Written by Shekhar Mande
On May 11 every year, we recall the post-independence achievements of India’s science and technology sector. This year is special, marking 25 years since we started celebrating the National Technology Day.
On the iconic day of May 11, 1998, three very special technological advances were showcased by India’s scientists and engineers — Operation Shakti, also known widely as Pokhran-II nuclear tests; the successful test firing of Trishul missile; and the first test flight of the indigenously developed aircraft Hansa.
The euphoria of demonstrations of these technologies was such that the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee added ‘Jai Vigyan’ (Hail Science) to Lal Bahadur Shastri’s popular slogan of ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ (Hail the soldier and the farmer).
The culture of science
The achievements of May 11, 1998 were founded on the progress of the past 51 years that India’s Science and Technology (S&T) sector had made — while also contributing significantly to the economy.
The developments in S&T had already established India as a pharmaceutical hub of the world, Indian IT industry was gearing up to not only to drive the world’s IT enabled services but also soon drive the digital growth of the country, and it appeared that soon, India would break into the world’s top economies.
Vajpayee’s push for economic growth led by S&T is reflected in many of his speeches. For example, during a Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award ceremony, he said, “Friends, all of us know that the creation of scientific and technological knowledge, and the development of its practical applications, is highly capital intensive. Not only does it involve significant and sustained investment in infrastructure, equipment, and raw materials, but also a long-term effort to build and retain top-class brainpower. However, every rupee invested in indigenous R&D repays itself several times over in direct and indirect ways.”
Prominent examples of the last point include development of indigenous varieties of rice by modern and classical methods, which are yielding hundreds of thousands of crores of rupees in international trade. This point needs to be emphasised over and over again to contemporary policymakers and bureaucracy, lest we forget the importance of the fundamentals of economic growth led by S&T.
March since Pokhran
Since 1998, the country has continued steadily in its journey of technological developments. Among the visible examples of India’s impactful technological progress are the digital payment gateways that have democratised financial transactions like never before, and exemplify India’s leadership in the world in this area.
Lesser-known milestones that have quietly been achieved are making of indigenous BioJet fuels, mapping of subsurface water channels for sustainable use of water, making of indigenous light combat aircraft, development of variety of crops by traditional methods of breeding, digitisation of many aspects of trade, and moving firmly towards a Hydrogen economy.
The recent push for infrastructural development, including promotion of use of domestic and industrial waste in it, and its spectacular results, are already making headlines. By steadily reducing energy dependence on natural resources and by promoting renewable energy, India is already in the league of nations where carbon footprint in the energy sector is likely to reduce dramatically.
Much more needs to be done
Challenges, however, remain in many areas, including urban infrastructure and planning, containing air, water and soil pollution, slowing down rural to urban migrations, diversification of agricultural produce, judicious use of water resources, and promotion of AI/ ML technologies in all industrial segments. India’s S&T community is expected to address these challenges to meet the aspirations of 1.4 billion Indians and realise the dream of “amrit kaal”.
Among the concerns widely quoted in holding back India’s S&T ecosystem are the lack of adequate investments by private industries in R&D. The total expenditure on R&D, of approximately 0.6% of its GDP, is almost entirely contributed by public funds. Inadequate involvement by state governments in S&T is also a matter of concern. Maharashtra for example, contributes close to 15% of the country’s GDP, but spends a mere fraction of it on S&T.
Moreover, private industries’ attempt to work in collaboration with academia is typically viewed under the scanner of “inappropriate” practices, which not only hampers the work undertaken, but also discourages government-supported researchers from undertaking any collaborative work with industries. Appropriate frameworks are urgently needed so that collaborations between industry and academia are facilitated at a rapid pace.
Finally, the time of execution of projects is a luxury that must be shed immediately if we are to accelerate growth led by S&T. If India’s ambitions of leading the world into a sustainable future, where all human beings live peacefully and in harmony with nature, were to realise, reforms in the bureaucratic system for the management of S&T are an immediate necessity.
The author is a former director general of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.