Looking beyond the traditional domain

February 16, 2007 12:00 am | Updated September 27, 2016 11:29 pm IST

Amartya Sen

Given what the country has done for Information Technology, what can the industry do for India?

I WANT to speak about the possibility of the Information Technology industry to reach out beyond its principality, about the case for the industry to bring its influences somewhat beyond what can be seen as its traditional domain.

The idea of what counts as "traditional" is hard to articulate in the case of a field of enterprise as new as IT. The importance of information has, of course, been acknowledged over many millennia, but the ideas of IT technology and software are quintessential contributions of contemporary modernity not something with any ageless recognition. The domain of IT is still evolving, and I would like to argue for taking an even broader view than has already got established.

My point is not that the IT industry should do something for the country at large: that it does anyway. It already makes enormous contributions. My point, rather, is that it can do even more. This is partly because the reach of information is so wide and all-inclusive, but also because the prosperity and commanding stature of the IT leaders and activists give them voice, power, and ability to help the direction of Indian economic and social development.

Why should the Indian IT industry have any sense of obligation to do things for India, more than what happens automatically from its normal operations? Why assume there is any obligation at all for IT to do anything other than minding its own business?

Part of the answer lies in reciprocity. The country has made huge contributions, even though they are not often clearly recognised, to help the development and flowering of the IT industry in India, and it is not silly to ask what in return the sector might do for India.

But how has the country helped? Perhaps most immediately, the IT sector has benefited from the visionary move, originally championed by Jawaharlal Nehru, to develop centres of excellent technical education in India, such as the IITs, to be followed by the Institutes of Management and other initiatives, aimed at enhancing the quality and reach of Indian professional and specialised education. Despite Nehru's moving rhetoric in favour of literacy for all, he, in fact, did shockingly little for literacy. It was, however, entirely different as far as technical education is concerned here Nehru's sense of ways and means nicely supplemented his fervent passion. India was not only the first poor country in the world to choose a robustly democratic from of governance, it also was the first country with grinding poverty to give priority to the development of technical skill and state-of-the-art education in technology. And from this the IT sector has benefited a lot, since the entire industry is so dependent on the availability, quality, and reach of technical education.

However, IT's links with India's past go back much further. The nature of Indian society and traditions has tended to support the pursuit of specialised excellence in general and the development of IT in particular. There has been a historical respect for distinctive skills, seeing it even as a social contribution in itself. Indeed, even the nasty caste system, which has so afflicted the possibility of social equity in India, has tended greatly to rely on and exploit the traditional reverence for specialised skill, which, in its regimented form, has been used to add to the barriers of societal stratification. There is a tradition here that can be taken in many different directions, and it is a matter of much satisfaction that the IT industry's use of the same respect is remarkably positive and potentially open and inclusive.

Let me comment on a few other connections, since they are often missed, between the success of IT in India and some particular features of India's past.

Going well beyond respect for specialised skill, there is a general attitude of openness in India to influences from far and near of admiring excellence no matter where it is produced. This is particularly important since the IT success of India did draw initially, as indeed was inevitable, on what was going on with much accomplishment abroad. The experiences of Silicon Valley, in particular, were very important for the yearning of skilled and discerning Indians to learn from others and then to make good use of it. While many Indians have a deep preference for what we can see as total local immersion and even succumb to evidently strong temptations to denigrate things happening abroad, there has also been for thousands of years a very robust tradition here of admiring, using, and learning from excellence anywhere in the world.

I want to point to one further connection between the development and achievements of Indian IT and the Indian intellectual traditions on which Indian IT draws. I don't refer here only to the love of mathematics that has inspired so many young Indians throughout history, and which is important in many different ways, for the efficacy IT operations. Aside from being fascinated by maths, Indian intellectuals have also typically been very excited about arguments in general: it is a subject on which I have even indulged in writing a book.

IT is a hugely interactive operation and in many ways Indian IT has depended on what we can call TI, that is, "talkative Indians." It is not hard to see how a tradition of being thrilled by intellectual altercations tends to do a lot to prepare someone for the challenges of IT interactions.

Given what the country has done for Indian IT, it is not silly to ask: what specially can the industry do for India? This seems to me to be right, but I would also like to emphasise that historical reciprocity is not the only perhaps not even the most important reason for being interested in the social obligations of the industry. Many considerations arise there.

There is, of course, the elementary issue of the obligation of those who "make it" vis-à-vis those who do not manage quite so well, which is a very basic ethical demand that, it can be argued, society places upon us. This raises the question what any prosperous group may owe to others not so well placed. This is not only a reflective demand for social deliberation part of what Immanuel Kant called a "categorical imperative" but it is also a part of enlightened business operation. There is, as it happens, a very well established tradition in a part of Indian business to do just that, particularly well exemplified by the Tatas, through various socially valuable activities such as building hospitals, research centres, and other social institutions of high distinction. Many of the major IT leaders seem to be seized of this challenge.

Foundational connection

If that possible role is obvious enough, there is some need to understand better other roles in which the IT industry can make a very big difference in India. As it happens, the key to the success of IT, namely accessibility, systematisation, and use of information, are also very central to social evaluation and societal change. There is, in fact, a foundational connection between information and social obligation, since the moral and of course the political need to pay attention to others depends greatly on our knowledge and information about them.

Negligence of the suffering of others is sustainable, given human interest in justice and equity, only when we know little about that suffering. More information in itself goes a long way to breaking that chain of apathy and indifference.

This foundational connection also gives the information industry a huge opportunity to help India by trying to make its contribution to the systematisation, digestion, and dissemination of diverse clusters of information in India about the lives of the underdogs of society those who do not have a realistic opportunity of getting basic schooling, essential health care, elementary nutritional entitlements, and rudimentary equality across the barriers of class and gender. This can also be said about problems of underdeveloped physical infrastructure, as well as social infrastructure, which restrain the broad mass of Indians from moving ahead. There are particular causal connections also here: an enterprise that hugely depends on the excellence of education for its success has good reason to consider its broad responsibility to Indian education in general.

I do not know enough about IT operations to see whether all this can be turned into a business proposition as well. But my point is that even if it cannot be so transformed, it is something the IT sector has good reason to consider doing. Can there be a group initiative in any of these fields? Can NASSCOM itself play a catalytic role here? Informational issues are thoroughly rampant in morality and politics, and in many direct and indirect ways, the preoccupation of the IT enterprise links closely with the foundations of political and moral assessment and adjudication.

(Excerpted from Professor Amartya Sen's Keynote Address at the NASSCOM 2007 India Leadership Forum in Mumbai on February 7.)

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