Reflecting on 75 years of Independence makes one proud of the socio-economic developments of our country. The long period of colonial rule had robbed India of most of its wealth, and, more importantly, the skills required to sustain economic growth. Starting off as a poor country in 1947, with its GDP a mere ₹2.7 lakh crore, and food grain production a meagre 50 million tonnes, the challenges of educating the people, feeding the population, implementing democracy, promoting industry and trade, and ensuring the country’s security remained daunting. It is against this backdrop that the responsibility of developing the science, technology and innovation ecosystem fell upon the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which had been founded in 1942.
The immediate priority of the CSIR was to establish a number of national laboratories under its umbrella, and also promote similar organisations independently. The CSIR started five of its own laboratories with support from the government and industry and raising resources through crowdsourcing. Similarly, in collaboration with the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and the Government of Bombay, the Government of India (through the CSIR) started the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, with the CSIR providing substantial financial support in the initial years.
Among the first examples of finding science and technology-based solutions was the harmonisation of existing varied calendar systems. A committee under the Chairmanship of Meghnad Saha was formed to address this issue. The committee’s report was published by the CSIR in 1955, which then led to its acceptance as the national calendar, now one of the national identity elements. Another example in the early years of Independence was to address the challenges in conducting democratic elections — preventing frauds, including double voting by the same person. The CSIR’s National Physical Laboratory developed the indelible ink made up of silver nitrate to address this concern. The indelible ink is used even today and exported to many countries, undoubtedly remaining one of the prized gifts of the CSIR to the nation.
The leather story
At the time of Independence, India did not have well-established industries in many sectors. The informal work sector was also highly unorganised without their skills being developed for any particular industrial segment. A key mandate of the CSIR was, therefore, to help develop local industries by making contemporary technologies available and training requisite manpower. A prominent example of the CSIR’s contributions in this context has been in developing the leather industry. The making of finished leather products had remained elusive in the absence of a well-established leather industry and relevant technologies. Consequently, the leather industry employed less than 25,000 people at the time of Independence. In the 1970s, the Government took the decision of banning the export of raw hides and skins, and also imposing 25% export duty on semi-finished leather products. These decisions were a major turning point as far as the development of the leather industry in India was concerned.
In more than 50 years since then, the leather industry now has a workforce of more than 4.5 million, a large percentage of them being women, and a thriving market for Indian leather products around the world. Indian exports in this sector are close to $6 billion. The CSIR’s footprint in this sector has been transformative. First, when the CSIR-Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI) was established in 1948, it developed technologies for finished leather products, such as the first ever indigenous manufacture of leather chemicals, making the transition from semi-finished to finished leather possible. Further, the CSIR-CLRI routinely trained the next generation manpower for the leather industry. As a result, more than 40% personnel employed in the leather industry have been trained directly or indirectly in the CSIR-CLRI. Human resource development across all sectors, dominantly that in science, technology and innovation, has been the hallmark of CSIR.
Successes in technologies
The Green Revolution has been one of the crowning glories of science, technology and innovation. Similarly, the emergence of the generic pharmaceutical industry in India also has a fascinating history.
During the Green Revolution, the CSIR’s footprint could be seen in the development of agrochemicals and the mechanisation of agriculture. The chemicals industry needed the necessary thrust for its maturation although the Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals Ltd. had been formed by Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray long before Independence. Two public sector companies were founded, post-Independence, based on technologies developed in the CSIR’s laboratories — the Hindustan Insecticides Ltd. and Hindustan Organic Chemicals Ltd., the former to make agrochemicals. Similarly, production of anti-HIV drugs by processes developed in CSIR laboratories provided the necessary impetus to the growth of generic pharmaceutical companies. These indeed represent fine examples of academia-industry interactions from the early days of Independence.
The mechanisation of agriculture was achieved through the indigenous development of the Swaraj tractor at the CSIR-Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute (CMERI), leading to the formation of Punjab Tractors Ltd. in 1970. Notably, the technical team of CSIR-CMERI shifted to this company, presenting one of the first successful models of a spin-off company from academia in the country.
Path to self-reliance
A significant impact of the CSIR is also seen in the food and nutrition industry, in the aerospace sector, in the health and biotechnology industry, in protecting India’s traditional knowledge systems, and in promoting crops for enhancing farmers’ incomes. For example, in the 1950s, when solving the infant food problem appeared impossible, the CSIR successfully developed technologies to convert buffalo milk into powder and commercialised it with the help of Amul Industries. The Aroma Mission of the CSIR in recent times has been transforming the lives of thousands of farmers across the country. The cultivation of lavender in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir has been attracting attention worldwide as India’s ‘Purple Revolution’. Thus, there are many examples of science, technology and innovation, which have allowed India to take definitive steps towards becoming an Atmanirbhar country. True Atmanirbharta will however emerge only if we remain at the forefront of futuristic technology development — a task clearly cut out for the CSIR.
Even as we attribute the growing affluence of Indian society to science, technology and innovation-led developments, the challenges for the future remain intimidating. Reducing dependence on natural resources, making all industrial processes circular so that no footprint of human activity is left, making technologies environmentally friendly, providing sufficient opportunities to all for living either in cities or in villages will remain priorities of science and technology. Moreover, the ancient wisdom of integrating science and spirituality by enhancing our understanding of nature in association with that of the human mind and spirit will be the fond hope of the science and technology community of India.
Dr. Shekhar Mande is former Director-General, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)