Amit Paranjape’s Blog

Did India Skip The 20th Century?

Posted in Current Affairs by Amit Paranjape on January 7, 2009

The title will seem an obvious exaggeration, but I am using it to drive home my point that the recent spectacular progress seen in India around the IT revolution has often times masked the core foundational development of any developing country. It is this core infrastructural development that many of the countries we see today in the developed world, painstakingly went through in the early part of the 20th century. India it seems, is moving directly from the 19th century to the 21st century.


Post independence, and especially in the past two decades post liberalization, India has made some good progress. The Green Revolution, The Domestic Heavy Industry Development, The Dams & Irrigation Projects, The Space & Atomic Energy Programs, Setting up of Educational & Research Institutions, in the first four decades is worth highlighting. There have been some hiccups along the road, and the rate of progress has been slow. The 1990s saw India’s rise as an Information Technology powerhouse. Along with this, many of the advances of modern technology such as the mobile phone literally became all pervasive.


Go to a small remote village today, and chances are you would find no roads, no sanitation, no organized retail shops, no school or hospital; and in spite of all this, don’t be surprised to see farmers chatting on their ‘Indianized’ mobile phones.


This picture is often used to cherish the ‘progress’ India has made. Unfortunately, it clouds a huge reality. That mobile phone in the farmer’s hand is a great indication of how India has adopted the 21st century. However, just look around the village and you will find it time warped in the 19th (or even earlier) centuries. What’s wrong with this picture? To me, this is a classic case of moving from the 19th century to the 21st century while completely bypassing the 20th! Why worry about those mundane 20th century advances such as public education, town planning, sanitation, water supply, electricity, road transportation??


Now let us take an example at the other extreme in urban India. What better than that bastion of Indian technology education, IIT, in the commercial capital of India. Note I am focusing on IIT Bombay, since I happen to be an alumnus and can relate to the changes on the campus over the past couple of decades. But before getting to the core issue, I will make a small digression and relate a ‘thought experiment’.


IIT Hostels are famous for many things; amongst them include the late night ‘discussions’ in the hostel wings that can literally cover any topic under the sun. These can run for hours into the late night, and some wind down only around the arrival of the morning sun.


It was in such a discussion session that we discussed and debated the topic of ‘IIT 2010’. To set the appropriate context, this was in 1991. The topic for discussion was grand as usual! ‘Where will IIT be in future?’ To pick up a future point of reference, we arbitrarily picked 2010 (to roughly coincide with 50 years since establishment of IIT Bombay). Here are a couple of points we pondered and envisioned for IIT 2010.


1. Every hostel room will have a ‘computer’. This computer will be connected to the central library computer, as well as the department computers (sitting on the desks of every professor and each lab). Students can research material, submit assignments, and interact with one another, while sitting in their rooms and using their computer. Note – at that point of time, the PC we could relate to was an IBM 286/386 or equivalent, and the only computer ‘network’ we were familiar with was ‘LAN’. ‘Email’ was an alien concept for most of us.


2. The hostels would be centrally air-conditioned so that the ‘crème de la crème of the Indian students’ can get good environment to study, in the oppressive Mumbai weather. The rooms would be bigger and have some additional basic gadgets such as TVs, Small Refrigerators, Microwaves, etc. And yes, one more point – clean and well maintained bathrooms & corridors! (Note – the presence of consumer gadgets in each room obviously seemed farfetched at that time, but this was not a complete dream scenario. Many graduate dorms in US and Western Europe had these facilities in the early 1990s…).


Fast forward to today, and unless some incredible miracle happens in the next 12 months, we all know where we stand with respect to these predictions. Yes, the hostels did get ‘internet enabled’. If not in the room, the hostel common rooms did get internet and computers a while back. Many students today also have laptops, not only in IITs, but in many other colleges as well.


But what about the hostels? Last I visited an IIT hostel was about a year back. It was quite sad to see that the hostel ‘infrastructure’ was exactly how it was in the early 1990s. I know, some people might point to the brand new hostels that have been recently built. But the vast majority of the 10+ old hostels remain where they were (there have been a few repairs and upgrades carried out over the years, only to keep them from worsening further…). One gets the same picture in the various Engineering Departments as well. Large amounts of funds have been raised by IIT, resulting in some good new labs being setup with the latest equipment. However, many of the old Departments still lie in a (for a lack of a better word) ‘dilapidated’ state. Now I am not expecting central air-conditioning anywhere…but some basic infrastructure? I guess the definition of what constitutes ‘basic’ itself needs revision.


The roads to Powai from the Eastern Express Corridor or the Western Express Corridor are as bad today (probably worse) compared to how they were in the early 1990s.


I have discussed these two examples, but many others can be cited. I don’t want to pick specifically on the IIT campus – there are countless other such examples. In fact in retrospect, the IIT Bombay campus is amongst the better places in Mumbai!


India offers a classic example of 19th century coexisting with the 21st. We proudly talk about developments in the IT field – but completely forget the steps of a city development that we skipped!


We have great telecom networks, but no good roads or public transportation networks (another 20th century development) in most cities. We are the world leaders in Software Services and have the capability to execute extremely complex and large projects. Yet, we cannot implement the most basic ‘Town Planning’ strategies…something that the developed world started active pursuing at the turn of the 20th century. We can guide customers and travelers halfway around the world through our call centers, and still cannot provide the most basic information to our citizens.


We often talk about the ‘contrasts’ in India. Commonly discussed ones highlight slums and five star hotels, situated side by side. However these examples focus more on the rich vs. poor divide – not that I am denying it. However, I also want to contrast the ’19th vs. 21st’ century divide. It is not just an issue of wealth – it is an issue of the state of mind, an issue of priorities. It is an issue of focus, an issue of planning, an issue of foresight, and last but the not the least an issue of ‘attitude’. People in India are quick to blame the ‘system’ for all this, while many times not realizing that their own ‘attitude’ is also an inherent part of that ‘system’.


Don’t get me wrong – I admire the 21st century achievements done here in India. We should however be cognizant of those who are quick to brush the limitations in India and by over hyping these advances. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to progress. Similar to a school program, India as a country, as a society, cannot skip an intermediate step of development!



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12 Responses

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  1. Arvindh said, on January 9, 2009 at 9:25 pm

    ‘Attitude’ did catch my eye.

    I have also observed that there is a lot of attention and reporting in the media about the newer generation of policy makers, a vibrant society of young thinkers and some difference makers. Although the system has this “infusion” of younger minds who think differently, a proud nation still seems to be in the clutches of all its historical trappings.

    Its not clear if its the absence of critical mass of doers or a lethargy in approach or a missing basic conviction and self belief or maybe a combination of all the above.

    I am curious to hear what your thoughts on bringing about a systematic change in attitude in such a varied society?

  2. gabhijit said, on January 9, 2009 at 11:44 pm

    Amit, a very nice thought indeed. Just trying to put a possible explaination as I see it –

    The massive developments in IT services and mobile telephony that happened in the last decade or so may not be the kind that we designed or even intended to execute. It just happened so that we happened to be there while the outsourcing was catching up. Just as the previous recession in the US 1980-1981 lead to the Manufacturing Outsourcing. The recession in 1991-1992 lead to the IT Outsourcing. (Note other technological developments mainly the communication technology helped this process)

    While the “Internal Development” that supposed to have happened, never happened. Because it didn’t ever get an “external trigger”. One of the reasons a great infrastructure was developed in the Western World and far east might be in the fact that most of these nations were destroyed to a large extent during WWII. Which, also offered an opportunity to “buid something that suits the current time”. India fortunately or unfortunately never came at this juncture.

    Also, we may have peculiar position due to our demography as well. eg. To implement a uniform policy of Education is near impossible at national level (and in my honest opinion in should not even be attempted as well. A beurocrat sitting in North Block in Delhi deciding what a 6 year old going to school in Telangana should study is IMO atrocious). One of our miserable failure is lack of clear distincion with respect to accountability and responsibility at various government levels. So there’s always someobody else to blame for lack of such basic problems.

    But as I say this – it offers the country an opportunity to build infrastructure thats suited to 21st century than trying to build Infrastructure for 20th century. eg. There might be a case to build Captive power plants (powered by SOlar/wind power say) that serve one village than trying to go the old way, laying copper all the way from a main station/sub-station and so on.

    Just some thoughts

  3. Yogesh Kulkarni said, on January 10, 2009 at 11:32 am

    I see that India did not skip any of the centuries. ALL centuries co-exist in India. You can get aboriginal communities, you get pre-industrial-revolution regions, you get clusters buzzing with Industries, planned cities, unplanned cities, villages that may look 300 years old, info tech parks giving impression of being in US.

    Abject Poverty and Chandrayan go hand-in-hand.

    In-and-around Pune, these centuries get condensed in smaller area. We are just too lucky (or unlucky) to have this kind of diversity.

  4. Manali said, on January 10, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    I agree fully with Amit on this one…the contrasts in India are enormous. Most people in the US who visit India always comment on the stark differences in infrastructure, although the populace is spiritually and intellectually advanced, the landscape and basic needs are far behind. How could such bright people be “okay” with these living standards? I feel that this is due to one part of Indian culture that no one wants to talk about… complacency. I feel that Indians in general are always happy with what they have and do the best with whatever they are given (be it intelligence, money, opportunity) whereas westerners (especially Americans) are never happy with what they have and strive for more. They are both good qualities and should be exercised with wisdom, maturity and moderation, but perhaps both countries could learn how to be a little less demanding and a little more demanding!

  5. Amit Paranjape said, on January 11, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Arvindh, Yogesh:

    Thanks for your inputs.


  6. Amit Paranjape said, on January 11, 2009 at 4:00 pm


    Thanks for your comments.

    Good point – ‘The Complacency Factor’…also known in India as ‘Chalta Hai’ (It will go on!) attitude. I agree there is some cultural aspects to that problem.

    Also agree with you on what the West needs to learn a little about the East. I guess there needs to be some happy medium somewhere!


  7. Michael LeBauer said, on January 12, 2009 at 8:39 am

    Interesting post! I have been to India a couple of times, as well as many other developing Asian countries during my time at i2 Japan.

    I would say that the lack of infrastructure investment in India coupled with the advant of advanced technologies is typical of the development curve that present day developed nations pursued. It’s just that the advanced technologies you referenced are those of the 21st century!

    Consider the US of the late 19th century. It was a time of rapid technological development for the day. Photography and later moving pictures, telegraph and later telephone, phonography, radio, electricity and lighting, railroads then the automobile all emerged from the late 19th to early 20th century. All of these developments came about in the absence of supporting infrastructure. The inventions were used locally until the wealth and incentive for building the infrastructure inspired private investment to fund it. At the time, government facilitated the investment through land grants and right of way for rail construction and telecom lines, but did not fund the infrastructure itself. The first major infrastructure funding by government were dams and the interstate highway system that happened after FDR’s expansion of government during the depression. In all these cases, the development of the supporting infrastructure followed the technical invention by decades.

    While it’s pure speculation on my part, I think you’ll see the same in India. Once sufficient wealth and demand are built up both to fund infrastructure and promise a market for the service it provides, it will get built. The concern is whether government will be efficient enough to allow the private sector to move in. Government could also fund the infrastructure, as in China. But Indian society is closer to that in the US during the 19th century.

    Give it time, the infrastructure will come. China is an unusual case. They are investing in advance of the demand. They risk spending on unprofitable projects which ultimately become wasteful show-pieces, as with Malaysia and Indonesia in the 1990s. You may see many of their projects emerge as just that in the wake of the current global recession (although they certainly of the exchange reserves to fund wasteful projects for some time).

  8. Amit Paranjape said, on January 12, 2009 at 10:14 pm


    Thanks for your comments. Quite an interesting perspective! I had not considered such a comparison.


  9. Nilesh Sane said, on January 13, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Strange isn’t it, the fact that we expect our net and phone connections to have 99.99% uptime and are always talking in terms of “service” of these operators, but when it comes to infrastructure; be it water, rail, electricity or even sanitation our expectations are so low that even the very basic of these amenities are OK with us.
    Quite frankly there cannot be “a” single reason why we Indians have lowered our expectations for the basic services so much while being on the bleeding edge on the new age amenities (well I think we can club these amenities as virtual communications, nothing else). Corrupt governance – right from the JO to the Commissioner, “chalta hai” attitudes and the everlasting myth of “Independence was achieved in 47” now lets relax for the next century are responsible in no certain parts for the “Jump”.
    Last but not the least, for a country whose population is 1 billion and counting, providing everything for everyone is always going to be a difficult if not an impossible task.

  10. Aditya said, on February 8, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    You have raised a very good point…
    India has really skipped the 20th century when the world was planning cities, making urban and rural architectures, implementing regulations,
    India was busy promoting agriculture and making diesel cheaper than petrol….
    And now everyone has a couple of mobile phones and superfast internet connections…
    Awesome post!

  11. Chaitanya said, on January 12, 2013 at 2:08 am

    It is a very interesting observation Amit. I really like your analogy of skipping the 20th Century and the explanation you provided for it. I however have a somewhat different take on this.
    I believe the lack of effort in developing the infrastructure with a futuristic vision along with the opening up of our economy (although I can’t claim that we had superior infrastructure before) helped in advancing the service sector (especially IT industry).
    The service industry doesn’t require much infrastructure to begin with. Once we developed a successful service sector model, more attention was paid to building on that success rather than creating an environment for overall development.
    To sum it up, lack of infrastructure could very well be one of the contributing factors to the growth story of Indian service sector. Now the challenge is to ensure that we develop our infrastructure to leverage our service sector advantage to develop other sectors.

  12. Amit Paranjape said, on January 14, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    Chaitanya, Thanks for your comments.

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