NR Narayana Murthy | Photo: AP
N Narayana Murthy's exclusive interview to Mathrubhumi
You were born one year before India got independence. How do you look at the progress made in the 75 years of independent India's journey?
There are three measures of our progress. The first measure is the absolute measure and is based on time series. This measure looks at where we were at the time of Indian independence and where we are today on various development parameters. The second measure compares our progress in these 75 years with the progress of other nations similar to us. This is called relative measure. The third measure looks at whether we have maintained value for money, efficiency, quality, productivity, speed, and excellence in what we do to scale up our development. This measure is called the scalability measure.
Let me first talk about the absolute measure. There is no doubt at all that we have made tremendous progress using this measure in parameters like basic education, healthcare, reducing stark poverty, building dams, bridges, sending rockets into space, communication, our foreign exchange reserves, and many other areas. We have done well in cricket, badminton and a few other sports. Our software industry has created a reasonable number of jobs by competing in the global market. There are many items that we manufacture in India itself. Our exports have increased multifold. Stark poverty has dipped to a low figure. Lots of colleges and hospitals have been built. The Indian education system has become one of the largest in the world in producing engineers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals. India is now part of the G20 group of nations. We have women leaders in almost all fields. Modi’s government has been trying very hard to achieve good growth in national development in India.
Now, let me come to the second measure – the relative measure. By this measure, our progress is not as impressive as that of nations similar to us like China, Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia and a few other nations. Most global reports focus on the relative progress of countries. We were ranked 101st out of 116 countries in 2021 in global hunger index. We were ranked 66th out of 195 nations in 2021 in the global health security index. We were the 72nd among 74 nations in 2009 in Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranking of primary education before Dr Manmohan Singh’s government gave up participating in the PISA index. India was ranked 131st among 189 nations in 2021 in human development index. Not one Indian higher educational institution is among the top 150 higher educational institutions in the World University Ranking 2023. Nations with a very small population like the Czech Republic, South Korea, and Taiwan have progressed far beyond us in manufacturing high-quality cars and powerful chips. Our work productivity in building infrastructures like roads, metro and high-speed railway systems is low compared to nations like China, Thailand, Singapore, and Brazil.
On the scalability measure or the third measure, our progress is far from satisfactory. The newspapers and TV report many corruption instances among businessmen, bureaucrats and politicians, particularly at the state level. It is fair to say that Modi’s government is probably the first government in the last 75 years to have actively fought hard to reduce corruption. Due to an understandable and justifiable reason for social upliftment, we have been lax on meritocracy in our politics, bureaucracy and public office appointments. Internationally recognized experts from the developed world tell me that lack of meritocracy generally leads to lower standards of performance and that it results in shoddy and poor quality public work infrastructure all over the world. They show me data to prove that India is no exception. Corruption has become the norm in most public works contracts as alleged by contractors in some Indian states. Potholes appear within a few years of road construction. Bridges and dams develop cracks early. Our justice system is one of the slowest in the world. A report by a global business school has said that an average government school in a certain Indian state has only 33% of attendance by teachers.
Summing up, we can say we have made good progress if we consider the number of people who have benefitted. The urban middle-class population has benefitted significantly in these seventy-five years. The rural poor people have not benefitted as much as they would like. Development experts tell me that there is a lot of work that we need to do to catch up with other nations in reducing corruption, in improving the competence of our public servants and politicians, and in achieving international standards of transparency, speed, quality, work productivity, and efficiency. I am happy that PM Modi and his government are working hard to reduce corruption and accelerate development.
India's freedom struggle was based on great ethical values. You are a person who gives great importance to values in life. Do you feel any erosion in the value of system of our society, post-independence?
You are probably right in your observation. The first central cabinet of Jawaharlal Nehru after independence consisted of people with proven merit and enduring values. They knew the value of freedom for India since they had made a huge sacrifice to earn it. So, they tried their best to preserve it by practising good values. Successive governments after Nehru slowly started giving up on merit, competence and values. Caste and the ability to buy votes of the MLAs have become an important criterion for public offices in many states. My retired friends from the IAS tell me that jobs in the middle and lower levels of bureaucracy in some states are often filled based on corruption.
What do you see as the most important problem that independent India has yet to solve?
There are two major problems that we must solve with alacrity. We seem to have slowed down on family planning ever since Sanjay Gandhi’s rough and insensitive methods of sterilization during emergency in the middle seventies. The country will soon overtake China in population. Many economic experts tell me that our land mass and our resources cannot sustain this huge population if we want to become a middle-income country like East Asian countries.
Second, Modi’s government has taken up sustainability and alternate energy initiatives with a sense of alacrity and determination. However, experts tell me that they do not see much proof for action at the ground level at the state level where the real action should be. I would recommend to every concerned Indian citizen to read Bill McGuire’s book – Hothouse Earth: An inhabitant’s Guide. This makes scary reading. According to climate experts, certain parts of India will become uninhabitable in the next 20 years due to unbearably high temperatures. People will start abandoning those places and rush to more liveable places in India. This will put enormous stress on food, water, housing, education and healthcare in these liveable parts of the country. This issue has not been discussed publicly and a solution has not been designed.
You have said in a lecture that economic progress, stability, peace and harmony are essential for the prosperity of a society or a country. How much have these been integrated in today's India? Do you feel there is a lot more to be done for inclusive development?
We have made reasonable economic progress since the economic reforms of 1991. Thanks to technology, we are on a good path to progress in financial inclusion. However, financial inclusion has no value without jobs that provide adequate disposable income for the poor. True inclusion will only come if we can also provide the same level of public services in education, healthcare, shelter, nutrition, and opportunity for betterment for the poorest child in the remotest village in India as is available for urban middle class children. The Prime Minister is working hard for such an inclusive development. But, the absolute number of the poor and malnourished population is increasing day by day.
Let me come to your comments about stability, peace and harmony in our society. Striving to achieve President Roosevelt’s four freedoms – freedom of speech; freedom of faith; freedom from fear; and freedom from want - will help us foster stability, peace and harmony in our society and accelerate economic prosperity for us.
Infosys was founded by 7 friends in a 10x10 feet room in your apartment in Bombay. Do you think such dreams and hard work can succeed in today's India?
Infosys was founded by six junior colleagues of mine and me as an experiment to prove my thesis that the only way to solve the problem of poverty in a poor country like India was to use entrepreneurship to create a large number of jobs with good disposable income. There are many smart and young entrepreneurs who are working hard to create even bigger and better companies than Infosys. I am positive that they will succeed if their ideas are powered by intellect and their teams are driven by values. One thing that concerns me is that despite having so many unicorns and so many companies that have reached high market capitalization, I do not see any of these post-reforms companies, start-ups, and unicorns sharing wealth with employees like Infosys did. Compassionate capitalism is the only durable and viable philosophy that will succeed in a poor country like India. Mahatma Gandhi taught us the importance of leadership by example in austerity, honesty, generosity and other good values. Our entrepreneurs should remember it and practise` it. Our nouveau riche must remember that it is in bad taste and is not much fun to live luxuriously amidst abject poverty, ill health, deprivation, shanties, and suffering. These nouveau riche must aim to alleviate the conditions around them in every way they can.
Is the start-up boom sustainable in the long run? Can it create more employment and opportunities and allow India to take advantage of its economic dividend?
India’s per-capita GDP is still around US$ 1900 and our population is huge. There are a lot of unmet needs in our country. But we have large unemployment. The disposable income from the domestic industry alone will not be sufficient to create demand in the country. Becoming export-oriented in low-tech goods is the best solution for India. We must look at how China became the factory of the world. She did due to her export orientation, openness to foreign investment, quick decisions by the bureaucracy, creating a welcoming and hospitable environment for executives from the developed world, hard work, national pride, discipline, and unbelievable work productivity. We can embrace those attributes and take a lead over countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand.
It is a good idea for the government to conduct an experiment of completely giving up control over start-ups for the next 25 years and see how these start-ups grow and create jobs. Many wise friends of mine tell me in a light vein that the two industries – software and beauty – grow rapidly because they escaped the attention of the government in their growing-up years.
Many fear that India’s booming population is a double-edged sword and if the youth is not equipped with skill sets and education, the demographic dividend may turn into a demographic nightmare. What can we do to equip our youth sufficiently to face the future?
I have already spoken about our increasing population and ill-prepared youth as two debilitating forces working against our betterment. Let us remember that demographic dividend will only result if we provide good nutrition, healthcare, and education to our children. That is why I am an ardent admirer of Akshaya Patra. Experts in economic development tell me that an accelerated solution to our myriad serious problems requires putting the best people in every job without bringing religion, region, caste, nepotism, and corruption. They also tell me that they do not know of any nation that has solved its critical problems without embracing a culture of high aspiration, meritocracy, honesty, transparency, good work ethic, hard work, high work productivity, focus on excellence, speed of decision making, and discipline.
Freedom is said to bring not only rights but also duties and responsibilities. How much have our youth and political leaders understood this?
Let us remember that responsibility and duty form the price of freedom in any civilised society. Freedom gives us our rights. Let us also remember the words of Late President Abdul Kalam who once said, “When the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, Athens ceased to be free".
What I see on my TV and what I read in my newspapers every day do not give me confidence that we, Indians, have understood that duties and responsibilities come before rights. The only way you can make Bharat mahaan is through performance and conducting oneself as a model citizen in every one of our actions. I have always believed that performance leads to recognition; recognition leads to respect; and respect leads to power. If India has to become a prosperous and economically powerful nation in the global arena, then every one of us has to have high aspiration, put the interest of India ahead of our personal interest, be honest, work hard and be disciplined. We have to increase our exports and create good jobs for our people. Exports are necessary since the domestic market alone cannot create such a large number of jobs year after year. Tome after tome of development economics tell me how a country can succeed in exports. These valuable books tell me that we have to create a differentiated value proposition to our customers vis-à-vis the global best. We have to embrace meritocracy. We have to work hard and improve work productivity. We have to become innovative. We have to demonstrate speed and excellence in everything we do. We have to put the interest of society ahead of our personal interest. There is no other shortcut to globally enviable economic performance.
What can we do to bring back the values cherished during our Independence movement?
I am a great believer in Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of leadership by example. This is the only medicine we have for our malady. The Indian leaders in every sphere – business, politics, bureaucracy, judiciary, academia, civil society, military and other areas have to lead by example in courage, honesty, transparency, fairness, meritocracy, excellence, hard work, sacrifice, austerity, discipline and other attributes that give confidence to the common man that they are trustworthy. This is what the Indian leaders who fought for our independence did. My fondest desire is to see this cultural transformation among our leaders in every sphere in India in my lifetime.
What is the India of your dreams? How do you visualise India in the next 75 years? In what way should the country move forward?
Where India will be in the next 75 years will depend on what inputs we give to achieve our objectives. What you sow is what you reap, as the Bible says. I have already spoken much about what inputs are needed if India wants to achieve laudable and enviable global economic performance and social justice.
What do I wish for India? I want an India where the poorest child in the remotest village has decent access to nutrition, healthcare, education, and shelter. I want an India where that poor child has confidence that its progeny will have the opportunity to lead a better quality of life than it does. I want an India which will be respected by the comity of nations for her economic performance, social justice, harmony, respect for pluralism of faiths and beliefs, tolerance, dignity, fairness, grace, humility, and honesty. I want an India whose passport will be welcome without visas by every other nation. I want an India where foreigners will come to study advanced subjects. I want an India where tourists will pine to visit.