this is an editorial published in times of India, contributed by famous novelist chetan bhagat,
The recent news of a person of Indian origin winning the Nobel prize while based abroad sparked off a series of discussions at home. “Why don’t we win Nobel prizes here?” became the question of the week. The standard points were raised: we don’t have the facilities, too much government interference, the selection process is rigged, the prize committee is racist and, finally, who cares about the Nobel anyway (of course we do, that’s why we discuss it).
Like all media stories, this one too will die soon. However, maybe it is time to look at the core issue: why India doesn’t excel on the world stage on a fairly consistent basis. We don’t win a significant number of Olympic medals, we don’t create global brands, our IT industry is essentially a job transfer model but we haven’t created even one Google, Facebook or Twitter. (Of course, there is plenty for Indians to be proud of otherwise, so please don’t jump on me because of my observations.)
The real issue comes down to the treatment of talent in our country. So, what is talent? Talent refers to a special ability and aptitude that give people an edge in a particular field. In sport, science, films, business or the arts, people who dominate the world stage all have a gift that makes it easier for them to excel. Of course, along with talent there is preparation, hard work and a certain amount of luck required to achieve success. However, talent is usually a necessary ingredient. Talent is rare, and randomly distributed across the human population, irrespective of pedigree, connections or wealth. Some may call talent an unfair gift. However, it is talent that allows ordinary people to come up in life. Otherwise, rich people would stay rich and poor people poor. Thus, this unfair talent actually makes the world fairer.
However, we don’t put talent on the highest pedestal in our country. Talent’s stature is below that of someone with connections, with hereditary entitlement, pedigree or even experience.
Even in an IIT, a truly gifted young faculty cannot jump ranks and scales set by the system. And the people designing the system never took talent into account. Even when talent is identified, we are unable to train it, and find it difficult to reward it.
It is difficult to say why we have this attitude, but there are many possible reasons. One, talent conflicts with the traditional Indian caste system. Two, Indian cultural values revere the older generation and its experience, and talent zooms past it.
Ask yourself, have you seen some of this in India? Maybe because so many dreams have been crushed in India, someone else’s success reminds us of our own pain. The US (only as a contrasting example, not recommending we become like them) has an opposite value system. Talent is respected, seen as something to be emulated. That is why they have teenage boy bands and college dropouts who open outcomes as national icons. We don’t.
There are grave negative repercussions for a community that doesn’t respect talent. It leads to a society where connected people do better than people with ability. It leads to a lot of talent being unused, a tremendous waste of a national resource. It causes frustration in the entire new generation as they see people with less capability doing better than them. It also reinforces the old Indian values of fatalism and the helpless-common-man theory. And it means India’s excellent people may not excel worldwide to the extent possible.
So what can be done? Well, we definitely can do something – both at the macro organisational level and a micro individual level. At the organisational level, we have to let go of corporate hierarchies and the lifelong promotion ladders of government, particularly in talent-dependent organisations like R&D, companies requiring high innovation or sport.
at individual level we have to encourage and appreciate talent emerging around us. We have to make incentives in line with what attracts talent, as there is a global battle for it. Exceptional talent demands exceptional reward. We have to take away the moral judgement associated with rewarding talent. Just as it is morally okay for a rich man’s son to be rich, a person with talent also deserves to do really well.
Change needs to happen amongst us, at the individual level as well. We have to acknowledge that talent exists, and we need to respect it. Frankly, isn’t it better a talented person gets rewarded than a minister’s son? Talent shouldn’t cause resentment, it should become an inspiration. I think the young generation is already on board with that. It needs the older generation’s support to make this change in values. It may be difficult, but it is worth it.
Because if we do become a talent-driven country, we will become a more progressive nation, utilise the new generation’s skills properly, become a fairer society and, along the way, win a few Nobel prizes too.