Saturday, 11 August 2012

Scientific bureaucracy killing the spirit of innovation in India

The following article was published in The Tribune, Chandigarh on 31st July 2012 and is posted here only for academic purpose with due apology to the publisher and the author (accessed through internet on 12.8.2012)
Innovation is not just patents and ‘jugaads’The US and Germany have become global leaders of innovation not by disjointed kneejerk measures but creating a total environment that nurtures, mentors, educates and, finally, finances talent
Chandra Mohan
Seeing that innovation is a key index of developed societies, creation of a climate which fosters innovation was one of the key missions for the Knowledge Commission chaired by Sam Pitroda. Participation of both the Prime Minister and Finance Minister in a National Conference on Innovation last year reflected the priority. Announcements at this conference included establishment of a net-based “national knowledge network” and liberal funding of innovation. Large funds have already been placed at the disposal of every State Council of Technology, out of which Rs 1 crore has been passed on to each district. Following standard government practice, deputy commissioners have been assigned the responsibility for nurturing innovation in districts. The commission’s report specially commended our ‘jugaad’ culture.
It is high time we realised that innovation is far beyond ideas, patents or even jugaad’s. Ideas and patents are both mere dreams. Patent only provides legal protection to the commercial interests of the originator. Jugaad, for which Indians, Punjabis in particular, are globally recognised, are low-cost shortcuts for meeting exigencies. One of its most quoted examples is Punjab’s famous “Maruta” of the Seventies, which lasted for nearly 30 years. A 5hp engine mounted on a Jeep-chassis condemned by the Army became a multi-purpose public transport, portable pump-set, thresher driver, etc, for farms. Every component was a local contraption or from the scrap heap. Thousands plied on Punjab and Haryana roads. It was the only rural transport after dark during Punjab’s decade of terrorism. While the Maruta certainly filled a public need, it flaunted every public motor-vehicle Law: lighting, braking distances, direction indicators, reliability. Every poor developing society comes up with such cheap jugaads: Jeepney of the Philippines or power-tillers of Thailand. A list of thousands of jugaads was also compiled by Prof Anil Gupta of IIM-Ahmedabad via a village-level initiative through Gujarat called GIAN (Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network) in the early Nineties. Liberally supported by the Department of Science and Technology, it has led to the creation of the National Innovation Foundation (NIF) to help upscale these innovations into commercial products. IIT-Mumbai has been roped in for engineering support. Annual conferences of the NIF have also been held with great fanfare. But the impact of this entire effort is insignificant. Let us remember that innovation by its definition is “something different which makes an impact on society.” Making an impact on society broadens the scope to including social innovations that have no commercial value. Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank of Mohammad Yunus, Sulabh Shauchalaya of our own Bindeshwari Pathak of Bihar are examples of outstanding social innovations. Innovation, therefore, includes the long, arduous and risky slog of giving life and rearing the foetus into a successful adult that has an impact on society. This second leg is obviously far more difficult: there are unknown risks, unforeseen hurdles, soiling of hands, frustrations and disappointments galore.

Treacherous road
The worst part is that the innovator’s struggle does not end with a successful launch. It is lifelong and there is never a moment of respite. A competitor could knock it off that pedestal at any time, with a ‘cooler’ product. Could you have ever imagined the century-old global icon Kodak being knocked out bankrupt by digital photography? Tata Nano illustrates the risks. With all the resources of Tata Motors, Chairman Ratan Tata’s vision of a Rs 1-lakh car mooted in 1996 matured into the frozen-design Nano only in 2006 and first commercial sale in July 2009 — 13 years of effort and thousands of crores of risk-investment in converting that dream into a deliverable shape. Priced at 50 per cent of competing models, Nano was hyped globally as the entry-level car for the rising middle-class of developing countries. But Nano too is facing hurdles with sales dropping. Nano’s protracted struggle has given competitors enough time to ready their models. Today’s globally-exposed customer seeks ‘total oomph’. Lowest price alone is not enough. Another recent example is the computer tablets, for which our present market of 80,000 is expected to grow to 15 million by 2015. The Akash tablet developed by Datawind — an NRI company of Canada — and priced at Rs 2,500 hit national headlines last year. Its Indian launch at a subsidised price of Rs 1,800 for student buyers was announced by Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal with great fanfare. Quantities in millions were touted. Technical glitches in the first trial order of Jaipur University unfortunately destroyed the euphoria. Half a dozen global players spanning the entire feature and price spectrum ranging from Rs 3,000 of Ubislate to the global heartthrob Apple at Rs 29,000 have in the meantime joined the fray. Datawind has been left holding the can. Failure is a lifelong stigma in India.

Total ecology
It is high time we realised that flowering of innovation is not disjointed kneejerk steps. It needs creation and nurturing of a total ecology. Why and how did Stanford become the unchallenged magnet of innovation in the US? How has Germany fostered hundreds of family-owned medium-scale companies to become global leaders of innovation in their field and made Germany an economic powerhouse? Stanford’s romance with innovation began with the post-war establishment of HP by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard in a campus garage for making new electronic instruments for its labs. Spiralling post-War industrial demand for electronic instruments soon turned HP into a global powerhouse. Scientists that they were, Bill and Dave helped young entrepreneurs freely in their tinkering. The university provided the ground to experiment and later, even some seed money. Nurtured closely by both, this informal partnership flowered into a magnet for innovators. By the Eighties, faculty began to understand the nuances and risks of business, and private venture finance from across the US flooded in to join the party. Financial success emboldened higher risks and turned Stanford into a Mecca for innovation. Strength of German medium businesses is rooted in the century-old partnership between higher education and industry forged by Robert Bosch. These family-owned businesses have not only survived two World Wars, but grown into unchallenged global leaders of technology. In like fashion, our edifice of innovation will be successful only if it is founded in an un-tinted understanding of ground realities — which have been bred by an age-old culture wherein prayer and renunciation are the salvation of life, dirtying of hands is infra-dig and meant for inferior mortals; education, even technical, is totally theoretical and by rote; and faculty, even for higher technical education, has zero contact with industry and application. Torch-bearer IITs are no different. It is unfortunate that this culture of isolation has also permeated deep into our CSIR and defence labs. Scientists live in their isolated ivory towers with no interaction with industry. Projects, therefore, stretch on and on; cost-effective commercial production figures nowhere.

Fertile ground
Radical change in governance, recruitment and promotion policies of institutions of higher technical education and national labs would alone pull them out of this groove. Creation of a ground fertile for innovation would require: Access to a large number of young students of higher technical education to select those with entrepreneurial potential to deliver their innovations. Ability to access mentors in a wide array of fields to guide, help and monitor innovators as they work on converting their dreams into reality. Their needs change from day to day: CA today, an architect tomorrow, a marketing specialist day after and, an industrial engineer a day later. Capability to organise practical courses in all facets of business: structures, organisation and management; accounting; marshalling resources, etc. Financial resources for Angel-funding. Connect to private venture capitalists (VCs) for Tier-I finance and beyond. Necessity of private VCs needs special emphasis. Risk-shyness in any government venture capital is inevitable (public accountability breeds it). There could be no better example than the Technology Development Board set up under the Department of Science and Technology in 1996 to spur research and development (R&D) and innovation. It has no shortage of funds since all monies collected through the R&D cess on imported technology (Rs 2,300 crore till FY-2010) are at its disposal. Despite being composed by the cream of India’s R&D community and three eminent industrialists, its total disbursement till last year was only Rs 890 crore, divided among 233 projects. Only one case of Rs 9 crore in equity; Rest all in soft loans. Since even an entrepreneurial society like the US has only been able to create an innovation ecology at a few places, and India is too vast and diverse, the best course would be to begin with pilot initiatives in technical institutions which proven connect with industry, and learn our way to success. Experiment can be refined and escalated as we learn. Creation of 150+ successful entrepreneurs in first four years should be the objective of each institution. To my judgment, a grant of Rs 3 crore to each institution should be adequate to set the ball rolling. PTU’s first advanced school in Mohali (dedicated to ‘total quality management’ (TQM) and entrepreneurship) is one such institution. Its connect with over 500 industries is well known. The historical link of PSG Institute in Coimbatore with industry is again renowned. Deeper search will reveal more such examples. Pilot experiments are the tools for entering a new domain. Let us not be in a hurry, and adopt the well-trodden path.

What’s not innovation
Punjab's famous contraption called 'Maruta' may seem a good example of ingenuity, but it fails to meet the requirement of innovation being something that makes an impact on society.

What is innovation
Hewlett-Packard, backed by Stanford University in research, innovated and transformed itself many times over, starting from a garage on the campus, and overcoming varied challenges along the way.

Tata Nano car and the tablet Akash were sincere efforts at innovation, but are facing rough weather owing to unpredictable outcomes.

The writer, a technologist and entrepreneurial professional, retired as Managing Director of the Mohali-based Punjab Tractors in 1997.

The following was sent as my response, which the
newspaper did not publish:

For over a century now we have amazingly witnessed as how innovations have proved a key to survival for many technology firms and Corporations in a world, which progressively becomes more competetive and aggressive in the arena of discovery and inventions. Innovation is a different domain than discovery or invention and must the understood in the context that it is applicable to an already existing process or product, which by the application of some new thought and consequently a modification in design  may add more elements to comfort, economy and aesthetics. Innovations had their diktat on technology managers, which were quick to discard old models and promoted news ones at discount when economy of production is achievable or attained. Its promotion and popularization through marketing and financial strategies may tell another kind of astounding success stories but the greatest advantage that new utilities, products or technologies offered to humanity were in fact not discoveries or inventions but a sort of rationalization for additional comfort, reliability, ease of use, cost cutting, economy in space and attractive forms. People quickly became adapted to technologically advanced products that became possible only by advancement in knowledge through constantly pursued research and new thought. It was not merely the huge funding that is only responsible for innovations but the persistent thrust in a people to do so. And, that has something to do with the basic character of a people that evolves in civilization in which they have lived. The technological devices that we see around in India and are quickly reported by the media as scoops are, in fact, not innovations -except a few ones, but only Jugaads that has no meaning for the manufacturers becauses it is aesthetically poor, has no safety element, not economic and not acceptable. Which, is why the innovations in respect of technology as listed by National Innovation Foundations has found few takers.

Assessing the worth of skillfulness for innovation about the people of a nation such as India requires careful documentation by experts. The listed technologies and other products of the skilled Indians, as uploaded on the website of the Innovation Foundation of India, were checked and delightfully it cannot disappoint Indians as huge numbers were depicted in its warehouse but surely the industry is not interested in any one of them. Obviously, the people who have compiled and handled this business  and peer reviewed did not care much about industrial suitability despite their being intelligent and were not able to push for their improvement and exploitation in public interest. The problem about which Mr. Mohan has spoken was about funding, planning and fulfillment of intermediate or auxiliary requirements that often suffered at the hierarchical levels in the bureaucratic world in India. Further, the commercial yield of such innovations as listed by the NIF, supported by the Department of Science & Technology, may remain the process of evaluation for ever!
In future, who may not aspire to earn billions  of rupees by using these technologies and 'knowledge' but the question that has always loomed large on Indians is: how soon and who will do it, when? Will CSIR, ICMR, ICAR, DST, IITs or R&D units of the industrial houses in the private sector will ever come forward to take up the challenge. The regrettable part of this business is gloomy taking in account the history of technology in India in addition to the structural deficiencies in the aforesaid Institutional set up, which has largely failed to harness knowledge and never believed in lifting technologies from their preliminary stages for further development and evolution so that market could bloom and the people benefited. It is only for this reason that creation of wealth never occurred in India at a scale seen in England and USA and, for these shortcomings, our tryst with poverty in several sector –technology, finance, education and other was never broken otherwise the  innovations could have changed the life of Indians. However, India has great potential for innovations in textiles, footwear, herbal medicine, technologies for non-conventional sources of energy, housing and a thousand others. Let us hope that NIF really delivers. However, time and again it has been proved that scientific bureaucracy evolved a self-destructive mechanism to kill the spirits of innovation in India. This happened despite tall claims made at the annual mela organized each year by the Indian Science Congress Association

No comments:

Post a Comment