Thursday, October 20, 2005

The rapidly falling quality of Current Science editorials


Current Science is India's premier science journal. It is rather like Nature and Science in scope, but focused a lot more on the scene in its native country than the other two.

Current Science is also the only general purpose science journal that carries discussions about government policies regarding science education and research. It has some of the top scientists in India on its editorial board, and it is published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore. Because of these reasons, people sit up and take notice when its editorial takes up an important issue involving science and technology in India.

Since 1998, Prof. Balaram wrote (pretty much) all the editorials. In July, he became the Director of IISc, and his farewell editorial [pdf] in June marked the end of an era.

Since then, Current Science has been publishing guest editorials by various people; I read a couple of them earlier, and since they were of indifferent quality, I stopped. So, I was surprised when a colleague asked me to read the editorial [pdf] in the latest issue. He did warn me about its contents, I too warn you: it's utterly bad. Its badness starts right from the title: "Where have all the young ones gone? The coolieization of India". It's written by Gangan Prathap, the Scientist-in-Charge at the CSIR Centre for Mathematical Modelling and Computer Simulations (C-MMACS), Bangalore.

Why would I want you to read this rant of an editorial? Because it shows that we have in India high-ranking people who decry the country's recent progress in the services sector, and IT sector in particular. They see it as a very bad thing. They see it as recruiting bright people and making them do some mundane work, and bingo! they are coolies. They also see it as stealing bright people away from 'more fruitful' activities like working for 'real' engineering companies like L&T, developing indigenous technologies, teaching and doing science (!), and yes, working for CSIR labs.

The editorial quotes extensively from a recent interview by A.K. Naik, the CEO on L&T. Now, this guy -- I mean, Naik -- seems to think that India owes his company a steady supply of bright engineers at 'reasonable' salaries. It doesn't occur to Naik that if he is really interested in bright engineers, why can't he pay them better salaries and provide them with better working environments? I am not talking about air-conditioned rooms here, I am talking about empowering employees, and about giving them challenging work.

I can go on and on; but let me just make two more points about Prathap's editorial. One is that it is downright insulting to refer to Indian's work in any industry -- be it IT or BPO or Auto or Accounting or Janitorial or Urban Sanitation -- as coolie's work. It betrays a mindset that disrespects 'dignity of labour'. Second, this article has serious inconsistencies. For example, early in the article, Prathap says all IT employees are doing low-level jobs. Later, he says, "The capital stock internationally (read the West) is getting increasingly more sophisticated and the West is not producing enough highly skilled workers to keep it functioning." What the hell does it mean? Surely, our engineers cannot be doing low-level work if they are keeping the sophisticated 'capital stock' of the West functioning.

Finally, why is Current Science peddling such nonsense as its editorial?

9 Comments:

  1. Vishnu said...

    Aha. I received this article via email, one one yahoogroup. Didn't know that it was an editorial! Sure, such an article is not worthy of being an editorial in a premier magazine.

  2. Aswin said...

    Oh!
    This is news to me. I thought that Prof.Balaram was still the editor of Current Science. His various editorials on the state of the educational system in India were truly interesting. I remember one article in which he was worrying about how to make chemistry as exciting as Physics.
    Too bad that Current Science hasn't been able to find quality editorials. But, I am sure this will get sufficiently bashed. Current Science surely has a vibrant "letters" section.

  3. Sunil said...

    Current Science was the first science magazine i started reading, way back in my first year of college. It used to be great for students starting college......and even later, remained a good read. Having met Prof. Balaram often (and listened to many of his lectures), I had come to enjoy his clear style of articulation, where he made some clear points. I knew he'd be missed on Current Science (though i didn't know why he wrote all the editorials on the magazine).

    I hope they rediscover some good writing in Current Science.

  4. pennathur said...

    Abi,
    There's a lot to respond to in this exceptionally bad article. But Dr.Pratap cannot be criticised for the using the term "coolieisation". He does not think "coolieism" is demeaning because coolies are contemptible but because of the way we treat coolies. This is quite different from the way Prafool Bidwai is supposed to have used the term cybercoolie (if he hasn't my apologies) where in line with Marxist/Leninist/Trotskyite thinking the cybercoolie makes up the lumpen bourgeoisie aspiring to petit bourgeois status.

  5. pennathur said...

    If an Indian can make a living wage with dignity I am all for it. A friend's domestic assistant's daughter (whose family's education has been supported by us for many years) works for a BPO. In her words the atmosphere and the work culture is another world entirely.

  6. Abi said...

    Vishnu, Aswin, Sunil, Pennathur (Shiva): Thanks for your comments.

    Vishnu: I entirely agree. This sort of small-minded stuff just reminds one of the 'Indian frog' story, doesn't it?

    Aswin: Prof. Balaram is still the editor. Only the editorial-writing function is 'outsourced' ;-).

    Sunil: if they don't find good editorial writers, they should simply junk it in a few of their issues. BTW, I wonder if Prof. Balaram reads (and approves) these guest editorials ...

    Shiva: These days, the BPO industry at the very low end (which, for example, provides call centre services to domestic companies) employs a whole bunch of people with some skills, but not a whole lot. I would think that these people would have to settle for very low-paying jobs, if not for BPO. Under the circumstances, I would vote for BPO any day.

    BTW, there was a time when many computer science and electronics engineering graduates could not find a good job that would make use of technical skills (this was the case in the period from late-2000 to mid-2003). They all found a temporary haven in the nascent BPO industry during those hard, frustrating days. It is this industry that helped them keep their self-esteem intact. I am sure the present day BPO employees too see their current jobs as temporary, waiting for the right opportunity to get out.

    In any event, and IMO, calling someone a coolie is SICK under any pretext, in any context (except when people call themselves coolies -- such as the porters at the railway stations).

    We would all love to attract bright people to work with us in science and engineering institutions. Similarly, L&T is entitled to its desire that bright people should join them. If we improve our workplaces that would make them attractive, we may actually succeed. Going around dissing IT industry as a whole as a bane of this country just doesn't cut it. As I said, I see it as a reflection of the 'Indian frog' mentality.

  7. abhishek said...

    although the general quality of eds.leaves much to be desired. the point raised in the mentioned edi.has important relevance. Why original and cutting edge work is not being done in these so called indian centers

  8. Abi said...

    Abhishek, the people in the IT industry I talk to tell me that they do find their work interesting and challenging. If your question is about why there is no Indian Oracle (or that other company whose name starts with M), it is a conscious choice made by the management, because products businessis terribly risky.

    Having said that, one does find some innovative stuff emerging out of the Indian labs every once in a while -- in particular in the telecom and chip design fields.

    Finally, all the major companies are here. Yahoo!, Google, SAP, Oracle, ... What do you think goes on in those labs?

  9. Abi said...

    This Rediff column talks about some of the myths about the IT industry from the point of view of a potential employee. Read about Myth #3 and #4. The columnist says the fraction of really interesting and challenging work is increasing in the Indian IT companies.