I’ve been in the US since the 1960s and it’s impossible to speak of the relationship between the US and India, without noting how much the US has changed over the decades. A variety of events such as the Vietnam war, 9/11, Internet bubble, the financial crisis, etc., first swung the world from being bipolar—between the perceived hegemonies of the US and the USSR—and then unipolar, where it was once widely held that the US had all the solutions to the world’s problems.
But it didn’t work out that way. Moreover, the other major change that is affecting the US is the ascendancy of India and China as emergent markets. It’s in the light of this that any partnership between India and the US ought to be evaluated.
The changing US has recognized that it can’t look at India the way it used to before. Not too long ago, India was a basket case, but now it is a liberalized economy with notable success in agriculture and information technology.
In the early days of Indian independence, we benefited a great deal from partnering with the US in several fields, and, most prominently, education. Several institutions including the University of Illinois, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology played a key role in establishing some of our Indian Institutes of Technology as well as some of the Indian Institutes of Management. Such collaborations were very useful in planting the right seeds of technological progress and laying the foundations of a strong, knowledge economy. But somewhere along the way, we lost track. The nascent relationships that were nurtured in higher education and research and development in the early years of our relationship weren’t developed properly. As a result, the quality of our manpower and our technological output were impacted.
But now that there’s been a lot more political engagement between the two countries, it’s important to note that it’s no longer a one-sided relationship, and there is a lot that both countries can learn from each other. I was discussing the many challenges that India faces as a nation, with a professor-friend at the University of Chicago. He pointed out that much of India’s challenges—obesity, illiteracy, drugs, malnutrition and poverty—were present just two blocks away from the Chicago university campus. Most importantly, he noted that most solutions applicable to India’s challenges could be equally valid for Chicago too.
Of course, the US being a rich and developed country, the scales of the problems might be different in both countries, but there are pockets of poverty and ignorance in the US too. Therefore, when we look at solving problems of the bottom of the pyramid and lowering costs and enabling access to basic necessities, we must keep in mind that they are of mutual interest to both countries. What can work to India’s advantage is learning from the US model of higher education and innovation. You can’t but help acknowledge that the US has been the key driver of innovation in the world. India cannot directly copy the US approach but it should learn from the achievements of the US and then build new models of providing education and encouraging innovation.
Several strategies that the US employed to become the leading provider of health and educational services are now changing. The way drug discovery is done today has changed; learning pedagogies are being transformed with the rapid spread of Internet connectivity. The role of the university itself is changing. On one hand, we have to recognize that the US is still the leader in higher education, innovation and research, and is fertile ground for the Silicon Valley culture. The question is how do you use that? I think we must use that culture and learning to solve the problems of the bottom of the pyramid.
It can’t be ignored that one of the mistakes the US has made is use the high-tech, high-cost approach to problem solving. Take, for example, health. It’s all about fancy equipment and expensive hospitalization, even for minor injuries that you really don’t need to go to a hospital for. Education today in the US costs $40,000 for tuition. These aspects of their distribution model can be weeded out. India must develop its own solutions. However, we cannot ignore the huge talent pool that exists in the US, especially in cutting edge fields such as biotechnology and nano-technology.
There are several experts there of very high quality. The interesting part of democracy is that they all share information. It is, therefore, in India’s best interests to deepen its collaborative ties with the US as opposed to other developed countries such as the UK or Germany. At the very least, the US has more scientists, more Nobel laureates and more labs and it’s a great fit because geographically and culturally, it’s also more diverse compared with these other countries.
(As told to Jacob P. Koshy)
Sam Pitroda is adviser to the Prime Minister on public information infrastructure and innovations. Comments are welcome at email@example.com