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Going for ‘Aakash’ without knowing ‘Ground’ realities

So much of hype and buzz have been created in last three years over the Tablet called Aakash. Many keen observers have been watching India lately undo a lot of good it has done since it decided to give itself the “second freedom” and liberalized its economy and came close to running at a double digit growth for a couple of decades.

That gave it a reputation of becoming tech savvy, made some people rich beyond their dreams, and gave it an opportunity to upgrade its urban infrastructure and dream bigger.

It brought the world to visit India and see the emerging world of possibilities. And then it realized that despite a billion plus people, younger demographics, India was a small nation of some 50 million people.

That is as far as India’s so called “educated” people count. India enters 22 million children in its primary schools and passes out about a million from its colleges. A fraction of them are capable of quality jobs. Those lucky enough to join the global workforce do as well as any other and have joined the ranks of what they may be ready for, from the highest roles as the heads of McKinsey, Citibank, Deutsch Bank, Pepsi, Vodafone, the first CIO and CTO of USA in their 30s and what have you.

Even at the bottom they have performed well, filling up hospitals with nurses, call center employees, programmers etc have earned India precious forex and made their managers and owners rich.

But that road seems to be nearing its end. Growth is slowing down by a third. Global corporations find it hard to find employees they will be pleased to hire. Sometimes it takes 1000 applicants to find one, barely acceptable prospective hire who will need to be trained for a while before becoming productive.

Much of these challenges can be seen as the result of India’s education system. India calls its education ministry the Ministry of Human Resources Development. Given India’s vast human resources it seems to have succeeded in keeping them underdeveloped instead.

But India thinks differently. It’s a very proud country that is yet to get over the memory of having invented “zero”. Some see that as the sum total of India’s contribution to the world of knowledge lately with a billion people unable to claim even one Nobel Prize since independence. A few Indians who were honored had worked overseas all their lives for far too long to be seen as Indians anymore and had foreign passports.

That does not mean that India lacks talent. It’s simply that its Ministry of Human Resource Development works extra hard to keep all its talent suppressed. It does not even consider them talent, little realizing that it’s in offering opportunities to its entire people that it may discover the next Einstein.

A billion plus people are like every sixth person on the planet. But India has managed to earn about 2 percent of world income for its people. Its 27 million strong Diaspora earns about $750 Billion while 1200 million Indians earn about twice as much. That is to say 27 Indians outside India are doing as well as 600 within India. And that is the gap between India’s potential now as we speak and what it actually achieves.

Had India educated and trained its entire people the way those who escaped its borders, India could have claimed a GDP of about $40 Trillions. Doing half as well could have made it a larger economy than the US.

It can make that beginning and reach that goal in 20 years by thinking differently. It can by starting to educate its children in its villages and everywhere else in ways that makes them world class. It can do so by letting children become critical thinkers and problem solvers. It can do so by adopting technologies that have been developed to make education meaningful. It can learn from Uruguay that transformed its education system in less than 2 years and now every child, rich or poor, talented or otherwise, healthy or frail reads to become as good he or she may want to become.

But the recent news emanating from India suggests it has a long way to go before it graduates to think in a way that can help its children who are its largest untapped potential. Not being able to offer 9 out of every 10 children in ways that will trigger their inherent talent to find expression is like leaving 90% of potential GDP on the table.

The biggest news from India has been that it is trying to make a new laptop that the world has not been able to make. It wants to provide that laptop at a price that cannot purchase even the physical material required to make it, let alone the value addition it needs to become meaningful.

It has been shifting the goal post from $10 to $35 to $60 to $100 or so. Meanwhile, it has lost several years waiting for that Godot, without realizing that in the meantime it has deprived as many generations of children an opportunity to bloom and discover themselves and India of the potential value they may have created sooner than later.

India does not buy anything else cheap. It pays international prices for whatever it buys. It sells them at twice the price to its citizens due to high taxes and poor and expensive infrastructure. But in the case of educating its poor, it wants to take care of their educational future for less than the price of a buffet at hundreds of its western style hotels where its elite lunch every day.

India calls its latest folly “Aakash”, meaning sky in its national language Hindi. It may symbolize the limitless potential it may offer. In the past few years that it has been in the making, it has cost as many of its generations a future that was potentially theirs.

Aakash has come under serious criticism. That did not have to wait this long. The very idea may have sounded insane to anyone who has created any technology or product. But India has no visible track record of technology or product development that has been recognized in the global market.

Aakash has been criticized for its poor quality, dated technology that was available at the prices used for end of life pieces and lack of usefulness. Its sponsor MHRD calls it an Indian product. But some its own institutions have not been so sure. Everyone has asked, what is Indian about it? Did India actually produce any of its technology pieces? There is a mystery around it. Its head of ICT Mission in education was quoted as calling it a top secret, national project. Its critics have called it to embarrassing for a High school project in the US.

So why is India trying to go down the path of learning by doing that it abandoned while declaring its “second freedom”? Its education minister continues to make one pronouncement or the other on an almost daily basis about a $35 tablet when it actually cost $60 and its specs were so diluted from the original he displayed a couple years ago to suit the price point. Now we hear that by adding a couple of features it could cost $100 or more.

So what did Indians gain other than losing several years, keepings a 100 million children away from an opportunity they deserved and letting India make a blitz for a couple months and then falling like nine pins with Thailand having decided to pay three times the price at which India promised its cheap tablet?

Some argue that it’s in India’s DNA to make poor decisions about technologies and that has kept it generations behind the technology learning curve. Some others see that while India’s entrepreneurs are quick to learn from the world, its policy planners and leaders have a jaundiced vision and they see what the world shows differently from how others see them.

But India can change all that by following some very simple principles. For starters, it should begin using what the world offers experimentally before thinking of reinventing it. Secondly, its Government can begin exploration of what is already there and how they are different from each other rather than imagine the answers. It has to develop capabilities to select technologies from the point of view of tomorrow. It may want to stop looking for patchwork solutions. It may have to accept that innovation happens at the frontiers of human accomplishments and not local traditions alone and everyone needs to learn to walk before they may begin to run.

Rather than saddling India with the burdens of trying Aakash, India may do well by exploring what the world offers now to help all its children start learning the best way they can. Meanwhile, it may set up parallel processes that can start imagining and exploring what the world may want a decade or two from now. That path may allow it to meet the world somewhere. By following what it does, it may be following the rest of the world a lot longer than it needs to.

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