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What Can IT Industry Do For India?

Given what the country has done for Indian IT, it is not silly to ask: what specially can the IT industry do for India (other than what happens automatically without any deliberate pursuit of non-business ends)?

What Can IT Industry Do For India?
What Can IT Industry Do For India?

The Nobel Laureate delivered the Keynote Address at the NASSCOM 2007 India Leadership Forum in Mumbai on February 7. where he spoke on the case for the IT industry to " do even more, indeed in some ways, much more" than what can be seen as its traditional domain.

Some admirations come from near, others from very far. My respect and reverence for the IT industry in general and the extraordinarily dynamic and triumphant Indian IT industry in particular have come, by necessity, from some distance, since I am a dabbler in things far away from IT services and software. When the invitation came to attend this year's NASSCOM meeting and the leadership forum, I thought that this either indicated some mixing up of my identity ("wake up, wake up," I wanted to say, "I teach non-IT subjects at a university!"), or alternatively, it reflected generous interest of NASSCOM leaders to reach out (or as my students say, "hang out") beyond their principality.

Of the two possibilities, identity confusion is the more exciting. My late friend Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher, recounted to me his exciting experiences when he was invited to a musical gathering under the mistaken impression that he was Irving Berlin, the musical composer, rather than Isaiah Berlin, the political philosopher. Apparently, the assembled gathering was somewhat disappointed by Isaiah Berlin's inability to respond to repeated requests to provide some insights into the melodies from Annie Get Your Gun or Call Me Madam. And, of course, Sen is a more common name than Berlin, offering more opportunity of identity confounding. Indeed, I was once asked in a gathering of very energetic and very globally minded Ugandan students—this happened at the Makerere College in Kampala—whether I, Amartya Sen, was any relation of Sun Yat Sen. I had to tell my interlocutor, "No, but we are trying hard."

It is, however, the second possibility—not identity confusion—on which I want to speak this afternoon, that is about the possibility of the IT industry to reach out beyond its principality. I want to talk not, of course, about my being here at this NASSCOM meeting, but about the case for the IT industry to bring its influences somewhat beyond what can be seen as its traditional domain.

Of course, the idea of what counts as "traditional" is hard to articulate in the case of a field of enterprise as new as information technology. Indeed, a little over a century ago, in 1885, when the Indian National Congress had its first meeting in Bombay, which was attended by among others Jamsetji Tata (he would establish his new "Swadeshi mills" next year), Jamsetji would have been, I imagine, a little puzzled if he were told that the enterprise he was pioneering would soon include a huge operation in software and IT—indeed the largest in the country (my friend Ramadorai, who heads it, is here). The importance of information has, of course, been acknowledged over many millennia, but the ideas of IT technology and software are quintessential contributions of contemporary modernity—not something with any ageless recognition. Indeed, the entire idea of a National Association of Software and Service Companies (that is, NASSCOM) would have appeared quite mysterious to the pioneering industrial leader of India. As it happens, the domain of IT is still evolving, and I would like to argue for taking an even broader view than has already got established.

My point is not that the IT industry should do something for the country at large, for that it does anyway. It already makes enormous contributions: it generates significant incomes for a great many Indians; it has encouraged attention to technical excellence as a general requirement across the board; it has established exacting standards of economic success in the country; it has encouraged many bright students to go technical rather than merely contemplative; and it has inspired Indian industrialists to face the world economy as a potentially big participant, not a tiny little bit-player. My point, rather, is that it can do even more, indeed in some ways, much more. This is partly because the reach of information is so wide and all-inclusive, but also because the prosperity and commanding stature of the IT leaders and activists give them voice, power and ability to help the direction of Indian economic and social development.

Let me begin by asking a question that no one here will, I think, ask (because everyone I meet here seems so polite and well-behaved): why should the Indian IT industry have any sense of obligation to do things—more things—for India, more than what happens automatically from its normal operations (as a by-product of business success, rather than as a deliberated goal to be advanced, among other demands and necessities)? Why assume there is any obligation at all for IT to do anything other than minding its own business?

I think part of the answer lies in reciprocity. The country has made huge contributions, even though they are not often clearly recognised, to help the development and flowering of the IT industry in India, and it is not silly to ask what in return the IT might do for India.

But how has the country helped? Perhaps most immediately, the IT sector has benefited from the visionary move, originally championed by Jawaharlal Nehru, to develop centres of excellent technical education in India, such as the IITs, to be followed by the Institutes of Management and other initiatives, aimed at enhancing the quality and reach of Indian professional and specialised education. Despite Nehru's moving rhetoric in favour of literacy for all (which was plentifully present even in his celebrated speech on the eve of independence on 14th August 1947—the speech on India's "tryst with destiny"), he in fact did shockingly little for literacy. I would suggest that Jawaharlal Nehru did not really think through how to ensure the practical realisation of his goal of literacy for all, in which he did believe with sincerity and conviction, but not with any sense of practicality. It was, however, entirely different as far as technical education is concerned—here Nehru's sense of ways and means nicely supplemented his fervent passion. India was not only the first poor country in the world to choose a robustly democratic from of governance, it also was the first country with grinding poverty to give priority to the development of technical skill and the state-of-art education in technology. And from this the IT sector has benefited a lot, since the entire industry is so dependent on the availability, quality and reach of technical education.

However, IT's links with India's past goes back much further than that. The nature of Indian society and traditions have tended to support the pursuit of specialised excellence in general and the development of IT in particular. There has been a historic respect for distinctive skills, seeing it even as a social contribution in itself. Indeed, even the nasty caste system, which has so afflicted the possibility of social equity in India, has tended greatly to rely on—and exploit—the traditional reverence for specialised skill, which, in its regimented form, has been used to add to the barriers of societal stratification. There is a tradition here that can be taken in many different directions, and it is a matter of much satisfaction that the IT industry's use of the same respect is remarkably positive and potentially open and inclusive. I will come back to that question of inclusiveness later on (it is an important subject on which there is a case for more deliberation and action), but before that let me comment on a few other connections, since they are often missed, between the success of IT in India and some particular features of India's past.

Going well beyond respect for specialised skill, there is also a general attitude of openness in India to influences from far and near—of admiring excellence no matter where it is produced. This is particularly important since the IT success of India did draw initially, as indeed was inevitable, on what was going on with much accomplishment abroad. The experiences of the Silicon valley, in particular, was very important for the yearning of skilled and discerning Indians to learn from others—and then to make good use of it. While many Indians have a deep preference for what we can see as total local immersion and even succumb to evidently strong temptations to denigrate things happening abroad (and this attitude rears its ugly head from time to time in contemporary Indian politics as well), there has also been for thousand of years a very robust tradition here of admiring, using and learning from excellence anywhere in the world.

The IT technical experts may not readily perceive that there is a remarkable similarity between (1) their own valuational commitment to learn what they can from anywhere which has good ideas to offer, and (2) the open and welcoming attitude to departures originating elsewhere which Rabindranath Tagore articulated with compelling clarity in a letter to a friend (in a letter to Charlie Andrews in fact) in the 1920s, at the height of our struggle of for national independence:

Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin. I am proud of my humanity when I can acknowledge the poets and artists of other countries as my own. Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that the all the great glories of man are mine. Therefore it hurts me deeply when the cry of rejection rings loud against the West in my country with the clamour that Western education can only injure us.

It is, of course, to the credit of Western centres of excellence in education and practice that they were so welcoming to learners from abroad (I think America and Europe do not always get enough recognition for its liberal priorities in this field, despite their narrow-minded national and local priorities in other areas), but it is also important to see that the interest and initiative of bright Indians to learn from abroad for domestic use was strongly founded on an open-minded willingness to comprehend, as Tagore put it, that "whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin."

I want to point to one further connection between the development and achievements of Indian IT and the Indian intellectual traditions on which Indian IT draws. I don't refer here only to the love of mathematics that has inspired so many young Indians throughout history, and which is important in many different ways, for the efficacy IT operations. The general mathematics-friendliness of Indian intellectuals is relevant here: according to some accounts, the mathematician Bhaskara even tried to convince his daughter Lilavati that if she came to master mathematical puzzles then she would be highly popular when she went to parties, which seems to me be, to say the least, a little doubtful. But aside from being fascinated by mathematics, Indian intellectuals have also typically been very excited about arguments in general: it is a subject on which I have even indulged in writing a book (incidentally, in my last trip to Mumbai I was very impressed to be offered a cut-price pirated edition of my book, The Argumentative Indian, by a street vendor near the airport, who also had the exquisite taste of explaining to me that this book was "quite good"—and from him, also "very cheap").

IT is a hugely interactive operation and in many ways Indian IT has depended on what we can call TI, that is, "talkative Indians." It is not hard to see how a tradition of being thrilled by intellectual altercations tend to do a lot to prepare someone to the challenges of IT interactions.

Given what the country has done for Indian IT, it is not silly to ask: what specially can the IT industry do for India (other than what happens automatically without any deliberate pursuit of non-business ends)? This seems to me to be right, but I would also like to emphasise that historical reciprocity is not the only—perhaps not even the most important—reason for being interested in the social obligations of the IT industry. Many considerations arise there.

There is, of course, the elementary issue of the obligation of those who "make it" vis-à-vis those who do not manage quite so well, which is a very basic ethical demand that, it can be argued, society places upon us. This raises immediately the question what any prosperous group may owe to others not so well placed. This is not only a reflective demand for social deliberation—part of what Immanuel Kant called a "categorical imperative"—but it is also a part of enlightened business operation. There is, as it happens, a very well established tradition in a part of Indian business to do just that, particularly well exemplified by the Tatas for example, through various socially valuable activities such as building hospitals, research centres and other social institutions of high distinction. I am impressed to see that many of the major IT leaders seem to be very seized of this challenge.

If that possible role is obvious enough, there is some need to understand better other roles in which the IT industry can make a very big difference in India. As it happens the key to the success of IT, namely accessability, systematisation and use of information is also very central to social evaluation and societal change. There is, in fact, a very foundational connection between information and social obligation, since the moral—and of course the political—need to pay attention to others depends greatly on our knowledge and information about them.

Indeed, already in the 1770s (more than two hundred years ago), that remarkable Scottish philosopher, David Hume, had noted the importance of increased intercourse in expanding the reach of our sense of justice. He had put the issue thus (in his chapter "Of Justice," in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals):

....again suppose that several distinct societies maintain a kind of intercourse for mutual convenience and advantage, the boundaries of justice still grow larger, in proportion to the largeness of men's views, and the force of their mutual connexions. History, experience, reason sufficiently instruct us in this natural progress of human sentiments, and in the gradual enlargement of our regards to justice, in proportion as we become acquainted with the extensive utility of that virtue.

Negligence of suffering of others is sustainable, given human interest in justice and equity, only when we know little about that suffering. More information in itself goes a long way to breaking that chain of apathy and indifference.

This foundational connection also gives the information industry a huge opportunity to help India by trying to make its contribution to the systematisation, digestion and dissemination of diverse clusters of information in India about the lives of the underdogs of society—those who do not have realistic opportunity of getting basic schooling, essential health care, elementary nutritional entitlements, and rudimentary equality across the barriers of class and gender. This can also be said about problems of underdeveloped physical infrastructure (water, electricity, roads, etc.), as well as social infrastructure, that restrain the broad mass of Indians from moving ahead. There are particular causal connections also here: an enterprise that hugely depends on the excellence of education for its success—as the IT sector clearly does—has good reason to consider its broad responsibility to Indian education in general.

I do not know enough about the IT operations to see whether all this can be turned into a business proposition as well. But my point is that even if it cannot be so transformed, it is something that the IT sector has good reason to consider doing. Can there be a group initiative in any of these fields? Can NASSCOM itself play a catalytic role here? Informational issues are thoroughly rampant in morality and politics, and in many direct and indirect ways, the preoccupation of the IT enterprise links closely with the foundations of political and moral assessment and adjudication.

Even though in this presentation I am mainly concentrating on domestic issues, I should mention in passing that the role of information and informed understanding can also be very large in the pursuit of global peace and in defeating ill-reasoned violence. When we consider how many of the brutalities in the world today are linked with ignorant hostility to cultures and practices abroad, we can appreciate the contribution of informational limitation, among other causal factors, in cross-border belligerence. I could have talked about that too, in developing some ideas presented in my last book (Identity and Violence), but given my time limits I will resist that temptation.

I return now to the domestic scene. In emphasising the role of the moral domain for the IT sector to feel some responsibility towards making India a more equitable country, I do not want to give the impression that there is not also a prudential case for going in that direction. One of the huge obstacles to the domestic development of the IT sector is the size of the local market, which is still quite small, despite all the recent expansions. Indian IT has done very well in making excellent use of the global market, but competition there is likely to be increasingly fierce. Other countries are trying to learn from the experience not only of America and Europe but also from India, and while India has some peculiar advantages in the IT field (which I have already discussed), the barriers may well be gradually removed in many countries—indeed even in many poor countries—in the world. China, which has a much larger domestic market already and will continue to expand that market very fast, is not as vulnerable as we may be, in this particular respect.

As it happens, one of the reasons for the larger domestic reach of IT in China is its much wider base of good basic schooling. So, what is an issue of equity, on one side, is also a matter of central importance for prudential reasoning about domestic economic expansion, on the other.

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