The Roadblock to India’s “Tryst with Destiny,” Part 1 of 2

Last week, I was at the Judge Business School of Cambridge University. This year, Cambridge is celebrating its 800th anniversary. It is astounding that an institution not tightly bound by religion has thrived this long, much of that time as a leading center of human thought. There is hope for humanity yet!

I took the time to chat with Navi Radjou, a former colleague at Forrester, and the first Executive Director of the Center for India and Global Business. Recently created in part with a grant from the Indian Government, the Center pays homage to Jawahar Lal Nehru, an architect of Indian freedom and its first Prime Minister; Nehru had studied at Cambridge in his youth. On a recent trip to India on behalf of the Center, Navi met business people, politicians, film makers and ordinary people. He described fascinating examples of business and social innovation, some of which truly have the power to change the flow of life even in other parts of the world. I will not steal the Center’s thunder and describe any of these here; suffice it to say that this Fall, PBS will be airing a series of documentaries on some of these innovations (created by filmmaker Khursheed Khurody) and the Center will do some supporting work on the series.

With all the good happening there, it might seem churlish to some for me to keep the promise I made in my last post and bring up India’s Achilles Heel. But the country must address this and soon. So, I will go on.

India’s Achilles Heel is not the limits to the numbers of engineering students it can train; while the world focuses on the Indian Institutes of Technology, most engineers trained by its many of the regional engineering colleges (e.g., Delhi College of Engineering) are highly skilled. It is not lack of basic essential infrastructure, which, without doubt, is way behind world class. It is not grinding poverty, accentuated by the still pervasive effects of caste, though that is terrible to behold. (Incidentally, caste is not just a Hindu problem; sadly, Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims – as well as adherents of several other religions – also espouse their caste status in issues of importance, like marriage.) It is not religious or caste battles; these, though ugly when they happen, are not as common as the Western press makes them out to be. It is not even the fact that some 20% of the current Members of Parliament have criminal records or outstanding criminal charges against them; this fact has received widespread coverage in the West now that 700+ million Indians are voting.

I could go on with this list of issues, which have all been raised by various observers of India, some friendly to the country, and some not. In reality, all these issues – and others like them – are derivatives of the core problem, which no one I know of has described. It is a self-reinforcing Iron Triangle made up of (1) a pervasive mindset that believes that smart people should – and must – study engineering or medicine; (2) a still rigid academic system that does not give most people second chances; and (3) Mahatma Gandhi’s greatest error: the politicizing of universities.

Demolishing this Iron Triangle is India’s biggest challenge; if it does so successfully, it will flourish and achieve what Prime Minister Nehru called its “tryst with destiny.” If does not, it will probably still be successful, but is likely to plateau at a level far below its potential.

In my next post, I will describe each of the legs of the Iron Triangle and how they interact. I will also offer some thoughts about what India could do.

Category: Business Environment, Politics | Tags: , , , One comment »

One Response to “The Roadblock to India’s “Tryst with Destiny,” Part 1 of 2”

  1. Prakash

    Dear Dr.Amit,
    Now I know the Iron Triangle. In the recent years one more dimension has emerged. If you have to get admission in a “Good” college and course, you must be either very rich (to afford capitation and high tution fees of private colleges) or very clever (to get admission in top govt colleges at decent fees) or from the “reserved” category.
    This leaves a large population of students who fall in the middle and can’t realise their aspirations. In order to survive , they turn to other means like politics. The seeds are sown in the college elctions. Blaming Mr.Gandhi would not be fair. He was getting the youth mobilised for freedom. The blame should rest with his followers, who did not heed to his advise.
    As Indians, we are not converting our biggest threat (population)into opportunity.

    Warm rgds.24-06-2009


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