In the two to three decades following India’s independence, the vision of the founding leadership on the role of science and technology arose out of the freedom movement. It was not as if we became independent and then began thinking about what kind of nation to build; the idea of India was already nascent in the national movement. The role of science and technology in shaping development was central to this idea. This was quite unique among the developing nations. Even during the second wave of independence of the erstwhile colonies in Africa, the centrality of science and technology in the post-independence development story did not quite feature in the same way as it did in India. Science and technology were envisaged to have three major roles in independent India.
The first role was of an anchor for the economic development of the country. Rather than bringing about economic development through trade, India focused on building its own industries in order to establish genuine independence and especially to avoid dependence on developed nations and the former ‘mother country.’ In the 40s and 50s, colonial powers such as Britain, Holland and France intended to maintain the umbilical cord linking them with their erstwhile colonies. This was a form of neo-colonialism whereby the former colony would continue to be enslaved through economic dependence despite obtaining political independence. In the initial years after Indian independence, Britain and the United States both refused to support Indian efforts at acquiring scientific and technological capabilities. This reinforces the idea that economic independence anchored in science and technology would also establish the political sovereignty of independent India. India therefore went on to build industrial capacities in core industries such as steel, cement, and other metals.
The second role of science and technology was human resource development and the creation of an educated citizenry. Various universities were set up, chief among them being the IITs, for the development of engineers who would be the human resource for industrial development. India also opened a network of laboratories under Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) for industrial research. India received assistance from various countries including Britain and the United States who were anxious about the growing closeness between India and the Soviet Union. In other critical industrial areas, however, India did not receive assistance from any country. An institutional structure was built and promoted in space and nuclear science and technology. The nuclear energy establishment set up its own research institutions and trained its own scientists. The same approach was adopted in space research with the government providing ample institutional freedom with the specific goal of achieving self-reliance.
Third, science and technology were to be central to the promotion of what Nehru referred to as “scientific temper”. Nehru coined this term in his book Discovery of India and it refers to evidence-based reasoning and critical thinking. He saw this as a way of breaking free of orthodoxy, dogma and superstition, and paving the way for a modern India. Here too India was unique in that it became the first developing nation to formulate a formal set of science and technology policy documents called the “Scientific Policy Resolution”, followed by an “Industrial Policy Resolution”, which concretised the ways in which science and technology would facilitate development.
This policy of self realiance was carried forward in the 1970s by the government led by Indira Gandhi as well. By then, however, drawbacks of the import substitution model were beginning to become apparent. As a result of being a closed and protected economy, the big private companies became virtual monopolies. While a public monopoly has some degree of accountability, there was none in the private sector. The consumer goods market fared poorly. Demand for manufactured products soared over the decades in the face of limited supply, and product quality took a back seat. There was no incentive to upgrade technological know-how in either public or private sector.
India’s economy continued to flounder in the 80s, and had virtually collapsed in the 90s when Chandra Shekhar, the then Prime Minister, sent a notorious flight carrying gold to be sold abroad in order to solve India’s solvency crisis. Economists refer to this period as the lost decade. While India was on a par with China in the 50s and 60s, this period saw India lag behind as China surged ahead owing to their own development policies fostered by the cultural revolution and the ‘Great Leap Forward.’ China had been able to cement its position in the global economy as a major player in the global division of labour and the distribution of the value chain. Other South Asian countries like Thailand, South Korea, Malasia had also developed their manufacturing capabilities. India was nowhere in this picture and failed to develop that kind of manufacturing capability.
The 90s heralded a period of liberalisation and as the economy opened up, the goal of self reliance in terms of scientific and technological capability was completely forgotten. This was not a lapse of memory but a new and consciously formulated ideology. The neoliberal ideology essentially conveyed that you don’t need to develop your own capability because you can buy knowledge. If you wish to expand economically, call a foreign investor; he will bring his own technology which in turn will foster development. Foreign direct investment (FDI) in manufacture was heavily pushed. The role of the Indian population was reduced to merely that of a consumer. In fact, documents of the period reveal that the Indian political leadership explicitly proclaimed that the idea of self reliance in science and tehnology was an outmoded one. It was now believed that technology can simply be purchased. This idea, and the policy shift based on it, meant that India’s position in the global economy and value chain would now be determined by supranational forces such as multi-national corporations as well as the European Union and United States. The latter wielded their influence by way of the clout they held in the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and the World Bank.
India finds itself today in a position where it is the world’s second largest market for cell phones, but isn’t a leading manufacturer of the same. The few Indian companies which manufacture cell phones import kits from China and assemble them in India. Companies worth lakhs of crores such as Reliance and Airtel don’t manufacture goods. The Indian capitalist class continues to be essentially what it was a century ago – a trading class. Indians work in foreign software companies like Microsoft and Google but there is no Indian software or hardware. Today we are in danger of facing a second “lost decade”. China, on the other hand, has a clear strategy in place. It has recognised that while it is the leading manufacturer of low-end consumer products, the future lies in high-tech. As a result, China aims to focus now on high-tech products, robotics and artifical intelliegence. It understands, in other words, the importance of moving up the economic value chain through a focus on science and technology.
The idea of a global value chain can be illustrated through the example of television sets. The United States used to be the leading manufacturer of television sets. It was eventually displaced by Asian countries with the rise of Japanese companies like Sony, Toshiba, and, later, by Korean companies like Samsumg and LG in the early 2000s. Internationally there exists a value chain; as countries develop they move to newer and bigger technologies, with others catching up at the lower end. With China shifting to high-tech, will India step in and fill the breach? It seems unlikely. We don’t make silicon wafers, which is what goes into cell phones, or computer chips. We are soon going to be the world’s biggest user of solar energy, but we don’t make a single solar panel or solar cell. So, today, because of a lack of attention to developing scientific and technological capability, and knowledge and industrial capability to match, India is getting left behind.
The defence industry is another such example. India is one of the world’s largest importers of defence equipment. The entire defence industry and its procurement processes are based on the erroneous idea that it’s all about money. So, from the previous government to the present regime, they have been lowering the bar. When permission for FDI in defence manufacturing began – at 26% – nobody came. Even when it was raised to 50%, 75% nobody came. Today, with 75%, automatic clearance and 100% clearance with special permission, we still are not being able to get companies like Boeing to set up military manufacturing units in the country. The reason they are not doing so is because they don’t want to share their technology.
India is lagging behind in developing intellectual capability. The engineering institutions are lagging way behind global standards. We are hardly producing any engineers. 80 percent or more of IIT graduates in this country end up pursuing a different career. Most choose to join management institutes or the Indian Administrative Services. Engineering is seen as a stepping stone to other lucrative options, and not as an end in itself. This is because we have failed to build a culture that values such professions which involve innovation and working with one’s hands. There is a lot of disdain for manual work. It is no surpise that this mentality is particularly prevalent among the predominantly upper caste middle classes. The people who have manual skills are the lowest caste. They don’t get into engineering colleges. They don’t receive any education. Nobody cares about this and the middle class of the country is uninterested in talking about it. You have all big campaign groups talking about education, nobody talks about the skill upgradation programmes in this country. I remember reading a letter to the editor from a gentleman who said that while both his sons were IIT graduates, they still had to call in a local electrician when the fuse went off!
It is my dream to see this current path reversed. It is going to be an uphill task because unfortunately the political leadership of our country seems to be thinking the other way. The business leadership of our country is not interested in these goals. So how India is going to move in a different direction today is the big question.