How India Came to Ace the STEM Game

How India Came to Ace the STEM Game

By Sanjena Sathian

SourcePaul Hahn/Redux


Because India’s rise to STEM success might hold some clues to many other countries’ quests for tech brilliance.

By Sanjena Sathian

Today’s Silicon Valley is where those who revere science and technology find their heroes. But while a huge percentage of those powering — and occasionally at the helm of — the tech revolution in the Bay Area are graduates of MIT, the University of Illinois, Canada’s Waterloo and Stanford, some of the most entrepreneurial and high-tech-trained engineers and coders are graduates of the highly selective Indian Institutes of Technology.

In 2014, with India alongside China on the tips of everyone’s tongue as a hotbed of innovation, the ascendance of the IIT campuses could appear like a historic inevitability. But pause to consider how improbable it is that a nation with fewer than seven decades of independent statehood under its belt could produce such a mass of talent with such regularity.

It shall be the duty of every citizen of India … to develop the scientific temper …

— Constitution of India

The explanation? It begins with the proclivities of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, a science geek himself. A graduate of England’s Harrow School and the elite natural sciences program at Cambridge, Nehru majored in chemistry, geology and botany 40 years before his election in 1952. More importantly, perhaps, Nehru was a belated student of the Enlightenment — and like so many revolutionaries, he sought to infuse his revolt with the language of rationality. The new Indian Constitution, which he helped draft, would later read: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India … to develop the scientific temper, humanism, and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”

A group of college students from India which includes a young Indian woman in the middle listen to a class lecture

Students in class at the IIT

But a mere call for a scientific temperament could have plateaued there. It took the standoff between the two geopolitical giants of the time — the United States and the Soviet Union — to truly advance Indian science. The two nations duking it out during the Cold War were models not just of scientific progress for Nehru and his team of policymakers; they were incarnations of industrial ambition. Writes author Angela Saini in Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over the World, “Nehru had seen how the Soviet Union had made huge industrial strides by drawing up bold five-year plans for giant new factories, power stations, and dams. He also knew that the U.S. had made itself economically powerful on the back of innovative engineering.” 

Nehru’s 1960 speech, calling for the future of the nation to come from scientific reform just 13 years after independence, is remembered in India on the scale of President Obama’s race speech or even President Reagan’s “Bring down this wall!” declaration. Below, listen to it in Hindi.

India wasn’t exactly a stranger to industry. One of the ironies of the colonial age is that the subcontinent was actually deeply involved in the industrial boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from mapmaking and surveying to shipbuilding and constructing textile factories. But most Indians had only participated in the menial labor associated with the Industrial Revolution, not the technological innovations driving it. Nehru believed he knew what was missing: higher education and research science.

“As India became a major player in the Non-Aligned Movement, Nehru saw advantages in having specific nations support individual technical universities … IIT Bombay (Soviet Union, 1958); IIT Madras (West Germany, 1959); IIT Kanpur (United States, 1960); and IIT Delhi (United Kingdom, 1963).”

— Audra Wolfe, Competing With the Soviets: Science, Technology and State in the Cold War

In 1951, four years after Indian independence, two years before the CIA backed a coup in Iran and three years before it supported the same in Guatemala, the U.S. and USSR tried their hands at collaboration in seemingly “neutral” territory. Together, they helped India fund the creation of the first Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur, a university modeled after MIT. India soon realized the advantage it had, nestled between the ambitions of two great powers. From then on each new IIT campus was backed by a different country — meaning funding, training faculty, institutional advising — that was either trying to elbow out Communism or demolish capitalism.


But nonaligned as it briefly was, India was no innocent; nationalists hankered to win an arms race against their new Pakistani neighbors even as the Soviets and Americans showed the perils of mutually assured destruction. India had been uttered into existence just two years after the U.S. dropped a nuclear bomb on Japan; the obliterating (and energy-generating) potential of that technology was too tempting to ignore. It wasn’t just the dream of better education that inspired many young Indians to ace STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — it was the perceived threat of the nuclear option. 

The sad truth, though, is that the tech boom arguably produced technical talent that has served other nations better than it served India, as more engineers emigrated abroad. And the majority of India’s schools do not operate at such an elite level. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2011 that 75 percent of India’s tech grads aren’t qualified for jobs in the very high-tech global industries India has become famous for. 

Yet Nehru had a bold, beautiful vision of a nation built on smarts. What India hasn’t had — perhaps until the last decade — is the economic heft to hold onto the talent it churned. And now? That leaves an even meatier problem to solve: using the skills of the sci-tech classes to power the other 99 percent of the billion.

This OZY encore was originally published Sept. 20, 2014.