Choices: An MOU to implement MOUs

R&D or housemaids?

On December 8, Bill Gates announced that Microsoft will spend US$ 850 million on research and development in India over the next four years. A few days earlier, Intel, whose Chairman is also visiting the region (including Sri Lanka), announced plans to spend US$ 1 billion in R&D in India. Things are indeed looking good for India’s move into the knowledge economy.

R&D or housemaids?

On December 8, Bill Gates announced that Microsoft will spend US$ 850 million on research and development in India over the next four years. A few days earlier, Intel, whose Chairman is also visiting the region (including Sri Lanka), announced plans to spend US$ 1 billion in R&D in India. Things are indeed looking good for India’s move into the knowledge economy.

Gates had been asked what it would take to set up a R&D center in Sri Lanka. His response had been that a high-quality university like an IIT was a precondition for Sri Lanka to be considered.

One can assume that the world’s richest man and the most successful university dropout in history is well informed of the quality of Sri Lanka universities. The Times Higher Education Supplement’s 2005 top 200 universities ranking (http://www.thes.co.uk/) had the IIT system at 41.

The only other Asian universities are two from Malaysia, one in 89 place and the other at 111. Sri Lanka is not in the top 200.

Given the pathological stasis that our universities are stuck in, ten years would be a miracle.

And by the time that the miracle occurs, Sri Lanka will be exporting housemaids to Chennai.

In the top 500 ranking done by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Sri Lanka is not to be found (India has three universities including an IIT)–http://ed.sjtu.edu.cn/rank/2005/ARWU2005Main.htm.

Three years ago when I told an august gathering of Sri Lankan university academics that the universities in this country did not make the grade in the ICT area, I was told that our universities were very good at getting their best students admitted to good graduate programs so I had to be wrong.

The final recommendations excluded any discussion on HR inputs for the ICT sector http://www.nastec.lk/BICOST%20Series.htm.

As far as I know nothing has been done to fix the problem, let alone recognize there is one.

With apologies to the ostrich, this much-maligned bird should be included in a prominent place in the crest of the University Grants Commission of Sri Lanka.

Perception is reality.

Now that Gates has spoken, we can choose to start another long process to improve the ICT related programs at our universities.

Assuming this works, we can then mount a major campaign to shift perceptions in perception forming places like the Microsoft Head Office in Redmond WA, the Intel head office in Santa Clara CA and the editorial offices of the Times Higher Education Supplement and the Jiao Tong University in Shanghai.

If all goes well, this should take a minimum of ten years.

Given the pathological stasis that our universities are stuck in, ten years would be a miracle.

And by the time that the miracle occurs, Sri Lanka will be exporting housemaids to Chennai.

Brand extension

More realistic is brand extension.

It looks like Gates knows about IITs and has a firm opinion on their quality. Why not leverage that knowledge?

Why try to insert new information into his brain that is already crammed with knowledge?

It’s not a big leap from IIT to SL-IIT.

In particular the JSG [Joint Study Group] noted the desire of the Government of Sri Lanka to establish a centre of excellence in science and technology on the lines of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). The JSG recommends that the two governments form a joint working group on the feasibility of financial and technical cooperation in setting up such an institute. It is suggested that a consortium of IITs can be formed to facilitate this effort. The possibilities include Sri Lanka contributing the physical facilities and some organizational structure and India contributing to the development of cutting-edge pedagogical content, equipment and processes. There is considerable merit in creating the conditions for attracting the best students in both countries to the proposed institute. The JSG recommends that the proposed institute be fast-tracked to serve as a tangible embodiment of the spirit of friendship that gave rise to CEPA [India Sri Lanka Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement]. — para 5.27 of the Joint Study Group Report of ISLCEPA, at: http://www.ips.lk/publications/etc/cepa_reprot/islcepa.pdf

It is said that Sri Lanka is ruled by politicians while India is ruled by the bureaucracy.

As a result, a simple change in government does not change these kinds of intergovernmental commitments.
The careful language testifies to the fact that this is actually a negotiated document, though not with formal legal clout. But it is pretty close to legally binding, at least in India.

The Report was accepted by Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Wickremesinghe on October 20, 2003 in New Delhi, the same day that the announcement regarding the Defense Agreement was made.

That was 14 days before the then President took over three Ministries and we shifted our attention to elections away from development.

So it is understandable that the “fast tracking” did not happen.

But Gates’ the statement should awaken us to the desirability of at least slow-tracking the initiative, now that two years of sitting at the station has passed.

It is said that Sri Lanka is ruled by politicians while India is ruled by the bureaucracy.

As a result, a simple change in government does not change these kinds of intergovernmental commitments.

Where is the money for the planning of an SL-IIT, one may ask, since all the money is committed to fertilizer subsidies.

The JSG Report provides an answer to that question too:

The JSG recommends that the Government of India set up an India-Sri Lanka Economic Cooperation Fund of US$ 100 million, to begin with. The Fund should then be used to facilitate and finance various economic cooperation activities recommended [in the Economic Cooperation Chapter which contained para 5.27] where economic assistance from India is considered necessary.” — para 5.38

Again, this was a real promise of real money, not the kind of vaporware found in documents like the Sri Lanka Government Budget.

MOUs ad infinitium

In April 2003, the Science & Technology Ministry, which then had the ICT portfolio, entered into an MOU on cooperation with the ICT Ministry in India; the two Ministers of Education also indicated interest.

The ISLCEPA Joint Study Group Report which did its work from May to October that year built on those MOUs and ideas.

It was discovered in the course of the Study Group’s work that the Indian Ministries were awash in MOUs with Sri Lanka.

Every time a Sri Lankan Minister visited New Delhi, an MOU was signed to justify the trip. But there were no particular incentives to actually implement them.

For example, para 5.34 of the Report states that: “The JSG notes that there is considerable cooperation between the two countries in agriculture, including several MOUs. It recommends the expeditious implementation of the MOUs.”

The Study Group may have considered including an MOU to implement the existing MOUs, but there is no evidence that consensus was reached on that matter.

Of course, what they really should have recommended was an MOU to implement the Report of the Joint Study Group. Then there could be another MOU to implement all the preceding MOUs, ad infinitium.

Alternatively, we could get started on the SL-IIT and postpone the date of beginning the export of housemaids to Chennai.

-COMMENTS: samarajiva@lirne.net