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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