Monday, June 20, 2011

Of course we cannot match the best, though we are as good as any. Why?

Was anyone surprised when the acharya of science, C.N.R.Rao, said that none of India's premier institutions could match the best in the world? Earlier, the less authentic voice of Jairam Ramesh had said that India's acclaimed IIMs and IITs were not world class.

They were stating the obvious. Rao did not spare even Bangalore's Indian Institute of Science which he had served with distinction in the past. “Name just ten Indians”, he said “whom the world recognises as good scientists today. I cannot”.

No one suggests of course that Indians do not have it in them. Indeed, many Indian scientists have won top honours in their fields, including the Nobel. But they were all associated with universities and research institutions abroad. The moral of the story is clear: Talent exists but it does not flower in the atmosphere and culture provided by India's academic institutions.

This is where C.N.R.Rao's words should sound an alarm in the circles that matter. Most of the world's scientific research today – about 18 percent -- is done in the US, he said. China is pretty close with 13 percent of the world's research. Said Rao: “The Chinese will in the next 20 years become the best in all fields but we will linger around the fifth place”.

China's growth graph should not surprise us. More importantly, we should not look at it in a jingoistically self-serving they-are-a-dictatorship-we-are-a-democracy mentality. We need not even go to the other extreme and adopt a leftist view as Martin Jacques did in his When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World. That would be merely ideological just as seeing India as a superpower would be merely patriotic.

But C.N.R. Rao's words about China should make us revisit some hard facts. Last November the Chinese Communist Party's plenum approved plans to invest US $ 600 billion over the next five years in high tech, life sciences, advanced materials, renewable energy, aerospace. To provide the intellectual infrastructure required, China had already identified five universities to be developed as Ivy League institutions of excellence. Describing this as unprecedented, the President of America's Yale University said: “China has built the largest higher-education sector in the world in merely a decade's time”.

We cannot do this because we do not have (a) the will and (b) the leadership that is purpose-driven. Our academic institutions are plagued by the same bureaucratic-political culture that vitiates our governmental and public life. Institutions like the IISc may be faring better in relative terms, but our universities – not excluding the JNU – have failed to free themselves from the stranglehold of party, caste and linguistic politics. Self-preservation may be an Indian virtue, but it hardly helps scientific research.

Given half a chance, Murli Manohar Joshi was on the point of converting IIMs into outposts of cultural nationalism. The “Ten Best” listings of which our weekly magazines are terribly fond have been listing Bombay's St. Xavier's as the best college in the country. Yet this was the institution where a student only had to raise a threatening voice to get a Rohinton Mistry novel taken off the syllabus; the college principal's protests were drowned in the Shiv Sena kid's Tarzan victory calls.

China has reasons to be proud of its dictatorship if it produces not just a military machine that gives the jitters to the US, but also steadily rising GDP, educational and research institutions of world class and supremacy in sports. We have strong reasons to be proud of our democracy, but our democracy has to stop being a means for the political class to fatten itself. It has to make us recognise our priorities properly. In terms of talent and potential we are second to none, be it education or sports. What we lack is a system that promotes talent. When will we get a leadership that understands this? Or a revolution that will produce such a leadership?