Narayana Murthy's MIT-fantasy is a no-brainer. India's innovation capacity even lower than Brazil, China

The self-critical charge of Infosys co-founder NR Narayana Murthy at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) that India hasn’t done any “earth shattering” innovation in the last 60 years, and his comparison of the country’s record with that of a single institution such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is great to inspire India’s young science and technology aspirants, but is utterly devoid of a sense of realism.

In fact, he himself has the answer in his subsequent problem statement: “We have the poorest public health service in the world. We have the dirtiest rivers in the world. Our vehicles produce the highest carbon per vehicle in the world. We have the lowest per-capita usable water in the world. Our primary education is one of the lowest quality in the world.”

Can a country with poorest health, dirtiest rivers, highest pollution and (one of the) poorest primary education and not enough potable water foster any ideas other than those for mere survival, let alone innovate and invent? His reference to MIT’s excellence is a great inspiration for scholarship-hunters who want to escape India’s stratosphere and innovate on American soil, but is lame as an idea because India is not America. Comparing a $ 1500 economy with a $ 53000 is nothing but hot air. More over, the fate of America’s education is not decided by a minister who  doesn’t just have a proper university degree, but also has allegedly made false claims. And Americans are not busy filling re-textbooks with ideological fantasies and entrusting its top institutions with right wing fellow-travellers.

Narayana Murthys MIT-fantasy is a no-brainer. Indias innovation capacity even lower than Brazil, China

NR Narayana Murthy. Reuters

The comparison is preposterous for many more reasons, the most important being the poor quality of India’s educational institutions. None of the Indian universities or colleges, not even our hallowed IITs, don't find a place in a global list of 200. Most of India’s higher education in science and technology, other than the IITs, NITs and a few other national institutions, has been taken over by the private sector, which is driven by only profits. Profits come from numbers that are good enough only to be the working class for global capital. With no institutional interest in research, if the government and industries do not fund R&D, how do we innovate?

Let’s take the example of MIT that Murthy gloated over. In 2012, it had an R&D budget of $ 824 million and nearly half of it came from the federal government. Similarly, in the case of the top R&D spender in America, the Johns Hopkins University, which had a budget of $ 2.1 billion, $1.87 billion came from the government. Take any other Ivy League university, bulk of its research funding comes from a single source - the government.

And in India? According to the latest Economic Survey, India’s capacity for innovation is lower that even the BRICS countries (except Russia). India’s share to the $ 1.6 trillion global gross expenditure on R&D (GERD) in PPP terms is only 3 percent, which is five times lower than that of China, that too after a purported annual growth of 20 per cent. In comparison, according to OECD estimates, China’s R&D spending will surpass even the US (in PPP terms) by 2019. It’s already spending more than what Japan does and is also gaining a lot from its own returning expatriate talent.

Besides China, a reasonable comparison for India should be its BRICS friend Brazil. Unlike India, Brazil of course has a far more impressive history of inventions, but the way the country is leapfrogging should be a lesson for Indian policy makers. As this Economist article  noted way back in 2011, Brazil is a world leader in research on tropical medicine, bio-energy and plant biology. “It spends 1% of its fast-growing GDP on research, half the rich-world share but almost double the average in the rest of Latin America. Its scientists are increasingly collaborating with those abroad: 30% of scientific papers by Brazilians now have a foreign co-author.” Most of the research funding in the country comes from the Government. Its per capita R&D expenditure is three times that of India. In comparison, a low weight Philippines spends twice as much as India.

Unlike China, which had a high level of technical knowledge even a few hundred years before the industrial revolution in Europe, India’s traditional strength had never been in machinery, or hardware, but in concepts and intellect. Instead of smelting, hydraulics and spinning, India excelled in mathematical concepts with the likes of Aryabhatta, Brahmagupta and Mahadeva. In its quest to catch up with the rest of the world, China’s instinct was to reclaim its hardware past while India excelled in writing software. But China has surged ahead, integrating backward and forward, while India is stuck in quicksand.

India is not doing what China or Brazil is doing in strengthening its core competence. Both of them are avaricious in their original research and commercial products while India is fantasizing over its mythological past. Brazil makes aircraft and sells to Indian companies, while India, which claims to have mastered even interstellar travel as described in its epics, is still struggling to get its first prototype off the ground. While India is sloganeering with its “Make in India”, the Chinese are indeed making in India and contributing to the latter’s in R&D.

Even a country such as Cuba is years ahead of India in term of quality of life of its people and innovation. And the answer lies in State funding, institutional autonomy, quest of excellence, and a pro-people development model.

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Updated Date: Feb 23, 2018 12:04:00 IST