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Science and State Power; By Prof. V.S. Ramamurthy

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

Image Courtesy: The Economist

Article 27/2020

Science and Technology is an indispensable part of the development of any country. The capability of any country to become an economic power depends on its ability to produce high quality, high technology goods and services and to create innovative new cutting edge technologies.

Advances in S &T were primarily instrumental for propelling the United States to world leadership. That also led to US control over technology acquisition by other nations. China has already made rapid advances and is close to levelling with the US. India’s progress is slow and requires increased investments in all the various facets of S&T architecture combined with optimal choice of fields for R&D.

India and China seek to improve its S&T capability. There can be phenomenal growth of S&T in China since the beginning of this century which has impacted positively China’s economy and hold lessons for India. There is greater scope for increased cooperation between India and China in selected areas of S&T such as earthquake prediction and Himalayan glaciology.

There are common challenges faced by both the countries in areas such as Climate Change consequences, Carbon Emission reduction, Management of Plastic and Electronic wastes, Marine Pollution, Health Care and the like. There is also interest in deep-sea mining. These provide the potential for scientific collaboration leading to better social conditions and improved standards of living.

The Sino-Indian Agreement was first signed three decades ago and is being periodically renewed. Since the last few years, a multilateral form of S&T cooperation under the BRICS flag has become very active in basic sciences like Astrophysics and applied fields like Photonics and Biotechnology.

The virus that emanated from Wuhan “COVID-19” has engulfed the whole world including India with no end in sight. The mood of the country today was very aptly described by the Indian PM’s call for “ATMANIRBHAR BHARAT” (Self – Reliant India). Following the recent border skirmishes with China, there is even a clamour for boycotting everything from China including goods.

Atmanirbhar is not new to many of those from the Atomic Energy. The author and his fraternity embarked on our careers at a time when the country was experiencing acute food shortages, resource shortages and infrastructure shortages. Without going back into history, we were forced to be self-reliant not only in nuclear technologies but also in practically everything.

Even India’s single-channel analysers, including the valves, were from World War II rejects procured from Bombay Chor Bazar. The technology denial regime following the 1974 Peaceful Nuclear Experiment in Pokhran ensured that no manufacturing technologies, no instruments, no computers, no advanced chemicals, nothing were available to us from the global market. Looking back, we didn’t do badly in facing these denials. With a combination of indigenous research, reverse engineering, licensed manufacture etc. we succeeded in many sectors in addition to Atomic energy and space. For example, India was a net importer of generic drugs at the time of independence but by 1990, we were net exporters. The green revolution ended once for all the chronic food shortages. India today is one of the leading nations in vegetables, fruits and milk production.

The economic liberalization of 1991 was a watershed moment in the history of India. We opened our economy to world markets. We agreed to rigid enforcement of WTO norms including Intellectual Property Protection. There were initial fears of whether we can survive the international competition. A few success stories like the development of affordable vaccine hepatitis-B instilled a new confidence in our industries. Unfortunately, the weak ecosystem for entrepreneurship and lack of venture financing proved to be major bottlenecks for the manufacturing sector to take off. On the other hand, the IT-based service sectors bloomed.  One could also see an increasing presence of Indian diaspora in International companies like the Google etc.

In the meantime, China went through a major over the hall. Today China is forging far ahead of other countries in technologies of Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Automation, Genetic Engineering and Quantum Technology. China is building advanced experimental facilities for Fundamental Research in Nuclear Sciences and Astrophysics, which are areas of considerable interest to the Indian scientific community.

It is worth mentioning both India and China began their journey post World War II (Post 1945) along with Germany and Japan. India and China had very similar strengths and weaknesses- a large population, rich culture along with being a continuous civilization, internal market. Till almost the end of the twentieth century, India and China were also on the same development trajectory in spite of the vast political differences.

In the 1990s, China took very aggressive steps in the fields of education, research and entrepreneurship. The results were dramatic. The number of students in their educational institutions shot up, R&D outputs in terms of a number of publications and patents shot up, a number of entrepreneurs and enterprises shot up, GDP went up. The net result is by now they are competing with the technologically advanced countries not only in terms of publications, patents but also manufacturing, trade, GDP. Militarily, they are also challenging major powers across the globe. China’s progress in S&T can be attributed to the “TORCH” programme adopted by China in 1988 which envisaged the need to develop high technology and industrialization that accelerated China’s growth. The Chinese products have evolved from an era of substandard quality to one of the international standards

The impact of two path-breaking initiatives by the Chinese Government in the form of Project 211 and 285 established a large number of world-class Universities and Departments across the nation equivalent to that of US IVY league institutions.

India also started its pursuit of fostering scientific studies in the form of National Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Board established in the year 1982 but with minimal results. While China has moved far ahead, India continues to face many of the same challenges that were prevalent thirty years ago.

The India – China Joint Group on Economic Relations and Trade, Science and Technology (JEG) signed in 1988 highlighted the collaboration of both the countries in the S & T domain. Joint Economic Group (JEG) was established to discuss trade cooperation issues. So far 11 JEGs were held with the last one in Delhi in March 2018.

India and China signed the Education Exchange Programme (EEP) in 2006 that was renewed in 2015. The Year 2016-17 saw over 18,000 Indian students studying in various universities in China in various disciplines. India’s biggest challenge is to increase the number of students and researchers per million population in our educational and R&D Institutions. We should also create an ecosystem to boost innovation and entrepreneurship, we started early almost at the same time as China but got digressed. India allowed our markets to get flooded with Chinese products on the basis of costs (lowest tender) choking our own entrepreneurs.

The 3rd India-China Technology Transfer, Collaborative Innovation & Investment Conference held in December 2018 at New Delhi addressed the promotion of technology transfer and collaborative innovations between Indian and Chinese Business and Research Organizations.

While the Government formulates plans and establishes the framework for their implementation, the views of working scientists and technology professionals on these efforts can provide valuable inputs for more effective results. There is a need to survey the current scene in both countries and identify factors that could contribute to more effective progress in India.

One of the post-COVID realizations is that the global village of the 20th century is categorically a ‘Village of Villages’- globally connected but not losing their independent identity and self-reliance. The recent call of our Prime minister for an Atmanirbhar Bharat indeed reflects this new reality.

The Post COVID 19 Geopolitical scenario has thrown open new realities, viz.

  1. Chinks in the armour of the western world.

  2. Increasing extraterritorial ambitions of china even in times of a world crisis

  3. An increasing need for self-reliance, the need for Atmanirbhar Bharat

It is worth recalling the quote of Dr Chidambaram, “Self-reliance is not the denial of products from other countries”. It only means “will not accept or succumb to pressure, Will procure on our terms”. Pure commerce is not anti-self-reliance.”

A possible way of maintaining the channels of S&T communication between India and China was to have a strategic foresight in the management of global issues.

(Prof. V S Ramamurthy, Emeritus Professor, NIAS-Bengaluru.  He was fully involved in science promotion in India as Secretary to the Government of India, Department of Science & Technology (DST) from 1995-2006. He was also the Chairman of the IAEA Standing Advisory Group on Nuclear Applications for nearly a decade. After retirement from government service, Prof Ramamurthy, in addition to continuing research in Nuclear Physics in the Inter-University Accelerator Centre, New Delhi has also been actively involved in human resource development in all aspects of nuclear research and applications. Prof Ramamurthy is also a Chairman, Recruitment and Assessment Board, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and Member, National Security Advisory Board.  The views expressed are personal)

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