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In India, there is a pressing need to spend more on R&D, particularly in areas that are vital to national security

How India Manages Its National SecurityThe use of technology for enhancing national security will not happen as a matter of natural progression; it requires a well-crafted strategy backed by action plans and resources. Technology is a generic term which includes many concepts including education, innovation, productionization, commercialization, awareness, training, international cooperation, intellectual property rights (IPR), technology absorption, etc. Each of these components will need to be dealt with separately as well as in conjunction with each other. Their users will have to be brought into the discourse. Proper funding, monitoring and evaluation of institutions will be needed, along with a holistic policy approach.

In 2001, the first National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) produced a comprehensive review which emphasized the importance of technology as an enabler of national security. Since then, the awareness that technology is a force multiplier has grown. The armed forces have taken to the concept of RMA. The nuclear doctrine of the country makes it imperative to build a second-strike capability which is technology intensive. There has been some progress in the improving the ISR system, and the ongoing revolution in communications and computing technologies has also impacted national security.

New applications such as geographic information systems (GIS) are now indispensable. Many new technologies have appeared which combine global positioning system (GPS) technology with satellite imagery, digital elevation maps and data sets in applications of great accuracy which can be used in diverse fields like health, agriculture, surveys, land record systems, etc. India has started using some of these applications to great effect. For instance, land records have been digitized using satellite imagery and GPS. The advance of such GIS technologies has provided both opportunities and challenges for national security. The Challenge before India is how to harness these rapidly emerging technologies to ensure its national security.

Most technologies are still incubated and developed in the west and that too in the private sector and in universities. The US government liberally funds their development. In India, there is a need to spend more on R&D, particularly in areas that are vital to national security. India can learn something from the experience of China in scientific innovation. It needs to pay for greater attention to science and engineering education, particularly in terms of quality. R&D expenditure in India is just about 0.8 per cent of the GDP, which is far less than that of China: more than 2 per cent. China spends more on innovation than on defence.

In India, nearly 80 per cent of R&D is done in the government sector. The share of the private sector must be increased. But enhanced spending on R&D is not enough-India has to create an innovation system which encourages experimentation, critical thinking, and supports small and medium industries. Fiscal policies should be overhauled to support innovation. Existing R&D schemes should be consolidated and made more efficient. The education system is also in need of an overhaul. The high-tech skills needed for science and technology will have to be inculcated and more jobs created in the science and technology sector. The private sector should be nudged to look at innovation and not be simply the consumer of technologies produced by others.

This brings us to the second point of how the private sector can be enthused to pay more attention to R&D. It is a risky activity and the private sector, with its low appetite for risk-taking, will not be attracted to it unless there is profit involved. The government will have to absorb a significant portion of the risk and also provide a market to the private sector for the products that emerge as a result. Thus, there has to be a properly worked out public-private partnership model in the R&D sector.

The third issue pertains to commercialization. Technologies are quickly forgotten unless they are converted into useful products. The research that is conducted must be developed and converted into commercial products which can be used by the armed forces and also exported. The DRDO has a number of technologies which can be converted into products by the private sector, but the former’s processes of transfer of technology are restrictive and not attractive for the latter. The distance between lab and production line is too big. There ought to be an efficient model for technology transfer to the private sector and the issue of IPR must be suitably resolved.

The fourth aspect relates to the involvement of academia. So far, the contribution of Indian academia to national R&D has been rather little and most of the research has been done in government labs. Sometimes, the government involves academic institutes in R&D through project grants, but the outcome of this has been mixed. Also, the number of such grants has been small. The Department of Space (DoS), the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the DRDO have developed good linkages with academia, They have also involved several private sector companies-big, medium and small – to make parts and components of satellites and nuclear reactors. But the quantum of such research for the development of useful products and technologies is at best limited. This needs to change. What is needed is large-scale funding of high-end research in universities on the basis of competition, as is being done in many countries. Universities and academic institutions should become an integral part of India’s innovation system. The link between academia, the government and the private sector is very important and needs to be strengthened. A strong model suiting India’s needs should be found.

The fifth point is about the quality of education. Careers in science and technology are not perceived as attractive. A large number of graduates from the various branches of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and other top engineering colleges become bank managers and find jobs in the financial sector. Only a few choose to join government labs where maximum research is done. The attraction of science and technology for young students has steadily gone down and this must change. University curricula are rigid and do not provide flexibility of exploration to either the student or the teacher. If this state of affairs continues, it would be difficult to bring a cutting edge to science in the country.

India must improve the quality of its science and engineering institutes. Many substandard engineering colleges frequently open and close down. Having a few IITs whose graduates mostly migrate abroad or to non-science and engineering disciplines is not the answer. There must be jobs for these graduates in India.

The massive potential available among the undoubtedly technology-savvy youth in the country is underutilized. There are no suitable opportunities for them, leading to brain drain on a massive scale. Other countries attract Indian talent for producing high-tech products and services which they sell to India and other countries at high costs. Brain drain has increased over the years and skilled Indian workers are in great demand in other countries. India must create opportunities to harness the potential of its own people, which is available in abundance despite the serious shortcomings of our education system. India is in a sweet spot for a few decades, during which its youth population will constitute a major part of the demographic. Today, two-thirds of its population is below the age of thirty-five. As the population growth rate declines, the country will begin to age and India’s advantage over the others will reduce.

Students will not be attracted to science unless they have a reasonable assurance of jobs after finishing their education. The government must bring out sector-specific policies which will lead to the creation of jobs in high-technology areas. Even today, we are producing engineers and technicians in large numbers; unfortunately, the best students are being lost to other countries. The state and quality of primary and secondary education in India is dismal. It has been found again and again that children in primary school lack even basic reading and writing skills; so many do not even have access to education. The talk of making India a superpower is meaningless unless we take care of our children’s health, education and shelter at the same time.

High schools in the country are no better. Education is expensive right from nursery and this cost keeps many students out of the reckoning. The university system in India is not performing well and education itself is becoming elitist in character. Students go abroad spending lakhs of rupees for education of dubious quality. The few good institutions that have been built over the years with public money are producing students for global companies. There is no dearth of good students, but they are not attending Indian institutions. Few IIT graduates join government R&D institutions and instead hanker after jobs in multinationals. The distortions in the education systems must be removed.

India must pay attention to the development and harnessing of the vast talent available in the deprived segments of the population. Who has not been impressed by the young boys and girls working in workshops or the young artisans in villages? The Indian mind is especially interested in jugaad, which is synonymous with finding inexpensive, innovative solution. Not everyone has to be an IIT graduate to be a technician or an inventor. India must devise methods to harness talent through education and skill development. The country has thousands of industrial training institutes but their condition is pathetic. Only 6 per cent of students go for skill-based training, while the corresponding figure in advanced countries like Japan, South Korea and Germany is over 80 per cent. These countries have apprenticeship programmes which produce high quality skilled workers. India now has a skills development ministry but it needs to think of similar programmes and come up with an apprenticeship strategy.

This will help create an innovation system in the country.

In a country of India’s size, skill creation is extremely important as creating a high-tech economy requires specialized skills. The situation on this front is not too good. According to the Economic Survey of 2014-15, the share of skilled workers in the overall labour force is only 2 per cent, much lower than that of other developing countries. Further, as per the Economic Survey, India needs 120 million skilled people in the non-farm sector. There are many reasons for the low level of skills in the labour force: poor quality education which does not cater to industry-ready skills, the high rate of school dropouts, negative perception of certain skills, lack of training institutions. As automation increases, the level of skills required will be much higher.

The MSME sector plays an important role in the economy of most countries. It accounts for 85 per cent of the GDP in Taiwan, 60 per cent in China and 50 per cent in Singapore, The corresponding figure for India is only 17 per cent. Thus, the massive potential of the MSME sector for economic growth and job creation is lying untapped. To utilize it fruitfully will require a considerable upgrading of skills. If properly skilled and incentivized, the MSME sector can also contribute significantly to innovation and R&D.

Several countries have built excellent systems of innovation and R&D in high-technology areas. The US has the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) model, which thrives on competition.  The best proposal is chosen and fully supported by the government. The risk of failure is absorbed by the government. The Germans have developed the Fraunhofer model. Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft is a premier organization whose sixty-nine institutes and research units with a 24,500-strong staff conduct research in the applied and basic disciplines of industry. It has an annual budget of 2.1 billion euros, of which 1.9 billion euros comes from contract research. More than 70 per cent of Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft’s contract research revenue is derived from contracts with industry and publicly financed research projects. It has developed international collaborations, such as in China and India. Fraunhofer serves to enhance the competitiveness of the German industry. Germany also has Max Planck societies which support basic research in universities. The UK has followed the approach of setting up industrial clusters in which universities play an important role.

In most models, the link between academia, government and industry is strengthened and ways are found to absorb the risk of research. India needs to develop its own holistic model for R&D. The base of research must be expanded to include more academic institutions, more academic institutions and more private sector institutions. Innovation must be rewarded and not punished. Underprivileged youth who have little formal education yet are innovative by nature must also be included in a broad-based model.


Arvind Gupta
Penguin Random House India, Pg 166, Rs 479
(on Amazon)

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