The long road ahead

INDIANS ARE never tired of proclaiming their superior brain power over that of a western wit. The feedback got from every average Indian (by our academic standards) who has made it to the United States of America only serves to reiterate our profound confidence in our intellectual superiority to that of any American on the other side of the globe. When there is an excess of technological, scientific intelligentsia in the country, why has India not been able to foray into the forefront of all research and development in the two major fields of technology and science and magnetise the whole lot of westerners to its land instead of the exodus to the West (the US of A to be specific) ?

There are any number of defence mechanisms for an answer, but none truly reflecting the actual ailment. "It is our culture (meaning psyche) which is not tuned to admitting the new, jettisoning the old and unworthy, unable to meet the risks and challenges involved in welcoming the novel and above all gloat over the obsolete, treasure it and be content with it," says P.V. Indiresan, former director of IIT, Chennai. His recent talk here, as part of the Dr.Y. Nayudamma Memorial lecture session endowed by Spartek Ceramics (I) Ltd of Chennai, brought out the microscopic symptoms ailing India, deterrents to technological development in the real sense.

Why the West leads in technology is easy to question but how India can catch up has a host of prescriptions difficult to emulate. Quoting statistics, the professor says, India in 2003 has reached where America was in 1982! "Most people in our country believe in the hypothesis that we are poor because we are not rich. Money (capital) is no doubt an important factor but it is not the crucial ingredient to a nation's growth.

It has been calculated and proved by many an economist/expert that the factors contributing to the growth of the United States between 1929-82 was in the order of advances in knowledge (R&D: 64 per cent) followed by education (30 per cent), economies of scale (20 per cent) and lastly the contribution of capital -- a bare 10 per cent. Our planners and our businessmen have a misconstrued notion that money is all. Well then, our coffers had at the time of independence one of the largest accumulations of foreign exchange and nothing came of it for years to come. Currently we are sitting atop over $75 billion but where are the takers?'' he asks.

Making matters worse are labour leaders who have a morbid fear of technology changes. Instead of gearing up to take on the new and innovative, they indulge in a self-created psychosis, which they would willingly spread across till it turns into a sort of an epidemic. The pathetic part of it is, we concentrate on increase of capital input (import of tech) and labour while the West depends on increasing the efficiency of the utilisation of these two inputs through technology innovation. There is every possibility of our model reaching a saturation point in future once the entire population is put to work and when savings and foreign investment reach a peak.

Foreign investment is notoriously fickle and the risk is instability as witnessed in many east Asian countries recently (S. Korea for instance).

On the other hand, innovation-led development is not only stable it is steady for, "as long as a nation is building better and better mousetraps, there is little risk of shortage of customers,'' Indiresan quips.

Small countries like Singapore or Malaysia can prosper through capital-driven (imports) growth but not a thickly populated country like ours.

Even if we get massive FDI (foreign direct investment) like what we are now preening about, the income generated (capital) can be used for goods that have been discarded by developed countries and so have low profit margins. Imported technology according to this IIT professor is like a banana peel - the fruit has been extracted leaving behind marginal substance!

There is another impediment to technology growth in our country and that is our culture of which we are extremely proud.

Indeed it does us proud in one sense but in another, it hampers development. If we take the instances of two nations -- South Korea and India of the 60s -- both developing nations, good in natural resources, yet poor -- both had to depend on import of technology for quick enrichment. While South Korea grew by leaps and bounds through tech import and rose to the status of a developed country, India still remains a developing country. Why? Because, it is noted by economists, while Korean environment and culture absorbed imported technology and improved in further in a progressive manner, we are unable to do the same. Indian mind is such that it is steeped in tradition, superstition and intellectual stupor, gets paranoid at rapid new changes. To add to this a superficial political will with vested interests, a crooked, cheating mentality and lethargy drawn out of misinterpreted philosophy of passivity.

It is not as if we have a dearth of intellectual talent -- we have excess to the point of exporting it so that it thrives in the West; natural resources in plenty waiting to swell, given the right impetus. Two solid examples of lack of will to admit the new and move ahead are the unfinished Thanjavur temple (Bhrihadeeswara aalayam) which got started and built by two successive Chola kings yet remained an incomplete, architectural piece of beauty but refused to adopt the prevalent arch model that the Christian and to an extent Islamic religious structures took -- all because the Shastra does not allow it!

A more modern instance is the technology of the Hindustan Motors' Ambassador car, which still thrives on the obsolete English Morris model, which by now would have been installed in the museum in the West!

And a complacent Indian mind would still gloat over this `king of the road car'! Where is the technological/scientific spirit? Definitely not in the intellectually malnourished masses of this country, say scientific creators.

Indiresan gives a thumb rule: Every year, 20 to 40 per cent of the technology is to be thrown out as it loses its relevance. The administrators should realise this. Unfortunately to the Government of India time factor is non-existent. To technologists, tomorrow is another day. Costless change is impossible. A researcher is like a bird; hold him tight and he will choke; hold him loose and he will fly away! Every babu in the finance ministry who applies brakes on funding research (while other expenditure to suit political needs overflows at the cost of the tax-payer) is like the US missile destroying Iraq.

Last but not the least, since India's is an agriculturised industrialisation and not an industrialised agriculture like the United States, there is every necessity to bring technology to the rural areas. For this, looping of a set number of villages in a ring formation and linking them by road, which needs an enhanced transportation that would then bring in infrastructure development was advocated by Dr. Nayudamma. A circular form of development of a city or a given number of villages as against a rectangular spread will lower costs, increase accessibility to facilities, enhance market value and make for attractive investment destinations. A simple formula if only the political will and intellect is there to take it.

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