Date: 7th June 2012
Swati Piramal, doctor, scientist, industrialist and director, Piramal Healthcare, was recently elected to the Harvard Board of Overseers that oversees all the Harvard Schools. She talks to Sangeetha Nambiar
Dr. Swati Piramal
In what way do you think will an Indian's presence on the Harvard Board of Overseers help the country?
As one of the members of the board, I want to contribute in a big way. While on the board of the Harvard School of Public Health, I invited members from the varsity to tour Indian hospitals and initiate several programmes . We developed the new idea of training doctors to make them physician scientists since there are very few of them in India . We are looking at designing a special curriculum that can be placed online for the benefit of a large number of people. Harvard has done some amazing work in India and being on this board, will enable me to continue the good work.
Personally, what does this honour really mean to you?
When I completed my Master's degree at the Harvard School of Public Health in 1992, I never dreamt that one day I would be elected to this prestigious 300-year-old institution's board. It is a great honour to be on the board as you have to be nominated by and voted for by the entire alumnus.
The Indian education system has been criticised for being theoretical and stressing on textbook knowledge. What steps do you think policy-makers must take to change this approach?
The stress on textbook knowledge is one of the biggest problems of our education system. We also find that many children, especially girls in rural areas, are unable to go to schools, or drop-out early. We run an NGO and are also involved in several CSR activities, one of which includes training rural headmasters in education. It is important to stress on the need for knowledge as opposed to just textbook learning.
We have designed a programme for young graduates who can in turn teach at the grassroots level. For this, we started the Piramal-Gandhi Fellowship around four years ago, which follows Mahatma Gandhi's main principle — be the change. The programme has been successful in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra and we are looking to extend it to more states. Our basic philosophy is "improving the education system to make it as it should be."
Why is it that India has not been able to set up world-class educational institutions like Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford?
It is true that we are far behind when it comes to setting up world-class institutions. But, we can make a quantum jump like we did in the field of IT. Technology can be the game-changer where we don't need a classroom and everything can be made available online. One of the biggest hurdles in the country is the existence of regulatory bottlenecks, which hamper such developments. Some of these rules and regulations need to be eased for us to make progress.
Is there a renewed interest among Indian students to pursue pure science courses? What kind of options do such students have in India?
We have a long way to go in terms of research and brain drain is a serious problem. We find it very difficult to find research students in India. In Piramal for instance, we train people in specialised research only to lose them to another company once they are trained. We have trained to reverse the drain to some extent by getting Indian researchers to come back from abroad and work for us. But this involves a lot of cost. To get good people, we have to pay them well, provide them with requisite facilities and give them enough creative freedom.
As a businesswoman what is your advice for young entrepreneurs?
I would like to tell aspiring entrepreneurs that in this morass of defeatism when we are facing a recession-like situation and when there is a policy paralysis, just be the best at what you do. Work hard to excel, drive the envelope of knowledge and you will definitely succeed. For example, when we bought Nicholas Piramal in 1988, the company's revenue was Rs 15 crore. When we sold a generic portfolio of the company, we garnered $3.8 billion.
What are your plans for the future?
I would love to use technology to improve healthcare and education in the country. Like Jawaharlal Nehru said, we can find solutions to poverty with the correct use of technology.