MIT hosts conference on 'Emergent India'

Dean of the School of Engineering Subra Suresh gave the welcoming address at the Emergent India conference, held at Bartos Theatre at the Media Lab on Friday, Sept. 21. <a onclick="MM_openBrWindow('india-suresh-enlarged.html','','width=509, height=583')">
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Thirty experts on energy, education, industry, finance and urban design discussed India's economic growth, the foreseeable difficulties in sustaining and widening it, and its rising national energy needs in "Emergent India: An Engagement With MIT," a daylong conference held in Bartos Theater on Sept. 21.

Dean of Engineering Subra Suresh, opening the event, characterized it as an opportunity to reinforce and reinvigorate the 100-year history of ties between MIT and India--the first Indian alumnus of MIT graduated in 1907--and to explore future collaborations.

Adi Godrej (S.B., S.M. '63), chairman of the Godrej Group, an influential industrial conglomerate based in Mumbai, India, served as the morning keynote speaker. He noted his management studies at MIT helped him modernize and systematize the management structures in the Godrej Group, a century-old family business.

According to Godrej, capitalism is working as an efficient fuel for India, the world's fourth-largest economy: Bombay airport runs smoothly thanks to a public-private partnership, and steady service-sector employment, especially in IT, is expanding the middle class and driving private consumption as well as commercial and residential construction.

Godrej pointed to mobile telephony as a symbol of India's economic growth--7 million cell phones are sold there each month--and of its potential for wider social equality, essential if that growth is to be sustained.

"The sun doesn't shine equally on India: The western half of the country receives more investment than the eastern, and that geographical divide needs to be corrected. The biggest bottleneck is education. We have the largest illiterate population in the world, and the private sector should join in addressing this as it has other problems," he said.

Researchers specializing in energy, industry and public health echoed Godrej's views, with several conjuring a dire imaginary Venn diagram in which poverty, pollution and educational deficits overlap.

"Energy and India: Looking Into the Future," a panel moderated by Sanjoy Mitter, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, set the conceptual Venn overlap in a global context, with India as an urgent but hardly isolated case.

"India faces a perfect storm of energy challenges, and we will need a multiplicity of solutions to solve the problem. These are good opportunities for partnerships and for global collaboration," said Ernest Moniz, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems and director of the MIT Energy Initiative.

The elements of India's perfect storm include the anticipated tripling of its energy demands by 2050; the probability of disruptions in oil transportation and supply; and the mounting environmental problems caused by carbon dioxide (among other pollutants), Moniz said.

Moniz noted that solving the world's energy problems is a central concern for MIT: While developing nations may face India's perfect storm directly, no nation is immune from global climate change and impending energy crises.

Gregory Stephanopoulos, Bayer Professor of Chemical Engineering, focused on processes to convert biomass to biofuel and urged the audience to consider visionary approaches.

Three issues are central to framing any picture of India's--and the world's--future use of biofuels, he said. There must be sufficient biomass and efficient bio-refineries to generate fuel supply; there must be alternative means of transporting the fuels, as in pipelines; and there must be investment in human infrastructure as well as engineering and distribution, Stephanopoulos said.

Charles Cooney, professor of chemistry and biochemical engineering, praised the MIT Deshpande Center's model of selecting research, directing projects and forging connections between researchers and the marketplace as a guide to building international teams for addressing energy problems.

(Gururaj "Desh" Deshpande, CEO of Sycamore Networks and founder of the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovations, gave the event's closing address.)

The panel, "Microfinance, Primary Education and Health: Understanding Poverty," gave a view from the ground of difficulties in meeting Godrej's goal of correcting inequities among India's 1 billion people.

Abhijit Banerjee, professor of economics, described how application of large-scale randomized experiments to measure the effectiveness of anti-poverty programs in India revealed the workings of a public health disaster in one Indian district. The experiments, conducted by MIT's Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Laboratory (J-PAL), illuminated the morbid interplay among low immunization rates, high absentee rates among doctors and nurses, and unpredictable clinic hours.

Esther Duflo, Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development, applying the J-PAL method to measure primary education programs, discovered the toll of teacher absenteeism and remote school administrators.

Nachiket Mor, deputy managing director of ICICI Bank (formerly the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India), discussed strategies to widen access to credit and the importance of understanding household finances.

Panelists on "Competitiveness in Indian Industry" agreed generally that India resembles China in its shift from a low- to a high-tech work force and in its approach to faculty teaching loads: In both countries, faculty have very heavy teaching loads, which take time from research and slow industrial development.

Discussants included Steve Eppinger, deputy dean and professor at MIT Sloan; Yasheng Huang, associate professor of management; Shekhar Chowdhury, director of the Indian Institute of Management, and S.P. Kothari, Gordon Y Billard Professor of Accounting.

Adele Naude Santos, dean of the School of Architecture, led the presentations on the role of design and urban planning in India. Panelists included Rahul Malhotra, professor of architecture; Balakrishnan Rajagopal, associate professor of urban studies and planning; and Bish Sanyal, professor of urban planning.

Sanyal urged conference participants to view India's challenges as more universal than unique: The future of the world is already here.

"Emergent India: An Engagement With MIT" was organized by the MIT-India Program, the Office of the Provost, and the foreign languages and literatures section.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 26, 2007 (download PDF).

Topics: Global

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