Why do Indians who migrated to the US excel whereas India continues to lag in Innovation?

Every time we hear reports over how Indians are taking over Silicon Valley appear in the press, there is a paroxysm of celebratory and chest thumping coverage in the media. Right from laudatory messages to straight out fawning, we just cannot seem to shake off the highs and the kicks about our compatriots in the US scaling greater heights. Whether is Satya Nadella of Microsoft or Sundar Pitchai of Google, or the latest addition to the ranks of successful Indian immigrants, Parag Agrawal, who was named as CEO of Twitter, there are many instances of Indians who upon graduation (invariably they are from one of our IITs) migrate to the US and then lead lives of accomplishment and fulfillment.

What is it that the US has as part of the ecosystem that nurtures excellence in all spheres and what is it that India lacks as far as the innovation and productivity of our achievers are concerned. While it is common for upper caste and high class achievers to point at the absence of a culture of meritocracy and excellence, hinting at the reservation system that places the advancement of historically marginalized communities as the goal of social justice, it is my firm belief that there are more reasons and aspects as to why Indians in the US tend to excel, whereas India continues to lag the innovation curve. Indeed, there are deeper systemic, cultural, economic, political, and infrastructural factors at play that hold back India with its abundant human resources, from attaining its full potential.

A simple factors such as the woeful urban infrastructure can be thought of as a very critical reason why India lags the US, whereas Indians there continue to succeed. If you spend an hour or two in commute in grinding traffic and then wind your way through the maze to reach work in one piece somehow, thanking your Guardian Angels that you made it to the office, then how can you focus on work and be at your most productive or innovative? None other than one of the icons of Indian IT, NR Narayana Murthy, flagged this aspect many decades ago as one of the reasons why we have low productivity and innovation in India. Indeed, if commute saps your energy, what is left to devote to work and value adding activities?

Perhaps the best metaphor to use here is to contrast the situation outside and inside workplaces. Whereas the former resembles a scene straight out of a dystopian novel, the glitzy workplaces by contrast, resemble those in the developed West. This is the duality at play here that simply cannot be erased by providing dedicated cabs or decking up the offices with fun corners and break out spaces. It is high time we insisted and fight with our governments to improve the infrastructure without which no country can grow and prosper. Moreover, the cacophony of our urban lives cannot be silenced by the sepulchral settings of our workplaces.

Next, there are cultural reasons why Indians in the US tend to do well whereas India continues to languish. I worked abroad for a couple of years and I was very conscious of little things like not littering in public and following all norms and rules of community living. However, once I returned home, I was back to doing all the things that those in the West usually refrain from in public. There is something deeply ingrained in our cultural mores and our psyches that prevents us from achieving superpower status and hence, this is something to mull over as well. Perhaps it is high time we introspected as to what is holding us back and if there are other cultural aspects at play here.

Turning to the great bugbear of the Indian upper caste elite, reservations, there is often a ready made scapegoat for many of the above who migrate abroad as to why they tend to flourish there and why India continues to lag behind. However, the US too has affirmative action though most firms are equal opportunity employers. Moreover, the Indian reservation system has been around since Independence and most of the IITs and the NITs as well as the IIMs were setup then and with quotas, which means that this is not the sole reason for our continued under performance. In other words, most of the Indians who reach the pinnacle in the US are from these institutes and when they can graduate with distinction here, why can’t those who remain continue to flourish and take the country forward?

The point here is that the US offers an ecosystem that nurtures excellence and does not drag the achievers down to the Lowest Common Denominator. If India has to thrive, we Indians must focus on the entire gamut of factors that make up the ecosystem of excellence and build an environment that nurtures and enables success. Whether it is the bureaucracy or the sapping of merit, or corruption that holds us back, it is time for our political and business elites to work on how we can make it here in India. As the numbers of homegrown Unicorns indicates, we are as capable as those who left our shores for greener pastures abroad to innovate and excel and all it takes is to build a culture that encourages success and celebrates achievement.

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