Shashi Tharoor is wrong. Indians cannot innovate.

This post was long pending and lazily taking form. But a particular incident accelerated its publication – a few tweets exchanged between me and Dr.Shashi Tharoor MP, Diplomat etc.

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[I have been trying to hear his speech but have been unable to do so due to a tech glitch. Not sure if it is at my end (I stay in India) or the host site. Will keep trying. In the meantime I checked tharoor.in for the speech. But they haven’t put it up yet.]

Now the meat of this post. At the outset I cannot accept a superficial opinion of how well India is innovating based on an armchair expert’s understanding of what innovation is. Such well meaning people have unwittingly caused more harm than good. We have been subjected to this lie for centuries. A look at our history (err-mythology?) and our text books which perpetuate this lie are proof. This lie which has been bandied about recklessly for centuries has made us complacent. What we need instead is a jolt of reality, a shocker to wake us from this reverie.

Dr. Shashi Tharoor is basically a well read, well educated, widely traveled diplomat, author and nouveau politician of certain repute. The fact that his only claim to the Indian tag is ancestry and matrimony may be the only dampener. That not withstanding, he should, like many other celebs and politicians, realize that they are basically ‘media magnets’ at such events (Launch of the India Innovation Institute – University of Toronto) . Not experts on each and every institute and organization they inaugurate. What if Mallika Sherawat assumes she is an expert on cancer just because she once inaugurated a cancer hospital.

Why did Shashi Tharoor make this statement? What makes him and his ilk experts on innovation? Why do they mask our lack of innovative spirit as globalization? Is innovation so simple and pedestrian to define and judge? Has such careless talk of big, earth shattering innovations scared and prevented the Indian tinkerer from experimenting? Have such references set the bar too high? What is innovation?

There are two simple definitions.

The more popular ‘External’ view, like Shashi Tharoor’s, which basically refer to ‘big ticket’, ‘corporate’ innovation. The kind that happens in Honda, GE, 3M or Philips’ development centers in India (& elsewhere globally) and are unduly publicized. These companies bring the sperm and eggs, use the development centers as a surrogate womb (for a fee), a hospitable environment and finally take away the baby. I really am not privy to the goings on in these development centers and the actual Indian contribution, but knowing a thing or two about Indian inventiveness, will reserve my comments. But these innovations are not individualistic. It is a team effort, a cross border collaboration between people & companies , normally socially irrelevant, are budget based / profit oriented (Hoechst must have shelved several life saving drugs for just this very reason) and DO NOT define the inventive spirit of a country or society nor do they directly benefit it.

Every time I fire up my pirated copy of Photoshop, my heart swells with pride to see the lone Indian name on the splash screen. But does Adobe sell it cheaper in India?

The less known ‘Internal’ view, from an innovator like myself. My kind of innovation is, very simply put, Self Help. This definition is true irrespective of caste, color, creed or nationality. It is the global definition of true innovation – at least in spirit. What does an individual do to overcome a mundane social, product or process based problem? How is his solution different from the others? Does his self help technique also help others? An innovation born out of need, sometimes specific to a certain society based on its social fabric and the idiosyncrasies of its denizens, tailor made and cheaper, is the only kind which defines the inventive spirit of a country.

Let me digress a little to explain the concept of Self Help. It will do us good to not myopically trifle this word and assume that it is limited to low key help-of-the-‘self’, like inventing a better broom or sewing ones own button. It has wider collective ramifications. In the face of humungous, gas guzzling American cars, the Japanese made smaller cars to suit their own local needs and changed the world. India, neglected the compact Premier, nee Fiat, imported big cars for roads meant for bullock carts and landed in more trouble. An Indian employee of GM developing a better power steering Vs  a vegetable vendor developing a steering mechanism for a push cart.

Real innovation cannot work under the pressures of deadlines, budgets and profits. It needs the will to succeed in the face of ridicule and repetitive failure and no assured returns.

I am sure Shashi Tharoor, like a lot of others, while inadvertently referring to corporate innovation, succumbed to nationalism in front of an international audience. An understandable defensive facade in the face of ignominy. I have seen many examples of this attitude which stems from the stigma attached to self help innovation. The white collars feel this type of innovation is a non-scientific, unglamorous activity indulged in by blue collared grease monkeys without realizing that any invention worth mentioning took form like this and not in swanky labs. Yet, the debate here is not if corporate innovation happens in India or is it by Indians or the actual volumes but, if this well publicized minority’s achievements can be a bench mark to define the inventiveness of a country of a billion plus people.

The question I am often asked is how I can, without any proof, claim that we Indians don’t innovate at all?

Since I don’t consider ‘corporate  product development’ as innovation (at least in this context), I will answer based only on my definition of the same and let you draw the conclusion assisted by the following simple logic.

When you see a 100 year old Banyan tree in a forest, what proof do you need to prove the fact that bird crapped, a seed fell in this place, germinated, was watered by rain, nourished by natural mineral nutrients, struggled and grew to be what you see now? The result is proof of  the fact.

Let us assume that I, an Indian, knowing about or experiencing a personal problem (ex: paan beeda spit stains), devise a way to overcome it (an additive to neutralize the red color. A non-inventive country like India would opt to ban the paan itself). If this is really a wide spread problem, then I will definitely find several other instances of the same being faced by other Indians. If the solution is useful and effective, then the results must show by way of elimination of the problem (cleaner, stain free walls). Over a period of time, if there are several such innovators, all solving small problems, then the results are much more amplified and lucid and our lives visibly improve. Only those ignorant of the evolution of technology would miss the fact that the bolt/nut by itself was a great invention before it became an insignificant part of a bigger invention called a car.

Now, how many of us Indians can claim to have witnessed or experienced such improvements in our lives? And please don’t inveigle yourself by referring to inconsequential ‘improvements’ like imported cell phones or better refrigerators or cars and feel vindicated. Do we, as a nation, have lesser problems? What are these problems that we have solved by innovating – not importing? Is our quality of life better? Can we really compare ourselves to a developed nation? Sadly, we as a nation have failed in both forms of innovation.

Failure of Indian ‘corporate’ innovation: In the present scenario of technology transfers and international companies operating behind Indian names, it is very convenient for Indians to ignore the role of  a Suzuki in a Maruti. But look at another ‘pure’ Indian company. Hamara Bajaj. The three wheeled contraption called an auto rickshaw from this company is a cornucopia of errors and a long do-not-do list for innovators. Hence I will cite a simple example of non-application of the self help mantra at the corporate level. Even today, the wiper on an auto is the most ineffective piece of equipment ever installed and an oxymoron, if ever there was one. Till a few years ago it was just a strip of rubber on a metal arm directly attached by a shaft to a lever on the inside of the auto. This lever was manually operated by the driver perilously juggling both driving and wiping. (The auto is steered with a handle bar with clutch / gear on one side and throttle / brake on the other) Then, following the convoluted Indian concept of modernization, a motor was carelessly slapped onto it. Did this improve the essential function of the wiper – to wipe away water? No sir. Several generations of Indians, assuming this is all a wiper can do, learnt to ignore it and drove blind till Suzuki showed us the way (pun intended) with their cars. Even heavy transport vehicles and buses manufactured by the likes of TATA and Ashok Leyland used an inefficient and short (a single 12″ blade on a split 3’x 3′ windshield) wiper. This is just one example of Indian ‘corporate’ innovation. The story was no different with the Fiat or Ambassador. But since they paid the price by shamefully shutting shop, I cite the example of only the resilient Bajaj.

Failure of Indian ‘Self Help’ Innovation: An Auto driver studying the above problem, maybe experimenting with different wipers, adapting it to suit the Auto and then maybe becoming an entrepreneur. There are millions of Autos in India. Apart from the drivers themselves, there are several hundred million others who use these Autos and are definitely exposed to this lacunae which is a major risk factor.  Where then is the better wiper on Autos? Hellooooo innovative India!

My grandfather, like several others of the day, owned a ‘holdall’ – a rolled up bed and a huge metal trunk that he used when traveling. He used to hire scrawny, under nourished porters to carry them on railway platforms. I wonder what engineering degree from IIT and 3D CAD program was needed to fix 2 bloody wheels to the trunk and effortlessly roll it around like we do nowadays? Even this simple invention, nay, modification was bestowed upon us by foreigners and they could do it because they had invented a dolly and the progression was easy. The importance and utility of this modification is evident by its prolific adoption by Indians. If this is not an easy enough problem to solve, what is? If these are not motivators for innovation, then what are? If this is not an example of our lack of inventiveness, what is?

Ever wondered why a simple raised shit pot is called an ‘European commode’ and the hole-in-the-floor type is called ‘Indian commode’? Ever been shamed by this? Where is the Indian commode now?

Show me one such oversight in the western philosophy of innovation? They don’t wait for things to happen. They make it happen – And Dr.Tharoor, this is innovation.

So what is this spiel about Indian Innovation that Shashi Tharoor is harping on to a snickering, better informed world? It really eludes me. Would he be humble enough to read/respond to this post, mull over the issue and maybe even retract his statement, refrain from making and defending such ill informed half truths and WAKE UP AND SMELL THE ROTTING CORPSE INSTEAD OF SPRAYING A CHANEL ON IT?

SPACE RESERVED FOR DR.THAROOR’S REPLY