How India can achieve true progress and compete globally

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If India is to develop holistically and keep pace with top nations around the globe, it needs to invest a lot more in Research & Development for the future.

While 'Make in India' invites a host of foreign players to do R&D in the Indian context, the country needs more focus on basic research that can generate milestone achievements in human history. | Flickr / PM Narendra Modi's photostream

The content of a diamond is ‘education’ and its dispersing illumination is ‘culture’

~ Rabindranath Tagore

While India has grabbed attention in many economic forums over the past few years, the recent slowdown in the economy clubbed with the surfacing of conflict in the borders have raised eyebrows of columnists across the world. Further, while China has successfully held on to its 29th position in the 2017 GHI (Global Hunger Index), India has gone down three notches to 100th among the 119 countries measured on Child Health and Nutrition. Despite growth, India has never been successful in handling some of its long-drawn issues. On the face of ‘Make in India’, this may ignite fresh debates on the country’s progress in global leadership.

While the content of such a debate may pump in a lot of academic analysis and add volumes of discussion on the country’s macro-economic factors, it’s time for the residents of India to read between the lines, figure out some of the deep-rooted challenges and take resolute action to meet them. This will not only help us make headway in eliminating some of the surfacing hindrances, but also come as a demonstration of our Great Leadership Culture.

Here are highlights of some of these issues that if not addressed now, may soon leapfrog beyond our reach. Every Indian ought to rise to the occasion and leave no room for tolerance before we reach our desired standards.

Wake Up to Cyber Defence

Referring to the tension in and around Doklam and to that of the continued militancy in Kashmir, the Indian Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa recently asserted that the Indian Air Force (IAF) is capable of fighting a two-front war if required. However, what about a third war front which may turn up and leave an even greater impact without a single bullet being released?

 

‘In the year 2013, an American cybersecurity company released a report that detailed the scale and scope of Chinese cyber capabilities, with a focus on People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Unit 61398, which supposedly is the most advanced and best funded of the 20 cyber-military units in China. Since 2006, the unit has been responsible for attacks against companies, mostly American, in almost every sector the country had been focussing on. The then NSA (National Security Agency, United States) director Keith Alexander estimated the total value of all American intellectual property at $5 trillion, of which China has been stealing 6% each year.’

~ The Industries of the Future, Alec Ross

 

What if China resolves to cyber-attack as its parallel strategy against India?

The Global Cyber Security Index (GCI) 2017 released by the UN telecommunications agency ITU ( International Telecommunication Union) has ranked India 23rd among 165 countries, keeping China nine spots below India. The index is designed to measure the commitment of nations across the world towards cybersecurity. This being a welcome news, doesn’t give much comfort when we look around the implementation of our cybersecurity measures across government and private alike.

India was lucky to escape the possible massive damage by the recent WannaCry ransomware, which had an estimated impact of $5 million globally. The timing of the incident was such that it found most offices in India shut. Despite that, as data shared by Kaspersky, a Russian anti-virus company, the initial calculations performed soon after the malware struck on Friday night showed that around 5% of all computers affected in the attack were in India.

In one of his recent articles in The Hindu, Arun Mohan Sukumar, the head of Cyber Initiative at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, quotes, “With little control over the hardware used by Indian Internet users as well as the information that is carried out through them, India’s national security architecture faces a difficult task in cyberspace” While the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) created the position of a National Cyber Security Co-ordinator in 2014, India has no national security architecture today that can assess the nature of cyber-threats and respond to them effectively. The Indian business houses have their own cyber defence mechanism with no standardisation being followed, while the armed forces have their insulated platforms to counter cyber-attacks.

India needs to work on implementation and ruthless compliance of a regulated cybersecurity framework in both private and public space; else, the signing of cybersecurity agreements with countries like US or Russia might not be of much help.

Think Research

Today, with the ‘Make in India’ initiative, India is trying to turn itself into a global manufacturing hub, indulging many global players to have their R&D done in India to produce goods and services appropriate to the Indian market. This not only leads to a lot of collaboration but also gives equal impetus to Startup India, raising expectations of increased participation of the manufacturing sector in overall GDP. While talking on GII (Global Innovation Index) ranking of world economies, World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) director general Francis Gurry said, “China is an example of a middle-income economy creating change, having moved from 25 to 22. We also see significant movement from others; for example, India from 81 to 60 in three years.”

India can be happy about its pace in moving up the ladder following a pro-China model. However, it can eventually take our eyes off certain fundamentals.

  • Despite multiple debates and discussions, India’s spending on R&D (Research and Development) remains below 1% of GDP. When calculated per capita, it’s one of the lowest in the world.

  • R&D in India is surprisingly skewed towards applied research and development than fundamental or basic research that can lead to some significant milestone-achievements in human history.

  • When it comes to having rights of intellectual properties, India has a long way to go to get anywhere close to the Global Leaders including China.

In his recent book, The Industries of the Future, American technology policy expert and former innovation advisor to the Secretary of State Alec Ross mentions:

 

“In the 15 years since the great race to sequence the human genome, China has emerged as a Leader in genomic research. No longer just a 1 percent contributor, the Beijing Genomic Institute (since renamed BGI) is now the largest genomic research center in the world, with more sequencing machines than the entire United States. Some of its researchers are in early discussions about eventually sequencing the genomes of almost every child in China.”

 

While there have been some achievements in the field of Atomic Research and Space Science, when it comes to research in areas like Genomics, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics — those expected to be the trillion-dollar industries tomorrow — India is yet to build its foundation. Talking on India’s research scenario in his recent visit, Nobel Prize–winning biochemist Dr. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan mentioned: “They [China, Singapore] have made artificial intelligence and machine-learning a huge priority. They are investing in robotics, they are investing in renewable energy — all of the things that are going to make a big difference. And if India is not careful, it is going to simply get left considerably behind.”

Mentioning germline editing, one of the latest lines of development in Genomics, he said, “India has a long way to go before it can consider germline editing. The technology they [India] need to develop will be first used to correct defects in somatic cells. Germline correction is distant future for India.”

It is disheartening to find indigenous MNCs like TCS, Infosys, not showing any significant leap in developing path-breaking products the way companies like Apple, Microsoft or Google have been consistently delivering in the United States.

Despite India being one of the oldest agro-based economies, it has hardly taken any advantage of technology-based ‘precision agriculture’ the way China, America and countries of Europe have done. Instead of blanketing a field with a fixed amount of fertilizer and pesticides, with the help of big data, precision-farming ensures optimal usage of resources while producing the maximum output. While this may not be of immediate help to correct India’s current ranking in GHI, it can lead to a significant improvement of field performance, which in turn means more food, less pollution and better health going forward.

 

In the changing environment of research and development globally, where more of an interdisciplinary approach is becoming the fundamental driver to technological innovations, India may choose to take up some of the revenue-generating industries and re-engineer products at low cost to give competition to their global makers or take up pioneering initiatives in the field of basic research to change the face of human life — the way countries in the West did at the time of the Industrial revolution, followed by that of Information Technology.

It all depends on how India builds the culture of ‘Research’ in its educational framework and combines it with appealing incentives to engage human capital in numbers, the way it has produced engineers and MBAs.

(This is the first piece in a two-part series that seeks to explore how India can achieve its true potential and progress. Give the second piece, titled 'Making in India is great, but are we also making Indians?'  a read too.)

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