Have Indians Lost The Ability To Think ‘Out Of The Box’?

Posted on May 31, 2016 in Society

By Kumar Abhisek Bhuyan:

Collage of Steve Jobs and Aryabhata
Steve Jobs and Aryabhata.

The contribution of our ancestors to human civilisation has been unparalleled. From the innovating concept of zero to trigonometry, geometry, medical science (Ayurveda), economics and political science (Chanakya Niti), astronomy, astrology, metallurgy, architecture and the list goes on. In almost every field they have showcased their prowess to the rest of the world. People from Egypt, Europe used to come to India to gain knowledge. India was a source of knowledge (gained by innovations by themselves) and skilled human resources, which were setting the path towards modernisation for the entire world. India was indeed leading the entire world to reach new heights.

But in today’s era, the scenario has changed. We have stepped into the modern era with a population of more than 100 crores. With the increase in infrastructure, urbanisation, globalisation, India seems to be evolving as a developing nation after British Raj. But certain questions remain which are quite deeply ponderable such as:

1. Are we still leading the world with our innovative knowledge and skilled human resource?
2. Can we just rest on the laurels of our ancestors?
3. Has India still got the reputation of a source of knowledge through innovation?
4. Is our human resource, in general, improving by quality or by just quantity?

The answers to these questions are definitely not satisfactory. After Nobel laureate Amartya Sen in the field of economics, there has certainly been a huge gap of time for any Indian’s contribution to innovation. A year ago, the RBI governor Mr. Raghuram Rajan had given the indication of the requirement of good economists in the country which hints at the lack of learned economists in the country. And, also, the founder of IT service giant (Infosys), N.R. Narayana Murthy had questioned the contributions of elite institutions such as IITs, IISc etc. towards innovation in the past 60 years. When such accomplished people are questioning the quality of innovations from quality human resource making institutions of the nation, can we still claim to lead the world as a country of quality human resource and innovative knowledge as we used to?

To have a clearer picture, let us focus on the statistical facts and data available. No Indian universities are there in the top 200 world rankings as per 2014’s available data. Only IIT-B has come close to the top 200 by securing a rank of 222. Other than the technical universities, Delhi University has got the rank of 430 and the University of Calcutta is 650th. As per 2015’s available data, only two universities, IISc Bangalore(147) and IIT-D(179), had made an entry into the top 200 ranking. However, among the world’s top B-schools IIMA, IIMB, IIMC, and ISB have managed to secure ranks within the top 50. So, it’s a comparatively good sign for us that a decent proportion of good managers could be from our country. But what about potential entrepreneurs from these institutions with innovative ideas and business models?

Again we are behind other nations when it comes to entrepreneurial leadership. An entrepreneurship of innovative and disruptive ideas and feasible execution is completely missing. The Startup India campaign to me seems like a farce about “how successfully we can copy at least a decade-long American phenomenon in India.” Selling of everything, be it tangible goods or intangible services online has become the one and only trend for the so-called startups. The hardware segment is almost neglected. Unfortunately, we only appear to be good at following the trend, not at setting a new one. The phrase ‘being inspired’ has been smartly used by us instead of the word ‘copied’. For almost every foreign business model we have the copied/inspired desi version of it in India. Hence, either be a smart copycat or remain an underdog!

Starting with e-commerce, for Amazon, Alibaba, we have Flipkart, Snapdeal etc. The funny thing is that during their initial phase Amazon and Flipkart started the same way, i.e., by selling books online. Moving on, we have Ola for Uber, we have Trulymadly for Tinder, we have Hotstar for Netflix, we have Gaana.com for Spotify and the list goes on. It’s like watching an action-packed Hollywood movie, a visual treat with absolutely stunning special effects, dubbed in a desi language. We all know how much the punch of original Hollywood dialogues is diluted by desi dubbing.

An artists rendition of the Mars Orbiter Mission
Mangalyaan. Source: Wikipedia.

Now, let’s focus on other institutions besides elite ones. The number of engineering graduates produced by our country are just a showcase of quantity, not quality. According to the survey of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, around 65% of the employers are not satisfied with the quality of graduates they are getting through fresh hiring from college campuses. They have to conduct special training programmes to make these graduates employable and meet the industry standards. The standard of a major portion of these undergraduates floats on the ocean of mediocrity with no direction. A significant amount of undergraduates struggle every year to choose their career path after getting a degree. The ‘degree’, which these degree holders run after for their careers, is definitely not a good sign for a country which is aiming for innovations from a strong reliable human resource.

From the above discussion, it is evident that we lack quality human resource that can contribute to innovation. However, we have got mastery over frugal innovations over a couple of decades. By innovating the world’s cheapest car Tata Nano, the cheapest and efficient space programme to Mars etc. we grabbed the world’s attention. These showed our potential to modify the existing innovations in more efficient ways which is definitely a commendable job. But is it out of the box thinking? Is our efficient human resource capable of creating, innovating something which has never been done before as our ancestors did and brought glory to our country? If yes, then why haven’t we done so after more than 60 years of Independence? If no, then what’s the reason? Can we just sit back and blame everything on the Indian education system? Of course, we can do so by giving excuses. However, we should not forget that excuses are like the capacity of a drunk person to stand still! Both can not last long.

The root cause of this problem lies within us. For us, education means filling the mind with the answers to ‘What’ questions. This is just the step where we fill our brains with facts. Then comes the ‘basic understanding’ step which we get by answering the ‘Why’ questions. A few are in pursuit of finding these answers. In the end comes the ‘out of the box thinking’ step which could give us answers to ‘Why not’. Unfortunately, we seem to be only interested in finding the answers to ‘What’ but not ‘Why not’.

We started our journey with the innovation of Zero and reached the Mars. But we are still journeying through the tunnel of darkness (lead by wrong procedure, pursuing answers to ‘What’, not for ‘Why not’). Hopefully, we will be back on the right track someday so that we can discover galaxies of innovation and not restrict ourselves to Mars.