Back when the East India Company arrived, it sort of institutionalised the middleman. Natives needing to get anything done had to speak to the Sahib whose language they did not speak. So, they needed the intermediary. This was the beginning of power-broking, and the first requirement for an entrepreneur became the ability to know someone, and through that someone have the ability to work the system. Who one knew mattered more than what one knew. That changed with the information technology (IT) industry. It proved that intellect does not need intermediation in order to become fungible.
IT is indeed an industry that was built by anonymous people. Fakir Chand Kohli, who created TCS, was a refugee from Lahore. Current TCS chief S. Ramadorai's father was a salaried central government servant who retired from the Indian Audit & Account Services. Narayana Murthy is a schoolteacher's son. Ashok Soota's father was an army doctor, and even the billionaire Azim Premji's father was only a small-time businessman. The real largesse he left the young Premji was an uncertain future. What was common to all these people? All of them went on to build global organisations for India, without having to work the system. A few forward-looking bureaucrats and politicians helped from behind the curtains.
The IT industry started as, and remains, merit-driven. Because either you know how to code or you do not. Your connections do not help you crack a math problem any more than a penguin can teach you how to fly. The thing that flowed from building a meritocracy was the flat and transparent organisation. That was a prerequisite to breeding nerds. Nerds do not like hierarchy and bosses. Finally, the industry created shared wealth, because that is the only way to engage talent.
These three things helped IT—and also isolated IT from the larger social system. On the one hand, that system did not understand what the geeks really did, on the other hand, it was not included in the bonanza. For example, political parties knew how to raise money from traditional industries by allotting permits, licences and mining leases. The IT industry did not need these and did not help in fund-raising either. When the stray resume of an undeserving applicant was forwarded by a certain "someone", the most they obliged was to put the candidate through an aptitude test that the fellow promptly failed.
At the same time, though, the IT industry started choking cities, upsetting local culture, creating wage disparities. And in the process of wowing the world, it was creating social isolation. Unlike doctors and journalists and actors and policemen who could tell you what they did, the geeks did not communicate the fact that the code they wrote made the ventilator in the icu work, brought down the cost of the ultrasound machine or was actually behind the fall in cellphone prices that made communication affordable to the dabbawallah and the vegetable vendor. The IT industry became a beautiful island in a dreary landscape.
So, when that island was invaded by the rupee virus recently, the money doctors of Delhi said, let them bleed, who cares? It reflected not a full-blown angst, but certainly a sharp divide. A Union minister reportedly rebuffed IT folks representing for government intervention, asking, what has the IT industry done in the Northeast? As if it is the job of successive governments to mess up a region and then for the IT industry to go set up centres of excellence there by recruiting gun-toting ultras.
The poor-boy-done-good image worked for the IT industry at a certain point in time on its path to becoming a global brand. Going forward, the IT industry will have to communicate to the society what it does, who it really benefits both directly and indirectly, in a much better way. It also must return some of the favour it has received in a visible, sustained manner beyond just doing corporate social responsibility. At the same time, the nation also must remember that IT is not just about IT, it is a proof of the concept of how the nation can build institutions that could even change the international balance of power through a change in the perception of what India stands for.
The nation must not get disenchanted with a young industry, we must see how the IT story can be taken to the next level and replicated manifold, in such a way that India will be worth the conversation, even fifty years from now.
(The author is the chief operating officer of MindTree Consulting.)
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