Sunday, June 24, 2007


MADRAS, India — David Appasamy vividly recalls his days as a youth in India’s fourth-largest city, especially the long hours his family would spend waiting in line as government officials divvied up rations of sugar or some other precious resource.

“Sometimes people would be waiting in line and they’d run out,” he remembers.

Mr. Appasamy’s upbringing in an impoverished, post-independence India is not uncommon. Nor is the mind-set it cultivates.

“In India, a job is sacred. It means an apartment. It means marriage. It means taking care of your parents,” Mr. Appasamy said matter-of-factly over a cup of coffee. “Education is the ticket to a good job.”

He speaks with the candor of someone who knows. Mr. Appasamy, 49, earned his undergraduate degree at the Madras campus of the Institute of Hotel Management and later received a business degree from the prestigious Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad. He now handles corporate communications and investor relations for Sify Limited, a Nasdaq-listed Internet company dedicated to bringing Indians online.

The company is one player in an Indian information-technology industry that is expected to reach $60 billion in annual export revenues by 2010. The sector is growing 36 percent annually and is on its way to $18.1 billion for this year, the country’s National Association of Software and Service Cos. estimates.

Despite the phenomenal growth, Mr. Appasamy and other Indians shrug off suggestions that their country will overtake the U.S. in innovation any time soon. After all, India is a country with a 62 percent adult literacy rate where well over half of the population lives on $2 a day or less.

Yet, some say, American competitiveness remains at stake.

“By 2010, more than 90 percent of all scientists and engineers in the world will be living in Asia,” Joann P. DiGennaro, president of the Center for Excellence in Education, told government and academic officials at a recent Capitol Hill luncheon.

A McLean nonprofit that promotes math and science education, the center has joined a chorus of Americans who are concerned about a growing engineering gap — by some accounts 350,000 engineering graduates from India in 2004 compared with 70,000 in the U.S.

Activists also say graduates of top Indian engineering schools are showing educational parity with their American counterparts and threatening U.S. status as the hub of innovation.

With an admissions rate of less than 2 percent, the country’s flagship Indian Institutes of Technology is regarded by many as India’s version of Stanford University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Across seven campuses, the cream of the crop are focused on innovation.

Engineering professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala said “India was by and large very dormant” in the decades before the much-hyped year-2000 computer crisis put the country’s outsourcing industry on the map.

“The next phase is now.”

‘Best people in one place’

The dusty, tree-lined road at the Madras campus of the Indian Institutes of Technology looks more like the entrance to a wildlife preserve than a renowned center of higher learning. Deer mill about, unfazed by the buzz of mopeds around them. Pint-sized monkeys loiter in the bushes.

The campus is a green paradise nestled within Madras, the capital of the southern province of Tamil Nadu. Its sprawling 620 acres offer a peaceful respite from the crowded streets and horns blaring outside its gates.

Built in 1959, Madras was the third IIT campus, established to help meet demand for engineers after independence from Britain in 1947.

Last year, about 300,000 students took the rigorous all-day entrance exam for a spot at one of seven IIT campuses. Fewer than 4,100 were admitted.

“You’re not doing a selection exam; you’re doing an elimination exam,” said IIT-Madras Director M.S. Ananth.

The institution’s lofty purpose seems to clash with the aged hallways of its electrical engineering building. Professors’ offices need paint jobs, but this is apparent to only a foreigner. Here, function trumps aesthetics.

“The idea was once you put the best people in one place, they’re supposed to come up with the solutions to all the nation’s problems,” said Mr. Jhunjhunwala, a straightforward man whose confidence in Indian innovation resembles that of the most ambitious American entrepreneur.

That notion is part of the reason he established the Telecommunications and Computer Networks Group, known as TeNeT, to focus on research and development.

“Is it possible to use the Internet to provide education, health care and livelihood opportunities? We are showing that innovation is possible,” said the professor, who joined the electrical engineering faculty in 1981.

The group, started in 1994, comprises 14 computer science and electrical engineering professors as well as a staff of about 200 full-time researchers, engineers and students. Their mission: “To address pressing needs of India and other developing countries by market-driven product development,” as well as to strengthen the industry and government technology policy.

For a while, the goal was to achieve 100 million phone and Internet connections across India — only 8 million phone lines and a negligible number of Internet connections were available when the group formed. With this accomplished, the new objective is to enable 200 million phones and 50 million broadband connections.

TeNeT has sponsored several incubator companies, such as Midas Communication Technologies, a telecommunications firm that now employs 600 people in more than 25 countries.

“Innovation,” said Mr. Jhunjhunwala, “takes place when three sets of people get together: faculty, an experienced industry person and a student who does not know that it cannot be done.”

One country, two dreams

The outside of the electrical engineering building is marked by the boxy design and faded walls of a 1950s-era structure. Visitors to a basement TeNeT lab must remove their shoes.

“We all know how dusty Indian roads are,” said Raj Varadarajan, a research consultant who helps oversee the lab’s incubator companies.

Mr. Varadarajan, a mechanical engineer with a degree from IIT Madras and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of California at Berkeley, asked students to show off several of the lab’s current projects, which vary from a biometric automated teller machine (ATM) to routers that make calling cheaper.

Behind him, two pieces of paper taped to the wall provide an insight into the lab’s ambitions. One reads: “Dream: Building a few billion-dollar telecom product companies in India.” The other reads: “Dream: Doubling per-capita rural GDP of India.” Right now, that number stands at about $200 a year, according to statistics cited by Mr. Jhunjhunwala.

The messages are more than reminders; they are indicative of the country’s unique position. Although their boardrooms and shopping malls seem interchangeable with those in the West, Indians are still grappling with poverty and rural isolation on a grand scale: Of about 1.1 billion people, 700 million live in villages.

As the country’s technology sector grows exponentially, villages are “being totally left behind,” Mr. Jhunjhunwala said. Thus, TeNeT is pursuing two goals: fostering billion-dollar telecom companies and doubling rural gross domestic product.

Mr. Varadarajan pointed to a scale model of a 12-acre research park slated to open in the fall. The facility hopefully will encourage technology business to locate in Madras and partner with the school.

Minutes later, he showed off a virtual medicine technology, called ReMeDi, that can provide villagers with health triage services for about $250. For $50 more, a village can buy a computerized weather-monitoring system that would enable insurance companies to provide crop insurance. Priced at $100, video-conferencing software can link teachers with students for a language-learning program.

“Unless you educate, how will you know what is going on? That is what we are trying to do,” he said about the lab’s efforts to help rural communities.

Education by the numbers

At 62 percent, India’s adult literacy rate is a reminder of the country’s status as a developing nation.

School enrollment statistics likewise paint a mixed picture. Thirty-six percent of Indian children, compared with 62 percent in the United States, are enrolled in preschool, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The gap narrows dramatically when it comes to elementary school: 87 percent of girls and 92 percent of boys in India are enrolled compared with 90 percent of girls and 94 percent of boys in the United States.

UNESCO statistics for secondary education are not available because the country did not provide the U.N. agency with complete data, a UNESCO spokeswoman said. But according to India’s Department of School Education and Literacy, about 43 percent of boys and 34 percent of girls were enrolled in secondary school in 2003.

As for higher education, India’s 12 percent is dwarfed by 82 percent in the United States.

“Pockets still exist in many remote parts of the country where the nearest secondary school or college is much too far for everyone to be able to attend. Besides the physical availability of institutions, other barriers to access — e.g. socio-economic, linguisticacademic, physical barriers for the disabled, etc. — also need to be removed,” concludes a report by India’s Department of Higher Education.

Despite the ongoing challenges, the country recognizes the importance of science and technology, Ms. DiGennaro said, imbuing interest in technical education through both official rhetoric and national policy.

India’s president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, is a physicist who extols technology as the country’s comparative advantage. His book, “India 2020,” lays out a plan for the nation to eradicate poverty and become a leading economic power.

An engineering gap?

The engineering gap between the United States and India, as widely reported, is extreme, but a group of Duke University researchers said it isn’t accurate.

The frequently cited numbers — that the United States graduated 70,000 engineers in 2004 compared with 350,000 in India — fail to take into account differences in programs, such as length of degree or topics of study, as well as competing definitions of the term “engineer,” said Vivek Wadhwa, an adjunct professor and executive in residence. Moreover, he said, government statistics always should be verified.

The Duke team’s research, based on visits to Indian and American schools as well as interviews with graduates and employers, appears to have debunked popular characterizations of an engineering gap.

The findings: In 2004, India awarded about 215,000 three- and four-year degrees in engineering, computer science and information technology. The United States was slightly ahead with 222,335.

“This shows that when compared on a level playing field, the U.S. is producing a very significant number of engineers, [computer science and information technology] specialists. … [The size of] India is approximately three times as large,” the Duke report concludes.

As for the IITs, Mr. Wadhwa said, too few of them are operating to make the significant impact for which they often get credit. He compiled research showing that only 17 percent of Indian companies were founded by IIT graduates.

“It’s simply the fact that these people are motivated,” he said.

This special motivation — which Mr. Appasamy described as a “fear of deprivation” — might be novel in the United States, but in India, it’s embedded in the culture.

“Basically you have extreme hunger on the one side and extreme pleasure on the other side,” Mr. Wadhwa said about India, whose middle class is far from developed. “The only option to success is complete failure, and failure is very costly there.”

Indians paint a picture of a place where children pursue education as a way to ensure success and move up in society. For Sridhar Ramachandran, an abundance of science-focused relatives motivated him to pursue an electrical engineering degree, which he earned in 1987 from IIT-Madras.

“It was kind of a given because my older brother was an engineer,” said Mr. Ramachandran, who also has a cousin who was an engineer. “It seemed like there was nothing else.”

Mr. Ramachandran is now chief technology officer at NexTone Communications, a Gaithersburg company he co-founded nine years ago after earning his master’s degree in computer science from the University of Cincinnati.

During the first wave of outsourcing, U.S. companies migrated overseas to save on labor costs required for basic processes. The second phase, when research starts being outsourced, is what will challenge U.S. innovation, Mr. Wadhwa said.

“We’ve lost the telecom industry; we’re at risk of losing the semiconductor industry,” he said. “If they figure out how to do research and design,” then the United States could lose that industry, too.

‘Create an early excitement’

If it’s true that the United States lacks the hard-wired fear of failure that gives Indians an extra incentive to succeed, then how will it stay on top?

“People educated in science have responsibility to be good communicators,” said Alan Merten, president of George Mason University. “I don’t think we in higher education do a good job of educating at the national level and those of us in public institutions don’t do a good job of educating at the state level.”

The United States needs to stress the connection between scientific progress and quality of life, said Mr. Merten, who has a doctorate in computer science. The key is to “create an early excitement in the sciences so they won’t get turned off when it gets hard.”

Just as important is making the case to those who aren’t interested in pursuing math or science careers, said William Wulf, outgoing president of the National Academy of Engineering.

“It’s not good enough just to have the technical work force. You have to have a general population that will support the kinds of policies, the kinds of funding that will support innovation,” he said. To that end, Mr. Wulf, who steps down from his post at the end of the month, plans to create an engineering course for liberal arts majors at the University of Virginia, where he is on leave from teaching.

One strategy for keeping innovation in the United States that has proved successful is the country’s graduate education system.

Thousands of people like Mr. Ramachandran migrate to the United States every year to pursue graduate degrees. (Mr. Ananth, the director of IIT-Madras, earned his doctorate at the University of Florida, for example.) Like Mr. Ramachandran, many wind up staying.

Wherever they end up, Indian graduates are doing their homeland a service, Mr. Jhunjhunwala said. At home, their innovations raise living standards. Abroad, they earn the respect of the world.

“As Indian companies start to do well, India starts to be respected,” he said. “It’s not just about wealth. We believe in India.”

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