Despite a global economic downturn that has rippled across India, the country remains one of the world’s fastest growing economies, second only to China. India is also the planet’s second most populous nation, expected to overtake China by 2030.
In the first ever MIT-India Conference, held Friday, Sept. 23, at the MIT Media Lab, speakers from both MIT and India explored the challenges associated with India’s rapid expansion, including energy distribution, rural access to health care, and efforts to curb governmental corruption. One theme was prevalent throughout: India’s many hurdles also provide unprecedented opportunity for innovation.
N.R. Narayana Murthy, the conference’s keynote speaker and founder and chairman emeritus of Infosys Limited, said the time is right for those who choose to work in India.
“They can be part of an era where there’s so much confidence, there is so much hope, there is so much ambition,” Murthy said. “And there is so much that needs to be done.”
The conference featured entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, finance experts and government officials from India, as well as MIT faculty working on India-related projects. The one-day event sought to strengthen the relationship between MIT and India, which MIT Chancellor Eric L. Grimson characterized at the event as a “century-long friendship.”
In his opening remarks, Grimson noted that the friendship began in 1906 when Ishwar Das Varshnei became the first Indian to graduate from MIT. In 2010, his great-great-grandsons, twins Kush and Lav, followed in his footsteps, earning PhDs in electrical engineering and computer science. Today, more than 270 students of Indian descent attend MIT; Grimson cited the Institute’s many India-related projects — fifteen of which were featured in a Technology Showcase during the conference — as a strong bridge between the Institute and India.
“If MIT wants to stay on the forefront of technology, it has to maintain ties with India,” Grimson said.
The conference got underway with a panel discussion on energy and the environment. Panelists noted that as India’s population continues to expand, so too will its energy demands.
E.A.S. Sarma, former secretary of economic affairs in India, cautioned that the country “can’t go in a wanton manner for megawatts.” Sarma, now a social activist working to protect rural communities from pollution created by local powerplants, insists that communities should have a say when it comes to building new plants.
“If you bring people into discussions from the start, they may help develop benign processes,” Sarma said.
However, Robert Stoner, associate director of the MIT Energy Initiative, pointed out that above and beyond meeting the energy needs of India’s projected population growth, nearly 400 million current citizens already lack access to electricity.
While panelists discussed the potential contributions of solar, natural gas and nuclear energy, the overall consensus was that it would take a combination of approaches to solve India’s energy problem. And in many cases, those solutions will have to be extremely affordable.
“There’s opportunity for low-cost innovation in lots of areas,” Stoner said.
Venkatesh Narayanamurti, former dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, pointed to Indians’ recent widespread adoption of clean-burning cookstoves as an example of affordable “reverse innovation.” The low-tech cookstoves have reduced the indoor air pollution associated with traditional biomass-fueled stoves.
Sanjay Bhatnagar, CEO of WaterHealth International, spoke of the unprecedented room for entrepreneurship in all facets of the Indian economy. He has built a decentralized system for water purification that provides affordable, accessible and clean water to some of the most remote areas of India. Bhatnagar urged budding entrepreneurs to think of scalable ideas, warning against “jugar,” an Indian term for a hasty, ill-conceived business venture.
Mohanjit Jolly, a venture capitalist and partner at DFJ India, agreed with Bhatnagar, saying the country needs “more curb-jumping innovation.” However, he added that innovations that truly make an impact in India face a significant hurdle: “How do you get to the masses, and also make a profit?”
Still, Jolly is optimistic about the future of business in India. “There’s a new crop of social investors,” he said. “We see a country being built, and blossoming.”
Pankaj Vaish, managing director and head of markets for Citi South Asia, echoed Jolly’s observations, noting a pervasive scene in India’s largest cities: billboards plastered not with pictures of Bollywood starlets, but with ads for stocks and other investments.
Health, but at what cost?
Panelists noted that much of India’s health care is provided on an out-of-pocket basis, with very little spent on preventive care. Kenneth Cahill, a principal at Deloitte Consulting, observed that India spends less than 1 percent of its gross domestic product on health care. While his firm is working with India’s government to improve funding for health care, Cahill says there’s ample room for the private sector to get involved in the industry. Ashwin Naik, CEO of Vaatsalya Healthcare, agreed that preventive care is often shortchanged, stressing that Indian hospitals should reach out to rural, poor communities to educate people about it.
Telemedicine may be one way to reach remote populations; Jonathan Jackson, CEO of Dimagi, is working with Indian communities to provide health care options for low-literacy individuals. One solution: an interactive voice response system that helps a patient manage his or her care. Jackson is currently testing the system and gauging demand for the technology, but says the effort has made him recognize a huge need to address literacy in the country.
Naik added that health care should start early, in primary schools, where students can first learn about preventive care, then go home and educate their families.
“It’s about behavior, and it’s about change,” Naik said. “And it has to start in the schools.”
Throughout the conference, speakers remarked on the current transformation underway in India, especially in governmental transparency. During a panel on governance, participants observed a new generation of citizens emerging in the country; Baijayant “Jay” Panda, a member of the Indian Parliament, remarked that the current generation grew up “never having to take a bribe for a new phone or a scooter. This generation has less tolerance for corruption.”
Panda cited the recent anti-corruption movement, led by activist Anna Hazare, as “what broke the camel’s back.” The movement has led to anti-corruption laws being passed in both houses of parliament.
Still, there is more to do to clean up the country’s long history of corruption, and Vini Mahajan, joint secretary to India’s prime minister, said the country needs to employ more judges, police and civil servants. “There is too much discretion, and too little reform,” Mahajan said.
Making a mark
Looking forward, the conference’s keynote speakers, Murthy and Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande, co-founder and chairman of Sycamore Networks Inc., addressed audience members, many of them MIT students, with ideas on how to make a mark in India’s complex, dynamic culture.
Deshpande counseled students against taking a “pre-packaged” view of India, urging them instead to go there for a year and “get the local flavor” before starting a venture. “Ideas change, and you need to be open to change,” he said.
Anand Dass, an MBA candidate at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a student organizer of the conference, added that he sees India as a promising destination for young entrepreneurs.
“There’s just pure excitement,” Dass says, “and the opportunity to do something — be it health care, finance, entrepreneurship — there’s massive opportunity.”