Infosys and Microsoft

By Gail Omvedt

INFOSYS SYMBOLISES the information technology (IT) economy in India. It seems to be surviving the current crisis with flying colours; it was voted the most admired company to mark the new millennium; and its CEO, Mr. Narayana Murthy, represents a new kind of corporate leadership, known for having a social conscience it is ``powered by intellect, driven by values, sharing wealth... Murthy's given a new meaning to management jargon,'' as an article in The Economic Times put it on January 3, 2000.

On this basis it seems appropriate to ask why Mr. Murthy should not also take leadership on a social level, to become a pioneer in developing Infosys as a company concerned with social justice, with increasing diversity among its employees so that they come to represent all groups in society and not simply minority upper- caste elite sections. Mr. Bill Gates is leading Microsoft in this way, so why not Infosys?

Though I have written on ``Reservation in the Corporate Sector'' (TheHindu, May 31 and June 1, 2001), I am avoiding the word ``reservation'' here. The word has negative connotations for many; it also symbolises the rigidity and lack of imagination in the way the question of social justice has been taken up in the public sector. ``Diversity'' and ``social justice'' express similar goals with more flexible means; the point is that the majority Bahujan-Dalit sections of Indian society and women should have representation at all levels of the corporate world in India, just as Blacks, other minorities and women should have them in the U.S.

First, though, it is necessary to deal with one point. It is, sadly, often felt by many of the elite that the reason upper castes dominate in high levels in the corporate world and especially in the ``new economy'' of IT is simply because they are more capable; and the reason that Dalits and OBCs do badly is simply that they are not capable of doing better. I bring up this delicate subject because it is necessary to confront openly the question of intelligence and capacity. In the U.S., it has been confronted much more openly, and often bitterly, than in India. Many biological and social scientists have argued that U.S. minorities - specifically Blacks or African Americans - have been behind in education and behind in employment because in fact they are inherently and biologically incapable of doing better. The people who have made this argument have lost the public debate and do not control policy; in any case the openness of the debate has proved useful.

Specifically, the most notorious recent presentation of the position that some ethnic groups (that is, Blacks or African Americans) are less intelligent than others (that is, Whites or Euro-Americans) provides us ammunition to refute its case. The book I am referring to is ``The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,'' which was published in 1994 and caused an uproar. The authors argued that performance in intelligence tests (IQ tests), which are administered to almost all Americans, is related to economic success, and that in turn IQ test scores reflect actual biological intelligence. There is no denying that some minorities, especially African Americans, score lower on IQ tests as a group than whites as a group; what the authors of the Bell Curve were saying was that these scores measured the ethnic distribution of actual, innate intellectual capacity.

If true, this is a devastating argument for racism (i.e. the belief that some ethnic groups are biologically different, more or less capable than others). But after all their statistical charts, the authors of ``The Bell Curve'' let slip one significant fact: in the past decades ``the national averages (of IQ scores) have in fact changed by amounts that are comparable to the fifteen or so IQ points separating whites and blacks in America'' (page 308). That is, average scores on IQ tests are rising over time! Obviously, genetic capacity does not change in 20 to 30 years. This means that IQ tests have been measuring something else besides (or along with) intellectual capacity. In fact, what IQ tests have measured is the ability to take IQ tests - an ability which varies with training, with nourishment and with education, along with inherited biological capacity.

The same argument holds for all the observable differences in educational performance and in job performance that we see among caste groups in India. It holds to an even greater degree, since in India the academic tests and job recruitment do not have even the degree of objectivity claimed by IQ tests in the U.S., and public education has failed more dismally in developing the capacity of the masses. In other words, Dalits and OBCs are far behind in fields like information technology not because they are less capable of the work, but because they are less ``capable'' of taking tests and passing interviews. They have not been given the opportunity. They are excluded at all levels. The high over- representation of upper castes in education and employment, especially at higher levels, shows this.

I will give one small example. The University of Pune has a computer training programme, one which has admitted 400 students a year over a period of six years. Had they filled the ``reservation'' quota, this would have meant that roughly six hundred ST and SC students would have gotten computer training. However, up to the present not a single SC-ST student has been admitted! As the Ambedkar Association of Pune University points out, this means that 600 Dalits and Adivasis have been excluded from the modern world of computer training, in one university alone.

This has significance for companies such as Infosys because the social processes resulting in the massive exclusion of Dalits and Bahujans (that is, the majority of the Indian population) from access to education and computer training mean a drastic narrowing of the recruitment base. The consequence for the companies can only be guessed at. But the consequences for the nation are easy to see. Statistically: in spite of all the hype, India is far behind in the spread of information technology, in the use of computers per capita, telephone lines per capita and so on. The latest statistics I have seen show an estimated 0.23 ``Internet Hosts'' per 10,000 people in India in January 2000 - this compares to 0.57 for China, 1.00 for Indonesia, 26.22 in Brazil, 40.88 in Mexico, 39.17 in South Africa, 0.73 in Egypt and 1,939.97 for the U.S. Similarly, in 1998 there were 2.7 personal computers per 1000 people in India, 8.9 in China, 8.2 in Indonesia, 30.1 in Brazil, 47.0 in Mexico, 47.4 in South Africa, 9.1 in Egypt and 458.6 in the U.S. (World Development Report, 2000-2001, Table 19). I have selected large developing countries to be ``comparable'' in influence with India. India and other countries in South Asia are only slightly ahead of the majority of African nations in the world of information technology. As I have pointed out before, this extremely low spread of computer use means that, in effect, India is ``competing'' in the world of information technology as if it were a country of fifty million or so, not of one billion.

Of course, it might be argued the use of cybercafes in developing countries makes these statistics slightly deceptive. However, this in turn results from poor infrastructure and the failure to spread PC use, and no true knowledge of computers can be gained from working only at cybercafes or on computers in classrooms. One has to learn such knowledge ``hands on''. It can be noted that India is even farther behind in Internet spread than in computer use as such; this is an additional sign of backwardness and can be related directly to the terrible infrastructure (electricity and telephone) as well as the limping way in which the VSNL has gone about spreading internet use.

But can Infosys really do anything about this dismal situation?

``IT IS not the responsibility of a single company to tackle the problems of a nation!'' This could be a seemingly appropriate response to the issues I have raised. However, many things in fact can be done. The possibilities - and the contrasting attitude of major public and private sector institutions in India and the U.S. to the issue of ``diversity/affirmative action/reservation'' - have been brought forward in a brilliant series of articles by the Dalit journalist, Mr. Chandra Bhan Prasad.

Mr. Prasad made a visit to the U.S. last year, and surveyed what major institutions in that country were doing about what is called in India ``reservation''. He brings forward some rather devastating comparisons. For instance, while in India there is reservation in the public sector, there have always been certain excluded areas - specifically, science and defence.

In regard to defence, especially, who dares raise the issue of how many Dalit (or OBC) Generals there are, whether the country is doing anything to train them, whether there is a significant difference in caste compositions between the ranks of men who die in places like Kargil and the officers who mastermind their campaigns? A person who raised such an issue would doubtlessly be called ``anti-national''. Similarly, I have never seen such demands even being publicly raised about having special programmes to see that Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Castes get entry into high level science establishments.

Mr. Prasad, however, has pointed out that NASA - the North American Space Agency - has a special department set up to scout for talent. NASA may not have quotas, but it (and military training schools such as West Point) have been doing all they can to find and develop talent from among the previously excluded minorities in the United States.

As a result, where once African Americans were excluded from the army, where they were not even allowed to fight in the Civil War that was supposedly fought to free them from slavery, today they have produced Generals such as Colin Powell, now the U.S. Secretary of State, third in rank from the Presidency, and a position of power as well as prestige.

Indeed, programmes of ``reservation'' or ``affirmative action'' (as it has been known in the U.S.) could perhaps be more correctly described as a form of ``talent hunt'' - pushing companies and institutions to go beyond their usual narrow recruitment base to hunt for talent that has so far not had a chance to be realised.

NASA, of course, is in the ``public sector''. What about the private, corporate sector in the U.S.? Mr. Prasad has looked at the field of education by comparing Harvard University with Delhi University. Harvard is of course a private university, named after an 18th century parson who was concerned enough for education that he donated his library to the founding of a college.

At Harvard, the percentage of ``Blacks/ethnics'' (i.e. all minorities) among all non-medical teaching staff increased from 12.20 per cent (of a total of 2016) in 1994 to 13.70 per cent (of 2062) in 1999; and from 28.3 per cent (of 566) to 33.9 per cent (of 651) among researchers. As this shows, their percentage is still behind their total proportion of the population (about 38 per cent now), but it is coming up; it is coming up quite strongly among ``researchers'' who are the scientists and faculty of tomorrow.

At the Harvard medical school ``Blacks/ethnics'' among teachers increased from 9.54 per cent in 1994 to 13.67 per cent in 1999, and from 30.31 per cent to 37.5 per cent among trainees. As Mr. Prasad points out, this is not equality (Blacks/ethnics constitute about 38 per cent of the population), but the situation is improving, and among the ``researchers'' and ``trainees'' - the scientists, professors and doctors of tomorrow - it is approaching equal representation. And most important, Harvard University, including its teachers and students, takes the effort of remedying social injustice very seriously.

Mr. Prasad compares this to the situation at Delhi University, where Dalits are 100 of 6,500 teachers, 1.53 per cent of the total! He notes the way the teachers took to the streets to oppose a directive to reserve all new vacancies for Dalits, with extravagant statements such as ``many will commit suicide now'' and ``there is no value for merit in India, we had all better migrate to foreign countries''.

Clearly, Harvard is way ahead of Delhi University in terms of intellectual contributions, yet the days when white Americans campaigned and rioted to oppose equality and integration in education are long past.

Along with the fields of education and science, Mr. Prasad has looked at the issue of competence and merit in the field of information technology - specifically, he investigated what Mr. Bill Gates is doing at Microsoft to increase the representation of Blacks and other minorities and to support their general advance in society.

Mr. Gates, I might add, has about the same position in American society as Mr. Narayana Murthy of Infosys has in India - he is a white Caucasian American, in other words, a ``Honky''. This in itself does not bother Mr. Prasad at all; in the best Indian tradition, he is concerned with action, not birth. And in regard to action, he tells us that under the leadership of Mr. Gates, Microsoft has openly admitted that ``groups of people who are viewed negatively'' (Blacks, other ethnics and women in the U.S. context) suffer from discrimination, and that ensuring their representation will enrich the performance and products of Microsoft and benefit the communities that Microsoft is involved in. This is why Microsoft is concerned with ``diversity''.

In other words, Microsoft gives a theoretical justification for ``affirmative action'' or something resembling reservation in the private sector. In order to carry out its responsibilities, Microsoft offers scholarships to Blacks and other ethnics, it organises professional training programmes, it makes special efforts to recruit them, it purchases materials from businesses owned by Blacks and other ethnic groups, and it involves itself in community programmes. Mr. Prasad then asks, rhetorically, what corporate houses in India do in this respect. Specifically we can ask, what is Infosys doing?

Dalit intellectuals like Mr. Prasad are not asking corporate houses like Infosys to set aside a fixed quota for Scheduled Caste-Scheduled Tribe or OBC employees. What they are asking is simply that executives like Mr. Narayana Murthy and others who have pioneered the IT sector should give some thought to the society, that they should take some action: admit that there is a problem regarding caste in India, use the imagination which has helped to build the company to contribute to the solution of this problem within their company and the society, generate ideas as to how this problem can be solved, and sincerely take steps to implement these.

I don't think that this is too much to ask.

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Referred by: Sashi Kanth
Published on: Sept 11, 2001
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