Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Starting Up India: Why No One Talks Education?

Start-ups are fashionable. They conjure up the image of brilliant teenage founders creating billion dollar businesses from scratch, magically finding the confluence of perfect technologies and hidden desires. The inconvenient fact that they mostly fail is also wrapped in a heroic feeling - fail, fail again and fail better is the battle cry - and its toxic consequences on the people's lives are overlooked as the investor cash goes on chasing the next big thing.

This narrative is already familiar, being everywhere on the media, books and all those seminars promising to change lives. But, the fashion now invaded politics, with Start-up Policy gurus appearing on Government roasters, Start-up courses being listed on university catalogues and Start-up programmes being promoted as the latest governmental idea to promote its beleagured middle classes. The conversation usually focuses on tax breaks and lots of expensive real estate in the form of innovation zones, and everyone expects magic once the Government programmes are rolled out.

One interesting reaction to such start-up talk came recently from Mike Cannon-Brookes, the Founder of Atlassian and one of Australia's most prominent entrepreneurs. He felt like throwing his phone at the TV, he said, and tweeted if anyone stopped from starting a great company because they have to pay taxes (the full story here is indeed worth reading). And, his big question was - why does no one talk about education when talking about start-ups?

Why, indeed?

Think for a moment the 'Start-Up India' programme, the much-touted transformational announcements made by the new Indian government a few months ago. This is seen as the Government's crowning policy, supplementing as it were its focus on manufacturing, or 'Make In India', that would help create enough economic opportunities for 70,000 Indians turning 25 every day! The announcements were media-savvy, full of catchy phrases and serious-sounding promises, with the commitment to ease regulations (much needed), offering tax holidays to start-ups and to promote enterprise in certain areas. But, at the same time, the Indian government embarked on a systematic programme to make Public Universities fall in line, from influencing key appointments, censoring what is being spoken in campus, trying to dictate what is taught and whipping up a conversation that unfavourably compares the 'subsidised' students and researchers at universities with the Military personnel working under harsh conditions and great personal danger. Taken together, the government simultaneously is giving out two messages: That India's future hinges on start-ups and one must not spend time educating oneself but rather sign up to fight the enemy! It does seem paradoxical, but there is a common theme - both sound good on TV! 

And, that is indeed the point. The governments talk start-ups because they sound cool, at a time when when politicians are desperate to sound cool and can not find anything in their toolkit which does. Start-ups, otherwise, are big convenience for governments. Think of a country like India, where most businesses are controlled by conglomerates, a handful of business families with cosy links to politicians and banks, who tend to control everything - from food to aviation! Start-ups are supposed to bring disruption, challenge the dominance and turn markets upside down. No one, in politics, finance or otherwise, should seriously want such disruption. If they did, they would have talked education. No, the idea of start-ups in India is indeed an easier route to business for the scions of these business families, a way to turn their black money legitimate, rather than any inconvenient disruption.

Politicians perhaps do not notice that India is already full of entrepreneurs, all those people making-do as they can not find jobs, selling knick-knacks, driving taxis, working as tour guides and all that, and though this may not be sexy, they are all micro-businesses and often money-making ones. These people did not wait for the Government to come up with cool schemes and tax breaks to start their businesses. Therefore, this Start-up India thing is not the next big mantra, unless we are talking about creating start-ups that are digital, global and innovative. And, that indeed does not happen without an world-class education system.




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