Friday, July 6, 2012

The Indian LSD Deficiency Syndrome

“We choose to go to the moon...” These words are not a part of some motivational sermon but the beginning of an episode in human history that culminated in arguably the greatest feat achieved by mankind. These words are a part of the historic speech delivered on May 25, 1961 by then US President John F Kennedy to a special joint session of the US Congress. It laid the foundation stone of the Apollo Program, the techno-scientific project headed by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to put man on the moon. At that time, there was no available technology or planned project on paper to achieve such a target and it was still largely in the realms of science fiction. Those were the heydays of the Cold War and just 4 years ago, in 1957, the Soviet Union had given the Americans the Sputnik shock by sending the first ever man made satellite into space. Quickly followed by Yuri Gagarin’s historic first human flight in space, Americans were left reeling in humiliation and fear of space weapons and technological supremacy by the Soviets.

However, going to the moon was till then still considered a near impossible technological feat. That’s wherein lies the story of the unprecedented efforts put in by a nation and a vast group of humans that surpassed all previous feats achieved in science. Within 8 years, comprising 400,000 people involving scientists, engineers, supervisors, managers, doctors and manufacturing workers, coupled with the greatest burst of technological creativity ever seen in history, “a giant leap for mankind” was achieved when astronaut Neil Armstrong landed on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969. The project cost over US $25 billion or US $180 billion in today’s dollars, the most for any single project ever. (it was on an average 42% of India’s total GDP in the 1960s). The Apollo Program, till date, stands as the greatest feat in science and technology ever achieved and the only other scientific projects that come close in scope and size are the building of the Panama Canal and the Manhattan Project (the development of the first atomic bomb in the 1940s).

However, the greatest achievement of the Apollo Program, which many experts from different fields believe was not the lunar landings but what happened as a spin off the program. How many of us know that the first integrated circuit, the progenitor of the entire ICT industry which was developed by Texas Instruments was funded by the NASA Apollo Program for use in space based computing applications? (all IT engineers in India must thank NASA) The entire concept of the modern day artificial hearts and cellphones is a spin-off of the Apollo era computers and communication technologies developed by NASA and its associated scientists. A simple technology used in millions of homes on the planet today, the microwave oven is a sacred relic of the space program. Would you believe me if I tell you that even the modern day golf clubs and the rim of our spectacles are all vestiges of the materials research done under the aegis of Apollo and other NASA space programs? And, well, most of this was made possible because of one gigantic project executed within 11 years – the Apollo. However, let me cut short this lethargically slow history lesson and come to the point. From our washrooms to classrooms, from banks to cinema halls and from offices to sports grounds, the technologies that have seamlessly integrated themselves into our quotidian existence is a direct consequence of massive capital and human investments made in R&D. (Research and Development – sorry if I forgot to mention its Indian translation is jugaad”). But as things stand, the country with the single greatest potential to provide the human capital for many coming generations of scientists and researchers, our own “Incredible India” stands languishing in the ‘glorious’ company of Middle Eastern and sub - Saharan African nations when it comes to scientific and technological research and development.

Ever since the dawn of economic liberalisation in India, the Gen X and Gen Y (frankly they sound like the names of human chromosomes that determine the sex of an unborn child) has reaped the fruits of wealth generation with growing incomes, better living standards, better technological adoption in daily life and higher consumption levels (did I mention that the per capita consumption of staple food such as wheat and rice has reduced by nearly 40% in the lower middle and lower classes in the country). Anyways, so how was this incredible India made possible? Surely, through taking a leaf out of the scientific histories of USA, UK and Germany, the three beacons of scientific development in the industrial world and investing heavily in scientific and technological development which would have resulted in better products and services for the majority of the populace. Hell no... We surpassed our peers in the western world and reinvented the word ‘innovation’ itself. We opened our doors to buying foreign technology developed in the industrial world which was then used by our government enterprises and private sector to exploit our scarce natural resources already acquired from the government mostly at dirt cheap rates (read “2G spectrum and coal mines”). The burgeoning middle class, (myself included) blinded by the onslaught of new products and having disposable incomes earned from working mostly in the IT and financial services industries using technologies developed in the west, has happily improved their life standards and wealth while the majority of India (read 800 million poor Indians) bask in the ‘glory’ of Neolithic Age life styles courtesy a complete policy paralysis to unleash indigenously developed technology for the millions languishing in darkness almost literally.

Be it the energy or construction sectors where most of the heavy machinery used is based on technology bought or acquired through royalty from Germany, USA and Japan. Come to consumer based products, form refrigerators to air conditioners, from cars to computers and from thermometers to mobile phones, everything is based on technology developed in a foreign land. Our institutes of higher education especially in the technical domain continue to serve as hubs of “jugaad” with a complete lack of an institutional framework to promote individual’s original research and innovation. Every budding engineer and technical graduate continues to copy everything from computer codes to engineering designs to entire model specifications readily available on the internet. And thanks to a ‘level playing field’ for each one of us (read Indian education system), the consequences are better marks at the cost of a complete lack of a repertoire of technical and scientific knowledge. (thanks to Larry and Sergey, Google hai naa).

Well, let me stop India bashing like the Englishmen and the Australians did on their cricket pitches and take a bird’s eye view of the entire scene. Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh recently stressed on the urgent need to promote R&D in basic sciences especially in the fields of agriculture, energy, materials, healthcare and space. After all, the home grown and developed variety of rice, the Basmati was patented by a US firm and is now available in India at much higher prices courtesy a fledgling system of patent applications, assessment and grant. In fact, till 2005, a product patent regime was not even available in the country. The PM aptly said that we need to invest heavily in R&D in our government and industry R&D facilities but herein comes the good old enemy in the form of economic vagaries. I remember a conversation with the CFO of one of the biggest infrastructure firms in India in Mumbai some months back when he said that until and unless the per capita GDP of the country reaches a certain figure (he did not mention the figure), there is no way we have the capacity to invest heavily in R&D because of lack of capital and adequate funding. He may be right but the conversation ended before I could ask that how come China has been able to gain the second rank globally in the last decade in terms of R&D spend at US $130 billion second only to USA’s $405 billion. We stand at a rather proud 14th or 15th globally at $10 billion, complimenting our ranks in most of the games at the Olympics. Except our pharmaceutical industry, which has taken some solid strides in the R&D aspect and come out with newer molecules with increasing frequency, Indian academia and industry continues to bite the dust at the end while others have gone far ahead. While rural India continues to use ploughs used since the 15th century and fertilisers developed by Indian companies continue to deteriorate the soil fertility in the long run, millions of tonnes of foodgrains gets rotten annually due to lack of adequately equipped food processing and storage facilities. And all this on top of the fact that Indian farmers use expensive seeds developed by foreign firms. And I don’t even want to get started on the use of every single medical diagnostic and drug delivery system developed by firms like GE.      

Coming to the doyen of Indian industry, the IT sector, when was the last time an Indian firm came up with an Indian developed software product (sorry to Infosys but I just remembered Finacle). Most of us are not even aware that we are not a software industry but a software services industry. Anyways, to bring my monologue to a rather light end, I’d use the famous dialogue by one of Hollywood’s most famous drug addicts Dennis Hopper in one of my favourite movies Speed – “Pop quiz hotshot” and ask you - Where did one of the most famous database software products in the world, Oracle, come from?... It was originally conceptualised as part of a project of the CIA in which Oracle founder Larry Ellison worked. And to all Google and Wikipedia aficionados, Bhuvan is there to give you a run for your money. And if you don’t know what I’m blabbering about, I’m not referring to Aamir Khan’s character in the movie Lagaan but India’s indigenously built satellite based 3D mapping application Bhuvan, similar to Google Earth and Wikimapia. And guess who developed it? None of the Indian IT companies sadly but the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

And please somebody try to unravel the secret behind the title of my article above...
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