Monday, November 28, 2005

IT industry undermines city’s education infrastructure

Bangalore Turns Against Itself
IT industry undermines city’s education infrastructure
The Times of India

Reactions to the Narayana Murthy-Deve Gowda spat have rarely gone beyond the not very difficult task of identifying the hero and the villain of the confrontation. This instinctive reaction no doubt tells us a great deal about why Bollywood films are made the way they are, but it does not help us understand the crisis that overwhelms India’s information technology (IT)-led cities. It brushes under the carpet the failures of the dominant imaginations of the future of cities like Bangalore; imaginations that have led the IT industry to shoot itself in the foot.

At the core of this dominant imagination is a belief that what is for the immediate good of the IT industry is good for the city. Bangalore’s resources are then expected to be used to provide international quality physical infrastructure for the IT industry. Since the state government does not have the resources to take infrastructure in the entire city to that level, the focus is on the elements that are most visible to the global IT market, whether it is an airport or a tech park.

Unfortunately, the IT worker does not live on work alone. He then relies on the rest of the city to provide him his residence and other infrastructure. And since adequate resources have not been provided for this non-IT infrastructure, the overall infrastructure of the city collapses. The IT-led boom is not the first time Bangalore has grown rapidly. But, whether it was the creation of the cantonment in the early 19th century or the public sector boom in the 1950s and 1960s, strategies were never confined to the workplace and a few attractive projects. Entire townships and mass transportation networks were created that minimised use of the existing infrastructure. It is an imagination that confines itself to a few glamorous workplaces and projects that is at the root of Bangalore’s infrastructure crisis.

To expect Deve Gowda to provide an alternative imagination for Bangalore is perhaps a trifle optimistic. When as prime minister he was asked by Bill Gates the reason for Bangalore’s ability to provide IT manpower of the highest quality, he did not apparently have much to say. But the search for an alternative imagination for Bangalore could well begin by answering Bill Gates’s question.

Bangalore’s ability to provide Englisheducated technical manpower can be traced to a series of historical accidents. In the middle of the 19th century, Bangalore cantonment was still coming to terms with the emergence of an Anglo-Indian population, discriminated against in both church and education. Rev Possnett decided to do something about it by setting up an English medium school for poor Anglo-Indians in 1854. This was the beginning of an education system in the cantonment that ensured the poor too had access to English education. After Independence this preference for English even at the lower end extended to Bangalore city as well. Bangalore today has many more English medium schools than it has Kannada medium ones.

Even as the cantonment was taking English education to the poor, Bangalore city was developing technical education. Dewan Visvesvarayya and the Tatas set up what is now the Indian Institute of Science. Visvesvarayya also set up a college of engineering that has among its alumni Sabeer Bhatia, the founder of Hotmail. This technical education was extended beyond the elite by the foresight of Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV. He insisted, when laying the foundation stone for the Indian Institute of Science in February 1911, that the policy of not providing scholarships should be abandoned.

The availability of technical education was fully tapped by the post-Independence public sector boom in Bangalore. The unionised working class at these units ensured that even the lowest paid among them had access to these institutions. By the 1960s, Bangalore had a large body of technical manpower eager to go abroad. In 1984, Texas Instruments realised it had the telecommunication technology to tap this manpower in Bangalore rather than bring them over to the US. Bangalore’s IT revolution was on its way.

Instead of recognising this history, Bangalore’s dominant IT imagination chips away at the very basis of its success. Access to engineering education has become expensive. The preoccupation with IT also reduces the scope for bringing the poor into the organised working class. They cannot then hope to provide technical education for their children as the public sector workers once did. Once Bangalore loses its manpower advantage it is left competing on the basis of physical infrastructure with much richer urban centres like the National Capital Region, in a battle it cannot win.

An alternative imagination would focus on regaining the education and industrial base that created Bangalore’s IT manpower. At one time Bangalore had the intellectual giants who could wonder, along with T S Eliot, ‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?/ Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’ Today, the city is reduced to wondering where is the information we have lost in information technology?


Post a Comment

<< Home