issues are addressed as national imperatives, I fear the growth may stagnate. Access to clean water and basic sanitation remain issues in many parts of the country. Literacy rates are far from where they need to be. Both private and public sector must give much more attention for ways to boost the one third of India that still lives below the poverty line.
There are many opportunities for India to shine in segments beyond information technology. Areas such as affordable healthcare, biotechnology, and solar and alternative energy sources come to mind as naturals for India to become a global leader. Top-tier universities must extend beyond providing excellent undergraduate education to conducting breakthrough research in order to create inventions that can generate commercial value. India must move itself from a technical talent supplier to a technology creator for the world. For a country that has the talent, growth rate, and economic impetus, surely this is not impossible.