Acceptance lecture on receiving The Jim Morgan Humanitarian Award at the Tech Museum on November 15, 2012 by Narayana Murthy
James and Rebecca Morgan, Michael Splinter, President Tim Ritchie, Father Engh, The Tech Awards Executive Committee, the Jury, Radha Basu, David Whitman, staff, guests and, most importantly, the young innovators who are transforming this world, my gratitude to every one of you for this kindness, generosity and affection. Having observed the big-hearted actions of Jim and Becky, both illustrious alumni of Cornell, and looking at the list of the previous recipients, I feel very small in front of them. This honor is due to the courtesy, generosity and kindness of the jury. I am inspired by your vision of working with others to invigorate innovation and inspire learning locally, nationally and globally. I am honored to be in the company of some extraordinary innovators who have used their idealism, altruism and smartness to make a difference to the poor in many areas including education, energy, hypothermia and water. I also applaud several corporations who have encouraged these innovators. The best way I can show my gratitude for this honor is to commit to continue to work hard and, hopefully, smart in the remaining years of my life.
Technological advances have made life more prosperous, productive and comfortable for most of the people in certain parts of the world and for many people all over the world. Yet, we see enormous suffering everywhere. A large number of children die as infants. Many of those who escape death are condemned to a life of malnutrition, illiteracy and hopelessness. Over a billion people in the world live below poverty line and eke out a living with barely a dollar a day. These people do not have access to basic facilities like clean water, power, nutritious food, schooling, shelter and healthcare. The world must be grateful to Jim, Applied Materials and the Tech Museum for recognizing those who are making the lives of these poor better, safer and more hopeful through their innovative ideas and commitment to making them a reality. The previous winners and the innovators assembled here are all good examples.
I am excited by technology since it transcends class distinctions in bringing comfort, confidence, dignity and hope to the poor. Healthcare, food, shelter, transportation and education have become cheaper, thanks to technology. Everybody knows how technology makes lives more comfortable. Yes, making a difference in water, education, healthcare and shelter are all extremely important and these young innovators have demonstrated the impact of such work. There is no need for me to dwell much on that. These innovators are doing something even more important to shape the lives of the poor. They are giving confidence and dignity to the poor. Confidence and dignity are extremely important to everybody and particularly for the poor. Let me spend a little bit of time on how technology brings confidence and dignity to the poor.
Much before Internet and mobile phones became the ubiquitous instruments of communication that they are today, the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) wanted to demonstrate the power of video conferencing in bringing confidence to the poor to the state-level politicians in India in 1992. Those days, most taxi drivers in Mumbai, probably thousands of them, came from a few towns in Uttar Pradesh, a northern state in India. These drivers leave their families at home and come to Mumbai. Since these towns are far away they would visit their home towns just once or twice a year. That was the only time they got to spend with their families, see the progress of their children, the health of their parents, and enjoy the company of their spouses. Even speaking over telephone with their loved ones in faraway towns was not affordable for these taxi drivers since telephone charges were exorbitant during those monopoly days of the state. We, at NASSCOM, worked with the then state-owned and now private-owned telecom company, installed a VC equipment in the post office in Azamgarh, a small town in UP, and in the Taxi Union office in Mumbai. We brought together several taxi drivers in Mumbai and their families in Azamgarh. The whole experience was highly emotional to see the smile on the faces of the wives of the taxi drivers when they got to see their husbands. The children cried and wanted to touch their fathers. There was quite an air of confidence on the faces of old parents. It brought confidence to the taxi drivers for they had a way of knowing periodically that their families were well. This experiment was a watershed event for our politicians to understand technology can indeed enhance the confidence of the poor.
Let me now recount a story on how technology is a great leveler and can enhance the dignity of the poor. It was 1995 and we had just installed the first ATM at our Bangalore campus, thanks to ICICI Bank. After a few days, I was standing in line behind one of our janitors at our cafeteria and I struck a conversation with him. I asked him whether he had used the new ATM. He became very excited and said that he was very happy to use it. He continued that the machine treated him exactly like it would treat a well-to-do customer which the bank counter clerk most often did not. In other words, technology had acted as a great leveler and rose above class distinctions. It enhanced the janitor’s dignity and his confidence in the society.
Therefore, adoption of technology is a very important instrument to fight social injustice and to make life better and more dignified for the poor and the helpless. Let us remember the words of John Kennedy that a society that cannot help many who are poor cannot save the few who are rich. Therefore, whether it is the idealism of these wonderful innovators being honored today and of the corporations and individuals associated with the Tech Museum, and the practicality of most people, it is imperative that we bring confidence and dignity to the poor. It is imperative that they have decent access to education, nutrition, healthcare, clean water and air, and shelter. I once again congratulate the innovators, the Tech Museum, the associated individuals and corporations for their work towards making this a better world. Thank you.