INDIA: Science, technology and development

The ability of nations to recover from the current global financial crisis requires a high degree of innovation in which science and technology will be a key player. For developing countries, that mostly missed the industrial revolution, it is going to be an uphill task while for nations such as India and China the recover will be slow.

The focus in this article is on India because of its unique position as the world's largest democracy which, during the past six decades, has emerged as a major economic power in spite of its poor infrastructure. A key element in this growth story has been the base of science and technology that India created in a planned manner and, once this was done, the country took off on 7-8% growth trajectory starting in the 1990s.

To understand why this has come about, it is necessary to look briefly at the past and relate it to the post-1947 growth story. Being an ancient civilisation, India has a history of achievements in fields such as mathematics, logic, astronomy and medicine handed down over generations.

This was interrupted for a few centuries because of invasions and violence until the British in some sense restored a kind of political unity. The country missed the industrial revolution but, in the early 1800s, reformers in Calcutta urged Indians to take to the study of English, mathematics and science.

This set in motion a process whereby Western scientific thinking soon became accepted. The British set up universities in major cities to turn out graduates to help govern the country. Because of the historic tradition in sciences and arts, science and literature made impressive breakthroughs.

India's only two home-grown Nobel laureates during the British rule were Rabindranath Tagore (1913) in literature and C.V.Raman (1930) in physics. There were many other outstanding scientists such as J.C.Bose of wireless fame as well plant physiology, and the mathematical genius Ramanujan who were at Cambridge University.

This happened even while Gandhi's non-violent freedom struggle took its own parallel path and India finally became independent in 1947. Gandhi's trusted man in the freedom struggle was again Cambridge-trained Jawaharlal Nehru who believed that poverty could only be banished through science.

Thus soon after he became Prime Minister, Nehru made science the cornerstone of economic development. The country was lacking the basic essentials such as food grains, milk, communication facilities, education facilities and so on. It was unable to produce anything by itself, whether steel or heavy power equipment, and there was hardly any banking system outside the big cities.

Over the years, with an educated populace and practising 'soft socialism', India raised itself into a self-reliant economy. Application of science and technology through its numerous national research laboratories and the spread of higher technical education led by the IITs, and setting up steel and power generation equipment companies, have made the country self-sufficient in milk, food grains, and key industrial goods.

Institution building drew in large numbers of some of India's finest talent from abroad - a key element in building a strong foundation in science and technology. Unfortunately, such a model is difficult to replicate now except in private multi-national companies.

The nationalised banking system reaching almost every village escaped the global meltdown of 2008. The nuclear and space industry, with advanced research in fast-breeder reactor technology and the recent Moon mission, are all indigenous efforts.

Liberalisation that started in the early 1980s was orchestrated carefully with the Telecom revolution being the first priority. This was followed by the development of IT-enabled activities in many sectors of the economy.

The computer revolution, which made modest beginnings with Bhabha at the helm in the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in the 1950s, took firm roots after the 1960s. IIT Kanpur with its first educational computer IBM1620 pioneered an outreach program in computer education as well as starting degree programmes in computer science.

Other education institutions and private outfits also continued the trend and the IT success story of India is now well known.

Yet, in some sense, India is at the crossroads and bold decisions are required in critical areas. It has a demographic dividend with half the population in the 20-30 age group, and a well-motivated set of high-school graduates available.

A poor nation like India, with 30-40% of the population living below the poverty line, must invest wisely in its human capital to develop a skilled workforce. Tertiary education, ranging from vocational education to higher degrees, is critical for growth.

Infrastructure must be a top priority. The power sector is a classic example where the country must move the same way as the IT sector developed. This requires a change in mind set and a will to take bold decisions.

Water and health sectors similarly require vision and better use of technology. Rural sector development has received increased attention from state governments in recent years and use of IT for education and agriculture must be given increased attention.

The Indian experience in adapting science and technology to development has been unique and can hold a model for others. It has not been perfect but continues to evolve.

* Indian-born MA Pai is emeritus professor in electrical and computing engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana, and was on the IT faculty at IIT Kanpur from 1963 to 1981.