A few years ago, I was privileged to sit in the back of a class on computer programming, being conducted in the Nanjing Road branch in Shanghai, of NIIT China – one of over a hundred such centres owned and operated by the Indian leader in computer education. The class was conducted in Chinese, by a Chinese tutor; every one of the 20 odd students in the class had a PC in front of him or her -- and going by the universal syntax and symbols, I could just make out that it was a class in C++ programming.
After the session, I mingled with the students and was pleasantly surprised to find that most of them had enough command of English to chat with me. That is how I heard that many of them were also attending, three days a week, the English language classes that NIIT was throwing in, as a sort of bonus. for its Chinese students. The ambition of most of the young people in the class, was to get a job with one of the international IT companies in China. They were determined to attain sufficient proficiency in English by the time they graduated – and having experienced something of the focus and fierce determination that young Chinese bring to whatever they do, I had no doubt that they would be snapped up by one or other of the global IT companies in their China operations.I am guessing some of them will definitely find a place in the new expanded facility that Infosys has opened last month, in Shanghai -- with ‘head room’ for some 8000 staff.
The lesson in this is the central role that command over the English language plays, across the IT industry… indeed it is generally accepted that India’s leadership in the outsourced services and skills arena is mainly due to the fact that English remains the de facto lingua franca of her higher ( particularly technical ) education system.But for how long – before narrow-minded regional chauvinists and drum beating jingoists in so many Indian states, fritter away the competitive advantage that young Indians now enjoy?
Let’s face it, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, may have been the wrong person to say it – but the Indian professional and engineering education system is largely second rate. Even our so-called elite institutions, the IITs, never seem to make it to any list of the world’s Top 100 educational institutions. We turn out, at best, huge numbers of just proficient engineers every year, who are just good enough to be moulded into shape by IT companies after they have committed another six months to a year, on costly retraining and orientation. These international companies do their work in English. Our young hopefuls are known to be eager to learn, easy to train -- and possess the basic technical and language skills.
Yet, hardly a week passes when some minister or politiciansomewhere, looking for short term electoral advantage, don’t launch another English-bashing exercise, masquerading as a move to protect the local language or culture. Bangalore became India’s IT capital on the strength of its huge resource of engineering graduates -- passing out from hundreds of private and a handful of public, institutions. The majority of them are from outside the state and English is the only language they know and need to now other than their mother tongues and of course, Hindi, the official language. Yet these bright young guests in India’s Silicon City are regularly told that they need to master the state language, Kannada if they want to study here. To make things as unwelcoming as possible for ‘outsiders’, the local civic bodies have transformed Bangalore – otherwise India’s most cosmopolitan, city – into a narrow minded town where all bus stops, street names and public buildings are identified only in Kannada.
Last week the head of the Kannada Development Authority made what is arguably the most bizarre recommendation ever, to come from an Indian state: that ALL non Kannadigas in the state must compulsorily take an examination within one year, equivalent to a class 7 in the Kannada language. “Bangalore Mirror” reports that the Chief Minister as saying he would implement this ( with other recommendations) “on a priority basis”. Any such coercive measure is likely to be swiftly thrown out by the courts – but what this reveals is the narrow mindset of people at the helm of state institutions who if allowed to put into practice, what they preach, will swiftly take globally recognized places like Bangalore, swiftly off the world’s IT map.
Indeed that trend has already started – going by the results of a recent survey by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) which we reported upon recently. It found that Over half the 800 odd Infotech companies polled said Bangalore, is losing its attraction due to crumbling infrastructure and they would consider relocating to places like Gurgaon, Noida and Chandigarh. http://www.indiatechonline.com/it--infrastructure-assocham--study-489.php
Meanwhile, in state after state, de-emphasising or downgrading the importance of English -- which means everything from defacing shop and establishment signs in English, to sporting vehicle number plates in the local language, in flagrant violation of Indian Motor Vehicle rules, or forcing children taking a national or international school examination system to study the local language (often their 3rd or 4th tongue) -- becomes an essential corollary ( indeed, the hidden agenda almost) of pious promotions of the local language.
In an article in The New York Times a few weeks ago, Manu Joseph, generated much heat stating boldly, what we all know: “English is the de facto national language of India…. There is not a single well-paying job in the country that does not require a good understanding of the language”. Those who are least privileged – yet want to lift themselves up by their bootstraps, know this for a fact. That is why some of them, led by Chandra Bhan Prasad, decided to build a temple to “Goddess English” in Banka village, in Uttar Pradesh state. He planned to install the Goddess on October 25 last year -- the birthday of Lord Babington Macaulay, the man who was instrumental in the British Raj adopting English as the language of higher education in India. But the police thwarted the attempt. However local supporters vowed to make the temple to "English Maieya" a reality.
People like Prasad know what’s good for them – and for India, if she is to stake a claim to be a global power and a leader in providing technology services. But they are being betrayed by the political leadership everywhere which sees a command of English as something elite that needs to be destroyed.
A British Council study found that by adding some 20 million English speakers every year, China may soon overtake India in the number of her citizens proficient in that tongue. If and when that happens, we can kiss our present IT leadership goodbye – and with i,t our claims to be a nation with a truly global presence and agenda. English was our agni asthra, our secret weapon. Let’s not destroy ourselves with our own astras.