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40 years of “Innovation” in India

by Harshwardhan Gupta
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[purple_box] This is a concluding part of an essay ( first part in 3Q2013 ) in which Harshwardhan Gupta takes a historical perspective on engineering innovation in India from his vantage point of being a consulting engineer-designer-innovator for the last 31 years. He points out that despite myriad tranquillising signs of industrial progress that we see today we are utterly and completely dependent on foreign companies, their technologies, machines and designs. Virtually nothing of their technologies, machines and their engineering designs are percolating fast enough into our own indigenous domain, as we simply haven’t evolved mechanisms to do so. He deconstructs some of the existing myths, – that India is fast catching up with the world technologically; that India has given many inventions to the world, latest being jugaad. Or It is expensive to do R&D, that’s why people copy. Even, India is too big for anyone to bring about any significant change rapidly to name a few. This is the concluding part of his essay [/purple_box]

Socially we still look down upon a highly skilled engineering worker and look up at a graduate engineer working as a virtual clerk in a bank.

So why have we remained so technologically backward?

After exploding some popular myths, let me list some little-known or ignored facts:

  1. Most serious fact of all is the steady, widespread and invisible deskilling of our workforce. Today industry cannot find trained industrial workers, as most educated young people are not willing to work with machines. Simultaneously, the not-so-educated ones are also not willing to do the work of machines any more – like sweeping roads or washing utensils or recycling garbage or filling products off a running conveyor belt into shipping boxes. When people are made to do a menial task that is better done by a machine, they are obviously far less efficient than a machine, and by corollary de-motivated too.
  2. Across the board, we stubbornly refuse to look at innovative automation until our house is on fire – I have the front-row seat on these scenes of despair! On one hand, capable engineering designers are far too few in India; and on the other hand, those who really need their contribution either really can’t afford the costs of development any more, or (the majority) are way too cagey to risk their money (which they otherwise routinely pour into advertising and self-aggrandisement). Most don’t have the stomach to persevere through the normal failure-punctuated development cycle. It is an appalling situation, my individual success notwithstanding.
    In the words of the great Dr. Raghunath Mashelkar (former DG, CSIR), “The ‘I’ in India does not stand for Innovation; it stands for Inhibition and Imitation!” How very true!
  3. Thousands upon thousands of ordinary items, which we were (or still are) manufacturing in inefficient manual ways with increasingly lower quality, obsolete technology and designs (because of our obsession with cheapness), we are now importing them by container-loads from China and other eastern countries. Examples: Diwali diyas, rakhicomponents, bathroom tiles and fittings, sewing needles, small air compressors, all sorts of fasteners, small and large machine tools, telecom switches, household appliances, CFL light-bulbs, door latches, even paper-clips! The scale and extent of such imports is draining the remaining life out of indigenous manufacturers. The widespread kneejerk Indian response is to cut costs (and quality) even more brutally, akin to a losing athlete starving himself in hope of quickly shedding weight to be able to run faster.
  4. Compared to other industrialised and industrialising nations, we remain extremely inefficient in terms of per-capita productivity. Our relative efficiency averages between 1/3 and 1/5 of the developed world’s average, and this is not improving. China exceeds the developed world’s average productivity – and this has been achieved by rapidly mechanising and automating thousands of manual tasks and skills.
    Many multinational brands, which have edged out Indian brands in various sectors, now get their manufacturing done wholly or partly in China. Many Indian brands are also getting lot of their manufacturing done in China. China is low-cost because it is efficient!
  5. We still primarily export raw materials and raw agro-produce, and regularly import high technology and machinery by millions of containers a year. This scenario has hardly changed in the last 65 years. Our Asian neighbors like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China, Malaysia, etc. have managed to reverse this scenario completely!
  6. The policy stagnation and a born-again licence-permit Raj, through callously increasing layers of permissions and procedures, are again hindering all attempts at rapid technological advances via the private sector. Power, defense, transport, agriculture, infrastructure are all major sufferers.
    Since our Governments cannot enforce laws effectively, they habitually counter this by creating more and more laws and rules. This is severely hindering any rapid technological development and making the entire industrial machinery even more inefficient.
  7. In the developed world (including China), if an engineer needs to design and build a new kind of machine, he can design most of it with all sorts of bought-outs, go to a big departmental hardware store, fill his cart (or order stuff online and get it in 2-3 days), farm out the manufactured parts, get well-made parts in a few weeks without banging his head, put the machine together in a short time, and start testing and debugging his new design!In India, every such exercise everywhere in the country is an increasingly slower and uphill battle, to put it mildly. However innovative the designer is, he is hindered, delayed and short-changed at every step of this development cycle.Two decades ago, you could buy good and increasingly better quality of all sorts of engineering bought-outs. Today you simply cannot find simple decent quality Made-in-India engineering items like plated fasteners, hand tools, hacksaw blades, circlips. This list is vast and growing. The foreign-brand invasion notwithstanding – we are actually becoming more and more backward industrially, transmogrifying from an independent to a dependent nation.
  8. And lastly: Our frenzied media and obstructing politicians still have no clue as to how China has brought about its present-day Great Leap Forward so quickly!Very unobtrusively, China has consistently sucked in thousands upon thousands of experts from all over the world (retired or otherwise) in each and every conceivable field right from microbiology to tyre design to rolling mill erection to glassblowing to rail track laying to servomotor design, to train its own highly motivated professionals despite their severe language barrier!Specifically, on one hand, China has zeroed in on retired / jobless experts in the declining industrialised countries of Europe and the Americas, and offered these experts very lucrative contracts with a pot of gold at the end of their tenure. Many Indians experts too are in China on similar assignments. On the other hand, China has sent its students out by the millions to every possible centre of technical learning in the west, academic or otherwise. These students invariably go back to China and join the Dragon.Japan, South Korea and Taiwan did much the same thing earlier at a much smaller scale, and came out winners. We have already frittered away our chance of massively gaining technological prowess from the decline of the industrial nations.

Now, I proudly say here that a great many Indians count among world’s most innovative doctors, surgeons, lawyers, businessmen, actors, artisans, soldiers, etc. However, the moment it comes to technological and machine-related innovation, we somehow drop to the bottom rung – so gross is our national disconnect with machinery and technology. We merely use the latest of global technologies and machines everywhere, but at 1/6 of the world population, we cannot create even a few of them.

Our frenzied media and obstructing politicians still have no clue as to how China has brought about its present-day Great Leap Forward so quickly!

I also proudly say that innovative changes for the better do happen everywhere in India in many spheres including technological. However, their scale always remains minuscule. Our real problem is that as a nation, we are collectively incapable of scaling up these betterments. If one municipality, school, industry, institution or an individual does something innovative, we repeatedly prove ourselves incapable of reproducing or scaling up that innovation. Betterment of any kind is now becoming slower and slower in India as the world around us progresses faster and faster.


Worse, we slowly let our gains go to seed. If something good of a large size makes its appearance on the Indian scene, it only takes a few short years before it all starts coming apart at the seams instead of getting even better with time. Look at the IRCTC, the private courier services, mass housing, urban infrastructure, BRTS, the Golden Quadrilateral, various Private-Public-Partnership projects, etc.

Nevertheless, we do scale up bad things extremely fast and efficiently: corruption, female foeticide, misuse of public utilities, stealing electricity, illegal mining, adulteration, dynasty politics, etc.

It is sad that the vast majority of us, the people of India, remain perennially immersed in arguments, entertainment, ornamentation, media hype, self-aggrandisement, and remain completely immune to the vast amounts of filth, chaos, mediocrity and inefficiency. As one foreigner put it so graphically, “India is like an aircraft which is ready to take off, but never ever takes off.”


All of the above is already resulting in increasingly slower growth, and we are slowly becoming irrelevant in the world order. The editorial of The Economist of March 24th 2012 succinctly concludes, “A slower growing India will be more financially vulnerable, poorer, full of frustrated young people and taken less seriously by the rest of the world.”

From Satyamev Jayate (Truth always prevails), our de-facto national motto has become Sab theek ho jayega(Everything will be alright)

What needs to be done?

It is customary to end such a negative article with suggestions for change. So here are my suggestions for bringing about innovative, widespread and quick changes, knowing full well that innovative change in our country will always remain a case of way too little and way too late:

  1. Learning to scale up good change quickly, by not procrastinating, not obstructing change for personal gains, ego or self-aggrandisement. Today, scaling up the change is actually even more imperative than change itself.
  2. Learning how to do something better and faster, rather than cheaper and more mediocre.
  3. Working on education to make it shed irrelevant baggage and include various modern skills and civic sense (like garbage segregation, traffic civility, unambiguous communication). This lays the foundation of innovative minds flourishing in a healthy, clean, peaceful society.
  4. Motivating and facilitating young people to learn about machinery and industrialisation, and to acquire skills to use, design and build advanced machines of all sorts.
  5. Getting out of the jugaad mentality, as any jugaad solution can neither be scaled up, nor work reliably in the long run, nor make the practitioner (nor the society) any richer. For this, the entire nation’s social mindset has to change.
  6. Reducing our addiction to entertainment in various forms – Bollywood, TV, music, sports, social networking – as these have become habitual anaesthetics for our various pains.
  7. Fixing our national habit of offering an instant argumentative explanation for every shortcoming or problem (big or small) as a necessary and sufficient response. Such defensive argumentativeness routinely pre-empts real solutions.
  8. Stopping coining and playing with new words and phrases, and doing something real.
  9. Bringing the media around to shift its interminable focus from politics, crime, sports and numbing entertainment, to skills, training, cleanliness, civic sense and promotion of technology of the non-entertainment kind.
  10. Having a re-look at our contagious optimism: this may sound cynical, but in reality, this has become poignantly true: From Satyamev Jayate (Truth always prevails), our de-facto national motto has become Sab theek ho jayega (Everything will be alright), implying that it will happen somehow and by itself. Unless we get seriously alarmed about our future being bleak, we will not change.
  11. Lastly, learning to accept and comprehend criticism, and to quickly work on fixing the problem instead of instantly attacking the critic. In the land of Kabir, the latter has become our most predictable, all-pervasive national nature!

I rest my case.

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