Top Indian educationalist urges focus on universities, power supplies and high-tech manufacturing

By on 22/04/2016
Dinesh Singh is an Indian professor of mathematics and was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Delhi Photo: University of Delhi

India must focus on expanding higher education, energy production and high-technology manufacturing if it is to retain its robust economic growth, the former vice chancellor of Delhi University told an invited audience at a Warwick Policy Lab event yesterday [21 April].

Giving a speech on India’s economic development, Professor Dinesh Singh pointed out that India’s “knowledge economy” dates back thousands of years. Hospitals, plastic surgery, calculus and spherical trigonometry were all invented on the subcontinent, he said, and by the 15th century India’s economy was the biggest in the world; but then repeated invasions, followed by colonisation, wrecked its economy.

In recent years, he argued, the country has made a dramatic recovery. Child mortality has fallen from 25% to 4%; a mission has been despatched to Mars; meteorological science has slashed the harm caused by extreme weather events; a $2bn National Knowledge Network connects India’s universities; the armed forces deploy nuclear submarines and the world’s fastest cruise missiles; and mobile phone apps are ubiquitous, from booking train tickets to helping farmers track prices and weather forecasts.

However, Singh added that “‘there are many issues of concern, many danger signals, and huge challenges that lie in our way.”

First, he argued, India needs to find ways of getting a higher proportion of its high school graduates into higher education. “It could be an immense problem for us if we don’t utilise the potential that exists in the population,” he said. “Each year, in just two states in North India – Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – five million youths graduate from high school.”

Delhi University is amongst the country’s largest, he added, with 130,000 ‘traditional’ students and around 200,000 other learners. “And on an all-India basis we admit only 60,000 students each year. From that, probably 20,000 are from these two states. But there are five million out there, and if we do not harness them, give them direction, give them avenues of productive education, that could become a huge problem”.

Second, “India’s energy needs are growing. Right now it is amongst the top five consumers of energy in the world, and as our economy grows – and it’s still growing, even as the world’s economy is flat – our energy needs increase. Our oil import bill is $60bn. We need to worry about that.” Singh pointed to India’s shale gas reserves, estimated at 2,000 trillion cubic feet, and argued that “we need to find environmentally friendly ways to harness it.”

Third, although India has a thriving IT industry, it imports almost all of its hardware. “It’s almost like our energy import bill; last year we imported $40bn worth of electronic goods, because India does not manufacture it,” he said. The country’s engineering institutions should have “created a knowledge base for manufacture. But it is beginning to happen.”

Asked by Global Government Forum whether the Indian government and civil service provide an accelerant for economic growth or a drag on it, Singh replied that “I would wish for a more efficient, more receptive civil service, but there are many things they do which are extremely noteworthy; they do keep many things in place.”

In his view, he added, “we shouldn’t just have an elite civil service and lower rungs in place. There should be locally recruited people sensitive to the needs of the local area who become part of the civil service on a contractual basis then move away to other things – so they don’t become part of the system and develop a vested interest.”

“Maybe this could improve the system, but it still works and does deliver – provided leadership at the top is clear.”

Professor Singh was speaking at an event organised by the Warwick Policy Lab, part of the University of Warwick based in Europe’s highest building – the Shard at London Bridge.


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See also:

India’s banking scheme draws in 200m new customers

Satellite night signal project could help India’s government spread electricity

Australia’s chief scientist calls for increased investment in renewable energy

World Bank appoints first female country director in Philippines

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public sector management, policymaking and service delivery. He was the editor of Civil Service World 2008-14, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of Regeneration & Renewal 2002-08, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with communications consultancy, marketing and journalism work for publishers, public sector unions and private sector suppliers to government.

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