India’s Technology Journey

Science, technology and innovation have had a great impact on economic growth and social development in India. The Government moved from scientific policy resolution (1958) to the technology policy statement (1983) to the science and technology policy (2003) and finally to the science, technology and innovation policy (2013). These are illustrative of the commitment to science and technology by successive governments, as also the welcome emphasis on the importance of science led technology led innovation over a period of time.

We can look at our 40 year journey, the pre-liberalised as well as the post-liberalised India.

First, India experimented with socialism for more than four decades, which kept out foreign capital and technologies, but spurred local innovation based on indigeneous technology.

Second, the Indian economy didn’t start growing until the 1990s, so local companies were small. Indian entrepreneurs, therefore, developed a penchant for undertaking small projects with indigeneous (import substituted) technologies but with huge capital efficiency.

Third, local companies knew that while India has both rich and poor people, catering only to the rich limited their market. They were forced to create products that straddled the whole economic pyramid, from top to bottom. Thus affordable inclusive innovation was firmly integrated in to the strategy.

And fourth, the most important driver happened to be India’s innovation mind-set. Some Indian leaders had the audacity to question the conventional wisdom. The mix of miniscule research budgets, small size, low prices, but big ambitions translated into an explosive combination of extreme scarcity and great aspiration, which ignited the Indian innovation.

Indian technology grew in a denial driven mode in the pre-liberalised India. Foreign technologies were denied because of lack of resource as well as a closed economy in the pre-libralised era. They were also denied due to security and strategic reasons. It was through the path of ‘technonationalism’ that India developed self-reliance through its own technologies in both civilian sectors as well as strategic sectors such as space, defence, nuclear energy, and supercomputers. Let me illustrate.

Take defense. India developed diverse missiles and rocket systems, remotely piloted vehicles, light combat aircraft, etc.  Brahmos is a great example of Indian prowess in a strategic technollgy. None of these technologies were available to India for love or for money.

Take nuclear energy. The entire range of technologies, from the prospecting of raw materials to the design and construction of large nuclear reactors was developed on a self-reliant basis.  India’s nuclear fast-breeder reactors emerged from its thrust towards technonationalism.  

Look at space technology from indigenous development to satellites to launch vehicles, from SLV to ASLV to PSLV to GSLV. India’s first moon orbiter project Chandrayan-1, Mars Orbiter Mission or even the recent simultaneous launch of 20 satellites are brilliant examples. No wonder, India is now ranked amongst handful of nations of the world that have a credible capability in space technology.

Strength respects strength. It is the growing technological strength of a nation that increases its access to technology that has been denied to it. The technology denial regime itself underwent a change as technonationalism gave India a strong technological foundation.

For instance, India’s supercomputer journey began, when access to CRAY super computer was denied to India in mid-eighties. In 1998, C-DAC launched PARAM 10,000, which demonstrated India’s capacity to build 100-gigaflop machines. In response, the US relaxed its export controls. During the same year, CRAY, which had denied the licensing of technology, itself established a subsidiary in India.

In 2008, India signed a key civil nuclear deal with the US, which gave it access to some nuclear materials and technology. Recently, India become a member of Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), getting access to crucial missile technologies. More will follow.

But what about Indian industry and its technological prowess? Indian industry has done well in some sectors. India’s dominance in generic drugs is one example. The auto industry is another one.  

Indian industry is a world leader in what everyone refers to as `frugal innovation’. I prefer the term `affordable excellence’. For instance, let’s ask the following questions.

•    Can we make a high quality Hepatitis-B vaccine priced at US$20 per dose available at a price that is 40 times less, not just 40%?
•    Can we make a high quality artificial foot priced at US$10,000 available at a price that is 300 times less, not even 300%?
•    Can we make an ECG machine available, not at US$10,000 but a price that is 20 times lower, not just 20%?

Incredible as it may sound, all such impossible looking feats have been achieved by Indian technology innovators. And this has captured the imagination of the world to an extent that a new term `Indovation’ is beginning to do rounds now! Books are being written on frugal innovation – the rest of the world wanting to learn from Indian industry!

But with this good progress, there are other areas, where we can do far better.

The share of the R&D investments by the private sector in the overall R&D spend remains low with majority of investment, close to 70-75%, coming from the government. These proportions are nearly reverse, not only in advanced countries, but also in countries such as Korea, China, etc.

India lacks a robust national innovation eco system. Essential elements of a powerful ecosystem comprise physical, intellectual and cultural constructs.  Beyond mere research labs it includes idea incubators, technology parks, a conducive intellectual property rights regime, enlightened regulatory systems, academics who believe in not just ‘publish or perish’, but ‘patent, publish and prosper’, potent inventor-investor engagement, adventure capital, and passionate innovation leaders. An earnest effort on building a robust innovation ecosystem with all these building blocks has already started.

There is some other good news too. On 4 March, 1995, I gave the Lala Karam Chand Thapar Centenary Memorial Lecture titled `India’s Emergence as a Global R&D Platform: The New Challenges and Opportunities’. Incidentally Dr. Man Mohan Singh presided over the lecture. Today, that prediction has come true with over 1000 multinational R&D centers coming up in India employing over 200,000 scientists, engineers and technologists doing cutting edge research, design and development, with significant IP getting generated here.

But how well are we ourselves doing in innovation?

India’s rank among 142 nations, as measured by the Global Innovation Index has moved from 62(2011) to 64 (2012) to 68 (2013) to 73 (2014) to 81 (2015). This is worrisome.

How do we reverse this trend?

For this, going forward, I propose a five point agenda. First, move from the penchant of doing `first to India’ to `first to the world’. In other words, for instance, in the case of drug development, move from `copying molecules’ to `creating new molecules’. This type of original and breakthrough research in every field will also lead to India moving up the IPR ladder, in which it is placed rather low. This will also mean that `make in India’ will move to `make in India based on Indian technology led innovation’. This means `make in India’ not just on the strength of our brawn but on the strength of our brain. Second, make India a leading `start-up’ nation, by implementing in practice Government’s declared (bold & welcome) intentions and policies on its ambitious `start-up India’ programe. Third, move our innovations from Jugaad (less for less) to affordable excellence (more from less), affordability will bring inclusion of our poorest of the poor sections of the society and excellence will bring global competiveness. Fourth, change the ratios of the Government to industry R&D spending from the current 80:20 to 20:80. Provide all incentives to our industry to achieve that.

Fifth, bring bold government policy innovation to back technology innovation. We missed the opportunity of making 200 million illiterate Indians literate in 5 years by using F.C. Kohli’s breakthrough on Computer Based Functional Literacy. Why? No Government policy support to back this disruptive and game changing technology. But during (2014-15) we did world’s fastest financial inclusion in less than one year by using JAM. Jan Dhan Yojna (J) was all bold policy and Aadhar (A) and Mobiles (M) was all Technology. India needs more such disruptive combinations of technological, business model, system delivery, workflow and policy innovations.

And just as I predicted in 1995 about `India’s Emergence as a Global R&D Platform’, which came true, I dare make another prediction.

If this five point agenda is followed, I predict that when Business India’s next 1000th issue is published 38 years from now, India will be amongst the top 10 in the Global Innovation Index.

Written By: R A Mashelkar

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