Vol. XLIII No. 14 April 07, 2019

Strong Advocacy Needed for Development of Science & Technology

Sabyasachi Chatterjee

“IN India, elections would come and go, new governments take over or the old ones continue. But we need a very committed advocacy group from amongst science and technology community, at different levels,” said D Raghunandan of Delhi Science Forum (DSF), Centre for Technology Development (CTD) and former president of All India People's Science Network (AIPSN).

Delivering a talk at the International Centre for Theoretical Science (ICTS), Bengaluru, on ‘Science and Technology and Future Development of India’, on March 29, he said that at one time, even before independence, Nehru used to attend the Science Congress sessions. After independence, it became his official duty as the prime minister. In the parliament, Meghnad Saha, an ideological friend of Nehru would challenge Nehru in cut and dry way on the basis of facts and undisputed data. One should strive to re-establish that spirit, by several means and platforms.  

He stressed that the intellectuals must thus have an important duty to show the way and said that the process is complex.

The idea to harness science and technology had germinated in the freedom movement itself in India, said D Raghunandan. “An important milestone for the development of science and technology was the formation of the National Planning Committee in the Congress party, in 1938. The initiative was taken by the then Congress president Subhas Chandra Bose and renowned astrophysicist Meghnad Saha and the committee submitted its report, under the chairmanship of Jawaharlal Nehru,” he added.

At the talk organised by ‘Sthayi’- an intellectuals' forum based in the ICTS, Raghunandan said that the initiative was put into practice after independence, focussing on self reliance and import- substitution, with a State-led and state-owned public sector. He added that the initiative was a consensus which even the private capital had supported. This was a part of the planning process that went ahead with a fair level of success till the sixth five-year plan, he said.

“From the late 1970's it was seen that this mode failed to meet the growing demand. Further, the Indian capitalists who had become sufficiently rich were now ready to displace the public sector and aimed for greater control over the economy,” he said and added that the Indian capitalists also wanted a share in the world market.

“The political idea thus changed from self reliance and import substitution to export-led growth. In order to get a share of world market, a deal had to be struck with international capital that resulted in liberalization, ie, allowing increased access to Indian market for foreign capital,” he said. “In this phase, the mantra was ‘market with liberalisation of imports’ in order to serve the consumer and the consumer too demanded it,” he said.

Raghunandan pointed that liberalisation was tried in China too but with significant differences. China had set up a manufacturing base with foreign capital and also insisted on technology transfer. The profit was invested in human resource development and knowledge generation, he said. This was also the case with Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, the so-called Asian Tigers, he added.  

Raghunandan said that China has taken note that though they have the manufacturing base, their technology development skills are limited to the lowest rung of technology. In the next twenty years they plan to upgrade themselves to high technology areas and massive government investments would be done in areas of human resource development, infrastructure for research and development and in higher education.

On the contrary, in India, no such skill development took place in this liberalisation phase and nor is there any plan for that. India thus waits for FDI with very little really flowing in, he said.  Citing the case of information technology sector as an example, he said that employment in IT has stagnated at 13 lakh for several years. Much success in the earlier years was due to the very low-end IT-enabled services. Those have now been taken over by countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh, Philippines, Kenya etc which have sufficient proficiency in English or have invested towards gaining that proficiency.

He said that the liberalisation phase has also not seen sufficient employment generation in India. “Employment generation cannot come about without government's investment for skill developments at different levels – as the private sector's role is dismal in that direction. Since that has not happened, the ‘Make in India’ plan has remained a mere slogan. In order that this succeeds, the R&D has to expand. But in spite of such slogans, expenditure in R&D has stagnated at a mere 0.6 per cent of the GDP,” he noted.

Recording another difference between India and China, he said that both the societies are witnessing massive migration from villages to urban areas and yet the causes are different. “In India the migration is due to distress in agriculture and also in non-farming sectors of rural economy whereas in China, it is due to the very large employment generation in urban areas,” Raghunandan said.

Stating that no immediate solutions exist for India to tackle the crisis, he said that India is more and more becoming a country for production of primary products with little value addition.

“One must also note the difficulties with ‘import substitution’ mode, particularly in the present phase, obsolescence of technology is very rapid. This was not so in the 1950s and 1960s. Thus the decade’s pattern, even though it had granted some success, cannot be repeated. A new vision is now needed,” he said.

Calling for strong advocacy from the science and technology communities for the development of the sector, he said, that even smaller academic groups should take active part. He added that platforms like Academies of Science and the Science Congress – which unfortunately has lost its reputation for promotion of non-science, should be utilised.