Reema Gupta: Thank you, Dr Tharoor, for a very enlightening and inspiring session. Let me start with a connected question. How does Indian society’s focus on meritocracy affect innovation? From your experience at the United Nations, would you say there is a positive relationship between acceptance of failure and innovation?
Shashi Tharoor: Actually, our system does not privilege innovation. We privilege a lot of regurgitation. Too much of our system requires students to essentially shut up and listen to the teacher, rather than questioning the teacher. We used to joke that school is where you learn to answer the questions and college is where you learn to question the answers. But in truth, you rarely do that even in colleges in India today.
It is also, of course, a problem of scale and numbers. When classrooms consist of 45 or 50 pupils, it becomes difficult for teachers to indulge the creative student to challenge her or his basic assumptions. It’s easier for the teacher to say ‘listen to me and I will explain it as we go along’ and never really address the question. We train people to say why. We don’t train them to ask why not? And I think these are genuine handicaps when it comes to innovation.
We were a very innovative culture. I mean, we came up with so many of the foundational ideas in mathematics, in metallurgy and in astronomy a couple of thousand years ago. India is the country that invented the zero, let’s not forget that. And yet it seems all we do invent is zero.
There is this wonderful line that Einstein wrote in a letter to a school in Brazil. It was unearthed a couple of years ago by accident in an old box. And the letter said, about encouraging creativity in the classroom, “Dear children, why would you want to be a chicken when you can be a lark? Why would you want to be just content with squawking what the teachers have told you when you could be soaring in the skies and singing?” And to my mind, this is a very important lesson. We don’t encourage our children to be larks, to be songbirds. We encourage them, in fact, to be chickens and that’s really very sad.
I would love to see much more creativity being encouraged. There are some schools which in the extracurricular domain encourage creativity. I was very lucky to go to schools where I ended up doing a lot of debating, theatre and creative activity outside the classroom, which inevitably affected the way I thought and spoke and behaved and so on. College debates and high school debates forced me to think originally. But what about the vast majority of kids who weren’t in the debating team? That’s what I worry about. We require conformity: socially, educationally, culturally. Conformity does not create innovation. Conformity merely repeats all that is already there.
We require conformity: socially, educationally, culturally. Conformity does not create innovation.
We talk a lot about the demographic dividend. At what point, if we don’t do certain things, would the demographic dividend become a demographic liability?
We have a serious challenge for us as a nation. Forget party politics for a moment. There is no doubt that the demographic dividend ought to have worked for us. We have 605 million people under the age of 25. Even in terms of just objective numbers against other countries, we are a young country while the rest of the world is ageing. In 2020, the average age in Japan is going to be 47. In Europe, it is going to be 46. In the United States, it is going to be 40. Whereas in India, it is going to be 29. So, we have theoretically the youthful, dynamic workforce that other countries are losing. The problem that we have however is the following: have we equipped them to do any jobs in the 21st century? Have we created an economy that actually offers them the jobs ?
If you look objectively at our situation at the moment, many of these kids are going to remain unemployed, underemployed or in disguised unemployment. There have been Maoist incidents not in two or three, but in 165 of our 625 districts. Those are the actual statistics. Now, who are these Maoists? These are largely unemployed, uneducated, under-educated, young men and some young women. They fall prey to the blandishments of misguided ideologues precisely because their lack of opportunity gives them no stake in our economy and no stake in our society.
That is essentially the national security threat — not a demographic dividend but a demographic disaster. We can only counter this disaster by a mix of two things. Number one is a far more effective training and education. I know we have been saying this, certainly when Pallam Raju and I were in the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), this has been our very strong message. But sadly it has not been translated into anything in terms of implementation. Skilling, training and education are one.
The second is putting a serious emphasis on sectors of the economy that can generate jobs and absorb workers. Even when I was a backbencher in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), I had argued very frankly that our country needed to put far more money into tourism, for example. Global studies have demonstrated that 1000 dollars spent or invested in tourism employ eight times as many people as 1000 dollars invested in industry. There is no question that this is necessary for a surplus labour economy like ours and we need to be able to create better tourist infrastructure so that more tourists come. Create all the ancillary hotel, restaurant and gift shop jobs because these are all activities that can actually absorb not just skilled people but also semi-skilled and unskilled people. It doesn’t take much training to be a waiter, a bus boy, a doorman or a mali or gardener’s assistant, all of whom the tourism and hospitality industry needs.
Create all the ancillary hotel, restaurant and gift shop jobs because these are all activities that can actually absorb not just skilled people but also semi-skilled and unskilled people.
We also need to focus on generating jobs that can be done in a sustainable way, in an environment in which more and more jobs are disappearing. We can’t say ‘Make in India’ to people who are going to be making their products somewhere else because they don’t need human beings to make them anymore. They have got machines making them.
I read an alarming study which said that by 2030, 65% of the jobs in the Western world would be jobs that do not exist today. So you have to be so much on your toes to acquire skills to do the kind of work that literally we cannot imagine today because these jobs do not exist today. And conversely, the report said that a substantial percentage of today’s jobs will cease to exist by 2030.
Another example I often give because I have seen this in my own years of speechifying. You would know if you had invited me to speak on our economy nine or ten years ago when I had just come into politics that I would have made a big song and dance about a great Indian innovation called medical transcription. In the 1990s when we got connected to the internet, India came up with this brilliant business process offshoring idea. It was this: an American doctor would see his patients during the day and would dictate his notes into a dictaphone or into a machine. It would be zinged overnight by fiber optic cable to India and while he slept, an Indian with some medical training and qualifications would type all his notes up with the right medical terminology and would zing it back to America. When the doctor came the next morning for work, all his medical transcription notes would be typed up. It was a great thing. India became a world leader in this profession that Indians had invented. This was very much emblematic of the way in which Information Technology (IT) had transformed opportunities in India’s economy. By 2005, 2006 or 2007, it was a $1.5 billion dollar business. India had about 90% of the world’s market. The Philippines was trying to catch up.
Then what has happened today? All the medical transcription businesses are going under or shutting down or changing. Why? Because voice recognition software has got to a point where that American doctor no longer needs to zing his notes to our person in India to type them. He speaks them into his computer, having paid one time for a piece of software and his notes appear in text on his screen even as he speaks them and with a sufficient degree of accuracy. Even if he has to make some corrections, it is much less of a problem for him than paying somebody in India to do it and then send it back. This is an example of a way in which what had been a sunrise story for us 20 years ago is already a sunset story now. That’s how quickly technology is moving and that’s how quickly we have to be on our toes.
Voice recognition software has got to a point where that American doctor no longer needs to zing his notes to our person in India to type them. What had been a sunrise story for us 20 years ago is already a sunset story now.
Things are changing with this whole concept of ongoing education, ongoing learning. How do we equip ourselves in this brave new world? Singapore is doing some amazing new things in this area. What could India do in terms of skilling?
Singapore has advanced to become a very controlled microclimate. It is less than six million people on an island. They can shut up immigration whenever they want. They have exactly the number of bodies that they need. They can bring in the ones they need. Yes, they are doing very well on things like retraining, continuing education and mid-career education and training. All of these things are happening in Singapore.
Some Indian companies and government ministries are trying to do the same thing. There are questions about how useful that has been. I have seen officers in the foreign services and Indian Administrative Service (IAS) going abroad to foreign universities for a year or two of study. I have also seen some of them trying to improve their skills by spending a stint elsewhere, often in another ministry. There have been a few cases where they have tried to improve their skills by going to the private sector and then coming back to the government. We need to set up all of these things on a much more stable basis and make them much more common.
Now having done that, the challenge for us remains on what happens to jobs that just disappear. Obviously, I don’t think driverless cars are coming to India in my lifetime and maybe not even in yours. But if they did, that would mean millions of Indians out of work because their only profession is driving, whether it is cars or lorries. They would not have any other profession. What would you skill them to do?
It is becoming increasingly apparent that we need to equip our people to do things that they can do in India by themselves or in countries that are willing to accept Indian labour. We have seen Indian labour in the Gulf. But if Japan has a labour shortage, are they going to borrow Indian labourers? They are not. At least not for the foreseeable future. So, we have got to see what skills we can actually equip workers with.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that we need to equip our people to do things that they can do in India by themselves or in countries that are willing to accept Indian labour.
One of my concerns is that we need to get the right skill set and give that training. We need to involve everybody in this. I have often challenged the private sector on this point. Why should we only leave it to the government and labour ministry to set up Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) and train people to operate equipment that is already out of date in the industry? Why can’t we actually make it obligatory for every company of a certain size, even by law, to have skilled training centres attached to them where they train people? They can then absorb some of them into their own companies if they want and issue certificates for the rest. These workers can go out into the job market elsewhere. We have a crying need for this kind of thing and a crippling shortage of many skill requirements.
You had introduced a private member’s Bill in Parliament, most notably to strike down Section 377. It is phenomenal to see the Supreme Court now finally coming out with this verdict striking down 377. More broadly, what do you see as the role of judiciary versus policy makers in a democracy?
I did not succeed in introducing the Bill. Twice it was voted down at the stage of introduction. It was never formally introduced. So, it was actually a failure.
When I tried to introduce it, the homophobes and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) shouted me down and voted me down. And I tried once again three months later and the same thing happened. At that point people said, will you keep trying? I said, no, because I remembered Einstein’s definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
However, it was a failure that opened the way to another kind of success. So, you know there are two different lessons here.
I also said it is very clear that parliamentarians are not going to change this dreadfully outmoded law. The only ones who will be in a position to address the issue would be the judiciary. You would have to try that route. And indeed, the concerned NGOs and some individuals took that lesson to heart. Had I not failed and failed so visibly at getting this Bill introduced, maybe they would not have tried the other route. But they were really convinced now that there were no other recourse but to go back to the Supreme Court. There was already a curative review procedure pending which could have taken years but they filed a new case claiming violation of their civil rights. As you know, they won.
I think we have to accept that in a democracy, one of the challenges is finding parliamentarians with enough political courage. Because political courage means sometimes being prepared to take unpopular stands that many of your voters may not like. When I introduced [the Bill on] 377, a very prominent religious figure in my constituency called me and said, “We like you. Why are you doing this?” I said because I believe it is about freedom. And he said no, it is about sex. And I said no, it is about freedom. I said I don’t believe governments have a place in human beings’ bedrooms. He said no, no we will talk about this. Fortunately, he has not stopped supporting me so far, but the fact is that this is the kind of pressure any parliamentarian will come up against. There are traditional views, there are religious views, there are conservative views in every society. On some things, politicians are privately relieved to leave it to the judiciary.
On the other hand, the judiciary could take a progressive stance since they are not accountable to anybody but their own conscience and their interpretation of the Constitution. We have got these wonderful judges like Justice Chandrachud who seem to have a very liberal orientation towards principles. He interprets them as he finds them in the Constitution and that is exactly the role of a judiciary.
The judiciary could take a progressive stance since they are not accountable to anybody but their own conscience and their interpretation of the Constitution.
Change, in every democracy, can come through democratic votes. Change can also come through mass movements but the quickest way very often is through judgements. For example, when America had its very famous Brown versus the Board of Education case that essentially desegregated the American schools and made blacks and whites study together, arguably, the politicians would never have voted for it. It was only a progressive Supreme Court that could take the stand that they did.
The same would apply in our country. There would be case after case where the judiciary would be ahead of the politicians because the politicians will worry about what they would sell to their voters. They would therefore inevitably be more cautious than a judge who is not accountable to anyone for a vote. Once he or she is there, they are in office till the age of 65 or 62 years, depending on what rank they get to, unless impeached. No one has been impeached in the history of Independent India. They can certainly decide to rule on the basis of their conscience and that’s what the court has been doing.
Dr Shashi Tharoor is currently a second-term Lok Sabha Member of Parliament and a former international civil servant at the United Nations. He has previously served as the Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs in the Government of India. Dr Tharoor has authored over two dozen fiction and non-fiction books. He is the recipient of several awards, including a Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, India’s highest honour for overseas nationals.
Reema Gupta heads the Centre for Learning and Management Practice at ISB. Her interests are in the area of women empowerment with a specific focus on women led micro and small enterprises. She has about 13 years of experience working in IT and related sectors. She was recognized as one of the top 10 women to watch in Massachusetts for her work in science and technology.