With its trained IT staff in demand around the world, India must reinvest in education if it is to become a high-tech superpower in its own right, says Paran Balakrishnan
The Indian government has an ambitious plan to turn India into a high-tech superpower. It wants to hook up one million Internet kiosks by 2005. And that's only an interim step: by 2008 it wants 100 million Net connections throughout the country - a bold vision when you consider that there are currently only one million homes in India linked to the Internet.
But can the government turn this far-sighted strategy into reality? India's dream of becoming a software superpower rests with its army of programmers and technicians, many of whom have fanned out across the world - and in some cases even conquered Silicon Valley.
But the supply of programmers could be starting to run dry, and that's where the government is stepping in. It is teaming up with the private sector to set up new training colleges and add computer departments to existing colleges. Says PV Jayakrishnan, former chief of the Ministry of Information Technology, which is spearheading the government initiative: "Unless the government acts as a facilitator to ensure the reach of information technology it will not be possible for industry to grow at a faster pace."
Is there a real fear that India will run short of software programmers? Certainly there are demands from around the world for trained personnel to man the workstations. Look, for instance, at what happened when the British government relaxed its immigration regulations for software programmers. In the last year, 18,257 computer professionals have entered Britain. Of these, 11,474 are from India. By comparison only 132 are from Pakistan.
India is currently reaping the dividends of the big investment in education made in the mid-1950s. The country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, vowed to shake off the shackles of colonialism and was determined to turn out large numbers of engineers who could push ahead with development. To that end, he ordered the setting up of the five Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) in Madras, Delhi, Mumbai, Kharagpur and Kanpur. By the end of the 1960s, the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Ahmedabad was turning out top-quality graduates.