Dear Dr C N R Rao

We expected better from you

We hold you in great respect. So what made you demean younger members of your own intellectual family?

When it all started, I thought it was a good thing because so many people were getting jobs. Over the years, it has created a large upper-middle-class population who crowd the malls. There is nothing wrong in that, but what is really serious is the influence this has had on Bangalore’s intellectual content.

It is wonderful to have a lot of young people getting big salaries, provided they don’t take away the essential lifeblood of other professions. Bright people at a very young age, before they are even 20, think of IT as an option because they can make quick money. Lots of intelligent people are doing jobs that are much below their intellectual capabilities. They are like coolies who are working for wages and not producing great intellectual material. [Outlook]

Why do you think that everyone, or even most people, should work for producing great intellectual material and not for great wages? Or do you define intellectual as only those areas that don’t pay great wages?

You lament that India produces only 25 PhDs in computer science each year. Maybe this is an accurate figure. But why do you think this is the IT industry’s fault? Was Bangalore producing a larger number of PhDs back in the golden age of Bangalore’s intellectual life? You are the chairman of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, so you should know better than us why the Indian government not only spends a pittance but also has nothing concrete by way of encouraging private investment in R&D.

And finally say “If IT people are making money, what do I get out of it, unless I am employed in Infosys with Narayana Murthy? The trouble is, we have given them a lot, but have got nothing in return?” Really? Many ‘real Bangaloreans’ like you own property in rather nice parts of the city. Like Basavanagudi. Didn’t the IT boom do anything for the value of your property? And what about the real Bangalorean who used to eke out a living driving a rented autorickshaw but now owns several vans that drive IT workers to work?

It’s not surprising the Outlook magazine would bring out a one-sided story that screamed “Real Bangaloreans Hate IT”. Especially Outlook magazine. For nobody will give a second look to an article that says “Real Bangaloreans Love IT”. Dog bites man is not news. (See what another born-in-Basavanagudi Bangalorean has to say)

But you, sir? We expected better from you.

31 thoughts on “Dear Dr C N R Rao”

  1. Dr. Rao’s argument probably comes from the following (right/wrong) perceptions:
    – IT industry hasn’t been involved in much innovation in IT services / CS in general. This lack of innovation is not creating a demand for PhDs in CS.
    – They are just riding on the low cost benefit, which is artificial and temporary. This artificial nature of the high salaries in the industry is taking away the lifeblood of other professions.
    – IT industry is not returning anything to the society in the sense that its market for IT services is not the local market. Selling goods (just a trader) and selling services (notions of coolie, slavery, etc) invokes different perceptions in people.
    – And finally nostalgia!

  2. “Why do you think that everyone, or even most people, should work for producing great intellectual material and not for great wages? Or do you define intellectual as only those areas that don’t pay great wages?”

    In the long run, in a completely free and open society, great wages tend to correlate with great intellectual work. The world is neither free nor open and hence the imbalances.

  3. Jujung,

    I have a more fundamental disagreement: what’s so wonderful about intellectual work that makes it ‘superior’ to grunt work? As labels, both coolie and cybercoolie should be worn proudly, and those who use them in a derogatory sense are only demonstrating their contempt for dignity of labour. And even the likes of Dr Rao will concede that there were far more people doing grunt work in Bangalore than there were intellectuals, even in the good old days. Then what’s the fuss about?

  4. Can someone list the great intellectuals of South Korea, Japan, or Ireland? Not many great intellectuals there now, but they sure do enjoy a good standard of living. If any of you saw the Mel Brooks’ film “History of the World – Part 1”, there is a scene where he plays a “standup philosopher” in ancient Rome, to which a Roman clerk responds, “Oh, you’re a bull**** artist.”

  5. I would disagree too that India is only producing 25 PhDs a year. There are many Indians with PHDs, but only overseas, especially in the United States, where they dot every computer science department in every major university and research facility. The United States is quite thankful for India letting them have talented IIT graduates build its computer and software industries– which is still paying dividends.

    Nitin is right, India needs to invest much more an R&D: not only to create PhDs, but to retain them, as well.

  6. I don’t think C N R Rao is wrong to be concerned about the fact that we are not producing as many fine scientists as IT engineers, and that is what he has lamented before too. Basic science and technology research sustain much long term gain on investment, including that which will go into bolstering IT (Think of how many IT technologies have their provenance in basic scientific R & D). I don’t think there is any doubt that IT siphons off talent with the promise of money and opportunities, talent that 25 years ago could have been channeled into basic R & D and the sciences. In the 1970s, when private engineering colleges were not around in large numbers, many bright people used to pursue careers in scientific research. But what I do agree to is that it is short-sighted to blame IT; after all the flock will go where the seed is. I completely agree that one of the real problems is that the government is not making basic R & D attractive to bright young people. Salaries for researchers in our academic scientists are still not attractive. Reservation and other policies also deter would-be researchers, perhaps because of perception rather than anything else. And while Rao’s labeling of IT workers as “coolies” is rather unkind, it is true that many of them could probably use their potential more fully in research endeavors. And this is not necessarily a criticism; I have met a lot of IT workers who agree that their work is rather routine.

  7. Ashutosh,

    You make several valid points. Where Rao is wrong is to lay the blame for a stunted R&D scene at IT’s door. Let’s say there was no IT boom; then would this automatically have led to an R&D boom? Unlikely. Because either (a) the IT boom might not have happened, in which case we would be a poor country with a few intellectuals receiving low wages. But would they have produced world class research? Unlikely, for where’s the moolah to fund it?

    Or (b) the IT boom might have happened, but in another city. So the good graduates from Bangalore would have moved to other cities to work in the IT industry. No gains for the R&D scene.

    The problem of why India is unable to attract and retain good academic researchers is linked to why it can’t have the best students joining the civil service and the army. Because it is largely the preserve of the state. Appointments and pay scales/packages follow government norms. That doesn’t mean there’s no private sector R&D (we know of Bangalore’s IT firms doing outsourced R&D work for Western firms and government agencies). When higher education itself is regulated, how can private universities jump in and fill the PhD shortage?

    I have found fault with the IT industry too…but for very different reasons. For not finding its political feet. But it is entirely incorrect to make a cause and effect relationship between Bangalore’s R&D scene and the IT industry.

  8. Just like economic growth and financial wellbeing will not happen in a market vacuum, intellectual growth, along with 2500 PhDs in CS, will not happen in meritocratic vacuum. Does Rao know the treatment mended to Venugopal? Instead of giving space to meritocracy and developing institutions within and without universities, for which Rao is official charge and has budgetary support, he is barking up the wrong bush.

    If intelligent people want to be coolies, it’s not because they are stupid; it’s because they are intellectually, and financially, better off being coolies.

    Instead of writing this silly article Rao could have spend his precious time creating intellectual space for intelligent people to pursue their interest, and a few more PhDs along the way. He should, probably, start by supporting Dr. Venugopal and denouncing Ramadoss; by supporting merit based education and denounce Arjun Singh’s anti-intellectual reservation bonanza. But then one would have to wonder what coolie job Rao would end up doing – a board member of Infosys, maybe.

  9. Unlike in US where the CS PhD’s are paid almost equivalent to what they get as corporate salaries, indian PhD’s are paid Rs. 12,000 per month only, that too after clearing an all india level entrance exam which is very tough to crack.

    The salary will be 21,000 basic when you start doing coolie job, in 5 years (time for PhD to be completed) you will be earning 40,000 at least.

    Why the heck i would even think of clearing the all tough entrance exam to get to do PhD ?

  10. >>In the long run, in a completely free and open society, great wages tend to correlate with great intellectual work.

    Not true.

  11. I think we need to define what ‘intellectual work’ means in the first place.

    If it’s something that requires extensive use of educational skills (normally acquired in the course of a college education), then almost every white collared job is ‘intellectual’.

    In this sense, research is one particular type of intellectual work where the idea is to create new knowledge, based on what we know (or think we know).

    In any case, given the current situation, we need a lot more people working on what we know rather than creating new knowledge.

  12. I am surprised to note how many people think it is the prerogative of the government to provide research infrastructure, increase pay for researchers, retaining scientists etc. What business does the government have carrying out R&D?

    What the government does need to do is to provide a secure environment for intellectual property rights, where budding researchers think it is worth their while to create a product that companies would be willing to pay for with the assurance that they will own complete rights over the design of the product.

  13. The reason that private enterprise may not be able to fund basic science is because of its high risk to returns ratio. Companies often don’t find it profitable on a short-term to fund basic science which does not directly contribute to pleasing shareholders or product development.

  14. Rahul

    What business does the government have carrying out R&D?

    There are grounds for public investment in R&D to the extent that we can say basic R&D is a public good. The associated market failure creates the case for government investment. That doesn’t, of course, imply that government must conduct the research itself, as it seems to be doing.

  15. “I have a more fundamental disagreement: what’s so wonderful about intellectual work that makes it ’superior’ to grunt work? ”

    It’s superior to grunt work in the sense that grunt work helps in running the society whereas creative/intellectual work helps in progressing the society. A society, in which only grunt work is done, deteriorates soon (as in the civilization collapses) due to lack of innovation. As we have seen in the past few centuries, grunt work is being done more and more with machines rather than humans. I don’t think this somehow implies contempt for labor. It just implies some work is more highly regarded. Respect for fellow human beings is not a function of just their day job. And in our life, we have to do both kinds of work to survive.

  16. > Unlike in US where the CS PhD’s are paid almost equivalent
    > to what they get as corporate salaries

    Shankar: that is incorrect. I haven’t heard of a CS department that pays its students more than 25% of a post-Ph.D. starting salary. It can be argued that stipends should be compared against a pre-Ph.D. salary but at any rate, they are absolutely not “almost equivalent” to corporate wages.

  17. If Rao’s rant was meant to be against the IT companies, I support him. It matters little whether the IT companies do coolie work or research work. The IT employees are not the main concern, they can drink latte or dance their money away. It is their money, they decide whether they go to a veena concert or a beyonce concert.

    What matters a whole lot is whether the IT companies are paying the corporate income tax, customs, and excise duty like everyone else.

    Scrap the tax holiday, scrap all SEZ’s less than 2000 hectares, negotiate with IT biggies for back taxes assuming tax holidays were terminated as per the original STPI act. Use this money for public works. I neither expect nor desire a Narayan Murthi Institute of Technology or a Premji Medical College. It would just be a bonus if these were to exist *on top* of these companies paying taxes.

    If the IT companies want extension of the tax holiday or for our 2-10 acre SEZ ponzi schemes they need to :

    Write a comment on “The Acorn” explaining why and to what extent their continued growth is dependent on these tax schemes. Forex hedges, land banks, training costs do not count, because these are permanent features of the industry itself.

  18. RC,

    You are looking at tax purely from an “equity” perspective. And fair enough, tax breaks to IT companies are not equitable. But it is incorrect to presume that because they get favourable tax treatment, their net contribution (ie what they give minus what they take from society) is negative.

    The biggest contribution of IT companies is their contribution to income growth: when people earn more, they spend and save more (even if the spending:saving ratio is the same). It is undeniable that there is a multiplier effect that benefits the entire city (and state and nation).

    There are two different issues: (a) have IT companies resulted in net social benefits to the local economy? (b) should they stop receiving favourable tax treatment? I’d say the answer is yes, for both.

    But remember, lot of cities are clamouring for IT companies, and the telecom revolution of 2000-2005 makes it possible to set up shop in relatively smaller towns elsewhere. So many states are holding out “tax incentives”; so it’s a prisoner’s dilemma. It would be great if no one used “tax incentives” to attract IT companies; but the risk that one might do so compels the rest to do so, lest they lose out.

    I think it would have been perfectly reasonable for Dr Rao to argue that favourable treatment of IT companies should stop, and Bangalore need not give sops to attract them anymore. Instead he goes on a very unreasonable tirade.

  19. Nitin,

    there’s hardly anything I can add that commenters here/ bloggers elsewhere haven’t already added. I just wanted to say how much the other articles in that Outlook issue horrified me. There was another piece, also by Sugata Srinivasraju, on how corporate sponsorships are ruining the arts. It demonstrated a complette lack of understanding of opportunity costs, bizarre correlations of corporate sponsorship and quality of content, and refused to provide any hard facts.

    There’s another wishy-washy article on the (lack of a) National Culture Policy which can’t get around to asking why we even need government involvement in culture, and an opinion piece by Gopal Krishna Gandhi that makes me cringe – banning corporate donations to political parties! Banning fairness creams! Voluntary declarations of assets are holier-than-thou (as opposed to preaching about fairness creams, I suppose).

    What really worries me is that peoples’ understanding of basic financial concepts and opportunity costs is so minimal that they may actually be taken in by arguments like these.

  20. Nitin,

    I realize you and I are both saying the same thing, that the tax holiday must end. Still, I would like to add this comment to this chain.

    >> .. It is undeniable that there is a multiplier effect that benefits the entire city (and state and nation).. >>

    I agree . The IT industry is no different from any other legit business activity.

    The question is how will these linkages to society be impacted were the tax holiday to be revoked today. Will a Infosys or TCS delay launching new products or services if they paid 500 cr instead of 50 cr in direct tax ? How will Profit before tax be affected ?

    Individual states can always offer tax incentives on their own accounts (Sales tax, entry tax, free land, registration duty, etc). They can also provide further incentives for hiring more women, setting up in backward areas. These are still within the domain of an “incentive”. The IT policy however is just a “holiday”, a reward to be seen as just being in the right business. This continues even after the conditions under which it was introduced have long ceased to exist.

    BTW : Ever wonder why we do not hear much from the IT Czars much these days ? It was not long ago NDTV/IBN/others had Murthy on TV every other day criticizing the city.

    The SEZ policy, which I think will make urban India even more unlivable, rides on this holiday. There are many 2,5,10,15 acre IT SEZs coming along in Chennais’ IT corridor (also in Bangalore). They all open up via tall gates into choking roads and general chaos.

    Certainly not Jebel Ali or Shenzhen.

  21. RC,

    My own take is that removal of an incentive will not make a big difference to Bangalore’s ability to attract investments. Fixing urban infrastructure would be a far more important variable impacting Bangalore’s attractiveness. And Bangalore has sufficient ‘market power’ to break the prisoner’s dilemma and stop this tax incentive game. But since when did our politicians acquire the ability to take back a bone they’ve thrown to a dog. Any dog.

    As for SEZs. That’ll be long remembered as yet another of the UPA’s follies.

  22. Why is IT industry turning into a whipping boy ?? We, “these IT guys”, have to work really hard to reach where we are.. extra working hours, odd working hours, limited social life, etc (BPO employees partying every weekend and blowing money is different, I am talking about IT. BPO employees are mostly college kids. First of all, these so-called intellectuals should stop clubbing IT and BPO together.. they are very different fields)

    I am in my office while I am typing this in.. 🙂

    >>> Why is not “IT” work “intellectual”?

    Oldtimer,
    Its monkey business, really 🙂

    RC,

    You have a point. Then again, you see, the tax breaks help the growth of IT industry. So more people get jobs and earn enough salaries to give away almost 1/3 of their income as taxes in one way or the other. So the govt gets its tax money anyway. High taxes, no growth, no jobs, no taxes paid by the employees. And unemployment..

    Note that IT industry is a very competitive industry. Unlike Tata who can pay taxes , because there are limited carmakers in the market, IT companies can be killed very easily by 35% corporate income tax! There might be more CMM Level 5, ISO certified IT companies in a suburb of Bangalore or Hyderabad than car and bike manufacturers in the whole of India.

    Maybe the taxes should be increased progressively over a period of ten or fifteen years..

  23. If IT guys are coolies to the west, how about scientists in India? Most of the Indian scientists (including Rao) are following the West. Scientists do not work on problems relevant to our country. Are they not coolies too?

  24. One is giving too much importance to Dr. Rao’s diatribe. He is a seasoned politician, and has been PM’s advisor through his political connections and some frantic boot licking.

    IT (and private FDI in education) poaches on his personal flock of bright, young students. Instead of paying monthly Rs.1500 to a student, he has to pay Rs11,000 now, just so as to attract anyone to an advanced lab.

    I have been searching for a job in higher education. without political connections, it has been extremely difficult proposition. Many of friends shifted from academics to industry just for this sole reason, lack of will to participate in silly politics for a low-paying job.

    Rao can keep spewing in insanities, the days of govt sponsored R&D is over…

  25. Thinking with a good emotional intelligence Mr Rao I believe is correct. IT is just producing workers who work for US industry.

    Guys please relax, sit back and think for a moment. Does India have a solid authority on any technology? IT or Pharma-tech? Where we could produce products and sell it to the world? and make money for the country?

    It is always US or Europe who are the authority on Software/ Hardware/Research/Medical products etc in High Tech.(Japan in electronics may be).

    Ideally for all the IT hype India should have produced and sold technology like Oracle or SAP.

    Sure SUN microsystems is Indian. But unfortunately it is not on Indian soil and is not making money for the Country.

    Infosys/Satyam/Wipro — do they have a product? They are just selling young employees to US companies? fresh meat (as they call) for US industry. Young Indians who are eager to succeed and work long moronic hours in front of computers. This business can be justified provided India had some authority in the World market as well.

  26. For ur kind information CNR Rao is the only indian scientist to have got the
    H-index greater than 70.
    This is a measure of the citations each scientist has produced.
    Go and see for urself where india stands and china stands.

  27. 1.The vision of best minds getting attracted for advanced research can happen only when the economoic status of the country increase to a higher fold than the current living standards.
    2.Research should be privatized so that we create our own top private universities. Only private universities will be able to attract best of the talent by paying higher salaries and providing good environment. In the current setup, faculties are not only stuck with government salaries, plus they have to live with all reservation crap. How is it possible to do best of research with mediocare/worst students?
    3.Research should be made fun so that young people can understand. Currently, many professors including Rao boasts big names such as colossalmagenoresistance as their area of research which I bet, no young student can ever understand. Research should focus on solving big problems of the society and can be easily explained like….curing cancer…or..making solar energy very cheap…Bottomline, young students can appreciate research only when people like rao explain in simple terms how their work can affect a common man. Unfortunately, many of the research programs in India are essentially watered down version of US research.

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