Science In India At 100: Becoming A Developed Nation

On 15 August 2022, when India turned 75, Prime Minister Narendra Modi exhorted us all to enjoin ourselves on a journey where India would transform into a developed nation by 2047, that is by the time we would have completed a century as an independent country.

The keynote of his address were the three facilitators of such a trajectory — the fact that we have become an aspirational society, that there is now a cultural and civilisational re-awakening amongst Indians, and that the world is taking our claims of attaining our rightful place at the global high table seriously. Twenty-five years is not such a long time in such a scheme of things, and it is clear that without substantial progress in science and technology,  it would be difficult to achieve this ‘developed’ tag.

There should be a well-defined road map accordingly for Indian science if it is indeed to achieve developed status. These matters have been highlighted by the recent assumption of the Presidency of G20 last week in Bali, Indonesia. More specifically Science-20, or S20, the Science Engagement Group, has been set up by the government.

In no time, Union Minister Jitendra Singh chaired a high-level review meeting to oversee the preparations for the S20 Summit meetings. Scheduled to be held in Coimbatore in July next year, the theme of the S20 Summit meeting will be ‘Disruptive Science for Innovative and Sustainable Growth’.

Complementing those are the side events under the theme of ‘Research Innovation Initiated Gathering’ (RIIG). The sub-themes for RIIG gathering will be Materials for Sustainable Energy, Scientific Challenges and Opportunities towards Achieving a Sustainable Blue Economy, Biodiversity and Bio-economy and Eco-Innovations for Energy Transition.

The government is hopeful that the summit will foster a cooperative climate where encouraging frameworks for environmentally friendly technologies can be created. In addition to that, technology transfers, creation of a global start-up ecosystem and assertion of IP sharing is on the agenda. 

It has taken us several decades to earn a place in the global high table.

Next year, when India hosts the G20 Summit, we are presented with a perfect opportunity to show the way forward and strike a balance between technical self-sustenance and foreign sourcing.

A Prime Minister’s duty is to bestow a national vision, with illustrious Prime Ministers in the past providing this impetus in terms of Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan and Jai Vigyan.

Prime Minister Modi has now added Jai Anusandhaan to this list.

Science and research innovation has become all important and that too in a milieu that is both sustainable and inclusive. This is particularly appropriate as no country has become a developed economy with a uniformly high standard of living without investing heavily in science and an R&D process that takes science from the laboratory to the people.

Our colonial misfortune has delayed our journey toward becoming a developed nation by 150 years vis-à-vis the West and roughly 30 years relative to China. Implementing our 25-year game plan seems achievable — but only if we plan and execute with pinpoint strategic accuracy.

In terms of numbers, it is easy to see that with a growth rate of ~7.8 per cent in GDP this year, the $5 trillion economy target will be achieved by 2026-27 (unless there are drastic fluctuations in oil prices).

With the possible switch from fossil fuels to renewables, one may envisage a $9 trillion economy by 2031-32 and a $40 trillion economy by 2047, whereby we would be within the top three countries of the world in absolute monetary terms and not just PPP numbers.

What should we do to achieve the 2047 target? R. Jagannathan and Ashish Chandorkar have written in Swarajya on what we must concentrate on.

Additionally, I would add that education, health including pharmaceuticals and women’s health, exports, taking into account demand-supply imbalances, nutrition including fertilisers, water including ocean and polar research, climate change, genomics, advanced materials including nanomaterials, robotics, electric and solar powered vehicles, drones, outer space, and IT, in general, are essential sectors where scientific methodology practised by experts needs to be translated into globally competitive technology.

Industry must play a central role in our ascent to becoming a developed country with the government playing a catalytic and facilitative role. All this must be taken in the context of global supply chains that have become the instruments of a new war among nations─what one might well call hot war in cold places.

Given the compressed 25-year time scale, we simply cannot avoid imported solutions in certain bottleneck areas. This requires a well thought-out foreign policy keeping India’s interests paramount and noting that a country may switch between being a friend, neutral, or adversary depending on the circumstances.

On the economics front, technical matters need to be synergised with issues of scalability, skill development, blockchain technology, artificial intelligence, and supply chain inadequacies—quite a package.

No less important are the non-economic, non-scientific matters that demand immediate attention as these matters can stymie any efforts towards technical progress.

Jagannathan lists seven urgent issues that are crying out for urgent attention: judiciary and law enforcement reform; administrative reform; defence rejig to take into account the fact that one may now see the above mentioned “hot wars in cold places” and the use of AI in war; deep and urgent constitutional changes of the type that need a constituent assembly; accompanying electoral reforms that would reduce structural and transactional corruption; civilizational reworking, integrating India’s re-awakening with respect to its identity and finally; decentralisation of powers between the Centre and the States. Some of these issues affect the Indian scientific revolution more than others, but none is unimportant.

How do we do all these things in the ambitious wish list above given our administrative and management structures?

A vital aspect of progress is a proper management of education.

Since the time of India’s independence, successive governments have paved the way for accessible education to all. Institutions of higher learning — IISc, IITs and IIMs have given the world a cursory glance at what India is truly capable of. Despite all this, a lot more needs to be done to modernise our education system and the overall infrastructure that facilitates it. Now we need to concentrate heavily on promoting excellence, if necessary in private universities.

Without scientific excellence, in terms of both quality and quantity, we have no chance at all of becoming a developed country. 

In this regard, the primary concern is investment. At present we spend around 0.8 per cent of our GDP on education and research. This number needs to be bootstrapped up to say 3-4 per cent of the GDP at the very least.

China made these heavy investments starting around 1990: the results are apparent today with their thriving scientific ecosystem.

Given the present state of our healing economy, the required amount for the government alone to bear is too much of an ask. The role of the private sector in the education sphere is not just necessary but needs to attain dominance under careful regulation.

However, there is yet another aspect that needs to be considered. Given again the compressed 25-year time scale, and the fact that any fundamental change in education will start showing results only after 15 years, we urgently need a strategy that optimises the usage of the resources we currently possess.

In the meantime, the government should start vacating the business of running educational institutions in terms of funding, admissions, and administration. The disparities between central and state universities must be removed because the vast majority of students attend the latter. 

Most of the technological and R&D heft that India needs should come from mission-oriented government laboratories with no educational component, and from corporate research laboratories that dovetail closely with government laboratories.

The IITs cannot be expected to solve problems of scalability, economic leverage and supply chain management. Their activities can at most take one to the level of good start-ups but that is insufficient for the big, basic breakthroughs that India 2047 needs. The USA moved quickly in the Vannevar Bush dispensation in the early 1950s because of a perfect synergy between academia, industry and government, mostly their defence laboratories.

A similar strategy is underway in China’s civil-military fusion. We should aim for nothing less.

The Department of Atomic Energy is a wonderful example as to how a government scientific department should be organised, independent of educational undertakings.

Beginning in the 1950s, we were subject to draconian restrictions with regard to the import of uranium ores to make fissile U-235, an essential component for nuclear weapons. India developed its own route via thorium extracted from monazite sand beaches. India has the largest supplies of thorium in the world, with comparatively poor quantities of uranium.

India has projected meeting as much as 30 per cent of its electrical demands through thorium by 2047. Our weapons program and energy needs have a comfortable buffer support in the form of our R&D progress in thorium technology.

All this was possible because the DAE was allowed to run using its own closed, carefully selected group of scientists (and a very small number of student-employees). This provision needs to be extended to all non-educational scientific laboratories and institutions that have been charged with the duty of rapidly translating science into immediately applicable technologies, strategic security, and towards products and services.

The when, what, and how having been defined it now requires the political will to effect these changes so that we may all proudly hold our heads high by 2047 as citizens of a truly developed nation of the world.

We thank Deekhit Bhattacharyya for his timely assistance in the preparation of this article.

Gautam R. Desiraju is in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and a member of the S20 Engagement Group of the Government of India.

Sharan Setty is an Associate Editor at Swarajya.

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