India as Knowledge Superpower

[via World Changing] New Scientist has a special issue on India as the next knowledge superpower.

Many features of the country stand out. First, its scale and diversity. With a population of more than a billion, the country presents some curious contrasts. It has the world’s 11th largest economy, yet it is home to more than a quarter of the world’s poorest people. It is the sixth largest emitter of carbon dioxide, yet hundreds of millions of its people have no steady electricity supply. It has more than 250 universities which catered last year for more than 3.2 million science students, yet 39 per cent of adult Indians cannot read or write.

These contrasts take tangible form on the outskirts of cities from Chennai to Delhi, Mumbai to Bangalore. Here, often next to poor areas, great gleaming towers of glass are growing in which knowledge workers do their thinking. These images of modernity are a far cry from stereotypical India – a place bedevilled alternately by drought and flood, of poor farmers and slum-dwellers. Yet both sets of images are real – and many others besides.

High-tech is not the sole preserve of the rich. Fishermen have begun using mobile phones to price their catch before they make port, and autorickshaw drivers carry a phone so that customers can call for a ride. Technology companies are extending internet connections to the remotest locations. Small, renewable electricity generators are appearing in villages, and the government is using home-grown space technology to improve literacy skills and education in far-flung areas.

The knowledge revolution is already swelling the ranks of India’s middle class – already estimated to number somewhere between 130 million and 286 million. And the gulf in spending power between the poor and the comfortably off has never been more apparent. Take cars. Sales are rising at more than 20 per cent a year. Before India opened up its economy in the early 1990s, only a few models were available, almost all home-built. Today, top-end imported cars have become real status symbols. Another consequence of the knowledge revolution is that the extreme wealth of a new breed of young, high-tech yuppies is challenging traditional gender roles and social values.

Whether the new-found prosperity and excitement of present-day India can be sustained will depend crucially on how the government guides the country over the next few years. Cheap labour and the widespread use of English do not guarantee success, and there are major obstacles that the country will need to tackle to ensure continued growth. Take infrastructure. Where China has pumped billions into water, road and rail projects, India has let them drift. Likewise, companies complain that bureaucracy and corruption make doing business far more difficult than it ought to be.

One of the critical issues facing India is the gulf between the academic world and industry.

Links to the stories in the issue are here.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.