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Tryst with technology

Sunil Mani
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Reinventing India as an economy based on innovations and improvements in productivity

REINVENTING INDIA: Raghunath Mashelkar; Sahayadri Prakashan, 101/C, Aathish Complex, Behind Shivpushp Park, Anand Nagar, Singad Road, Pune. Price: Rs.699
REINVENTING INDIA: Raghunath Mashelkar; Sahayadri Prakashan, 101/C, Aathish Complex, Behind Shivpushp Park, Anand Nagar, Singad Road, Pune. Price: Rs.699

Sunil Mani

The rather spectacular economic performance of India, especially over the last 20 years or so, has spawned a large number of books and articles. A recurring theme in this literature is the significantly improved growth since the onset of the liberalisation process in 1991.

A welcome addition to this growing literature, Reinventing India focusses on a relatively under-explored theme, technology and innovation. The author, Raghunath Mashelkar — who served for more than a decade as Director-General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, which runs a network of laboratories — has had the distinction of directing and, in some instances, operating the instruments and institutions that firmly set the country on the path of innovation.

In fact, for a long time, Mashelkar was considered to be the chief architect of the country's new tryst with technology and innovations, thanks to his association with a number of national and international committees dealing with related policy instruments — notably the ones concerned with changes in the Intellectual Property Rights regime brought about by TRIPS compliance.

The book, which is primarily a collection of papers arranged in six sections, projects Mashelkar's vision of re-inventing India as an economy that is based on innovations and improvements in productivity rather than reverse engineering. Its title appears to have been drawn from a talk he gave to a group of engineering students in 2004.

In that lecture, he made out a strong case for moving away from reverse engineering and imitation and going for new inventions and then converting them into innovations, making new products, and marketing them.

The six sections fall into two broad parts. The first part presents the author's assessment of India's progress in ‘Science and Technology' from a comparative perspective. The second discusses the changes that the institutions and incentive systems need, or have been put in place, for the country to become more innovative.

An interesting feature of the book relates to the transformation the CSIR went through under Mashelkar's stewardship. This figures in an interview he gave to ‘CSIR News'. Many are the claims made about the transformation.

One area where this change was striking is in the output indicators, notably in patenting performance. For instance, the foreign patents portfolio held by the CSIR increased from 72 in 1995 to 1,251 in 2005. Also, the number of SCI publications by the CSIR doubled during this period, and the ‘impact factor' of these published articles too rose significantly, testifying to their superior quality. In fact, the CSIR became the top Indian patenting organisation in the United States.

This policy, however, came in for criticism even from within CSIR itself. It was argued that it did not result in the institution earning more royalties through the sale of patented technologies. Further, the policy itself could not be sustained; the rate of U.S. patenting by the CSIR, which reached its zenith in 2003, declined precipitously thereafter. Moreover, this patenting was not spread across its 40 laboratories but concentrated in the better performing ones such as the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL). Finally, although there have been some improvements, much of CSIR's income continues to come from annual parliamentary grants, and the share of revenue from the sale of locally developed technologies in the network's income is still far lower than the target fixed by the Abid Hussain review committee in 1986. It is also not clear whether all the laboratories are functioning as one single entity, CSIR Inc., as claimed by the author.

Mashelkar also touches upon certain non-tangible requisites if the country wants to do things differently. In this context, he refers to how he came to be appointed as a scientist in one of the CSIR labs. The offer was made to him by Y. Nayudamma, the then Director-General, at a London hotel. Given the highly bureaucratic procedures that govern appointments and the advent of the Right to Information Act, it will be nearly impossible for a visiting director-general from India to offer appointments to brilliant Indian scientists abroad. Nowadays, it is fashionable to invoke the 21 {+s} {+t} century at seminars, interactions, and discussions. But, our mindset remains pretty antediluvian. One finds this line of argument being brought up repeatedly throughout the book. There is an autobiographical element in the book. How Mashelkar rose from very humble beginnings to become an internationally renowned scientist comes across sharply. It goes to complement the optimism he exudes. But one feels that, considering that much of the narrative is in first person, there could have been some toning down where Mashelkar speaks about himself. This of course should not deter any potential reader, especially from the innovation policy community both in India and abroad, from dipping into the pages of this book and benefiting from it immensely.


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