An era of vision

Published : Jul 27, 2007 00:00 IST

The book isa must-read for people interested in the evolution of science and technology policy in the country.

In April 1985, the well-known journal Nature ran an editorial titled "Self-reliance means self-denial", welcoming the new policy of liberalisation of import of technology by India under the new government headed by Rajiv Gandhi. Though the editorial's specific lauding of, and the related discussion on, the government's finalisation of the deal with the United States company Hemlock Semiconductor Corporation for setting up the National Silicon Facility (NSF) was somewhat misplaced, as the proposal had been cleared in principle by the Indira Gandhi government itself, the general thrust of the editorial was a strong criticism of the policies aimed at indigenous development and self-reliance followed by the erstwhile government.

Today, the country has gone way beyond what transpired during the Rajiv Gandhi regime when self-reliance had not been dumped altogether; the setting up of the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DoT) and its success in telecom switching, made possible by conscious policy decisions to keep out multinational giants such as Alcatel and Siemens, until it was virtually killed by politico-business manoeuvrings, for example, testifies to this. Self-reliance itself is a dirty word today and indigenous technology and R&D base that was built up during the late 1960s, the 1970s and the early 1980s under Indira Gandhi to realise the Nehruvian ideology and vision stands completely eroded, except in the strategic sectors of defence, space and atomic energy. The present is such that the scientific community has to go public to draw the attention of policy-makers to the decreasing importance given to science and technology (S&T) in the last decade and a half.

It is that period under Indira Gandhi, whose unwavering commitment to self-reliance (which Rajiv Gandhi lacked) ensured the according of great importance to the development of S&T in the country, both at the policy and at the operational level, and helped to evolve and put in place new instrumentalities of science administration and policy implementation, that the book under review, Technology at the Core by Ashok Parthasarathi, dwells on in detail across disciplines. No other person would be in a better position to do so as he was fortunate enough to have a view from close quarters of the emerging scene in S&T in the country and, in fact, play a significant role in shaping it, having been the Special Assistant to Indira Gandhi on S&T from the early 1970s, when he was barely in his thirties.

There is no gainsaying the fact that Ashok Parthasarathi had this privileged opportunity because he was the son of the famous G. Parthasarathi, the trusted foreign policy adviser of Indira Gandhi for a long time. But, given his background in physics and later in science policy, he was certainly well up to the task of studying, analysing and advising the Prime Minister as well as formulating policies. The subhead to the book reads Science & Technology with Indira Gandhi. It may as well have read as "Science & Technology with Ashok Parthasarathi" as the book is essentially his recounting of national S&T development in which he was actively involved; given his position, his area of involvement spanned virtually the entire field, including atomic energy, space and defence. In fact, the former two were, and continue to be, directly under the Prime Minister. The book is a must-read for people interested in the evolution of S&T policy in the country.

The minute details that Parthasarathi provides, arising naturally out of his urge to share the fund of information that he was privy to, would make engaging reading for someone who was witness to the developments of those heady days, but they could put off a general reader. One may also feel somewhat uncomfortable with the repeated references, something that runs throughout the book, about how Indira Gandhi or P.N. Haksar, another of her trusted advisers, used to approve policy measures because he had meticulously prepared the analyses and documentation pertaining to a given issue, whatever be the subject matter. It is as if there was never any disagreement. But this impression that one gets may well be because he has chosen to discuss in the limited confines of the book only those matters where his perspective coincided with those of the high executive.

The Hemlock deal, which the book discusses, was one of the last major decisions that Indira Gandhi took on the recommendation of a task force of the Department of Electronics (DoE), which included Parthasarathi. Ending the discussion, Parthasarathi writes: "There is little doubt that the critical NSF would never have been possible but for the exceptionally strong support and indeed its active promotion by Indiraji. From the time the task force was set up in 1981 to the approval of the project by the CCPA [Cabinet Committee for Political Affairs] in March 1984, she accorded her written approval on five occasions in the decision-making process. This was a measure of both her foresight in recognising the crucial importance of hyper pure silicon and her determination to see that we were self-sufficient in the supplies of that key material to the solar cell, power semiconductor devices and microchip industries" (emphasis original).

Indira Gandhi's regime ended all too abruptly in October 1984. Unfortunately, the book, too, stops there, short of discussing the ultimate fate of the NSF, which never got established, despite the deal getting the final go-ahead under Rajiv Gandhi.

While there is only a hint in the book of the controversy that the issue (and subsequently Parthasarathi himself) got embroiled in, namely the rejection of the high-purity silicon process developed by a collaborative effort of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, and Mettur Chemicals Ltd., it has not been dwelt on at length. This move seemed to run counter to the general philosophy of `technological self-reliance', which Indira Gandhi's regime espoused, and Ashok Parthasarathi himself, being the most ardent advocate of self-reliance you can come across even to this day. Attribution of motives in some media reports and at the political level, particularly to someone like Parthasarathi, was clearly misplaced.

The problem, as the book explains, was that the IISc-MCL process was still a pilot-scale project with a 2.5-tonne capacity whereas the need was for 100-200 tonnes per annum, for which technology did not exist in the country. The concept of self-reliance is often grossly misunderstood, as is the case with the Nature editorial, to imply total rejection of imported technology. The Nehru-Indira Gandhi philosophy and the policy instruments that the likes of Ashok Parthasarathi tried to put in place were aimed at a judicious choice of technologies, imported if it was inevitable because there was no domestic source, which would enhance indigenous strengths and capabilities and make the country technologically self-reliant.

The problem with the Hemlock deal lay elsewhere, which the book does not discuss. With the main potential consumer at that time likely to be the public sector Central Electronics Ltd. (CEL), with its proposed installed capacity of 1 MW (requiring about 25-30 tonnes), and hardly any demand from the electronics industry (except for a marginal demand from the strategic sectors), the projection of a demand for 100 tonnes seemed misconceived. The mismatch was more glaring when downstream facilities of crystal pulling wafer fabrication and polishing in the country were taken into account, which were not sufficient to cater to a 20-tonne silicon supply. In this context, the DoE, in which Parthasarathi served in a key capacity after his stint in the Prime Minister's Secretariat until the Janata regime came to power, had failed to evolve effective policy instruments to build up internal demand for electronic devices for computers and other applications.

So, from that perspective, it seemed prudent to encourage the IISc-MCL technology and upscale it to a 25-tonne capacity even as commensurate downstream facilities were built up in the country. MCL did scale up the process and the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) evaluated the quality to be good enough even for some electronics applications, but given the controversy the NSF was finally shelved. The MCL unit, too, had finally to close down because of the new policies of liberalisation which meant import of polished silicon wafers and even solar cells on the one hand and CKD-SKD electronic systems and computers on the other. In retrospect, one could still argue about whether Hemlock-based NSF should have been established or not.

One could even ask what achievements in major technology development the country has to show as a result of the policies of S&T planning and related instrumentalities that were evolved in the 1970s and the 1980s. A major exercise that was undertaken in the early 1970s under Minister C. Subramaniam was the setting up of the National Committee on Science and Technology (NCST), in which Parthasarathi played a key role. The brilliant orange book Approach to S&T Planning, which came out in 1973 as a result of intensive discussions across the various sectors of the economy by the NCST, and the consequent incorporation of the 24 sectoral plans that were made in the Fifth Five-Year Plan were indeed watersheds in S&T development in the country. Parthasarathi's account of the evolution of the NCST concept, the effort at bringing around diverse sectors within its ambit involving people from all sectors including the industry, is informative and insightful. The report could be used as a basis even today, but the climate for any such approach to self-reliance does not exist any more.

Many of the recommendations never got implemented because the industrial and fiscal policies that were evolved at that time and the S&T policy seemed to work at cross-purposes. While the latter had self-reliance as its cornerstone, the former reflected the prevalent perceptions of the bureaucracy and the civil service mindset and were generally inimical to indigenous technology development. Parthasarathi does refer to this mismatch but only briefly. Talking about promoting the use of domestic technology, he says on page 201: "[O]ur own experience was making it increasingly clear that at least equal if not greater emphasis needed to be laid on the complimentary aspect of a policy for ensuring adequate demand from entrepreneurs for the technology generated by domestic R&D. Such a policy has less to do with technology per se than with the economic, commercial, social and environmental policies of the government of the nation in which that technology was used" (emphasis original).

Indeed, it is the conscious attempt at tuning economic policies to serve R&D policy that has stood countries like Japan and South Korea in good stead and made them technological powers. And it is because of its absence that India continues to import even ordinary technologies, and repetitively, let alone high-tech. The example of Swaraj tractor of Punjab Tractor Ltd. that Parthasarathi discusses amply demonstrates how conscious interventions to overcome policy-level hurdles can bring success to indigenous technology. One only wishes that he gave a few more instances of that kind and dwelt in detail on some of these divergences in policies and their driving forces that have made India still dependent, and not self-reliant, against the vision of the 1970s.

Parthasarathi came into the Prime Minister's Secretariat (PMS) in 1970, on Haksar's instance, after serving in the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) for three years as special assistant to Vikram Sarabhai who was heading the DAE in the wake of Homi Bhabha's sudden death. But not questioning his critical views in his discussions of the Indian civilian atomic energy programme in the book, which may even appear somewhat unkind and which he continues to harbour to this day, one must point out some of the glaring mistakes that appear in the book.

Consider his discussion on the cost of nuclear electricity from the Tarapur Atomic Power Station (TAPS). He talks of a cost (in 1969) ranging from Rs.5.6 per unit to Rs.8 per unit depending upon whether fuel and other costs were included or not. Such costing would have been unacceptable as this would have been at least 30 times the cost of power from coal-fired thermal stations at that time. These figures are clearly baffling because even for the new plants, however you calculate it, the cost is nowhere near this figure. He refers to a press conference of May 23, 1969, where Sarabhai is supposed to have given a figure of Rs.5.6! A crosscheck with the news reports of that date indicates that Sarabhai did not refer to TAPS cost at all. The only cost he seemed to have spoken about was the cost of power from breeder reactors around 1980, which he placed at Rs.1.50. If electricity from breeder was to cost only Rs.1.50 in 1980, tariff of power from thermal nuclear plants could not have been over Rs.5 in the 1960s. There are other misplaced remarks about the atomic energy programme, which, because of limitations of space, cannot be discussed here.

There are many typographical and isolated grammatical errors as well in the book. For example, maraging steel has been written as `managing steel' (page 167), though the high-performance maraging steel did manage a lot of technologies related to our space programme. P. Koteswaram, former Director-General of India Meteorological Department (IMD), has been spelt as Koteswaran. There are others. Hopefully these will be corrected in the later editions.

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