Make a Difference | Shashi Tharoor Visits Manipal

A deafening round of applause from around a thousand impassioned students greeted Mr. Tharoor as he walked down the red bricked artery of the MIT quadrangle. The genuine admiration everyone seemed to have for him was evident in their cheers and awestruck smiles, and he took it all with the practiced ease of a seasoned public figure. Presiding over the inaugural event of Teenovators, Mr. Tharoor was joined by his old friend, Ms. Lakshmi Pratury, the founder and CEO of INK, the driven community behind the widely popular INKtalks platform.

Teenovators, organized by Manipal University in association with INK, is a program for high-schoolers that tries to inculcate and reward the spirit of innovation in our youngsters. Speaking about this spirit of innovation, Mr. Tharoor began his speech by calling it our path to the future. Referring to the proliferation of startups over the last few years, he reminisced back to his days, when there were few opportunities, saying that not only are there more career options available for a student out of college today, but also more courses and avenues of study.

He spoke about the closed economy of the 80s and how the reforms brought about by the then finance minister Manmohan Singh transformed the Indian economy and liberalized it. This globalization allowed India to weather the storms after the recession of 2008. In 2015, the IMF named India the fastest growing world economy. And although we’ve subsequently lost that spot following the debacle of demonetization, he believes that we can win back that spot very soon.

He spoke about the demographic squeeze affecting the west and countries like China where the median age of the population is steadily increasing. In 2020, he quoted, the average age of an Indian will be 29 years, this is in contrast to 37 for China and the USA, with some European countries even pushing past 45. In fact, he says, while their labor force drops by 4%, India’s will increase by a stunning 32%. While talking about this, he also takes care to mention the unemployability and the lack of education of many, and he related this to the rise of Maoist incidents through the country as an example. He thinks it of the highest importance to make these youngsters a part of our society and give them a stake in it by educating them. This is why, he reasons, the job creation due to our burgeoning startup community is the biggest weapon in in our nation’s arsenal.

He touched upon the much-anticipated topic of British influence in India, with most in the audience aware of a widely circulated video of his debate in Oxford about British moral debt to India. He spoke of 200 years of darkness that India faced under British colonial rule.  When the British finally left India, our situation was dire. The literacy rate of men was 17% and that of women was 8%. 90% of Indians lived below the poverty line and the life expectancy for an average Indian was an appallingly low 27 years! Before the British came to India, he points out, India’s share of the world economy was 24%, with that number dropping to just 4% after British rule. And the problem, Mr. Tharoor says, is that India was ruled for the sake of Britain.

We’ve come a long way since then, he asserts, and credits a lot of that progress to the uniquely Indian concept frugal innovation, or Jugaad.  He spoke about a visit to Canada, where he was invited to inaugurate the Indian center and where he came across the term ‘Indovation’, that described the sheer ingenuity and innovation synonymous with Indians. While entirely different from the systematic approach to innovation in the west, he notes, with a hint of rightful pride, that indigenous efforts at innovation have indeed worked, be it the dabbawalas of Mumbai or the railway reforms of Lalu, both being subjects of case studies at Harvard.

He talked about the farmer who attached a water pump to a bullock cart; the re-purposing of a washing machine to churn out large quantities of lassi for the hot Indian summer. Indians are so frugal, he jokes, that we invented the concept of the missed call. Doing more with less, he says, is very important. India’s mission to Mars, cheaper than the Hollywood movie Gravity, succeeded on its very first try, with other countries either failing or succeeding only after multiple tries. The cheapest Hepatitis drug came out of India, he points out, reducing its cost to less than one-tenth its cost in the west.

“India is the country that invented the zero!” he proclaims, “but now it feels like all we’re inventing are zeros”. It’s important to innovate for India, he says, “Ours is a country with real problems.”  “In our celebration of our growth and success, we must never forget the bottom 25%, they’re a standing reproach to our celebration.” He called for the innovative energy of our youngsters to solve our problems, and reiterated an overarching point in his speech by urging them never to give up. He inspired them with the tale of Jamshedji Tata and his indomitable legacy cemented in the generation of Tatas that followed, with their footprints spanning the world. He said that he was sure that those present would make great contributions to the world and asked them to have a global orientation while carrying the weight of nameless and faceless Indians who would rely on them for their innovations.

“Set aside old stereotypes,” he urged those present, we need more creative thinkers and doers. People who innovate, inspire and create. He concluded his speech like a true politician, quoting Gandhi, asserting the importance of quality of work over quantity of work, and implored everyone to be the change they wish to see in the world.

In a post-speech Q&A session with Ms. Lakshmi Praturi, he spoke about the importance of communication. “Whatever you choose to do, you need to be able to communicate your thoughts and convince people. I urge you all to practice speaking clearly.” Nothing works better than practice at communication, he says, seeing the light of understanding go on in the eyes of another makes us want to improve further.

When questioned on his career at the UN he said that it wasn’t something he had planned but in retrospect he was glad to have left his smudgy thumbprints on the footnotes of the pages of history by helping refugees.

Asked about his ability to find time even with his packed schedule and endless traveling, he replies without hesitation, “You only need to ‘find’ time if you lose it in the first place. Let’s make use of every minute that the lord has given us.” In his most powerful message to the students yet, he urged them, “Be the best that you can be. Comparing yourself to others is a foolish game. Recognize what your strengths are, and don’t let yourself down. Nobody can be a better you than you can be.”

With 29 years of experience in the UN, multiple best sellers to his name, a stellar political career, and a kind heart to boot, the charismatic Mr. Tharoor left everyone in that little polygon that is too proud to be called a kite, inspired and with a little spring in their steps. With pride for India, and hope.

 -Vishnu Deva for MTTN with inputs from Shagun Nevatia and Anjali Mayne

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