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
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
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
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
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.