My first job in Canada, working for an aerospace ancillary, was exciting. And enriching, not in a fiscal sense. It was philosophically enriching. You could be a philosopher-aerospace engineer in that job. Otherwise, it paid so little that even church mice were better off than us Dutts.

A part of my functions was to interact with vendors in India and China over phone. After a few weeks into my job, I started to form a sort of bias as to why China was so far ahead of India.

Every time I called China, a Jill, Sandra or Steve answered the phone at the other end. The issue that was being discussed got swiftly sorted out. There was a refreshing we-shall-make-this-happen at the Chinese side of the conversation. Sometimes we asked for prototypes or last minutes changes in specs and these were always dealt with very quickly by them.

It was when one of them visited us here that I found out that the Jill, Sandra and Steve were just pseudonyms. Jill’s actual name was Dongmei and Steve was Cheng-Gong. They donned western names just so we wouldn’t feel uneasy addressing them over phone. They wanted us to feel comfortable dealing with them, in every possible way.

Chinese supplies, when they arrived, the packaging and the markings on the packaging were utterly professional. The quality of the cardboard or the wood in the packaging was absolutely top class. You could build classy furniture out of it if you wanted to. Medium to large size boxes came attached to wooden forklift-ready pallets, for easy handling.

The product itself was invariably well tested and on the rare occasions when I found defects, it turned out that they were permitted within the interpretation of our own specifications and therefore had to be accepted. The Chinese product surpassed the original European one on almost all counts, besides being less than half the price.

My first brush with an Indian supply however was an embarrassing one. When a consignment came in, I noticed that, unlike the Chinese crates where the wood used was always over-qualified and well above specs, the Indian crates used wood that could barely pass muster. In places, the wood had splintered and the polybags containing the parts were damaged.

Afterwards, when we laid the Indian product out to do a ‘side-by-side’ (a detailed visual comparison of the existing supplier’s product with the new (Indian) supplier’s), the differences were glaring. The Indian supply had all sorts of nicks and scratches that could only happen when the deburring had been done manually. (Deburring is a process of removing burrs, sharp corners from a part after it has been machined).

It became clear that the product had to reworked locally but, unlike the Chinese, the Indians hadn’t organized a local workshop as a partner in crises, who could carry out such rework instead of having to ship the whole consignment back to India. Ample time had been given but the Indians were behaving as if they were still testing the waters and wouldn’t like to make any big commitments without being satisfied that doing business with us was going to be a viable proposition.

One of our buyers, Steve Vigneault, often complained that he couldn’t understand a word of what the man at the other end said, neither could Steve correctly pronounce his name, which happened to be Vallipillai Karunakaran. Couple this with the experience that my other western colleagues had travelling inside India, the lack of hygiene, the filth and the chaotic traffic and we had a situation where India became a destination to avoid, as far as vendor development went.

Maybe my experience with Indian vendors was a unique one-off business interaction in one particular business setting and one specific product group, aerospace parts. Maybe things are vastly more professional in other Indian engineering exports, but I understand from my ex-colleagues that the status-quo remains more or less the same even today, as regards Indian supplies. At least in the context of my brief dalliance with Indian suppliers, there appeared to be a tiny gap always, between what we wanted out of them and what they were prepared to provide us.

Seven years have gone by since I left that job and perhaps that unpreparedness and hesitance that I saw in Indian vendors is a thing of the past by now. I hope it is. After all, there is a transition phase in every effort, something that China too underwent when it began to understand the exact requirements, the mind, of the western buyer.

The above personal experience with Chinese and Indian engineering product supplies and customer service is one angle, albeit possibly an isolated one. There are others, much larger parameters available for an overall comparison.

Take the Indian education system, which is geared simply toward giving you a bachelors degree. This is a system rampant with corruption, where private universities spring up like cottage industries, ‘owned’ by relatives of powerful politicians. These institutions, through whole scale bribery, manage to get government accreditation and the dough, in the form of fees paid in hard cash, starts rolling in. More often than not, these institutions are devoid of trained faculty and infrastructure. I came across one in Palghat in Southern India once. It had just one dilapidated building outside which students slouched around, smoking and shooting the breeze, stoned out of their minds.

The above sorry state of affairs blankets the nation. Three out of five Indian university graduates today pass out having learnt practically nothing and would be unemployable anywhere. There is just one lone Indian university which figures in the top 500 list that is published by the Academic Ranking of World Universities (Shanghai), QS World University Rankings(UK) and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings(UK). IISC, Bangalore. In comparison, there are 36 Chinese universities in the same lists.

One can argue that the quality of universities cannot be evaluated objectively and given numbered rankings. After all, you cannot judge a university by the number of Nobel Prize winners it has in it’s faculty, but by the quality of it’s teachers and research facilities. But how does one explain the presence of just one Indian university in the top-500 list? Surely, this must say something about India’s education system?

And this dismal showing persists, in spite of a sudden spurt in recent years of launching five new Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, eight new IITs, 16 new central universities, 10 new National Institutes of Technology, six new research and development institutions in bio-technology, and five institutions in other branches including solar energy. The IITs, by far the most prestigious academic institutions in India, do not figure anywhere in the top-500 list. This is disgraceful. Do Indian parents of JEE topping children really have something to be proud about?

There is help on the way. First, the acknowledgement that there is a problem. In April 2013, The Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, addressing the 10th convocation of National Institute of Technology, Kurukshetra, called for ‘drastic action’ to reform the complete education system, saying, “Our institutes of higher education continue to be challenged by problems of quality.” Around the same time, the Indian government announced an ambitious science, technology, and innovation funding protocol- in the next five years, it will double its investment in science and technology and, by 2020, drive India’s output of scientific publications to be among the top five nations globally. Great, happy to hear that.

However, right as of now, China simply has more researchers, more scientists and more engineers and their activities are becoming frenetic. It is not far behind the US in registration of patents, indicating a significant volume of original research now being conducted inside China. Gone are those days when we’d dismiss China as a bunch of copycats and manufacturers of cheap substandard products.

China is playing catch-up with the US and playing it well, though the US is still way ahead by leaps and bounds. Of the first 100 top universities, no less than 60 are American. The American education system encourages questions rather than rote learning. Their First Amendment promotes divergent views without government censorship and their heterogeneous society along with their willingness to treat failure as a learning experience rather than dishonor, sets them apart. Innovation has been America’s strength. It has perfected the mind-to-marketplace technology transfer chain, primed by a can-do attitude toward every sticky technical problem and the willingness to indulge in some savvy risk-taking.

China is learning. It is shrugging off a long tradition of copying others and spawning a culture that does not recognize intellectual property rights. Each year they are now sending around 200000 students to study in the US and then enticing them back with cash incentives, to start high-tech businesses in China. Similar incentives are provided by the Indian government as well but, as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. That enticing doesn’t seem to work much, at least vis-à-vis China. China appears to have struck a successful balance between government censorship and innovative efforts. Where earlier, all dissent used to be squished mercilessly, now questions are permitted and constructive criticism heeded.

An authoritarian regime like China is very different from a free, democratic society like India. When the Chinese government decides to do something, it just goes ahead and does it. It doesn’t have a free press, an independent judiciary, freedom of information statutes, public-interest litigators, NGOs and opposition parties to attack every decision that it makes. Unlike India, it doesn’t take China 10 years to select and purchase multi-billion dollar weapons systems, for instance. This totalitarian nature of the regime has allowed China to reach government goals within short timespans. In comparison, democracy sometimes looks like one step forward and two steps back.

I’ll leave you with this study I found on the net.

The Global Innovation Index is a publication which is co-authored by Cornell University, INSEAD and the World Intellectual Property Organisation. It has knowledge partners who provide support in analyses and data dissemination. The Confederation of Indian Industry(CII) is one such knowledge partner. This index ranks countries by innovation as a driver of economic growth and prosperity.

If you visit it’s website, the GII appears to be quite an involved team, heavy with data. My visit was a quick and superficial one. Data doesn’t go down well with beer, which the weekend mandates. However, I took the 2013 study and cherry-picked certain indicators relevant to this post and compared the scores of the two countries.

Image

The differences in the scores as regards educational indicators appear quite glaring.

In terms of overall rankings of the Global Innovation Index, the Swiss were at #1, the US at #5, China at #35 and India at #66.  India has a long catch-up ahead.

Oh, I forgot to mention what happened with that damaged crate we received from India. As the last of the polybags were being removed from the box, a lone cockroach woke up, stretched himself and walked jauntily out, his antennae waving this way and that, as if to say,” Base, this is alpha-1, this joint seems a bit crummy but the air is cleaner. Will check back in at o-six hundred.”

He was going to step off the crate onto Canadian soil and become a landed immigrant, when I noticed a scrapped compressor rotor that we use, to hold the dock doors open. I picked it up and squished him. Gaetan, our forklift driver, had the last word, “Hey, Arch, you guys are Hindus, right? Let’s burn the m—er f—er.”