Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the 104th Indian Science Congress in Tirupati, 2017. Photo: PTI
This is the second part of a review discussing India’s science and technology (S&T) policies. The first part considered the proposal to set up a National Research Foundation, while the second reviews the draft Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP-2020) document, released in December 2020.
This concluding part offers a historical perspective on S&T policy resolutions going back to the first Science Policy Resolution of 1958 (SPR-1958), widely assumed to be written by the physicist Homi J. Bhabha. It places each resolution in a wider political context and argues that there has been a notable shift in their language and ideological orientation since 2003. The review closes with a reflection on the role of S&T policy documents and concludes that without a careful analysis of the factors explaining past technological failures, such exercises are not particularly useful.
A genealogy of S&T policies
SPR-1958 stood alone for 25 years. It would take until 1983 and the second coming of Indira Gandhi for its necessary complement, a Technology Policy Resolution (TPR), to be issued. Read in retrospect, TPR-1983 is a remarkable document, not unlike its predecessor, although it would require more than two pages to develop its main themes. It was also a prescient document, expressing an explicit environmental consciousness that was rare for its time in its call for reduction of energy use, “harmony” with the environment and the need to recycle “waste” (a decade before the Rio conference).
TPR-1983 further stands out for its acknowledgement of the complexity and unevenness of the Indian economy.
Reflecting the ethos of the time, the primary concern of the technology policy resolution is the need for self-reliance, couched in terms of the need to develop indigenous and appropriate technologies in a resource-scarce context. Read symptomatically, TPR-1983 manifests the critical edge of a non-aligned vision through its calls to reduce dependence on foreign technologies, support for infant industry protections for indigenously developed products and recommendation to back-engineer imported capital goods.
One can sense the influence of counter-hegemonic intellectual positions in the shaping of the resolution, from E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful (1973)1 to Osvaldo Sunkel’s critique of multinational corporations and their exploitative technology transfer strategies. This was the India that could legalise process patents over product patents in the face of determined opposition from global pharmaceutical companies, paving the way for a huge domestic drug industry to take shape in the future (Indian Patents and Designs Act 1970).
But it was also the India that had just initiated the hugely ambitious Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme, successfully joining foreign and local technologies and designs and overcoming domestic institutional barriers to build a family of short and long range guided missiles that are still in use by the military.
TPR-1983 began the practice of identifying specific sectors of importance for S&T investment: food, health, housing, energy and industry. Following this lead, every successive policy document mentions the same sectors as needing special attention. The implication is that little or no substantial progress has been made in overcoming the problems faced in those sectors, unwittingly calling into question the success of each preceding policy. In similar fashion, self-reliance is hailed as a constant theme in each successive policy document, meaning that it too remains a goal unreached.
The S&T Policy statement of 2003 (STP-2003), written two decades after TPR-1983, is a much longer and rather different document. In retrospect, it is possible to read this document in relation to contemporary global changes and India’s over-enthusiastic accommodation to them. In 2003, India was on the brink of signing the WTO treaty, a prime condition of which was to revoke its process patent legislation, a long-standing demand of multinational corporations.
STP-2003 marks a post-liberalisation and post-Y2K world where globalisation has taken root, knowledge is power and international competition is fierce. The critical and counter-hegemonic ethos of TRP-1983 has faded away, to be replaced with a neoliberal vision of the state serving the interests of private enterprise through the emerging fetish of the public-private partnership.
Reflecting this reorientation, the protection of intellectual property was now hailed as the most effective means to encourage domestic innovation. Federal thinking and national complexity have declined. As India’s ideological centre shifted from a defiantly non-aligned stance to that of a major world “civilisation”, ancient India would make its first appearance in S&T policy resolutions as self-evident proof of the country’s long tradition of producing and receiving knowledge.
Along with (greater) length, the rigour and tone of the document have changed as well. The document speaks in the strident voice of the mission statement with its demands to attack and resolve the problems of hunger, poverty and unemployment, especially in the vast unorganised sector of the economy.
From this moment on, it is much harder to attribute authorship of S&T policy documents to a single individual as each successive iteration bears all the tragic signs of being written by committee, with the unspoken imperative of keeping all interests satisfied. Rather than elucidate an intellectual premise, potted history takes the place of the preamble (“we have done it before, we can do it again”).
In an ironic return to the SPR-1958, the means to these worthy ends places agency with scientists, above all other interest groups. Inputs from working scientists will help monitor the system and offer feedback, all technical ministries should be run by scientists and technologists, major ministries will have S&T advisory boards, a new funding mechanism for basic research would be set up, dedicated funds from each ministry would go to S&T activities, the government would invest at least 2% of GDP by the end of the 10th plan (2007), and so on.
The subtext of STP-2003 is to build greater domestic capacity for innovation. If this strategic goal was to be taken seriously, one could have expected the document to begin with a careful and sober analysis of how and where innovation had and hadn’t taken place in the five decades since India’s independence. Instead, it resorts to the grand but empty rhetorical flourish of listing all the things that need to be done, from improving the quality of Indian scientists and encouraging the private sector to invest more in R&D to improving pathways between industry and academia.
Instead of the hard work of figuring out how a domestic capacity for innovation could be encouraged and sustained – or indeed what innovation looks like in the Indian context – we are left with the banal and circular comment that “innovative mechanisms” would be evolved to make this happen.
The discussion around traditional knowledge systems, a first for any Indian S&T policy document, is typical in this regard. While rightly calling for greater documentation, protection, investment and understanding of the heritage of traditional knowledge, the empirical measure of success for this objective is defined as an increase in India’s share of the global herbal products market!
Until 2003, S&T policy statements had been issued infrequently and, for that reason, could be considered important insights into long term strategic thinking at the highest levels of the government. With STP-2003, a watershed was crossed. Not only would the frequency of policy documents increase, their content would become less valuable and interesting.
The next S&T policy document would be issued in 2013 – a mere decade later. Its main contribution would be to add the formal incantation of “innovation” to S&T Policy, thereby engendering STIP-2013. Innovation would now appear explicitly as the missing link in S&T policy, the secret sauce that would convert knowledge into wealth. 2010-2020 would be declared a decade of innovation, to be overseen by a national innovation council, but the problems faced by India would remain the same as those identified as long ago as 1983: energy and environment, food and nutrition, water and sanitation, affordable housing and health care, unemployment.
The by-now familiar set of national goals included placing Indian research and innovation among the top five countries in the world, increasing R&D personnel by 66% in five years, and so on. International diplomacy and scientific collaborations were mentioned as novel arenas for knowledge that could be leveraged for domestic ends, although how this translation would be done was not explained.
Like its predecessor, STIP-2013 was heavy on rhetoric and sparse on reflection. This latter absence would be disguised by the proliferation of buzzwords – “stakeholders,” “delivery,” “evaluation,” “evidence-based policy” – littering the text. And like its successor – STIP-2020, only seven years later this time – STIP-2013 would eschew any serious assessment of India’s historical record in its breathless articulation of what needed to be done to elevate India to the top rank of the world’s knowledge superpowers.
Perhaps I am not being fair. STIP-2020 is different from its predecessors in one remarkable way. Apart from being the longest policy document to date, the process by which it was put together was altogether novel and, I daresay, innovative. It was built, we are informed, from the bottom-up in a manner that reflects the best practices of NGO consultants and liberal votaries of science communication.
The first step was consultations with the public and experts, followed by group consultations with over 150 experts spread over 21 groups; the third step linked this process to government ministries. Finally, a process of integration reduced all this input into a single document.
The result of talking to 40,000 people over many months was a 62-page document that repeated again what earlier documents have pointed out – namely, that the formal innovation ecosystem in India doesn’t work. The carefully considered answer to this problem is more: more students, more PhDs, more private investment, more funds, more risk-taking – all to help India reach the top three in the scientific superpowers race.
Chapter 6 is a critical one. It acknowledges that India still imports too much technology. The stated reasons include the lack of interface systems, inadequate technological capacity, poor quality of research, weak linkages (between sectors) and procurement policies, unbalanced allocation of resources between academic and post-academic research, weak connections between stakeholders, and on and on.
Typically, responses to these weaknesses remain soaked in consultancy techno-babble: “the policy will focus on the indigenous development of technology premised upon assessment and understanding of social needs keeping in context evolving solutions to people-centric problems,” and “synergising the strengths of scientific capabilities and forging innovative paths in association with industry are essential for India to attain a leading position in technology and commerce.”
Argh. Who could disagree (but what does it mean)?
The primary purpose of policy
The primary purpose of a policy document is to offer a sketch of a policy landscape, identify priorities and to make choices among them, since all priorities can rarely be accomplished at the same time with limited resources. And if the author is willing to be brave, to explain why previous policies haven’t worked and to reflect on the lessons learned.
The missing element of recent S&T policy documents is their unwillingness to take seriously and learn from a long history of efforts – successes and failures – of developing technologies locally. Successes worth learning from include state-sector efforts such as the missile development and space programmes mentioned earlier, and private and social sector achievements that include the prosthetic Jaipur boot, MRI machines, the world’s cheapest tablet computer and, of course, the software, biotech and pharmaceutical industries.
Lessons can be learned from past failures – e.g., why India does not have the domestic capacity and skills to develop cutting edge network hardware in spite of having taken steps to set up a national electronics industry as far back as the 1960s. The C-DOT experience is not considered nor is the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s network of national laboratories, set up in 1942 to be a translational bridge between scientific research and industry. And so on.
Instead, what we find in STIP-2020 is the following. When specific technologies and systems are mentioned, they include “electronic hardwares for home appliances” (eventually leading to mixies using AI?) and “building a robust semiconductor ecosystem” (best of luck with that). The need to indigenise defense hardware is tucked into a footnote, as if to evade easy observation, which is just as well given the country’s dismal record going back decades in producing indigenously designed and manufactured tanks, aircraft, helicopters, submarines and aircraft carriers. And that gets to the heart of the problem with this document and its predecessors, going back to STP-2003.
The hard work of learning from experience has been replaced with a laundry list of the obvious, unrealistic, unlikely and impossible. Instead of informed reflection, what we get instead are lukewarm and tentative suggestions: “one possible approach … could be in the form of fifty prestigious science policy fellowships … where academics, industry personnel, and NGO scientists/technologists will be encouraged to undertake such challenges.” Such “leveraging of the expert base of many research areas,” it is hoped, will address the perennial concerns of food and water security, health care, and clean and affordable energy.
The opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878) reads as follows: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This aphorism is an apt commentary on the state of S&T in India. Successful technoscientific institutions all have some things in common: at a minimum, inspired early leadership, continued institutional autonomy and adequate funding. But while necessary, these conditions are not enough.
The critical additional ingredient is the successful reproduction and adaptation of the founding culture as these institutions grow into their mature stage, which very few have managed to do. Explanations for failure by contrast are far more varied. They might begin from the absence of leadership, autonomy or funds but also include a host of other factors, from the organisation-specific and industry-particular to the structural.
Not all reasons for failure can be laid at the doors of government agencies, although over-centralisation, excessive respect for organisational hierarchy, a lack of boldness, a risk-averse culture and top-down control must rank high among likely factors.
Seven decades after independence, the role of policy documents and their resulting strategies must be both to identify critical and strategic areas for future public investment as well as to come to terms with the multiple and complex reasons for lack of success in the present and past. To not do this will condemn us, in Santayana’s words, to repeat mistakes made earlier.
The author thanks Shiju Sam Verghese and Jahnavi Phalkey for their comments.
Itty Abraham is a professor at the National University of Singapore. He has been writing about Indian science and technology for nearly three decades.