First it was the United States which increased the H1-B visas in order to accelerate the exit of India's information technology (IT) brains; then the Germans invited 25,000 IT professionals to work in their country; next it was the French opening its arms to IT professionals and a leading Indian newspaper on Wednesday quotes the Italy's minister for industry and foreign trade saying that his country would welcome IT professionals.
My initial reaction was that these countries will simply mop up our IT professionals and leave the country backward and behind. After all there are only so many IITs (Indian Institute of Technology) and engineering colleges. Even when you add the entire network of Aptech and NIIT, it does not add up to enough IT people to service the world market. Having missed the industrial revolution and fallen hopelessly behind on engineering and biotechnology - these invitations would only prevent India from catching up through the IT revolution.
You have to see the brain drain in the context of our poor education systems, inadequate hardware, paucity of electrical power and stable voltage and low computer literacy along with the high level of corruption which abhors the transparency and accountability which accompanies IT. IT supremacy seemed impossible.
A trip to Germany opened my eyes and changed my views. We are already ahead. For instance, this column has been missing for a fortnight because I believed that I would have easy and inexpensive access to computers and Internet connections when abroad and did not carry my own personal computer. It was a big mistake. Initially, I thought this was probably because Germans did not need public access to the Net. As I traveled through Frankfurt, Munich and on to Bonn, Hamburg, Hanover and Berlin, it began to dawn on me that far too many Germans simply do not need, own or use a computer. Interactions with people in government, media and industry associations revealed that there is a growing realisation within the country that it is falling behind. With typical efficiency, Germany is planning a multi-pronged strategy to catch up.
The first step is to catch them young. Thousands of computers are planned to be installed in schools within the next year, as Germans realise how soon US kids become computer literate.
The younger generation, which is already catching up, is being encouraged to opt for technical education, economics, commerce and management instead of the favoured streams of history, languages and arts.
Finally, the country plans to import skills by inviting Indians and Asians to work in IT companies. (The last strategy seems unlikely to work out because, unlike the Turkish people who helped rebuild Germany after the World War, IT experts have far too many options. They are simply not inclined to battle the language problem and the German keyboards; the restrictions regarding the duration of their stay or their ability to turn entrepreneur and most importantly the revival of racism.)
Now that Germany has decided to catch up with IT, I have no doubts at all that it will do so with minimum fuss and maximum efficiency. I even read a column in The Times of India this week which says - "a recent market survey revealed that Germany is poised to become the dominant Internet economy in Europe with 45 per cent of total market capitalisation, 56 per cent of the top 150 companies and 34 per cent of funds raised since the beginning of this year."
I think that this merely refers to Germany's Neuer market - or the booming market for Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) which crashed recently and is now on the road to slight recovery. But this is misleading and it clearly does not refer to the IT skills of the average German.
Many middle class Germans and students do not own computers, few have email accounts (this does not apply to institutions such as banks or the corporate sector which are getting wired and connected very rapidly); those who know to use the Net usually rely on Internet cafes. But these cafes are few and far between as well as expensive. While cyber cafes in India charge an hourly rate (Rs 25 to 35 these days in the bigger cities) for Internet time, in Deutscheland they bill you at six-minute intervals (one to three Deutsche mark depending on how fancy the cafe).
Large companies still dish out huge stacks of paper literature about themselves; a couple of them sheepishly admitted that their websites may not be completely current with press releases. Why, at the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology, they still use overhead projectors for presentations.
The foreign editor of one of Germany's leading magazines Der Spiegel says:"Just off the cuff, I can only say that the average German has simply not felt the need to switch to a new technology or to figure out computers. We have phones and faxes that work and are quite inexpensive." Since communication is so easy, why bother to learn. This is indeed true. In fact, cellular phones have become so cheap that it is now fashionable not to be accessible on one. In Berlin I was told that they were even planning to give mobiles bundled with pre-paid cards to the homeless, in order to make them more accessible.
While Germany has a hot Neuer market for IPOs what it clearly does not have is a Vijay Mukhi and a Dewang Mehta. Working at different levels and with different people, these two have ensured that IT and the Internet are up there on centerstage and constantly dazzling the netas and babus of government with its possibilities. Mehta's incessant networking and lobbying through NASSCOM and his ingenuity in creating events and photo-ops to keep the industry under a spotlight, has probably done more to bring in venture capitalists and push through the IT bills than all the billions of dollars earned by our IT majors such as TCS, Infosys, Wipro and others.
Vijay Mukhi started his drive at the people level. His way was to force the media to become IT savvy. In 1992-93, I remember him calling up to insist we hacks at least look at the World Wide Web. This was in the days when even The Times of India did not have Internet access. His colleague Pandian ensured that we did not wriggle out of the demo by coming over to our office with his own notebook and run a few of us through the web and its chatrooms. They repeated this with other publications and journalists and a masterstroke was getting cine star Shammi Kapoor hooked on. Mukhi helped create the Bombay Computer Club, whose monthly meetings emerged a powerful networking forum. In the early days, one of its objectives was to get those who were IT-enabled interacting with the IT-phobics, IT-disabled and IT-illiterates in order to convert them to the new world order.
I must admit that it is only when one looks in from the outside that one appreciates the contribution of people like Mukhi and Mehta and others who joined in their efforts such as - Harish Mehta, Ajit Balakrishnan, B K Syngal, Mihir Mafatlal and even Atul Nishar are some names that easily come to mind.
Without their relentless efforts, India could well have got left behind or simply remained the Mecca for body shoppers. Also, the mindless bureaucracy could have well smothered the industry with mindless red tape and restrictions. Now all we have to do is to ensure that we remain at least on par with the Chinese and the Asians and a jump ahead of the Europeans.
A correction: In my last column I had wrongly said that Vinod Gupta is an alumnus of the IIT Kanpur. He is from IIT Kharagpur and has set up the Vinod Gupta School of Management there. Sorry -- I goofed up and thank you to those who wrote to point it out.