The man of ideas who aims to make 1 billion people think

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 October, 2005, 12:00am

As India's official ideas man, the pressure is on Sam Pitroda to come up with ways to make the nation think.

The telecom entrepreneur, who is chairman of WorldCom, is also chairman of India's Knowledge Commission, a body set up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to improve Indian brain power.

Mr Pitroda is this month due to hand the government his commission's conclusions on how to think, experiment and be creative. For this, he is shaking up the education system in what he calls a 'romantic' mission that will produce results not next year, not even in the next decade, but in 20 to 30 years.

'A university professor boasted to me about how he had used the same notes for 20 years. Think how much the world has changed in 20 years and he hasn't updated his notes,' Mr Pitroda said. 'I reckon about 80 per cent of what is taught is outdated.'

Mr Pitroda blames the Indian culture for the lack of fresh ideas. 'Indians are afraid to experiment,' he said. 'From an early age they are taught to follow rules and rituals rather than think for themselves, and have an excessive deference for those in authority, which means they don't challenge opinions or practices.'

Mr Pitroda, based in Chicago, was appointed to the Knowledge Commission amid mounting anxiety at the mediocre minds produced by Indian institutes. Author V.S. Naipaul recently remarked that India had more than 1 billion people, but no thinkers.

Instead, the tendency is to copy designs, ideas and solutions from the west, from furniture to Hollywood film plots.

To foreigners, it might seem counter-intuitive to be told that Indian education is poor quality. They see Indian doctors, engineers and software writers. This creates the impression - partly correct - that Indian education is good.

But the reality is that only minuscule pockets of the system are good. The top institutions, such as the Indian Institutes of Management and the Indian Institutes of Technology, are world class. Just this week, Britain's The Times Higher Education Supplement ranked the latter as the third best in the world. But most other universities are substandard, churning out mediocre graduates.

The government now fears India will not have enough skilled manpower to keep up its economic momentum.

One big change that Mr Pitroda wants is to get more Indians studying liberal arts. The Indian middle class traditionally eschews the liberal arts as far too risky.

'As a society, we need people studying psychology, sociology and political science so that they can come up with solutions to society's problems,' he said. 'Indians have too narrow a focus. They are always surprised when told that in the west, the head of a multinational can be an anthropology graduate.'

When his commission presents its conclusions, it will not simply 'state the obvious' problems with the education system. 'Instead, I want to list 20, 30, 50 things that can be done quickly with existing resources within a fixed time.'