CALCUTTA, India, May 13 (UPI) -- India and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been in a spat over the failure of a joint project to develop technology to help the Asian nation's poor, with MIT blaming a clash of cultures, and New Delhi alleging the Cambridge, Mass., facility was too expensive and yielded few results.
For a country that exports more than $10 billion worth of software, and a huge large pool of technology professionals, India has been an under-performer in inventing and creating technology that addresses domestic needs. So in September 2001 to much fanfare, the Indian government and MIT agreed to set up a $1.09 billion technology incubator project in the country known as Media Lab Asia. The Indian government was to provide 20 percent of the project's funding. The rest of the money was to come from corporate sponsors.
"It is just not enough for India to show a 45 percent annual growth in software exports," said then Information Technology and Telecom Minister Pramod Mahajan. "We have to now harness our technical skill base to develop ideas to benefit India's billion-plus population."
Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder and chairman of the MIT Media Lab, said the Asian facility would invent, refine and deploy innovations to benefit all sectors of Indian society.
"Media Lab Asia will not be a bricks and mortar initiative," he said at the time. "Rather, it is intended to be a distributed organization that will work with industry, non-government organizations, government, and most importantly, ordinary people, to bring these innovations to villages across all of India."
Once ready, Media Lab Asia was to have been larger than the original and was expected to trigger other similar projects in Australia, China, Singapore and Korea.
But some 20 months down the road, the project, a nonstarter, was shelved.
On May 8, the Media Lab said MIT and Indian Information Minister Arun Shourie disagreed about the direction of the project.
The following day, Shourie countered saying India decided not to renew the two-year partnership because MIT was too expensive and yielded few results.
He said nearly $2 million of India's $7 million investment had gone toward royalties and lecture fees.
"The contract with MIT was terminated on March 31," he said.
Shourie said the decision was made after he held talks with professors from the Indian Institute of Technology, the country's prestigious engineering school, who were doing research for Media Lab Asia.
"They told me that MIT had not contributed anything to their projects," he said. "MIT was doing nothing in research here. Moreover, there was no communication between Indian researchers and Media Lab U.S."
He also said MIT had demanded $5 million to allow his ministry to continue using the Media Lab Asia title.
"We had put three conditions in front of them (to continue the association)," said Shourie: "No exclusive tie-up with MIT; research work to be led by a panel of Indian scientists; and government salaries for Media Lab Asia employees."
"They (MIT brass) turned down the proposal saying this won't work."
Officials from the country's IT ministry said very little came out of Media Lab Asia nine months after its pilot phase ended June 30, 2002.
"The stated vision was uplifting the lives of the common Indian," said a ministry official, "but the ground realities were out of sync with such lofty ideals. To be fair, there was some research happening -- but mostly at the Indian Institutes of Technology."
The official added the "MLA (was) merely put its sticker on ongoing research projects and claimed them as its own."
Walter Bender, Media Lab's director in Cambridge, blamed Shourie for the fall out.
"The bottom line is that Shourie wanted to run it like other programs are run," he said. "That's not the way Media Lab works. It bets on people, not on products. Apparently, this is not the way India wants it to operate."
He also said the sides disagreed on the Media Lab's research style.
Shourie said, however, the project is not dead.
"Media Lab Asia would be restructuring," he said. "The focus of Media Lab Asia will remain absolutely unchanged and the name of MLAsia would be retained by the Indian government."
He also said the government's new plan suggests MLAsia be integrated with existing government outfits such as Center for Development of Telematics and Center for Development of Advanced Computing to take advantage of existing research resources.
News reports said MIT was still trying to hold out an olive branch.
In a statement to the Indian media, Negroponte said, "We wish MLAsia well and expect that some research will continue between the Media Lab-MIT and IITs. We are fully prepared to consider future case-by-case research projects with the government, IITs or other Indian organizations."
But Shourie said that would be a "matter of international arbitration."