Science and technology: India will be a producer of knowledge, not just a consumer


From artificial intelligence to biomedical technologies, the 2020s will see India as not only a consumer but a producer of technologies. These technologies will focus on India and empower Indians. They will be driven by the 3Ds – digitalisation, decentralisation and decarbonisation. The decade will see their efficiency impact on education, healthcare, energy. Within the next 10 years, they will enable India to become a global leader in several industries and create innovative start-ups. The rise of India as a science and technology powerhouse will go hand in hand with other policy initiatives and citizen aspirations that will help our country adapt, evolve and embrace the opportunity these technologies will offer. Their production in the 2020s will see outcomes by the end of the decade and prepare India as a global technological giant in the next decade of the 2030s.

As with all knowledge that stands on the shoulders of giants, the decade ahead will take forward the work done by India in the decade behind. The 2010s saw incredible advances in science and technology. Globally, we saw a dramatic reduction in the cost of genetic sequencing, the first successful uses of gene therapy in humans, and the existence of gravitational waves. India had its own moments of glory. Gagandeep Kang became the first-ever Indian woman scientist, since 1660, to be elected as a Fellow of Royal Society, one of the topmost honours after Nobel Prize. In became the first country in the world to reach Mars in its maiden attempt spending just one-tenth of the budget that National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) used. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully launched a record 104 satellites on a single rocket.

Predicting the 2020s is difficult, especially in the VUCA world, full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The Coronavirus pandemic due to COVID-19 could not have been predicted as the year 2020 began. The world turned upside down within just around 100 days. We will deal with this subject at the end of this essay. 

Predictions are especially difficult in the area of science and technology, as the landscapes are changing so rapidly. Even just 10 years ago, we did not have Alexa, Siri, Snapchat, Instagram, Tesla Model S, Amazon Echo, and reusable rockets. They have become an important part of our life today. As someone has said, “wise people may develop expectations for the future, but only foolish make the predictions.” But despite this danger of unpredictability, we are confident that there are three dominant drivers – the 3Ds – that are fully predictable. These 3Ds are digitalisation, decentralisation and decarbonisation.


Digitalisation is driving the creation of the new digital world and will be the transformative story of the 2020s. India is digitalising faster than many mature and emerging economies. It is already home to one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing bases of digital consumers. As of today, Facebook has more users in India than the rest of the world put together.

Reliance Jio launch helped India pole vault from 155th position to number 1 position in the world in mobile data consumption. In fact, India is growing in the digital space at 10x pace. India operates the most advanced digital payments system in the world. As per a KPMG report, per capita digital transactions rose from 2.4 million in 2014 to 22.4 million in 2019, a 10-fold rise in five years; it has the potential to grow to 220 million by 2021, another rise of 10 times in just two years. That 1.3 billion Indians will be connected through digitalisation offers a huge opportunity of radical yet sustainable transformation in diverse fields, be they education, health, agriculture, energy, industry, more precisely, industry 4.0.


Decentralisation (indeed for that matter democratisation) is a result of rapid advances in technology, digital being the most powerful. CAD files and 3D printing achieved by using additive processes will create distributed manufacturing, doing away with big assembly line dominated factories. That means, leave aside the idea of work from home, the home or even a garage can be a factory, thus democratising manufacturing. Decentralisation of education through massive online open courses, mesh networks, private block chain, rooftop solar with power storage by Tesla Powerwall like systems are going to drive decentralisation in the coming decade.


Decarbonisation has been given the highest priority by India and in some cases with a 10x model. For instance, UJALA (Unnat Jyoti by Affordable Lighting for All) scheme cut light emitting diode (LED) bulb prices from Rs 310 in 2014 to Rs 38 apiece by 2016, a fall to one-tenth the price. India is now producing world’s cheapest solar power, with the cost of setting up solar PV (photovoltaic) projects dropping several folds in the last decade. India will see more solar lighting systems, with turbines and micro-grids in the coming decade, meaning more decentralisation and decarbonisation.

Some emerging biological technologies will also impact the 3Ds. For instance, synthetic biology will help decarbonisation by impacting carbon sequestration via virus-resistant plants and algae. Likewise, it will help in decentralisation. For instance, the cost of chemicals is very scale sensitive. But now with synthetic biology, localised production with tailored bacteria will become possible.

These 3Ds will be the drivers of the decade.

Exponential digital technologies and India’s march in the 2020s

 Artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, blockchain, big data analytics, mobile internet, cloud computing, robotics process automation (RPA), internet of things (IOT), augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality, quantum computing, advanced genomics, 3D printing and gene editing will dominate the decade of 2020s. These are exponential technologies, and since the performance rises rapidly and the costs go down rapidly, these will be an advantage to India. India will surely make forays in all these technologies. Let’s take only the much talked about just 5G and artificial intelligence (AI).

5G. 5G is the next generation of mobile internet connection. It is designed to increase speed, reduce latency, and improve flexibility of wireless services. The common belief is that for 5G, the world is going to depend either on US or China. This needs correction. In the 2020s, India will be a big player in 5G. Look at Jio, a mobile phone company developing in-house technology to replace third party equipment vendors. Its 5G technology is more scalable and is fully automated since Jio has its own cloud-native platform. Broadband and voice will be the base of this technology. While Indian telecom operators partner with outside companies, there are security concerns, especially with Chinese partners like Huawei. It is remarkable that Jio 5G doesn’t have a single Chinese component. With its own research and developments for 5G operations, Jio, and therefore India, is well placed to take global leadership during 2020s.

AI. AI is the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines, especially computer systems. It broadly covers technologies such as machine learning (ML), deep learning (DL), and natural language processing (NLP). If data is the new oil, AI is the new electricity. India will use AI to usher in large changes and make a big difference in various services such as healthcare, agriculture, education, infrastructure, and transportation. And work is afoot on both, technology and policy level. There is no doubt that using AI, India will rekindle productivity and growth, open new economic opportunities and with the guiding principles of “people first” policies and business strategies, augment both individual and enterprise capacity.

In its recent reports, Accenture has provided a framework for evaluating the economic impact of AI for select G20 countries and estimates that AI will boost India’s annual growth rate by 1.3 percentage points by 2035. As per Stanford’s 2019 AI Index Report, the average penetration of AI skills in India in selected areas is 2.6 times the global average across the same set of occupations. India should seize such comparative advantage and pole vault to join the leaders’ club in AI, dominated by China and US today.

Technology 2020 will drive India’s grand challenges

India’s population of 1.23 billion in 2010 increased to 1.37 billion in 2020; it will rise to 1.5 billion In 2030. It will surpass China to become the most populous country in the world. Indian technology will focus on better quality of life to its 1.5 billion citizens. Let’s look at the specific cases of education, health, energy as illustrations.

 Education. Exponential technologies will disrupt Indian education sector. Institutes of learning will be virtual, meta and open in character. Ed-tech platforms like Coursera, edX and Future Learn offer more than 5,000 courses taught by educators across the world that anyone can access. There are an estimated 500,000 learning apps available for download. This will dramatically change the Indian education system.

First, information memorisation and brute force recall that have dominated the Indian education systems will be made irrelevant. From ‘brain as storage’ to ‘brain as an intelligent processor’ will become the norm. Humanity’s accumulated knowledge is now freely available on the Internet for anyone, anytime, anywhere. Second, on demand tutoring, peer-to-peer (P2P) learning, personalised and generative course structure and sequencing to meet the individual needs will be the order of the day. Third, rich formatted content and research material from the best faculty from around the world on any subject will be available for free. And fourth, growth of mobile technology within education will also enable a much more interactive, gamified learning experience, which will add creative and dynamic elements.

 Innovation, not only technological but also social and pedagogical, will transform the traditional Indian ‘classrooms’ into future ‘meeting rooms’, where cooperative learning will take place and students will prepare for their working future. Schooling will no longer consist of large classrooms, grade wise stratification, common and rigid curricula, syllabi and textbooks, and an overbearing presence of examinations. There will be the delivery of language-neutral content to all individuals, at the press of a button, 24×7. All learners would be able to study in the language of their choice, thanks to cheap real-time translation services. Customised learning modules coupled with adaptive, dynamic and agile lifelong learning will become the focus of Indian universities, which will create a workforce with long term sustainability.

Health. India has already established itself as “Pharmacy of the World”. India is one of the largest producers and exporters of vaccines. Nearly half of all vaccines delivered globally are manufactured in India. For instance, Shan5 is India’s first indigenously developed liquid pentavalent vaccine (DTP-Hep B-Hib).

CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology led a project which involved whole genome sequencing of 1,000 Indians for healthcare and biomedical applications. Information was made available in an app that is secure, privacy-protected, scalable, point-of-care and clinician-enabled. As the costs plummet, the dream of millions of Indians having their own DNA sequence will start taking shape. This will give access to a vast data base that describes risks, therapies and best practices based on the characteristics of one’s own specific genes.

Exponential technologies like AI and machine learning will play a big role. For instance, TimBre, which diagnoses tuberculosis (TB) in a patient by recording the sound of his or her cough. It uses these technologies to make the cough interpretation. It is an easy, non-invasive, affordable and an easily accessible procedure for TB diagnosis. The 2020s will see several such Indians breakthroughs.

Drug discovery and drug delivery in India will take a different shape. Open source drug discovery (OSDD) was pioneered by India as a new way of finding new drugs. OSDD was inspired by the success of open source models in information technology (web technology, Linux) and biotechnology (human genome sequencing). OSDD too worked in a virtual, distributed, co-creation mode. It provided a global platform where 7,000-plus scientists from more than 130 countries could collaborate and collectively contribute to solving the complex problems associated with discovering novel therapies for neglected tropical diseases. The decade ahead will see paradigm shifts in drug discovery with such game-changing breakthroughs created by India.

In drug delivery, the coming decade will herald a paradigm shift to the role of cells as ‘drugs’ and ‘carriers.’ Unlike traditional drugs, cells are unique living entities. They can navigate through the body and reach destinations that most traditional drugs cannot. Drugs that exploit or control the immune system for the treatment of cancer, autoimmune diseases, and allergies will receive a priority. Likewise, synthetic biology is well-positioned to help advance medicine over the next decade through the development of next-generation diagnostics and gene and cell therapies. Further, major advances in assembling cells and tissues will emerge that will allow Indian researchers to print living organs for clinical use.

In the next 10 years, India will begin to realise the promised rewards of personalised medicine and personalised health, moving toward a system where we monitor individuals for key biomarkers and compare those results to their own measurements at an earlier time, rather than relying on population averages that don’t reflect the wide biological variations that exist between people. Effectively, India will be moving rapidly in the decade of 2020 in balancing preventive (vaccines), curative (antibiotics), predictive (gene therapy) and regenerative medicine (stem cell technology).

Energy. India’s energy transformation is evidenced by the fast-increasing proportion of renewable energy in its energy mix. In the 2020s, renewable energy choices (solar, wind, small hydropower and waste-to-energy) will help in boosting installed capacity and access. India will leverage its competitive advantage in nuclear energy. India has a substantial amount of easily exploitable thorium deposits along its southern coasts and relatively modest uranium deposits so the thorium fuel cycle will be the viable option for India with increased focus on research effort on developing thorium-based technologies. Aggressive push on these technologies will propel India towards becoming a self-reliant energy nation, the seeds for which will be planted in the 2020s.

 As the Indian government is pushing for increased electric vehicles (EV) adoption in the decade of 2020, Indian research and development will focus on all aspects of EV technologies. These will include hydrogen fuel-cells, new battery-chemistries (with higher specific energy and energy densities), battery materials and chemicals, batteries withstanding higher temperatures, and EV chargers.

Lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries are the most widely used today. However, considering the fact that India is dependent on the import of critical materials like lithium and cobalt, plans are already afoot to look at alternatives. Work in India is currently going on in systems based on liquid metal, lithium-sulphur, sodium-ion, zinc-manganese dioxide, and nano-based super capacitors. In some cases, performance levels closer to Li-ion batteries have already been reached. In the next 10 years some of these will be developed to the level of commercialisation.

India will show a major shift to hydrogen economy with fuel cells, which do away with batteries altogether. Thanks to unique programs like the New Millennium Technology Leadership Initiative (NMITLI), already proton exchange membrane fuel cells have been built, which are superior in performance to the state-of-the-art batteries with far lower costs. Further, with 100% indigenisation of fuel cell components, both job creation through the indigenous production by Indian vendors and national security is ensured. The prediction is that such fuel cells will be used in stationary applications (such as 600,000 telecom towers that are guzzling $2 billion to $3 billion worth of diesel through the diesel generator sets, while emitting particulates in the air) as also mobile applications in commercial vehicles such as trucks and buses. What is required now is matching these technology achievements with bold policy actions. This will happen within the next 10 years.

Post COVID 2020 Science & Technology Landscape 

COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disaster in terms of loss of lives and livelihoods, ravaging of economies and destruction of social structures. The pandemic  brought the fault lines of economic inequality into sharp focus. On the other hand it moved us, almost overnight, in a global reset. In one sweep, humanity adopted to remote work, virtual learning and online shopping. 

The pandemic has accelerated the 3 Ds that we described in the beginning of this essay.

The pace of digitalisation has accelerated to an extent, where Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella  said “we have seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.” Look at e-commerce penetration in the USA. 10 year’s growth took place in 3 months. And India is no exception.

Work from home (WFH) became a new normal. WFH  in itself was not new. Our own Indian  IT industry created a global revolution by pioneering the concept of remote work around  three decades ago. However, the COVID driven lock-down has led to massive and rapid expansion.

Earlier we referred to digitalisation leading to virtual class rooms. That was happening gingerly. Suddenly, for 1.6 billion children, home has become the classroom. 

We referred to telemedicine. Look at the  rapid change in adapting telemedicine in Britain. “We’re basically witnessing 10 years of change in one week,” said Dr. Sam Wessely, a general practitioner in London.  

In short, the trends that we emphasised earlier vis a vis 3Ds, exponential technology, etc.  are still valid. What  has changed is the speed, scale and scope. And some of it will have an unintended consequence, which we have not discussed before. Let’s look at just one of them.

Schools have closed but learning has not stopped, thanks to online delivery of education to home. With lack of access to either devices or connectivity, the resource poor children will face enormous challenge in getting access to education. We read about the painful story of Kuldip Kumar of Himachal Pradesh selling his only cow for Rs 6000 to buy a smartphone for his two children so that they could access education. Public  policy on making digital access a basic human right and then taking the measures to implement it will have to be seriously thought about.

Returning to the pandemic, the  challenge for Indian  political leadership was to make rapid informed decisions. And rightly, they turned to scientists, to deliver science that solves, science that is actionable, and rapidly so. And the scientists delivered just that.

Look at India. When the pandemic arrived, we had negligible diagnostic capability, no point of care diagnosis, no vaccines, no therapeutics, the biology and mechanism of action of the virus was unknown. 

Our scientists delivered all this and more.Let’s just take some illustrative examples.

Take diagnostics.

Startups responded. Mylab in Pune studied the genome sequence of COVID-19 and was first to come  out with their  PathoDetect qualitative kit within just six weeks.

Educational institutions responded. IIT(Delhi) launched an affordable and highly specific real time PCR based diagnostic essay.

CSIR responded. It’s constituent laboratory, Institute of Genomics and Integrated Biology,  created their unique Feluda test,  which is a rapid diagnostic kit, with high  affordability, relative ease of use and non-dependency on expensive Q-PCR machines. It used cutting-edge CRISPR technology for detection of genomic sequence of novel coronavirus. 

Take vaccines. Indian scientists got into the act with multiple strategies  for vaccine development. Bharat Biotech is using inactivated virus.Zydus is using spiked protein. Another public private partnership supported by CSIR’s pathbreaking NMITLI program  is using monoclonal antibodies.

Take ventilators. Here is just a glimpse, which is representative of the way Indian scientists  responded.

I chaired the Rs 2.5 crore #innovate2BeatCovid  grand challenge posed by Marico Innovation Foundation. The winners created ventilators that could cover the whole range, in transit ventilation in ambulances to in- patient wards to critical care in ICUs.

Interestingly, we saw great Indovation, meaning innovations that suited  specific Indian needs. Indian ventilators  must work, even when there is no electricity, no availability of compressed medical air, no fully trained staff, extremely crowded quarantines. Besides this,  ventilators have to be affordable, but yet match world class technical specifications; in other words, affordable excellence! The winners, amazingly none of whom were in the ventilator sector before the pandemic broke, met all these criteria.

India was importing 70% of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). Within a space of 3 months it has become a net exporter. 

But the Indian S &T community will have a bigger challenge in the 2020s. And that has to do with  inspiring clarion call  given by our  Prime Minister by announcing ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan’. It means building self reliant India in the new context.

This idea of self-reliance is not about a return to import substitution but an active participation in post-COVID global supply chains coupled with a strategy to attract  foreign direct investment. It is not about isolationism behind “narrow domestic walls” but is about integration with the world.

Atma Nirbhar Bharat has to be crises-resilient. That means developing several tenets of resilience like adaptability, agility, resilience design thinking, end to end digitalisation, platformisation, scenario based planning,etc. Most importantly, it means reducing its vulnerability to global supply chain dependence. Let’s just focus on one of these.

India depends on Chinese imports to produce its own exports. The Foreign Value Added (FVA)  contribution of China to India’s exports as a total FVA is 34.1%. Import  component in various sectors of Indian economy is high, for instance,  Pharma API (68%),Electronics (45%), Manufactured Capital goods (32%). Such large dependence makes us vulnerable. 

Let’s take just one example. Post COVID shocks affected  our drugs and pharmaceuticals industry,  because we were so largely dependent on China for Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs). Now there is a new national policy backed up by investment  for  boosting indigenous API manufacturing. And we can do that because we can leverage India’s amazing strength in process chemistry and engineering.

 Finally, our  policy can’t be suddenly China-less. We need a strategic patience leading to ‘less China’, and then ‘less and less China’ . And that too in all sectors of economy. Acceleration of this process will be a critical challenge of 2020s for Indian science and technology.

Indian science in the 2020s

India’s rank in science is rapidly rising. It is now the world’s third largest publisher of peer reviewed scientific research papers, after China and the US. Between 2008 and 2018, India had an average annual growth rate of 10.73%, as against China’s 7.81% and the US’s 0.71%. India’s growth numbers will continue as wise policy initiatives like creating new institutions such as Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER) in the past decade will start paying off in the next.

Scientific discovery, which has historically been an effort of educated trial and error, will become a far more systematised, reliable, data-driven process. India is on the verge of a sea change in the pace of discovery across scientific fields that will be fuelled by effectively applying the vast potential of technologies such as AI and machine learning to probe the unexplored white space faster and more efficiently.

Going beyond the traditional science establishment of universities and national labs, the magic of ‘Startup India’ will create a big footprint in the 2020s. Start-ups will become a major source of access to talent and breakthrough technology. India today has the fastest growing start-up ecosystem in the world. In the decade of 2010 investment in Indian start-up went up by 25 times, from $555 million to $14.1 billion. More importantly, these start-ups are coming out with some incredible technology breakthroughs.

Just as an example, let’s ask some challenging questions

  • Can we make high-quality but simple breast cancer screening available to every woman, at an extremely affordable cost of $1 per scan?
  • Can we make a portable, high-tech ECG machine that can provide reports immediately and at a cost of Rs 5 a test?
  • Can we make a robust test for mosquito-borne dengue, which can detect the disease in 15 minutes at a cost of $2 per test?

The questions are rhetoric – all these have been made possible by Anjani Mashelkar Inclusive Innovation Awardees, all of them being young start-ups and all of them are growing in the market today.

What the 2020s will look like: my dream

A 10-year-old boy ‘Ravi’ will spend his day learning from the best teachers over the internet in his regional language, using an affordable tablet that uses new-age battery technology charged by green energy. He will use a virtual lab to conduct fun experiments in partnership with a Swedish student, and spend his free time swimming in the village river instead of carrying heavy bags and walking back and forth for kilometres from a school.

And finally, as we enter this new decade, as an optimist, I envision India will be a leader in delivering technologies that work for all, not just privileged few. I am also confident that our intellectual prowess augmented with technological advancements and policy support has the potential to solve India’s grand challenges. My dream for the 2020 will not be achieved by using data or by technology alone. Our collective ability to adapt, evolve our approaches and embrace the opportunity before us will be play a critical role.