Aiming for the stars… but can’t even make a chip!

Indranil Banerjie

India is reaching for the moon. Its second moon mission lifts off next month and will land a remote-controlled explorer on the moon’s surface and put a satellite into lunar orbit. This will mark a spectacular milestone in India’s space journey and showcase its amazing competencies in space technology acquired through decades of pioneering work.
The next giant step will be the 2021 launch of the manned Gaganyaan orbital spacecraft capable of carrying three astronauts on a seven-day space mission.
The success of India’s space technologists while lighting up the Indian firmament does at the same time cast into shadow another aspect of our national condition — the sheer inability to make the slightest breakthrough in a slew of other critical technologies so crucial for our economic progress.
The Indian Space Research Organisation’s outstanding successes highlight the fact that while we can reach the moon, we cannot yet make computer chips, aircraft engines, rifles for our military or even key LED components for the millions of television sets sold in the country.
The question we must pose is why have we failed so abysmally in most technology areas when clearly we are capable of excellence, even greatness, as our space programme demonstrates?
This question is important because the long-term future of our nation depends on our capability to innovate, invent and establish competitive advantages in at least a few key sectors. Space alone cannot take us there.
Our shortcomings in most areas of high technology, apart from space and pharmaceuticals, are alarming for several reasons. For one, our space industry is miniscule compared to the size of our electronics sector and other technology-intensive sectors such as aeronautics, defence and so on.
One industry leader estimated the space sector in the country has a potential to generate `1,500-2,000 crores annually. In comparison, India’s electronics industry is already expected to touch $400 billion by 2020, up from about $70 billion in 2012.
The Indian input in this burgeoning sector remains non-critical as most key components are imported since not a single Indian company has the capability of designing and making them. Not surprisingly, our electronics imports touched a record $55.6 billion in fiscal 2019, constituting the largest component of India’s overall imports after oil.
Our technology deficit in the defence sector is even more alarming, both from a strategic as well as an economic standpoint. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), India was the world’s second largest arms importer (after Saudi Arabia) in the 2014-18 period, accounting for almost a tenth of all arms sold internationally.
We can’t make a decent rifle for our Army, engines for our aircraft or tanks, state-of-the-art missiles, radars and other electronics warfare components or systems. Even for our indigenous Tejas fighter jet programme, the engines and the electronics are all imported.
So where lies the problem? Why can’t we innovate or develop cutting-edge technology in most critical areas?
The answer, experts believe, lies in our inability to distinguish between science and technology. Technology arises from science, and not from a vacuum. Fundamental or basic science is the bedrock on which all technology is built. And it is here where successive Indian governments have failed.
The stress, ever since the time of our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, has been on technology. It is no coincidence that our first centres of academic excellence were the Indian Institutes of Technology, the IITs.
In contrast, in socialist Soviet Union the prime centres of academic excellence were the academy of sciences. In the United States, it was universities like Harvard, Stanford and MIT, and in Britain the venerable universities of Oxford and Cambridge which promoted the fundamental sciences.
Public and private grants and generous endowments to these institutions nurtured a culture of basic research unconnected to technological or industry outcomes. This freed the best minds in their countries to think, discover, invent and learn without any inhibition or restrictive pragmatic bindings.
In India, perhaps because of our poverty, we stressed the outcome of research and to a large extent discouraged research for research’s sake. The outcome has been an unfortunate destruction of the scientific temper.
In a society where obscurantists, scamsters and touts are role models, the image of a scientist as a long suffering, poorly paid employee languishing in dark laboratories naturally fails to inspire better minds.
Globally, we are at the bottom of the science barrel. Unesco statistics suggest that India invests just about 0.8 per cent of its GDP on research and development, compared to two per cent by China, 2.9 per cent by a country like Germany and 2.8 per cent by the United States.
The number of researchers in India too is quite pathetic — just 156 per million of the population compared to China’s 1,113, Germany’s 4,363 and the United States’ 4,231.
The country’s primary science promotion body is reported to be in crisis. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which funds 38 institutes, has been ordered by the government to increase its own funding within three years as government grants will be slashed or done away with.
This will be yet another blow for Indian sciences. The country is already decades behind in metallurgy, solid state physics, electronics and other disciplines. Funding cuts will drive science underground.
There are several lessons to be learnt from the success of our space programme. The first one is that a precondition for success is the creation of an independent, nurturing institution for growth of talent. In the case of space, Isro served this role as an organisation proud of its ethos, achievements and work environment.
The second necessary condition for scientific and technological excellence in any field is generous government or private endowments. Science and technology research have long incubation periods and high rates of failure. Isro has succeeded because it has always got generous funding and government encouragement despite the occasional setbacks.
Nobody is going to hand us critical technologies on a platter. These take years and millions of dollars to develop and constitute the cutting edge of a nation’s innovation capacity.
The ruling BJP’s poll manifesto has promised to start major programmes in artificial intelligence, robotics, supercomputers and genomics for human health. But in order to do that it needs to take several enabling steps, starting with basic education. It also needs to curb the rise of pseudo-science and look to the future instead of the past for scientific and technological inspiration. Only then will India’s innovative capabilities take off in line with the inspiring trajectory of our space programme.