Sunday, May 15, 2011

Geeks shall inherit the earth

One look at the well-illustrated jacket of Angela Saini’s Geek Nation: How Indian science is taking over the world and all those “Emerging India” clichés popped up in my mind: a booming software industry, fresh-out-of-college graduates earning more than their dads, a technological brain drain that has been manna from heaven for US, UK and other developed countries. After reading the book, I stand corrected, more or less.

“It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform” is a statement that is included in the Indian Constitution on the insistence of the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Saini, a UK-based award-winning science journalist, spends six months on the Indian soil to see for herself if Nehru’s unflagging patronisation of the sciences bore any fruit six decades later. Her first stop happens to be the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, one of the 16 institutes that Nehru envisioned would, in Saini’s words, “train up an army of innovative young engineers, who would be the country’s first generation of technocrats, researchers and inventors”.

She expected the college to be a sort of an academic Woodstock where intellectual curiosity and innovation will be in the air. It turns out to be borderline academic dystopia. Students’ sole intent seems to be getting marks and landing a cushy job. Anything that “won’t help them pass their engineering exams, they don’t want to know”. “All I can see are drones” is how she expresses her despair. Another sacred cow that Saini slays is this new-fangled thing called the “IT boom”. Indian computer science engineers are increasingly becoming the backbone of every tech company that mushrooms in developed countries, with salaries that are hardly rivalled elsewhere in any other sector in the country. This lemonade stand is turned into a chain by companies like Infosys, Wipro, Tata Consultancy Services and so on. On her visit to a couple of IT companies in Bangalore, which is unnecessarily dubbed the “Silicon Valley of India”, Saini could see through the nebula: “Lucrative though it is, most of the work done in Bengaluru tends to be day-to-day maintenance and routine software development.”

While Saini’s technological insight might be questionable, she compensates for it with her excellent journalistic skills. She’s not starry-eyed, doesn’t mind burning a few formidable bridges for the sake of truth and always takes facts with a fistful of salt. She doesn’t balk at painting an almost unflattering, and accurate, portrait of Infosys chairman N R Narayana Murthy. At his penchant for calling his employees “Infoscians”, she says the term sounds “as if they were scions of some great, dynastic family”.

With one-third of the book resembling a Swiss Army Knife, Saini only builds on it by checking on India’s geek quotient during pre-historic times. She pores over Vaimanika Shashtra, a scientific paper written in the early 20th century, which contained, among other things, descriptions of real aircraft that existed thousands of years ago. It’s these nuggets of information that give Geek Nation an intelligent heft. Like a true journalist, Saini places both sides of the story in a dispassionate manner. While she respects the common populace’s belief that Ganesh idols really drank milk, she takes on board the opinion of the general secretary of the Indian Rationalist Association: “One that is modern, with science and another India that is living in the Middle Ages.” Saini achieves a fair amount of success when she talks about this modern India through a genetically modified banana, a lie detector that would put truth serum to shame and a possible panacea for tuberculosis. But her use of pat phrases and blanket assumptions does jar at times. While it’s true that “the Indian government spends under $200 million on all of the IITs, equivalent to just eight per cent of the annual budget of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US”, Saini discounts the fact that India is still an emerging economy and has a lot of catching up to do. In a chapter titled “Geeks Rule”, she talks about how embracing technology has helped untangle bureaucratic red tape. While it might be true that e-filing will help reduce paperwork, it’s foolhardy to expect that the process cannot be stretched in the infamous Indian courts. Saini happily buys this notion that the e-mitra kiosk that she sees in Jaipur, where people can pay all their bills online, if replicated all over the country will be a boon to the populace. She somehow fails to factor in the fact that corruption is all-pervasive in government offices and the employees will always find ingenious ways to extract a bribe.

In all fairness, Geek Nation still manages to make for a very good read and that’s only because Saini treats her subject matter with care. In a chapter titled “Brainpower” she pays a visit to the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and gives hitherto unknown insight into India’s nuclear capabilities. A thorium reactor that is being designed will put an end to India’s energy problems, for once and all. At a time when science writing is beset by arid literature, Saini’s writing gives her already interesting premise a masterful and penetrating feel.

How Indian Science Is Taking Over The World
Angela Saini
288 pages; Rs 499


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