Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Amartya Sen & The Tunnel Effect Of Indian IT


How often do you get stuck in a traffic jam ? Almost everyday right. Now, here is a car on the lane next to you. Both of you are headed in the same direction and have been immobile for a while. So you and the driver of that car get talking. You discuss various things, mostly it will be to do with the state of traffic itself.

Soon, the other line starts moving and the driver in the other car waves his goodbyes and gets going. You wave your goodbye and smile at him. You are actually happy for him. Because you know that soon you will be going too. Time passes and you get impatient. Actually you are not moving. On the contrary there is no change in your position at all. Looks like your neighbour's line was the only line to benefit. Your happiness turns to anger. You are upset. You now curse the other guy.

This, as Nobel Prize laureate Dr Amartya Sen described it this evening in Mumbai, is the tunnel effect. I hope I got his example right - if not, I shall modify. The ocassion was a small dinner hosted in his honour by IT industry association Nasscom and the Welsh Development Authority.

Staying Back In The Tunnel

What if the Indian IT industry represents the other car that you, in the beginning, are happy to see surge ahead. And your car, lets say, is the rest of the economy and the polity. What happens when you realise its only the IT industry or the other car that's moved on. You are not moving. First there is frustration and then anger. And then, who knows what.

Professor Sen is going to dwell some more on this issue, as I can see. I reckon he will raise questions about the IT industry's contribution to the society, to the nation. He will pose questions that I feel have been posed but not strongly enough. And raise issues that deserve greater debate than ever before.

India Versus China

Will India overtake China ? Everyone has a view on this. Professor Amartya Sen's view is as follows. He does not care. He does not find it interesting. "I don't have the slightest idea or interest," he says.

He would be worried, he says, if India started losing out in life expectancy and China began gaining. For instance, he says China was 40 years ahead of India in life expectancy in 1979. Now, its just 7 years. Mortality in 1979 was 39 years. Now its 28 years. States like Kerala do better on some of these counts, he points out.

Or developments in health care. China, according to Professor Sen, messed up healthcare by allowing everything to be handled by the government before 1979 and prematurely privatising and handing over everything by the private sector after. "You can't understand these things by comparing GDP rates," says Prof Sen.

IT and TI

Professor Sen used this evening's short address to refer to a favourite topic, the argumentative Indian. He ascribed the success of the Indian IT industry to the fact that Indians discuss, debate and of course argue. "I think whether the IT industry has done well because of TI, meaning, Talkative Indians," he says.

Morality Is Related To Knowledge & Information

Information Technology is the hub of social morality, says Professor Sen. But for more on this, you will have to wait a day !

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

This was excellent Govind. I wish you'd write a longer piece on it - maybe in your column too . People like me in industries other than IT feel strongly about this . The politically sanctioned disregard for regulations the IT/ITES sectors can get away with is frustrating. Be it the draconian FBT or the very many relaxations of labour laws , there is a discrimination that will sooner rather than later get the govt. into court. Worse, it will encourage labour intensive companies to move to the service secor and the much vaunted "employement for all" will get a beating in the bargain. You only need to look at Karnataka to realise this. The state was indias premier producer of silk right until the late 90s/2000. Short sighted govt. policy and severe trade unionism combined to close down these mills in both the public and the pvt sectors. Workers got paid off but all remained jobless as they were not skilled enough to get jobs elsewhere. Any wonder there is deep seated envy among people for their IT employed state-mates ? Ila

youtube on 3:52 pm said...

Great article

I hope everybody read this article

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JP said...

One good thing that has happened is that the western world got to know India's new identity with this IT revolution.

Good article.

Consumer on 1:36 pm said...

Very relevant, especially at a time when we seem to run the serious risk of chasing after the wrong tunnels, namely, real estate, sez and god knows what else. The IT sector's tax benefits also grate on other sectors, as at the end of the day, it is those critical 18-25 percentages in margins that helps them distort the job market and ensure perfectly capable engineers are happy mulling code, instead of anything else. In fact, criticising anything related to the IT industry has become practically impossible, as the media, the government and trade associations run scared of the marvellous lobbying power this well networked industry has built up. No doubt a skill they had the advantage of picking up early, as they made their inroads in the US first.

Naresh on 4:12 pm said...

Hi Govind,

nice read,thank you very much. but I beg to differ if I may with the India bashing idea's of Mr.Sen. His erudite views on India, without being too harsh, seem to emanate from a rather personal conflict against Indian's. I am currently reading his book on" Argumentativeness of Indians". I find his views highly contratian of the book I read before by Francois Gautier, " A western journalist in India". It is quite ironical that a reverred Indian seems to loathe quite a few facts about our country and a complete outsider goes all out to praise it!
Isn't it time we Indians stop being overtly critical of ourselves, expecially on factors which we can't change?

Anonymous said...

Not sure if i got the tunnel effect correctly - the difference in your example is that the two lanes are different. The driver in the other lane has done nothing, hid behind the pallu of his nation to not do anything, whereas the other driver has proactively built the road and got his move created by himself. That is a big, crucial difference.now, learning from IT many other industries are going forward. And govind, today, it is not just IT that is moving. Only an idiot will say that.

Rudresh

cool_newmoon on 2:23 pm said...

What can IT do to India?
IT companies do deploy complex traffic management systems like in London, Dockyard systems, and Supply Chain Solutions across the globe. Now lets look at simple eGovernance Project, enabling a Supply Chain Solution on Food Distribution System In India, at one place we have surplus food reserves, and other side,shortage of food supply done through PDS. Take Blogging then, if every panchayat has regional blogging, you then create a knowledge power house of not only agricultural practices but also social issues dissemination.
Look at the complex health care projects Indian companies do in US and Europe, many of the health care programs and insurance systems are developed by Indian Companies, whats needed is the vision by Indian Government to go IT, and make these projects lucrative for the Indian IT Giants, with shortage of resources, these companies prefer eGovernance projects from developed countries purely on basis of the currency arbitrage, if Indian Government can make them the lucrative, you will see a beeline of Indian IT companies making solutions for Indian Scenarios, from better traffic management systems in Bangalore, Passport Department going online,reduction in queues across all departments, decreasing corruption as most of the human element for decision making will be recorded online,
if McDonald's can promise its customer that the life of burger is 12 minutes, the day is possible for every file in Indian government office only with the use of IT and its processes.
The President should appoint a CIO- Chief Information Officer, who will enfore rapid IT Change needed, both Bill Gates and Narayan Murthy,(heading retirement) could be invited.

Anonymous said...

My comment may be a complete digression, but left to my interpretation, my take out of the tunnel effect is that looming issue of what’s going to happen with the people left behind while prosperity and vulgar prosperity swamps the few? And this syndrome goes beyond just the prosperity of the IT industry ……..

You can not have people basking in the ‘India poised’ state of mind while they realize for them in their own little world everyone else’s life is changing but not their own…. You can not expect people to bask in the contentment of their country’s so called progress while they still need to get up at 4 am for one hour of uninterrupted water for which 20 other families from their urban slum have lined up…. How can you watch and feel happy in the fact that Indian companies are now part of the global foot print when you have no option but to drive 2 hours in the worst possible traffic everyday to get to work for reasons like real estate prices which means only the players in the stock market or business men or people who have already had money for generations can live in centrally located places, or the fact even if you put all your life’s saving for a home closer home, the pathetic state of the roads ensure that you spend a few hours in traffic for what is actually a 20 min drive to work …… the list is endless.

Indian companies now have a global footprint, and this is probably just the beginning – but why is all this so lopsided? With the increase in GDP or whatever economic indicators you choose to take, what we need to ask are the following questions:

Is there a reduction in child labour?
Are women in villages walking less for one bucket of water?
Can farmers get rid of their debt burdens so that failure in harvest does not force them to commit suicide?
Can people not have to go to sleep hungry?
Can parents not be forced to sell their children because of adjunct poverty?
When will the polity take care of its own so that it wont have to take close to 50 missing children and skulls for the law to stop ignoring the plight of poor people as they report their missing child?
How many more children get to complete their education and get good quality education that helps them ensure they can partake in India’s economic boom?
Can people in Mumbai city drive to work without damaging their backs? Can city roads look better than that of a desolate village in Africa?
Can people who need to commute by train in Mumbai do so without risking their lives?
Can our airports be mosquito free?
Can we walk the roads and not have to keep our eyes fixed on the road just in case we step into a pile of garbage?
Can we be given a city free of ugly hoardings on every nook and corner of this city that very soon we will forget what the sky looks like?
Can we not have to go through the trauma of living with the fact that at any point in time some part of the city’s express way’s are under construction – the process never stops………….

(this list above does no justice to what’s being left behind along the highway of progress)
But while all this and more happens remains unchanged, there are people who can buy a house of 25 crores and it make no difference to their bank balance, people can change cars like you would change your clothes, the rich can spend a few crores on a wedding (and block traffic in the bargain) without blinking an eyelid….. when life is like this, won’t you feel like reaching out in anger and envy and giving the guy who just passed you by in the traffic jam a sock in his face?



Am convinced, while India and China race to beat each other, the collateral damage in all this will be a very angry mass of people on both sides who will resent their being left behind… if private enterprise and government does not focus on ways to carry them with this progress, they might be left far poorer than they imagined.

Nitin on 3:33 pm said...

Govind,

My post on Prof Sen's speech (and a counterpoint to your column) is here

Deepa on 5:50 pm said...

Interesting and intriguing..waiting to read more!

raghu ram prasad said...

very nice post you publisheThe politically sanctioned disregard for regulations the IT/ITES sectors can get away with is frustrating. Be it the draconian FBT or the very many relaxations of labour laws , there is a discrimination that will sooner rather than later get the govt.visit me my site also.....

Anonymous said...

Totally agree on the IT - TI connect Prof Sen reportedly hypothesised;
TI is a result of questioning mind -exploring various possibilities from Point A onwards.

IT depends a lot on similar thought patterns..unlike in Manufacturing eg where an unquestioned blueprint is to be followed with 'slit' (read) focussed eyes

 

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