Floundering about after promising start

Print edition : September 01, 2017

Hyderabad, January 3, 1967: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi inaugurating the 54th session of the Indian Science Congress. Indira Gandhi, who became Prime Minister in 1966, showed the same unwavering commitment to developing a strong S&T base in the country and support to the scientific community as her father. Photo: The Hindu Archives

New Delhi, March 22, 1957: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru presiding over a meeting of the Governing Body of the CSIR, which was considering various research programmes in the national and other laboratories. The 29-member body was set up in 1942 and had important industrialists and scientists represented on it. Also seen are Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and J.R.D. Tata. Photo: The Hindu Archives

C. Subramaniam. On his initiative, the National Committee on S&T was set up in 1971. Photo: PIB

R. Chidambaram, Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India. He is also Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet, which was constituted in 1956. Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam

Jawaharlal Nehru had worked with a distinct vision for the role S&T would play in the country’s development, but poor funding for the area in the decades after him and the lack of emphasis on universities as R&D centres have meant that India is not self-reliant in the civilian technology sectors.

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY (S&T) as the cornerstone of development was an important element in the Nehruvian vision of post-independent India. Even while being actively involved as one of the political leaders spearheading the freedom movement, Jawaharlal Nehru was among a select few who were thinking about developing an S&T base in the country after Independence. His linkages with the Indian scientific community predated Independence. The National Planning Committee of 1938, which he chaired, had five scientists: Meghnad Saha (who was instrumental in forming it), A.K. Saha, Nazir Ahmed, J.C. Ghosh and V.S. Dubey. The Congress party had given Nehru a great deal of latitude to plan for scientific and technological institutions of post-independent India in close consultation with scientists.

In a bid to develop the infrastructure necessary for scientific research and science education at the highest level, Nehru opted for a certain trajectory with a chain of national laboratories as part of nation building. In the process, in the 1940s, he became close to visionary scientific institution builders of the country such as Homi J. Bhabha, the architect of the Indian nuclear programme; Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, the “father of national research laboratories”, under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR); and later Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, who founded the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta (now Kolkata), and whose statistics-based growth model became a key ingredient of the national planning process and guided sectoral investments under the Five Year Plans. Nehru’s interest in science and his conviction that it alone could deliver the promises of a newly independent country were so strong that in January 1947 he was made the president of the Indian Science Congress, the annual meeting of the Indian Science Congress Association, which was formed in 1914.

Besides the setting up of necessary infrastructure for the pursuit of science, the political commitment to science in post-independent India was given expression through the Scientific Policy Resolution (SPR) of 1958. It is a watershed document in the articulation of the government’s perspective on the development of S&T in the country. Nehru had personally tabled the resolution and read it out “because”, he said, “we consider this Resolution as an important one, defining our attitude to science and technology generally”. An expression of this kind demonstrating the government’s attitude towards S&T, through a resolution of Parliament, was, in fact, unprecedented in the world. In fact, the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet (SAC-C), comprising scientists and government functionaries, was constituted in 1956 itself. The SAC-C exists to this day, though there have been periods when it existed only on paper.

Articulation of government perspective

The government perspective on the development of S&T was articulated in Article 1 of the SPR. It says: “The key to national prosperity, apart from the spirit of the people, lies, in the modern age, in the effective combination of three factors, technology, raw materials and capital, of which the first is perhaps the most important, since the creation and adoption of new scientific techniques can, in fact, make up for a deficiency in natural resources, and reduce the demands on capital. But technology can only grow out of the study of science and its applications.” Article 7 says: “The Government of India have decided to pursue and accomplish these aims by offering good conditions of service to scientists and according them an honoured position….” These two statements together provide the reasons why the first post-Independence government accorded importance to education and research in basic sciences and to scientists.

Although the CSIR had been established with the specific mandate to develop technologies relevant to Indian industry even before the SPR was articulated, the SPR’s focus on the supply side alone, namely the creation of science in research laboratories, has sometimes been criticised. In the words of V. Siddhartha, a former scientist involved with policy issues at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the CSIR and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO): “The political cover and the needed protection provided to the supply-side institutions perhaps isolated Indian science from its intended beneficiaries and customers.” It has also been criticised for not emphasising the importance of social sciences and the role of social scientists in the development of S&T for the benefit of the people.

Indeed, in the otherwise excellently worded SPR, the importance given to technology development would seem only secondary. While the truth of the statement in the SPR that “ can only grow out of the study of science and its applications” cannot be denied, its focus was to foster and nurture science in the country. But it would be wrong to say that technology development was ignored. In fact, following the passage of the SPR, the government took up its implementation, including issues of technology development, through three national-level conferences of scientists, educationists and industrialists, in 1958, 1963 and 1970. In 1967, a round table of young scientists was organised to get their perspectives on important issues arising from the SPR. Nehru passed away in 1964, but Indira Gandhi, who became the Prime Minister in 1966, showed the same unwavering commitment to developing a strong S&T base in the country, self-reliance in particular, and support to the scientific community as her father and continued the task of evolving an action plan to implement the SPR.

Although the Indian programmes of technology development in atomic energy, defence and space—committed to achieving autonomous capacity and capability through indigenous development of necessary technologies right from the word go—began in 1954, 1958 and 1961 respectively (see articles by T.S. Subramanian in this issue), the 1962 war with China and the 1965 war with Pakistan demonstrated that India’s technological and industrial base was not capable of meeting the needs of the military, requiring as it did a diverse industrial base for indigenous development of critical technologies necessary for the country’s security. Also, in 1966-67, India was facing a food crisis and had to import food but not without strings attached. Some commentators and politicians were beginning to ask: “What has Indian science done for society?” Given this environment, Indira Gandhi specifically convened the 1970 conference on the implementation of the SPR.

The conference recommended, on the initiative of C. Subramaniam (former Agriculture Minister in the Indira Gandhi government who became the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission in 1971), the setting up of a National Committee on S&T (NCST), and this was done in 1971. This was another milestone in the country’s policy-level initiatives for all-round S&T development in a systematic and planned manner. In 1971-74, the NCST discussed all the relevant issues concerning demand and supply elements—forward, backward and horizontal or inter-sectoral linkages, fiscal issues and funding patterns, industrial participation and R&D investment, identification of priority areas, etc.—to evolve a national S&T development strategy. As a result of these discussions, the NCST came out with a policy document called “An Approach to Science and Technology Plan”, which was intended to serve as the basis for technology development in the country. The “orange book”, as this classic document was popularly referred to, can still be useful (with some appropriate modifications in the changed context of today). Of course, today, 70 years after Independence, India has a government that has not only done away with the planning process in all sectors, not just S&T, but has never even articulated, as a political rhetoric at least, its commitment to S&T.

The 1973 approach document of the NCST contained the objectives of meeting minimum needs, achieving technological self-reliance, maximising the utilisation of available scientific and technological resources, developing human resource, and generating employment opportunities of matching supply and demand in the S&T sector. The details were spelt out in 24 sectoral volumes, which went into even micro level issues such as the possible participating institutions/industries in a given technology development project. This formed the basis for the formulation of the nation’s first S&T Plan by the NCST—a landmark development in S&T development in the country—in which about 2,000 scientists, technologists, social scientists and technical personnel belonging to various Ministries participated. The S&T Plan was linked to the Fifth Five Year Plan.

No mechanism to monitor implementation

However, the NCST approach had two major deficiencies. First, it did not have any mechanism to monitor the progress made in the implementation of the various decisions taken. In fact, most of the recommendations in the document, in terms of policy instruments, could not be implemented for various reasons, in particular because of the change of government. For example, the NCST recommended that investment in R&D should be 1 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). But to date, R&D investment has been below 1 per cent notwithstanding the oft-repeated statements of those in power about achieving 2 per cent, particularly at the annual forum of the Indian Science Congress and also in the S&T policy documents of 2003 and 2013 (Figure 1: data for R&D investment available only until 2011-12). At present, it remains at 0.88 per cent; it was at 0.9 per cent in 2008-09, while even among the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries, R&D spending by Brazil, Russia and China exceeds 1 per cent of the GDP. Developed economies spend well over 2 per cent; Israel spends more than 4 per cent, while Japan and South Korea spend above 3 per cent (Table 1).

Figure 1 also shows that this spending has not always been monotonously increasing. In fact, in the 1990s, there was a monotonous decrease from 0.74 per cent in 1990-91 to 0.67 per cent in 1995-96 (the economic liberalisation phase). The other phase when it dropped was between 2000-01 and 2003-04, when it dropped from 0.80 to 0.76 per cent. In the initial couple of years of the latter period, which was under the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), it increased to 0.80 and later dipped. However, we do not have the R&D investment figures for the second phase of NDA rule. During the intervening phase from 2004 to 2012, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance under Manmohan Singh was in power, R&D investment plateaued between 0.86 and 0.89 per cent.

The second shortcoming was that the NCST lacked any policy instrument to leverage the demand side. While new institutional and administrative structures were created on the supply side, there were no measures put in place to strengthen linkages between this and the demand side. There was no involvement, for example, of supply-side R&D institutions in the choice, terms and conditions of import and their further downstream development—adaptation, absorption and indigenisation of imported technologies—which resulted in a widening gap between R&D institutions and industry. Vested interests also were at work killing any initiatives to forge linkages between national laboratories and industry. After many efforts that were made from time to time to articulate a clear-cut policy on technology development, this happened only in 1983 with the release of a Technology Policy Statement (TPS) at the session of the Indian Science Congress in January of that year.

The thrust of TPS-1983 was “attainment of technological self-reliance”. It says: “Our directives must clearly define systems for the choice of technology, taking into account economic, social and cultural factors along with technical considerations; indigenous development and support to technology, and utilisation of such technology; acquisition of technology through import and its subsequent absorption, adaptation and upgradation; ensuring competitiveness at international levels in all necessary areas; and establishing links between various elements concerned with generation of technology, its transformation into economically usable form, the sector responsible for production (which is the user of such technology), financial institutions concerned with the resources needed for these activities, and the promotional and regulating arms of the government.”

On indigenous technology development, it specifically states: “Fullest support will be given to the development of indigenous technology to achieve technological self-reliance and reduce dependence on foreign inputs, particularly in critical and vulnerable areas and in high value added items in which the domestic base is strong. Strengthening and diversifying the domestic technology base are necessary to reduce imports and expand exports for which international competitiveness must be ensured.... Incentives will, therefore, be provided to users of indigenously developed technology and for products and processes resulting from such use.... A policy directed towards technological self-reliance does not imply technological self-sufficiency. The criterion must be national interest. Government policy will be directed towards reducing technological dependence in key areas.” But all these pious statements fell by the wayside long ago, particularly in the wake of liberalisation and globalisation, the seeds of which were already being sown during the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1986. Questioning the need for the new S&T policy of 2003 when it was on the cards, the late space scientist Yash Pal, who was a champion of indigenous technology development and a great science populariser, told Frontline in 2002: “They [SPR and TPS] were beautifully worded documents. What we lacked was a strategy to implement them.”

Lack of leverage on demand side

The TPS had stipulated that the government would evolve instruments for the implementation of this policy and spelt out in detail guidelines for Ministries and agencies of the government and for industries and entrepreneurs. With a view to fulfilling this mandate, a high-level 12-member committee called the Technology Policy Implementation Committee (TPIC) was set up in 1983. It was headed by the Chairman, SAC-C, and the Member (Science), Planning Commission. However, the TPIC’s recommendations could never be implemented again because of lack of any leverage on the demand side. Also, the core elements of economic policies, fiscal, trade, industrial, etc., were at variance with the objectives of the TPS. The dismantling of regulatory barriers on imports, which had begun in the second half of the 1980s, made easy the entry of not only foreign products but also foreign companies. As a consequence, TPS-1983’s thrust of indigenous technology development and achieving self-reliance, particularly in the socio-economic sectors, could never be fulfilled. For example, the TPIC had recommended the creation of a technology development fund by levying an R&D cess of 1 per cent on the production turnover of industries. But this was not implemented. A variant of this was articulated only in 1986 in the R&D Cess Act in the form of a 5 per cent R&D cess on technology payments for import of technologies (following objections from industry to the earlier recommendation of turnover as the base). The cess began to be collected only in 1988-89. The feasibility of such a fund to foster indigenous R&D now stands demonstrated through the Technology Development Board, which was created in 1995 (well after the liberalisation process was on) to make use of the collected cess fund. But this amounts to a fraction of the total outgo towards the import of technologies in the post-liberalisation era.

The value of technology imports in 2015-16 was Rs.18,296 crore compared with Rs.3,000 crore for high-technology exports, which is only 8-9 per cent of India’s total export of manufactured goods. This means that the bulk of manufactured goods in India is still of low technology. India ranks 47th in the export of high-tech goods compared with China (25.37 per cent), South Korea (26.88 per cent), Vietnam (26.93 per cent), France (26.09 per cent), the United States (18.23 per cent), Germany (16 per cent) and Japan (16.69 per cent). Since the turn of the new millennium, imports have been increasing roughly at a rate of about 30 per cent.

But, given the prevalent technology denial regimes industrialised countries of the West have put in place in the strategic sectors of atomic energy, space and defence, this thrust of self-reliance had to be maintained at a high level, defence to a lesser extent than space and atomic energy. Perhaps, in the civilian sectors, self-reliance has completely been given up in recent years, and accordingly, perhaps, the key elements that need to be emphasised could be different. Nevertheless, there is nothing in the SPR, TPS-1983, and in the TPIC recommendations that cannot be implemented even in the present context.

One of the main reasons for India’s R&D investment not increasing to the desired levels of at least 1 per cent of the GDP (as recommended by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, or UNESCO) is because of insufficient investment on the part of the industrial sector, both public and private. In industrialised countries, the larger share of R&D investment (nearly three-fourths) comes from industry. In India, it has been the opposite, with three-fourths coming from the government sector and less than a fourth from industry. The situation has improved marginally in recent years, and R&D expenditure by industry has gradually been increasing in absolute terms (with a growth rate of about 33 per cent), but its share to the total national R&D expenditure remains low. This is despite several fiscal incentives extended to the industry over the years, particularly after liberalisation.

Innovation not triggered

But the more appropriate measure for R&D spending in industry is firm-level R&D intensity, which is defined as the ratio of annual R&D expenditure to annual sales turnover. If easy access to global products and technology post-liberalisation was supposed to trigger innovation in domestic industry, this has not happened as can be seen from the figures for R&D intensity in Indian industry between 1995-96 and 2010-11 (Table 2). As Table 2 shows, for domestic industry as a whole, the average figure is extremely low (0.35) by global standards, and there has been only a marginal increase over the period considered. So, though technology imports did increase significantly following liberalisation, a corresponding increase in R&D intensity and the consequent increased manufacture and export of high-technology goods did not happen. Given all this, particularly the unwillingness of industry to pick up pilot-scale developments from supply-side R&D institutions, the gap between supply and the demand from the industrial sector has only widened greatly. If technology embargoes could spur sectors of the economy into achieving self-reliance, and that too in high-end technology areas of the strategic sectors, it is unfathomable why this should not be achievable in other sectors.

Barring cuts in the last couple of years—including the current government’s recent call to CSIR laboratories to earn at least 50 per cent of their budget from external sources, which, given the reasons outlined above, is an uphill task—funding for scientific research, or supply side in R&D institutions, has been reasonably adequate since the erstwhile NDA government’s enunciation of the Science Technology Policy of 2003 (STP-2003). The ostensible reason for formulating STP-2003 was to integrate policy instruments for S&T into a single document as against the two separate documents of SPR (1958) and TPS-1983. An important element in STP-2003 was debureaucratisation of the science administration in the country. In 2010, ostensibly new mechanisms of disbursing funds for research projects were evolved through the creation of the Science and Engineering Research Board by an Act of Parliament.

In the years after 2003, STP-2003 did result in increased funding for basic research as a result of increased budgetary allocations and extramural project funding. According to T. Ramasami, former Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), this has had the positive impact of increased research output from Indian institutions, particularly universities. There has been a spurt in publications in journals of high impact and citations as well, and this has led to India’s much improved ranking in its research share to the global output in recent years. However, India remains far behind China. This is evidence of the need for even higher investment in R&D by the government to increase the impact of Indian contributions in research and its global standing. With the general level of research performance across institutions showing an upward trend, peaks should show up in the years to come. At present, however, there are only small islands (in fact, individual institutions) of excellence, with the bulk of institutions having still a long way to go.

According to an internal report of the DST in 2015, while research in traditional areas such as chemistry, physics, biology and mathematics seems to have maintained a steady pace, output in areas such as engineering, medicine, computer science, pharmacology, energy fuels and telecommunications has registered impressive growth trends. “These are research areas with potential interest to industrial applications,” notes the report. However, it calls for attention to areas such as earth sciences and agriculture where outputs seem to be stifled.

According to the document, during 1966-75, six major research areas with scientific outputs as revealed by the Web of Science database are health sciences, chemistry, physics, S&T, engineering and agriculture. Data show that by 2006, several new research areas, including clinical research, computer sciences, pharmacology, biotechnology and environmental sciences, had emerged in the country and had gathered momentum in the following years (Table 3). These new areas would have direct relevance to national economy. “Ideally, research in those new areas would call for a seamless connectivity between public-funded research and applications of the R&D outputs in the industrial sector,” notes the document, but, again, this brings one back to the need for appropriate policy instruments in the demand side, which still seem to be absent. Therefore, in terms of ranking in innovation capacity, India ranks poorly compared with even some small nations.

On the higher science education front, the country seems to be heading towards a crisis of sorts. This situation can be traced back to the Nehruvian model of S&T development which accorded highly misplaced pre-eminence to national research laboratories and neglected universities, the fountainheads of knowledge producing a skilled workforce in the sciences, and this has continued all through the decades after Independence. In retrospect, this approach has proved highly detrimental to the entire Indian scientific enterprise today. Unfortunately, there was no mid-course correction attempted to bring back the pre-eminence of universities that would provide the necessary skill base for higher levels of research and technology development.

Social implications

As regards the social implications of India’s science policy statements, one of the important components of SPR-1958 was the inculcation of “scientific temper”, a notion Nehru did not define but whose import he articulated in his famous Discovery of India (1946). He says: “It is the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on preconceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind—all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems....The scientific approach and temper are, or should be, a way of life, a process of thinking, a method of acting and associating with our fellow men.... Science deals with the domain of positive knowledge but the temper which it should produce goes beyond that domain.”

The essence of scientific temper is to be found in Article 3 of the SPR, which says: “It is only through the scientific approach and method and the use of scientific knowledge that reasonable material and cultural amenities and services can be provided for every member of the community, and it is out of a recognition of this possibility that the idea of a welfare state has grown.” A remarkable statement indeed, encompassing within its import a socialist and egalitarian outlook for Indian society. Article 7 further notes: “The Government of India have decided to pursue and accomplish these aims… by associating scientists with the formulation of policies….” Thus, the SPR is actually also a resolution that the nation will follow a scientific approach in the framing and implementation of all national policies. That is, scientific inputs should inform all public policymaking in the country. Unfortunately, government after government has never utilised the inputs of the scientific community in public policymaking.

And as regards the inculcation of scientific temper in Indian society, a group of intellectuals and scientists met in Coonoor in 1981 and issued a joint statement voicing serious concerns about the increasing anti-scientism, religious bigotry and belief in superstitions. Today, with the tacit approval of the government in power, India is faced with a daily display of the worst demonstrations of superstitious and irrational beliefs, religious fanaticism, intolerance and hate towards fellow citizens. The notion of scientific temper stands deeply eroded and the country is in a dangerous and vulnerable situation. During the first NDA regime, one saw the introduction of astrology courses in Indian universities. Under the present, second phase of the NDA regime, one is witnessing yet another form of irrational initiative: a task force among the scientific departments is actually being constituted to conduct “scientific investigations on concoctions of cow excreta” even as major initiatives such as the India-based Neutrino Observatory project are getting stalled by activists on irrational grounds and do not find favourable response or support from the government. It is high time that the scientific community stood united against these growing irrational tendencies evident across the country. The “March for Science” by a large group of scientists on August 9 was indeed timely. Hopefully, it has the much-needed impact to make the government accord necessary importance to genuine S&T development and not to fringe science.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor