Indian science policy in the globalization era

Rajesh Kochhar
(Lecture delivered at Centre for Public Policy, Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, 29 August 2007)

The term science policy does not command immediate recognition the way foreign policy and economic policy do. This is because the public perception of science in India has been fashioned by the Nehruvian era of innocence and idealism. In the years immediately following independence, science ( along with technology and education) was seen as the primary tool of nation building, which in turn was recognized as the chief goal of the state. In foreign and economic affairs there were conflicting ideologies at work and a considered decision had to be taken on the nation’s line of action. But science was taken to be benign in all its peace-time manifestations, and the course of science action obvious.

The days of uni-dimensionality of science are over. Globalization has been made possible by recent advances in information and communication technology. Science has become an important factor in economics, trade and diplomacy. There are no localized events any more. One country’s misfortune or mis-step can be another country’s opportunity (tsunami, SARS, bird-flu). Divisions can have far-reaching political and economic consequences, and yet they must be taken quickly, calling for a high level of preparedness. Demise of internationalism , and abdication of responsibility by the state in the name of globalization accompanied by the rise of the lobbyist increase the risk of wrong action, over-reaction or, more often, plain inaction.

Ironically , while the role of science in the world as a whole has increased, science and science education have lost ground in India. About 60% of Indian GDP now comes from the service sector which is science-less. The much-flaunted IT sector grossly under-employs people creating man-power shortage in all other sectors. Service economy is essentially a servile economy. The country has prematurely got into celebrating what is no more than the wage state in the international work-place, feeding apprehensions that it may never reach the royalty stage.

Be it the predictability of an earthquake; chances of return of tsunami; grounding of an air-bus, probability of bird-flu mutating into human flu; export of heavy-metal rich Ayurvedic preparations; human resource needs of sun-rise sectors ( IT, auto-component , pharmaceutical ),education and the state science; ecological ,environmental and employment issues; or the impact of globalization on Indian agriculture, there is need to formulate a science-related public policy so that firm and quick decisions can be taken which will stand the test of time.

Whenever the term economic policy or foreign policy is mentioned, it is greeted with instant recognition. But the term science policy more often than not draws a blank. The reason probably is this. In foreign and economic affairs, conflicting ideologies are known to be at work. Therefore it is recognized that different options be weighed and a considered decision reached on the actual line of action.

The public perception of science in India has been fashioned by the Nehruvian era of innocence and idealism. Science (along with technology and education) was seen as the primary tool for nation-building which in turn was recognized as the chief goal of the state. In the years immediately after independence it was implicitly believed that all peace-time manifestations of science must necessarily be benevolent. Science itself was the policy; there was no need for a science policy!

The age of romance with science is long over. Science is no longer uni-dimensional. When I was in NISTADS, I was often asked at semi-social gatherings what my Institute did. “We are researching into science policy” was invariably countered with “ What’s science policy?”. Mind you, the question came not from a fashionable socialite, but a professional or an informed layperson. By trial and error I hit upon a short satisfactory answer , mentioning some of the problems we were interested in. Pesticides in cold drinks; pollution in rivers; falling water table, etc. This seemed to satisfy the questioner, So quite obviously, environmental degradation caused by excessive use of technology has become part of common consciousness. This is a rather obvious and global science aspect of policy. There are others which are less obvious and far more complex, because they are related to nation’s economy and trade.

Some years ago, Chinese deputy science minister visited our Institute for discussions. A few days previously, Business Standard had published an essay where the author argued that just as China had emerged as the manufacturing hub, India should become the services hub. I wrote a short rejoinder disputing this prescription. I argued that China is the hub for low-skill requiring manufacture. India should become the centre for high-skilled upper-end manufacture. I gave a copy of this letter to the Chinese minister who read it , frowned and took my permission to keep it. Then he made a significant remark. China knows that it cannot compete with the West on technologies of today. Therefore it is making money from techs of yesterday and investing in the high techs of the future. China is capable of planning for a hundred years or even longer. In the same spirit during an official visit to China, I was asked to spend some time with a researcher who had been deputed to make projections for the Chinese traditional medicine exports, which are currently worth about its 12 billion dollars. ( China will lose this market overnight if US decides to classify traditional medicine as medicine instead of food supplement.) In contrast, India as a nation is incapable of afraid of keeping a long-term focus, and is scared of decision making or advance planning for fear of failure.

There is a basic difference in the approach of India and of China towards the West. China seems to be telling the West : “ This is a beautiful house you are occupying. Get out because I want to live here. India seems to be saying : “ This is a lovely house you are living in. Please permit me to stay in the out-house.

In most countries, public policy is expected to be arrived at following wide-spread and thorough discussions and consultations. Once formulated it is strictly adhered to, like an architect’s approved plan is while constructing a house. The term policy or policy document carries tremendous sanctity. It took me quite some time to put across the point ( in Japan and South Korea) that an Indian policy document should not be read with a legal eye. It always remains fluid, permitting lobbying, negotiations, improvements, improvisations, and retreat. Even when a policy has been enunciated ,it can only indicate the broad direction in which developments are expected to take place. One should look up an Indian policy document for intention rather than promise, supplement it with insights and information from other sources, and test it against the actual happenings.

The context was a report issued by the National Manufacturing Competitiveness Council (NMCC) .It was too general to be of any use, except for the statistical figures it quoted. It is a well-known fact that auto components and pharma are the top priority areas in Indian manufacturing today, except that you will not learn this from this particular official document.

We must of course distinguish between industrial policy and science policy. More specifically , what IS science policy?

Science policy

Science policy can be understood to cover two areas : Policy as related to the pursuit of science itself (covering issues such as funding of basic research, education policy); and public policy issues with a scientific aspect ( climate change, environment, bio-fuels, GM foods, bio-ethics, disaster management, skill development). These two areas are not mutually exclusive. State support for education and scientific research itself is part of public policy. But it is often convenient to distinguish between (i) science policy where science is the output and (ii) science policy where science is an input.

The subject of science policy is very vast. After some general remarks, I would like to dwell on those aspects which are largely ungoogleable, being based on first-hand experience (e.g. economic nationalism by the side door; perceptions of long-range Chinese policy; software triumphalism).

Globalization has been made possible by recent rapid developments in information and communication technology (ICT). Thanks to globalization, markets have become globally competitive; entirely new businesses have opened up; and , most importantly, time scales of change have become extremely short. Countries can no longer conduct their politics, economics and trade in isolation. There are no local events any more. One country’s mis-step or misfortune can be another country’s opportunity.

When tsunami hit Indonesia, tourists shifted to the Indian west coast. Similarly, bird flu in east Asia pushed up Indian poultry exports. For similar reasons, China initially tried to suppress reports of SARS incidence. The world may or may not have become a global village, but it certainly has become a global hospital.

Economic nationalism by the side door

An important aspect of globalization does not seem to have received much attention. Globalization may be thriving, but economic nationalism is not dead. It is in hiding and waiting to sneak in through the side door marked environmental and health considerations. ( This is not to say that these considerations are not valid.) Countries are ready to ban import of poultry , beef or other food items on the slightest suspicion. Growing concern about China’s booming exports is being accompanied by stricter examination of Chinese toys, textiles, tooth-pastes for toxicity. Backlash is developing in the western markets against Chinese goods. China is facing up to the challenge. But, can India profit from the situation while the going is good?

Current high economic growth in India has been made possible by technological developments elsewhere. It is a worrisome irony that while science and technology are today playing a far greater role in trade, economics, diplomacy and international relations than ever before, science and science education have sharply declined in India. This is because globalization has transformed the character of Indian economy. About 60% of Indian GDP now comes from the service sector which is intrinsically science-less. Since Indian economy does not seem to require science any more, science is in decline. This is dangerous. Coping with new developments ( bird flue, GM) is not easy even for better equipped countries .It will be impossible for a scientifically semi-literate country.

A few years ago when there was an accident involving an airbus, India, in a knee-jerk reaction, grounded all its airbuses for a long time , suffering huge losses in the process. This happened because India did not have the confidence to undertake evaluation of even a standard technology. But today there are developments on the scientific and technological frontiers, whichare intrinsically difficult to assess.

Bird flu

Bird flu is a case in point. As is known, domestic poultry can be infected with bird flu virus, which gets transferred to human beings who come into very close contact with poultry as in Vietnam , China , etc.. So far , the virus has not mutated to be able to transfer from humans to humans. At the same time, wild fowl are known to receive infection from domestic fowl and die. How do you respond to news of infection in poultry or the death of a wild turkey? Most countries play safe by over-reacting , although it is not possible to say at what stage the reaction crosses the threshold. Many people would argue that the dangers of bird flu are being exaggerated because vaccines have been prepared. The demise of altruistic international agencies has made the task of technology assessment very difficult and uncertain.

GM crops

Genetic modification of crops is probably the most significant development in agriculture since the domestication of wheat and barley 9000 years ago. The response it has elicited the world over is diverse indeed. It has been a rather easy matter for Europe to take a stand against GM foods because agriculture is not an important part of its economy. US always the boldest is going ahead with it. Australia, which is a big exporter of food grains, is cautiously making a distinction between commercial crops, like Bt cotton (permitted) and GM foods (taboo).China alone is capable of experimenting unmindful of consequences.

India seems to be caught in the cross fire within the country. When green revolution was ushered in , international and national agencies were involved in a big way. Mexican wheat and Manila rice were developed by world bodies. The new varieties were adapted to local conditions by the state agricultural universities, and as the next step in the chain the government acted as a bridge between agricultural scientists and the farmers.

But in the case of genetically modified crops, international agencies are totally absent and the state has far lesser role and credibility as regulator, advisor or facilitator. GM technologies are being developed by multi-national companies with low credibility. There is nobody to adapt these technologies to suit local conditions; educate the farmers on their use; and closely monitor the developments. There are hardly any reliable monitoring agencies. The space vacated by the retreat of the state has been occupied by NGOs which often overstate their case. On top of this there is a tussle between the GM and pesticide lobbies.

An executive decision , or in case of India a decision by the higher judiciary, can be meaningful only if it is backed by a broad agreement among experts. If the expert opinions show a 180 degree spread, the executive decision can go in any direction. Only if the available expertise defines a narrow cone , can one expect the ensuing policy to be broadly in the right direction. State universities , which have the necessary freedom and disinterestedness , must examine the issues rigorously and publish their findings so that policies can be based on firm inputs.

Notwithstanding high growth rates in new economy, India’s political stability and well-being still depend on the health of agricultural sector .The most worrisome part of Indian economy is that agricultural growth has been stagnant for a long period. Although agriculture’s share in GDP has drastically come down , to 20%, as much as 60% of work force still depends on it. As is well-known, agriculture affects other sectors as well. Over-use of agrochemicals and overdrawal of water have posed serious environmental and economic problems. Even without GM, there is scope for increased food production. There is need to revive investment and research in agriculture.

Basic science still needed

Bhuj earthquake

Grounding in fundamentals of science is essential for responding to natural disasters and the public perception thereof. After the Bhuj earthquake, there was a claim by an individual that he had predicted it and conveyed his prediction to the government.. Since the claim was placed before the parliament , the government was asked to explain. I was informally consulted by the then science state minister whose responsibility it was to answer science questions. My reasoning was simple. Even if an individual makes a prediction , the government cannot act on it , because it is only after the event that its truthfulness or otherwise can be ascertained. Government can act only if scientists as a body make a prediction. Science at its current levels is unable to predict earthquakes.


The recent tsunami also raised many questions. There was a phone call from a TV channel reporter . As you know the media gives you the minimum information from its side and wants you to say something. Can another tsunami come? I gave him a class room lecture explaining that an earth quake is always followed by others with increasingly less intensity, and therefore a tsunami cannot be followed by another equally devastating one. It is only then that he revealed that the people had been officially asked to move away because of the incoming ( second ) tsunami. Whenever there is an earthquake, the media adds to the panic by highlighting the news of the ones that follow as if they are as unexpected as the first one was.

There was much discussion on how to deal with tsunamis. A particular stupid and greedy suggestion was to build a wall along the cost. Incidentally , the definition of earthquake according to Geological Survey of India, continuing from the colonial times, recognizes only earthquakes that occur on the mainland , but not on the sea floor. It is noteworthy that there is no term for tsunami in any Indian language. This tells us that tsunamis were so infrequent that they never became a part of living memory. The next tsunami to hit the Indian east coast may not appear for two centuries. Also, we already have a nature-given warning system . The nearest tsunami can originate on the east coast is at the distance of Andaman – Nicobar, from where the waves will need about two hours to reach the shore. Unlike the cyclone, the tsunami waves remain tied to the ocean. By keeping the coast clear will minimize the damage.

Electricity from Himalayan rivers

My purpose here has been to drive home the point that a basic understanding of natural phenomena is very essential. Another example deals with engineering exercises that can lead to man-made disasters. Himalayan rivers are eminently suitable for hydro-power generation. Yet at Nathpa-Jhakri on Satluj in Himachal and Baglihar on Chenab in Kashmir , there have been serious technical problems leading to shut-downs and great financial loss. As is well-known, the Himalayas are kutcha mountains and its rivers carry lot of silt. It appears that while designing the power station, the silt carried by the river has been grossly under-estimated. More generally , when we talk of such grandiose plans as linking of rivers, we tend to view them as water pipes and not dynamic though fragile eco-systems.

Skill requirements in service sector and its impact on others

When the West criticizes India’s nuclear or missile programme , we feel happy. Similarly when the West praises India’s so-called IT prowess , why don’t we become suspicious that there must be a catch somewhere? As a substitute for hard-core long-term thinking, we indulge in tokenism and triumphalism. India’s share in the world IT market is about 2%.It is too small to make India a hub. In contrast, India’s share in dismantling electronic waste and in breaking ships is about 30% each. Properly speaking India is a hub for dealing with obsolete computers than the current ones.

Indian software and BPO sector is expected to earn $41 bn in 2007-08.This figure may appear to be large , but is not when placed in context. In the same period India expects to receive $30 bn as private remittances from Indians living/working abroad ( about two thirds of this comes from the Gulf and USA).In 2005 China earned from US about $60bn from export of low-tech sports goods, toys and the like. Indian IT sector ( with more I than T)is characterized by gross under-employment. It is acting as a brain sink, causing severe problems for all other sectors including manufacturing and government science.

Even within software-driven sector, there is an acute shortage of skilled labour, restricting growth , pushing up costs and preventing move up the value ladder. Software companies seem to be more interested in collaborating with the government in acquiring real estate than in training people.

Difference in perception: GE in US and in India/China

I have downloaded a paper by an American academic, entitled “Globalization and its impact on science , technology and education: A macro analysis”. It lauds “reformation, restructuring and re-definition of existing technological networks” brought about by globalization. “GE’s worldwide R&D system best personifies this new alignment-along with its major global R&D center in Niskayuna, New York (near Albany), GE now has active R&D centers in Shanghai, Bangalore, Munich, and St. Petersburg, Russia.”

This may well be true. It however needs to be driven home that in Indian R&D centres of foreign companies, there is more D than R. Also , all the patents are owned by the parent company , even if the authors of the patents are Indians. If these centres were in the West, the Indians employed would be getting much higher salaries, and bringing home most of the savings. You do not become rich from wages; you become rich from royalties. Of course, training under foreign auspices is a necessary prerequisite, but if we start celebrating the wage-stage, we will never reach the royalty stage.

Let us return to the business model of GE. Its medical division operates at three levels. US centre produces top-end instrumentation for medical research institutions. Japan produces high-end machines for hospitals. GE’s India and China production centres mass-produce simple machines for determining the sex of unborn babies. It is no exaggeration to say that GE’s economy in India and China is driven by the abortion market.

When economies were isolated, it was easy to define national interest and devise ways to protect and advance it. National interest is still important under globalization, although it is easy to lose focus. S & T issues are more important than ever before and require clearer and sharper thinking as a prelude to quick and decisive action.//

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