Cultures of innovation: Past, Present and Future – Stories from Switzerland and Asia

India’s Technology journey has to be viewed in the context of the 3 Indian freedoms.

First, 1947, the political freedom.

Second, 1991, the economic freedom. The integration of Indian economy with global economy, leading to freedom to compete in an open economy.

Third, 2008, the technology freedom. India signed a key civil nuclear deal with the US, which gave it access to some nuclear materials and technology. India then became a member of Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), getting access to crucial missile technologies. More technologies started following.

Let’s look at India’s technology journey.

First, after 1947, India experimented with socialism for more than four decades, which kept out foreign capital and technologies.

But it had the beneficial effect of spurring local innovation based on indigenous technology.

This manifested into several revolutions. The Green revolution, where a country that lived on ‘ship to mouth existence’ became self-sufficient in food. Then White revolution, a country that imported milk products, became the largest producer of milk and milk products. Connectivity revolution, when C-DOT broke the monopoly of multinationals, developed rural telephone exchange that could work under harsh conditions without air conditioning. This connected all Indian villages. There were many such indigenous innovations in the pre-liberalised India.

Second, the Indian economy didn’t start growing until the liberalisation in 1991, so local companies were small. Indian entrepreneurs, therefore, developed a penchant for undertaking small projects with indigenous (import substituted) technologies but with huge capital efficiency.

Third, local companies knew that while India has both rich and poor people, catering only to the rich limited their market. They were forced to create products that straddled the whole economic pyramid, from top to bottom. Thus, affordable inclusive innovation was firmly integrated in to the strategy.

And fourth, the most important driver happened to be India’s innovation mind-set. Some Indian leaders had the audacity to question the conventional wisdom. The mix of minuscule research budgets, small size, low prices, but big ambitions translated into an explosive combination of extreme scarcity and great aspiration, which ignited the Indian innovation.

For instance it became the Pharmacy of the world, supplying high quality generic drugs and vaccines to the world at affordable prices.

It was CIPLA’s HIV AIDS antiretroviral drugs priced at one dollar a day of treatment as against the thirty dollar a day that not only saved millions of patients but also led to historic Doha Declaration bringing together for the first time IPR and Public Health

It made a high quality artificial foot priced at $28, with a performance equalling a foot that was 100 times costlier. It exported it to 18 countries.

And one can give dozens of such examples of what I would term as frugal innovation with affordable excellence. It changed the dictionary of innovation, with 10 books on Indian frugal innovation appearing in last 5 years.

Besides scarcity, there was denial of technology to India.

Indian technology grew in a denial driven mode in the pre-liberalised India. Foreign technologies were denied because of lack of resource as well as a closed economy. They were also denied due to security and strategic reasons.

It was through the path of ‘technonationalism’ that India developed self-reliance through its own technologies in both civilian sectors as well as strategic sectors such as space, defence, nuclear energy, and supercomputers. Let me illustrate.

Take defense. India developed on its own diverse missiles and rocket systems, remotely piloted vehicles, light combat aircraft, etc. Brahmos, a big breakthrough in supersonic missile, world’s fastest anti-ship cruise missile is a great example of Indian prowess in a strategic technology.

Take nuclear energy. The entire range of technologies, from the prospecting of raw materials to the design and construction of large nuclear reactors was developed on a self-reliant basis. India’s nuclear fast-breeder reactors emerged from its thrust towards technonationalism.

Look at space technology from indigenous development to satellites to launch vehicles, from SLV to ASLV to PSLV to GSLV.

Mars Orbiter Mission was special. India became the First Nation to succeed at the first attempt and that too at the cost of 73 million dollars, one tenth of the cost of the US equivalent Mars mission.

ISRO created a world record by simultaneous launch of 104 satellites.

Strength respects strength. It is the growing technological strength of a nation that increases its access to technology that has been denied to it. The technology denial regime itself underwent a change as technonationalism gave India a strong technological foundation.

For instance, India’s supercomputer journey began, when access to CRAY super computer was denied to India in mid-eighties. SAC-PM.

In 1998, C-DAC launched PARAM 10,000, which demonstrated India’s capacity to build 100-gigaflop machines. In response, the US relaxed its export controls.

During the same year, CRAY, which had denied the licensing of technology, itself established a subsidiary in India.

So India has survived the adversity of scarce resources and denial of technology.

The Prime Minister has asked for Atmanirbhar Bharat. That means self reliant India. But that does not mean closing the economy by creating huge tariff barriers. In fact it means integration with global economy.

And it will be Atma Nirbhar Bharat with Atma Vishwas. Self reliant India with self confidence.

And the self confidence was evident in the way India dealt with the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic.

At the start of the pandemic, India had no point of care diagnostics, no vaccine, no drugs, it imported ventilators, it imported personal protection equipment. Just look at the progress it has made in a very short time in each of these areas. India is well on its way to become self-reliant in each of these areas, whether it’s becoming from an importing to exporting nation in PPEs, or whether CIPLA producing the cheapest Remdesivir drug for COVID treatment, or whether IGIB producing the game changing world’s first paper based diagnostic test, world’s most affordable, most specific and most sensitive test that is most user friendly, or whether it is Serum Institute, which is poised to be the largest single producer of COVID vaccines in the world.

This is what it is Self-reliant India with self-confidence, showing the way to the world with affordable excellence based frugal innovation.