An emerging technological superpower?

On Wednesday the 22nd October the Republic of India burst into the global technological elite by launching a space mission to the Moon.

On Wednesday the 22nd October the Republic of India burst into the global technological elite by launching a space mission to the Moon. India will be the fourth nation on the planet to place its flag on the Moon – after the USA, Russia and Japan. But is this the result of a sudden technological advancement in India, or are our perceptions what is sometimes still referred to as a “developing country” somewhat mis-formed?

Investigation shows that there is some truth to both of these explanations. India has undergone something of an economic revolution over the last decade, opening up its markets to globalisation and investing in IT and biotechnology as well as other technological sectors.

For most of the time since the formation of an independent Indian Republic in 1950 India followed a quasi-socialist approach with strict government control over the economy. However, since 1991, India has gradually opened up its markets through economic reforms and reduced government controls on foreign trade and investment.

This has led t o a huge influx of multinational corporations and the investment that they bring. But India’s impressive labour statistics certainly also played their part: two million English-speaking college graduates a year and wages of professional educated workers averaging at a tenth to a quarter of those in Europe or America.

The Indian government deliberately targeted the export oriented IT services sector for growth, giving it special subsidies. This combined with the advent of the Internet and India’s excellent international data communications links, made India an ideal location for outsourcing labour.

So, is it only cheap labour that is driving India’s technological success? Once prices go up, will the multinationals withdraw to Europe and America? Unlikely. The boom that started with foreign investment for outsourcing has rapidly expanded to make India a global centre of technological expertise. As Professor Nirvikar Singh of the University of California, Santa Cruz, told BBC News “The IT sector has a definite potential for contributing to broad-based growth and broader economic objectives”. And all of this investment is bringing economic success. Indigenous businesses are taking their slice of the pie, and becoming global players in their own right as is evidenced by the purchase of both Jaguar and Landrover European car companies this year by Tata, an Indian company. The Tata group also owns such European and American brand names as Tetley tea and the Ritz Carlton, Boston.

The THES university rankings 2008 for Technology are based on Engineering & IT prowess. No Irish Universities make it into the top 100, but there are two Indian Universities in the top 50. The highest ranked is the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, which sits at number 36. Five of the top 100 universities for technology are in India, the fourth largest fraction for any country in the World.

So it looks like India’s economic influence in the technological sector is here to stay. And India as the centre of technological academic excellence is not inconceivable. Wait and see.