Sunday, October 08, 2006


The white horses of the IT battlefield

My ebullient friend Prof. Yogendra Simha at the Indian Institute of Science had this pet project proposal he conceived to poke fun at the way the science and technology establishment squanders money on white elephants. His project was titled AIRAVAT (the name of the mythical white elephant of the King of the Gods, Indra). AIRAVAT stands for Autonomous Integrated, Rural, Adaptive Vehicle for All Terrains. The objective is of course to convert rural India into a glorious economic miracle with the deployment of thousands of AIRAVATs.

I have been reminded of Simha and his AIRAVAT recently when Intel announced Eduwise, the low-cost laptop for education, and I heard rumors that the Government of India (some ministry or the other) has placed initial orders. Why is this fascination with PCs and laptops? Why do we believe that if we give one laptop to every child all our educational woes will disappear? I guess learning from history is hard because history is not well known, given that teaching and research in humanities is in the pits in India. Not surprisingly, similar folly was committed by many in medieval India. Instead of PCs, horses were the white elephants of those days.

The role of cavalry in armed conflict has at least a 2500 year old history. The battle between the victorious Alexander and the defeated Porus is the story of the battle between the horses and the elephants. More recently and much further down south, the import of horses from Arabia was the top expenditure item for many kingdoms. Unlike in north India, where local breeds of horses (the Marwari, Manipuri, Kathiawari, etc.), the south had no native horses.
The successive emergence of large empires centered in the North was attributed to the presence of cavalry as a key part of the armed forces and hence the the creation and maintenance of a cavalry was given top priority by any empire-building aspirant in the south. The result was a long standing and profitable trade for the Arabs in horses. For instance, the Pandya kingdom in South India was importing about 2000 horses every year from Arab traders! (By a strange and not so strange coincidence, I found this information in the blog of a real person named Airavat Singh with a website!) The key feature that is of interest to us today is the fact that Arab horses never bred well in India nor did they live long. the reasons cited for this poor state of affairs (from the Indian perspective) is that the horses couldn't survive the humid and hot conditions, used as they were to the dry environment of the Arabian peninsula. The second reason is
the lack of skills in managing horses by the natives. For obvious reasons, the Arabs kept these skills to themselves.

Thus huge investments in horses were made in the hope that the armed forces will be empowered. This trend continued even when the cavalry ceased to be the prime edge in the battlefield. The innovative and entrepreneurial Tippu Sultan was among the few who looked for alternate options for military superiority. The chronicle of how he created long range rocket technology, how he won several battles with the British because of the rockets (in combination with several other military tactics), and how Tippu's rocket is credited with helping the British win the battle of Trafalgar could be found elsewhere (Lecture by Prof. Roddam Narasimha.)
We are still looking at PCs and laptops to win our battles in the IT field. Hence peddlers of such wares continue to entice us with 'low-cost' versions of these just so that they continue to get revenues from outdated products which will support their dominance in the leading edge arsenal. In education, may be there is no need for PCs. Maybe it is about simply adding a boiled egg to the mid-day meal. May be we need to invent our own rockets. But whatever else, we certainly need to read history.

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