Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Time to Restructure and Strengthen our Institutions-Sampitroda
       Excerpts from the Keynote Lecture Delivered by Sam Pitroda at Nehru Centre, Mumbai in March, 2010
  • (Mr. Sam Pitroda is an internationally respected development thinker, policy maker, telecom inventor and entrepreneur, who has spent over four decades in Information and Communications Technology and related human and national development initiatives.
  • During his tenure as Adviser to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s, Mr. Pitroda headed six technology missions related to telecommunications, water, literacy, immunisation, dairy and oil seeds.
  • Mr. Pitroda was Chairman of India's National Knowledge Commission (2005-2009), an advisory body to the Prime Minister of India,
  • He is currently Adviser to the Prime Minister of India on Public Information Infrastructure and Innovations and is Chairman of the Expert Committee on the use of ICT in Railways. He is also the Chairman of the Smart Grid Task Force set up under the aegis of the Ministry of Power, Government of India)

We are indeed in a very critical time in the history of India. The next ten years are going to really dictate the destiny of this country for perhaps the next 100 years to come. And I feel very strongly about it based on my own personal experiences of the last 25 years. We all know the place that India had in the history of world civilization. We all know that people have looked to India for centuries. We were the pioneers in higher education with Nalanda and Takshasila. We were really the beacon of knowledge where the Buddhas of the world went around spreading knowledge. We had the wealth, wisdom, culture, art, craft and music second to none. Our diversity has been a great asset for lots of innovations in the past. Diversity is always a fertile ground for innovations. We have given this world ‘zero’, non-violence, several religions, mathematics, astrophysics and more. But, partly because of our internal conflicts, we were colonized for a period of time. Howver, the free India, as of 1947, did get the right kind of vision from our founding fathers. They had the courage to focus on education, scientific research and development, infrastructure and indigenous capabilities. Look at the amount of investments that went into higher education in India - setting up of all the laboratories, CSIR, agricultural research, medical research etc. All of the investments that we made in the early ‘50s took almost fifty years to see substantial gains. I had an opportunity to work with Rajiv Gandhi in the early ‘80s when we were convinced that the need of the hour then was to start building institutions and infrastructure to connect India.
In the next twenty years, we will be able to lift most of our population that is below the poverty line. So India in a globalised world has to be seen in terms of
1.  Free India that invested in education and science and technology,
2.  A connected India that started investment in connectivity in the ‘80s,
3.  Economically liberalized India with an industry that created a large number of entrepreneurs who, in turn, created substantial wealth in the form of jobs.
Today, when we look at these three factors, we realize that the next big challenge is really skill-set. In spite of a billion people today, we do not have enough qualified people in any discipline. We do not have enough truck drivers, welders, plumbers, scientists, mathematicians, engineers. There is not a single category where we have the required number of qualified skilled workers. This is a major challenge if India is to play a significant role in the globalised world of tomorrow. So, four years ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided to set up a National Knowledge Commission to look at various aspects related to knowledge with a specific focus on:
•  Access to knowledge,
•  Knowledge concepts,
•  Knowledge creation,
•  Knowledge applications
•  Knowledge services
Access implied languages, translations, libraries, broadband connectivity, wireless networks, portals, affirmative action programmes and reservation policies.
Concepts included the education paradigm - school education, vocational education, distance learning, open courseware, teachers training, sending more children to maths and science and generating more quality PhDs.
Knowledge creation included innovations, entrepreneurship, patents, copyrights, and trademarks.
Knowledge applications focused on health, small and medium-scale industries, traditional knowledge and applications in agriculture.
Knowledge services included e-governance. So we looked at a sum total of 27 subjects and submitted around 300 recommendations to the government. You can go to www.knowledgecommission.gov.in and you will see all of these documents. A lot of this work is now in process. As a result of discussions at the Knowledge Commission and as a result of participation from many others from industry, academics etc the government of India has decided to invest around $70 billion in education in the Eleventh Plan which is five times more than ever in the history of India. So the eleventh Plan is all about education with a focus on skills development. The aim, then, was to really look at three key challenges in India. They were:
1. Disparity - between rich and poor, urban-rural, educated-uneducated.
2. Demography. India has 550 million below the age of 25... We need to produce 20 million new jobs every year, year after year. As a result, if we do not focus on creating employment and assets for the young generation of tomorrow, we will probably have a major crisis at hand. To me, these 550 million are the workforce for the world and not just for India. Everywhere else in the world, population is aging and decreasing while, in India, population is increasing and young.
3. Development. Everything is happening but it is not happening fast enough. We are not building roads fast enough. We are not building schools and colleges fast enough. We are not building power plants fast enough.
So how do we use knowledge to expedite the process of modernization? The demand for education is very high in this country. Indian parents will do anything compared to any other parents in the world to get the best education for their children. So the demand is very high. But the supply is not there. So 300,000 students appear for an IIT or IIM examination and 5000 get admitted. The remaining are equally good. I remember when we were trying to hire a lot of people at C-DOT, we had 1200 resumes in response to the first ad that we put in. My colleagues at C-DOT said, “How do we interview all these people to select the best?” I said, “Don’t worry. It’s very simple. Just throw all the resumes up in the air. Whatever you pick up, invite them and if they can walk straight, look in your eyes, smile, hire them. You can’t go wrong. There was no sense in asking them ten questions and complicating matters. Just trust them. These are the best of the best students from the IITs and other good universities. So, what are you going to interview? Just don’t waste your time. Because if you interview and ask them ten questions and someone answers eight and another answers seven, it would not make any difference. Just make sure that the person you are hiring is full of confidence, has strong self esteem, and is willing to work hard.”
Today, education is definitely on the national agenda. I believe that this is a great window of opportunity because we have a very large young population. We are prepared to invest on education. Our economy is growing at 8 to 10%. But, at the same time, I don’t have big dreams that India will become a superpower. I think that we have a lot of work related to disparity, development and poverty. On the one hand, we have this great need for education. On the other hand, we have 300 million people who are illiterate. Our cities are basically dying. We do not have the right infrastructure. We don’t have enough power, we will have water shortages. There are a whole lot of issues that we need to deal with.
Education, as we understand it today, essentially implies duster, blackboard, chalk, teacher, classroom, textbook, examinations, grades, certificates…This is based on the way I learnt 50-60 years ago. Today, to learn, one does not need any of this. One just has to go on the Internet and start learning. By exploring, one learns some right and some wrong. As a result of new technology, the learning models will change. Because of that, the concept of schools and colleges will change. Who decided that it should take four years to get a degree? For some reason, the entire world follows that. What does a degree really mean? Do you need a degree to do a job? Why do you get a certificate to exit? You need a certificate to enter. So, if I am going to be an engineer, I need to be certified when I enter the system and not when I exit the system. Do you really need a teacher? What does a teacher really do? A teacher creates and delivers content. The content is already created on the Internet. Delivery could be in multiple forms. One does not need a teacher, one needs a mentor. So, if there is a mentor, do we need a student-teacher ratio of 20:1? It should be 2000:1. Do I need to take the courses that my system tells me to take? Or can I take a course first in Picasso’s paintings, then bullion algebra, aerospace, and philosophy. Why can’t I do that? Just because some older person decided in his wisdom that I should take only some courses, why should I do that? Wouldn’t I have the freedom that I want to be a plumber for two years, work for five years and then go get a Ph.D in maths, and then be a mechanical engineer? Our systems don’t allow that. Our educational systems are not designed to give that seamless flexibility. We are all wound up in trying to promote higher education. But it is all useless.
Our debate is useless because the world is changing very fast. Our customer who is a 16-17 year old student is not part of the discussion. We are deciding his or her future. But the people who are deciding are people like me, with grey hair and in their ‘60s or ‘70s. They have no clue, they have no idea of what the future is going to look like. They are making those decisions based on their understanding of education which is completely obsolete. I remember when my little young children were growing up in the US, I would take them to the arcade games where one puts in a quarter and starts playing. Every time we would go to play, they would put in a quarter, never read instructions, and just start playing. On the other hand, I would have to read, and by the time I finished reading, the time would be over. I am supposed to be a computer scientist. That’s when I realized that their reflexes are very different. There is no way I can compete with them. So, I don’t even try. So how do we expect to advise these children? What qualifications
do we really have tot ell them what to do? They know it, they figure it out. They are on a totally different wavelength. Our education system today needs a complete overhaul.
If we focus on innovations, if we focus on new infrastructure, if we focus on young talent, I think we will definitely find our place in the globalised world. We cannot make a dent until we address our own basic challenges of disparity, demography and development with a focus on the people at the bottom of the pyramid and inclusive growth. To do all of these things, I am convinced that we have a great window of opportunity for the next ten years. The mandate that this government got in the last elections was very critical. The first five years of the Manmohan Singh and U.P.A.
To me, this is the time to position India for the globalised world. This is the time to really restructure and strengthen our institutions, build our human resources, skill sets, education, health, young talent. Then we will be able to position India in a very different way for a globalised world. The dream should not be to really increase our I.T. services business and other supplies from India to the world. The dream should be really to provide knowledge to the world in the 21st century. I hope this gives you a little feel for my view on it. I once again want to thank the organizers for the opportunity.

Thank you.

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