Thursday, June 22, 2006

Why India cant fly - 2

The extention to the last post seems to be getting too complex to articulate in its entirety, so I just project one aspect - IPR and innovation in IT - and let you make up the rest of the story.

As talked about to death by intellectual property rights (IPR) advocates, India has an appalling record of IPR or copyright enforcement, whether it be international brand products or Bollywood material. One evil result of this is how it makes investment in new technology risky, effectively stunting innovation.

One classic, though trivial, example that comes forth is that of Microsoft products in India, a staggering proportion (+80%) of which are used in pirated form. While Microsoft gains immensely from this unpaid and unplanned market share, it is nonetheless making sounds about taking the battle to the streets with WGA. That said, given the small number of paying software users in India so far, Microsoft has little incentive to customize its softwares for Indian users. I never worked with a legitimate MS Office copy packaged for India (oops!) so I dont know the level of customization it has, but from what I saw on the pirated ones, I can imagine that Indian workers spend thousands of work-hours searching for the elusive "Rs." symbol in their spreadsheets, or fuming as spelling check throws up red lines under everyday names of people and places. Given the non-existence of copyright enforcement, there is no incentive for local innovators and investors to put stakes in developing a relevant product. This creates succulent conditions for Microsoft, for when IPR enforcement eventually becomes tighter, it can capitalize on its uninhibited market spread.

The Microsoft example is of course skewed, given the fact that its monopoly is global, but gives a good example of ineffective use of hand-me-down technologies. To further the illustration, a significant bit of the digital divide can be attributed to the fact that children who go to rural public schools in India (nearly all of which have the regional language as the medium of instruction) dont learn enough English to be able to operate English-language softwares till they are in high school or older. CDAC and others who developed native language tools have had limited success in propogation, given the plastering of the market with free pirated softwares which leaves few niches to occupy. A buddy who worked for Vikas Vikalp, a Delhi-based NGO which fathered TARAhaat recounted to me how they set up centers in rural Bundelkhand to teach computer fundamentals but on discovering the lack of English proficiency, ended up establishing basic English classes.

This warped way of approaching progress (i.e., teaching English as a first step to computer literacy), which results from the lack of institutionalized and indigenized innovation, infiltrates much more than my trivial IT example, and has far-reaching effect on India's worthiness as an economic powerhouse.

Exacerbating an environment of despondency in native-led innovation, the Thomas Friedmans and Gurcharan Das' of the world celebrate (or bemoan) the 'success' of the Indian IT industry by pointing out the numerous R & D centers that IBM, Intel, Cisco and others have established in India. The fact that active minds from India are driven to seek sanctuaries in American universities and corporations to invent and patent everything from microprocessors to petrochemicals doesnt bother them, of course.

The Empire, it seems, is mighty pleased to have a satrap - who seems strong but docile, independent but tractable, and has all the politically correct qualities of being democratic, multicultural and stable - and it is making an uninhibited show of it, what with the nuclear deal and the good press. Last month, EU and American leaders met in Vienna for the 2006 US-EU Summit where they resolved to reduce global piracy and encourage protection of IPRs. On the tail of the successful TRIPS mandate, India will be nudged to fulfill this mandate too and enforce its laws. The unsung tragedy of reforms in the 1990s was that dismantling of the license-raj did not precede globalization, it came hand-in-hand; the tragedy about to happen is that the enforcement of indigenous IPRs will not precede that of global IPRs.

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