The average Indian teenager of my time would have sold his grandmother (with her enthusiastic consent) for a place in the fabled Indian Institute of Technology or even a medical school – and then, more often than not, left for some worthy but intellectually undemanding job in the West. Make up your own list of Indians who have had a global impact and there will be few scientists on it. Indian artists, writers and social scientists have achieved vastly more, and for a fraction of the state investment that has gone into science and technology. Has Indian science ever produced a Ravi Shankar or, for that matter, a Raj Kapoor?
The situation, I had imagined, must have changed over the last couple of decades, but Angela Saini's revealing book suggests the contrary. A British science journalist of Indian parentage – her father, inevitably, is a scientist who left India for Britain – Saini has produced an eye-opening survey of scientists in today's India. It shows in meticulous detail that, pockets of excellence notwithstanding, the overall state of Indian science and technology continues to be dispiriting.
Visiting the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, she is horrified to discover that a student was "coached for three hours a day, as well as the nine hours a day he would study anyway" to get into the place. To what purpose? "Burnt out before they even arrive, hardly any IIT students stay on to do research or further degrees. Only a tiny proportion of them are interested in careers in a laboratory." The world, despite the swaggering subtitle, is not in any danger of being taken over by such swots.
As far as information technology is concerned, Saini is slightly more optimistic. It is disconcerting to hear, though, that the rise of the Indian software industry began in the late 1990s, when the threat of the Y2K bug could be removed only by programmers familiar with COBOL: a programming language long out of vogue in the West. Characteristically, India was still swarming with programmers who used nothing else. Indian businesses exploited this advantage with alacrity and created a booming industry.
What, however, of creativity? Saini is not very hopeful. India's information technology industry has become "a black hole for dronelike programmers, absorbing thousands of graduates who might otherwise have become laboratory researchers or inventors... Europe, the US and Japan remain light years ahead of India." It is, in fact, low-tech but imaginative innovations, such as the "Spoken Web" linking rural people with mobile phones, that India might excel in, but such initiatives are still in their infancy.
The life sciences seem to be doing rather better. The efforts of Indian medical scientists to develop new medicines for tuberculosis – a task Western pharmaceutical companies are not interested in – seem genuinely innovative, if only because of the extraordinary ways in which they are using the internet to share and combine data.
Even those who do not approve of genetically modified foods would be impressed by Indian attempts to develop hardier varieties of fruits and crops. But the "mind-reading machine", increasingly used in police investigations and approved by courts, is another matter. That a nation justly proud of its liberal traditions can rely on such a hoky device to decide the fate of its citizens is profoundly disturbing.
Engagingly written and remarkably objective, Geek Nation shatters many myths while not discouraging guarded optimism. What the book does not deal with, however, are the historical, sociological and economic reasons for the dreadful state of Indian science and technology. The British-established universities in India did not produce scientific innovators but the clerks needed by the colonial economy; and the Nehru regime, for all its respect for science, never reformed those institutions. Even more importantly, could scientific creativity ever flourish in the Soviet-style state socialism of India until the 1990s? First-rate though it is as reportage, Geek Nation would have been a richer work had it pondered such complex questions.
Chandak Sengoopta teaches history at Birkbeck College, London