Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Today started with a false start, much like yesterday. I started early and landed up, prepared to queue up, at the Indian High Commission at Aldwych. There were no one around, except for a few odd souls like me standing around in search of a queue, and we all realized, only after a few minutes of private wondering, that the High Commission is closed for Eid. The guy who so helpfully enlightened all the lost souls did indeed pass on a rather tacky leaflet printed with Indian tri-colour, and informed us that he is a visa agent and he can help us without a need of a return visit.

Later at work, the discussions turned to India. Rather unexpectedly, as my previous suggestions to my colleagues were almost always ignored. The fear of India is understandable: It is exceedingly difficult to do business in, particularly for smaller companies. For all the excitement about India, very few foreign companies have actually made money in India. The reasons are varied, and primarily because the lack of research and market knowledge that most companies approach India with, but also because Indian business environment remains anti-entrepreneurial, at least in most states. Most of the foreign investment coming into India comes in the form of Foreign Institutional Investment, through the Indian stock markets, which is a rather volatile form of investment and have a rather limited impact on jobs and wide economy. The contrast with China, where most investments are foreign direct investment and go into creation of physical assets and jobs, and much harder to flee, is self-evident. On a smaller and personal scale, my colleagues' discomfort in making a sizable commitment in India and blocking that into property and business is understandable from that perspective.

But India remains For Profit education sector's El Dorado, a land of gold which no one can really find. Indian Higher Education sector represent a strange tale of broken promises and bad regulations, and each time the governments of the day realized that existing regulations are bad, they have updated it with worse regulations. All the various Indian state and union governments have done in Higher Education, apart from creating a few elite institutions which are more interested in creating graduates for the American economy, is creating a morass of an industry which functions as a sanctuary of black money and for pedaling unsuitable commercial real estate. Almost all discussions about higher education in India turns quickly into discussions of land and property, leaving the country's millions of young people in the lurch. While there is talk of Indian demographic dividend, without a functional higher education system which can productively channel the country's young energy and support the highly aspirational Indian industry, this may quickly turn into a demographic time-bomb. Lots of young people without productive skills and careers is a moral waste, and a threat to a country's stability: The Indian government clearly understands that, but the corruption and vested interests are so entrenched in Higher Education that they are unable to make much headway.

Whatever my colleagues may think of India, I obviously hold a different view. My experiences in India, in the first ten years of my working life, makes me deeply familiar with the opportunity and the energy of the Indian inner cities, the aspirations of the young students, of which, not so long ago, I was one. My experiences in working with computer education centres in the small towns of India, I shall claim, allows me a deeper perspective than most other people, particularly considering the fact that often the training centres I was associated with would have been first such facilities in the towns. I still miss the full ritual that these centres were launched with: Pujas, the speeches by local who's who, the ribbon cutting, the photographs in badly printed local papers, and the file that I would invariably carry back with cuttings and photographs for my seniors, to be added to big filing cabinets where all such imperial souvenirs were stored. The problem was, indeed, at a particular stage in such expeditionary stage of my life, we all forgot that not the number of centres, but the individual students matter: We mixed up being big with being good. I did learn the lessons in a hard way later on.

It is rather odd that I recall this now and recounting it here, having nearly avoided a similar mistake today. While my hands are full with what I am doing now, I was pursuing a project in my day job which would have significantly enhanced my commitments. I wanted to do that - this was the closest I could get to my dreams of setting up a new age business school - but this would have taxed my already stretched schedule even more. Besides, there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm about the new project among other senior colleagues and I was increasingly worried, particularly in the recent weeks, whether I am again making the mistake of over-extension. Today, however, I feel much relieved as the deal fell through: This may mean different things going forward, but this will most certainly allow me a bit of space to think for myself and devote time to do things which have become more important to me personally.

In summary, again, a day of negatives and positives then, but I feel relieved, almost free of a responsibility, free to think about the future without the burden of the past.


gyancentral said…
Do you really think that the educated are bound for the US economy. I think I disagree. Internally higher education is ultimately good for the economy the student develops in.
I didn't exactly mean that. I thought all of India's elite institutions are too keen on producing graduates who can go and work abroad. Not much effort is focused on the small town graduate who will go back and work in his town, may be as a teacher, or an entrepreneur, or a doctor.

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