Why it's sad NITI Aayog does not promote independent thinking

The think-tank can learn from MIT on how to cultivate dissent for the benefit of our economy.

 |  6-minute read |   02-05-2018
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Recently, the National Institution for Transforming India or NITI Aayog launched a space module under its Atal Tinkering Labs scheme that is part of its Atal Innovation Mission.

NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant may sound like a dream merchant to many aspiring entrepreneurs when, on its official Facebook page, he says, "Through AIM NITI Aayog's Atal Tinkering Labs (ATL) Space Module, we want young innovators to explore the world beyond the earth and set their sights on infinity and beyond." It is also significant that such a scheme has been launched by NITI Aayog, which, as per its Twitter handle, is a "think-tank of the government, a directional and policy dynamo".

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Unfortunately, like most other nice sounding schemes of this government, the Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) also reads like just a good marketing document. It doesn’t provide any idea how the innovation mission or its Tinkering Labs can become true game-changers and be a catalyst for an explosive growth of new-age enterprises at a time when the global economy is increasingly coming under newer kind of competitive pressures created by disruptive combinations of man and machine, product and platform and core and crowd.

It is truly astonishing that despite the annual "pilgrimage" of our hordes of ministers and babus to Davos - the venue for the World Economic Forum - where almost all discussions and debates are centred around the issues of technological disruptions, there is no document or white paper (which is expected from a think-tank) yet on meeting these exponentially increasing challenges.

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There is no strategic planning for our education, healthcare, energy, enterprise creation, environment and in any other field.

What is even worse, if someone is trying to do something better and different than in the BJP-ruled states, instead of helping, the central government tries its level best to put more hurdles.

The Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP government in Delhi has been a victim of such viciousness. I’m no fan of Kejriwal, mainly because of his highhandedness and disrespect for dissent and contrarian views. However, even his worst enemies would agree, albeit privately, that in education and healthcare the Delhi government is doing an excellent job.

It might be a different matter that Kejriwal hasn’t initiated anything radically innovative neither in education nor in healthcare that can be considered Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) compatible. He is simply trying to do something what the welfare societies of Europe have done long ago. However, is a great movement forward than those who are only interested in promoting dubious knowledge in the name of our ancient civilisation.

Isn’t it pathetic when we really need to leapfrog into the knowledge economy, our government is still busy in fixing an obsolete examination system?

Coming back to NITI’s Atal Tinkering Labs, the first question that comes to one’s mind is that does it make any sense in duplicating one more centralised project when similar projects are being implemented for the past many years in our diploma- and degree-level institutions?

The government probably thinks that it can perform a magical trick simply by creating a "new" scheme and giving it a fancy name. Didn’t the Department of Science and Technology support a whole network of institutions and projects to promote entrepreneurship in many colleges, polytechnics and technology parks all over the country?

Has the think-tank tried to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the S&T ministry’s efforts? What gives NITI Aayog the confidence that by launching another (Atal Tinkering Labs) they trigger an explosive growth process of startups?

Just by extending the earlier schemes now to high schools, do they really think that they would be able to create miracles? Haven’t they understood why despite all good intensions of the previous governments, including the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, the centres for entrepreneurship development (CEDs) in polytechnics, colleges and technology parks couldn’t really achieve any impressive results?

Shouldn’t NITI Aayog first try to bring out a white paper regarding the types of jobs the 4IR is going to create as well as eliminate? The Aayog must also conduct research on how to create new kind of mindsets, enterprises and institutions in order to make us prepare for the approaching tsunami of disruptive innovations? What could have been a better timing to involve the Media Lab of MIT when they are taking a lead role in finding out answers to the above questions.

They are making efforts to prepare tomorrow's entrepreneurs and leaders, but we must realise that we would be missing the point if we try to copy and create similar kind of startups what the MIT or the Silicon Valley are trying to do.

We need to see what kind of mindsets or thought leaders the MIT is trying to create that can lead to a process of sustainable enterprise creation. George Westerman, principal research scientist with MIT’s Sloan Initiative on Digital Economy, in a recent article mentioned that the most powerful driving force behind digital transformation is not fast-moving and well-funded digital startups, but ability to cultivate dissatisfaction. He argues that dissatisfaction is a mindset of constantly questioning the status quo and striving for more-than-incremental changes.

NITI as a think-tank must try to suggest how to develop, manage and respect dissent. This is so important today, particularly, when the leadership of the country is only interested in unleashing trolls against any critique of the government’s policies and its horrendous failures. The filthiest attack on intellectual giants like Arun Shourie, who has an impeccable track record of professionalism and honesty, is an example that shows to what extent the ruling party can go to suppress dissent. Never before probably India had a ruling party of millions of members with such deficit of thought leaders. The RSS motor-mouths are only creating havoc for India’s pluralistic culture and rich tradition of intellectual discourse.

If BJP’s hatred for independent thinking and dissent is rooted in its bigotry, it’s equally disappointing to see Arvind Kejriwal’s attitude towards dissatisfaction. The way he treated some of his finest colleagues was certainly not expected from a relatively well-educated leader.

In fact, together with people like Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav with their unquestionable integrity and huge academic and professional achievements, Kejriwal could have created a viable alternative to BJP’s politics based on suppression of independent thinking and pluralism.

NITI Ayog can learn from MIT on how to cultivate dissent for the benefit of our economy. I had earlier discussed in this column about MIT rewarding disobedience. Why can’t NITI spearhead a similar movement in India without bothering what their political masters are going to say? A think-tank cannot be told by the government how to think and what to think.

Our political leaders must not be allowed to run away from the people without giving them any chance to question them about government’s performance. The monologue, "Mann ki Baat", without cultivating dissatisfaction is no alternative to free-flowing discussions and creative ideas.

An army of sycophants can at the most only do a little bit of tinkering and nothing more.

Also read: Is NITI Aayog now working against the poor?

Writer

Abhijit Bhattacharya Abhijit Bhattacharya @b_abhijit

Trying to create entrepreneurs capable of solving unknown problems of tomorrow using technologies that are yet to be invented.

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