Dr. N.R. Narayana Murthy started up before it became cool. As the co-founder of Infosys, he has taken Indian IT to new levels and is, today, one of the most respected business leaders in India. Naturally, when he visited the NLS campus recently, the Quirk Team could not resist the opportunity to interview him.
India has some really good educational institutions, say IISc or NLS, but they do not feature as significantly as other universities of the world. Moreover, ground-breaking solutions to world’s biggest problems are not emerging from our country. What do you believe is the cause?
The process of changing higher education has to start with changing our primary and secondary education. The reason we don’t have higher education institutions that have made world shattering discoveries in any field is simply because we do not help our children apply what they learn in the classroom to first understand the nature around them, and then to design solutions that make life better. Now, for example, why do you think the sun looks red when it is setting?
It has to be with dust particles … refraction …
You’re almost there. When refraction happens, red is the longest wavelength.
Yes, It has to do with scattering, right? And when it scatters, when the sun is setting, it travels the longest path through the atmosphere – and red has the longest wavelength. But the point I was making is, we don’t ask children this. For example, when you go to the moon, say in the afternoon, what will you see there? Do you see a bright sky, a dark sky, what would you see?
There is no atmosphere, so you’ll see the normal dark sky.
Because there is no atmosphere, there is no scattering, therefore it looks like there is night, but the sun is still there. It’s very bright. But the point I’m making is simply this – we do not teach children these concepts in this way. If we want that India discovers and creates an institution in the top thirty or twenty in the world, first the quality of the students has to improve. It’s not the fault of the students – they’re bright! But they’ve been taught all along to learn by rote. They’re not given the opportunity to question. That is where the work has to start. It cannot be done at IITs, or NLSIU, or IISc. It has to be done at primary and secondary schools.
In foreign universities, especially in the United States, university students play a large part in influencing policy. How do you think we can improve that in India with our existing institutions?
It requires our bureaucracy to become more open-minded. The biggest bottleneck we have right now is our bureaucracy. You see … politicians come and go – they also face elections once in five years so to some extent they feel they are accountable. Therefore, they can be convinced. But bureaucrats are there all the time. And the Indian babu is the most rigid one. It’s the most fixed-mindset one. So therefore, if we all sat down and said how do we make sure that every one of our MPs has a research arm wherein bright students like you can go and find employment or can even do internship and look at one issue of public policy … that is the way. But unfortunately … you see, we wanted to provide research grants to MPs for hiring people like you. Unfortunately, the government was against it. They said you can’t do this, it’s not right. Only when we become open-minded, when we are willing to learn from people who have done work in these fields, is when we will improve. The best thing to do is to allow youngsters freedom.
Do you think one of the biggest challenges India faces today is ‘brain-drain’? You have lots of great minds coming out of Indian universities but American universities poach them all because they’re given better opportunities.
I don’t think you should use the word ‘poached’. It’s not the right thing. See, as a citizen of India, you are entitled to a passport. You can decide to go to any country you want. You can live wherever you want. You can study wherever you want. I used to be the Chairman of the Rhodes selection committee for five years. Every year we selected one student from this campus. There were so many people who applied! No one is putting pressure on them to apply. No one is poaching. Youngsters find that going to Oxford is a great privilege, studying there is a great privilege. It provides great opportunities. The solution for us is to make our institutions as famous as Oxford. Then automatically, children will stay here. Why will they want to go?
Since you’re in the technology sector, a huge debate is happening right now regarding net neutrality and it ties into the issue of how we get internet access for the next billion people in the world. A lot of people say that Facebook’s idea of Free Basics should be encouraged because at least they’re trying to do something, while others disagree because they think it will principally change the structure of the Internet. What is your view on this?
I think net neutrality is very very important. The impact and the power of internet is access to information from a wide variety of sources. In some cases, competing sources. So therefore, any mechanism that may even remotely slow down that process or create obstacles for that process should be opposed. Therefore, I think net neutrality is very important for a country like India. The day you say, “anyway these people don’t have access, so let’s give them some access” … it’s a kind of elitism.
That is also the accusation against people who support net neutrality, that they are elitist.
You see, it’s like good values. You have to be honest. What is elitist about being honest? What is elitist about everyone having reasonably fast good access to internet?
What is the number one reform that India needs right now?
I would say that if there is one reform that is so important for India, it is to completely liberalize education. Just as in 1991, we did economic liberalization leading to the resurgence of the Indian industry. Allow private universities. Allow foreign universities. Allow any professor to come and teach here. Allow any instructor to go wherever they want. Let the market decide! See I’ll tell you before 1991, I used to ask a lot of my friends who were in the ’67 batch of IAS – now they’ve all retired – why don’t we have current account convertibility? They would say, “No no no, this would be a very bad step. People will stash money and that’s why we’re not allowing it.” But in 1991, in a matter of one week, thanks to Narsimha Rao, we introduced current account convertibility. Today we have 350 billion dollars in foreign exchange, at that time we had 1.5 billion. Unfortunately, even though we have seen the positive impacts of economic liberalization, we have still not passed that on to our education system. What medium you want to study, or want your child to study – that should be left to you. You know what the result is – we have deprived the poor the access to good education. We have deliberately kept them down.
Recently in NLS, there has been an interest in starting up. What do you think an institution like NLS can do to promote this entrepreneurial spirit?
University is all about education. Education is all about learning to learn, right? Whatever helps you to learn the power of entrepreneurship – there’s nothing wrong. For example, if you take a couple of electives on finance, on strategy, on choosing an idea, validating it – that would be good. Why not? Something like an Entrepreneurship I and II. If you don’t like it, don’t take it. That’s the beauty of an elective, right? It would act as an enabler.
Sadly, electives find no place in NLS to this date. But given that the new year has just begun, what would be your one wish for India to happen in 2016?
I think every expert, every thinker has provided data to show that having GST will make life simpler for business people, for governments, for consumers … for everybody. I hope that this will be passed in 2016. You know, UK came to a point similar to this in 1974. 41 years ago. I was working in France at that time. They just did it, 3 months … finished.