Symposium on Self-Reliance: Report
THE symposium on ‘Self-Reliance in Science & Technology (S&T) and Development’, organised by the Delhi Science Forum (DSF) is association with the All India Peoples Science Network (AIPSN) and held in P Ramamurti Bhavan in Delhi on November12-13, was an eye-opener in more ways than one. The symposium had been organised by DSF as part of the Peoples Science Movement’s year-long commemoration of the 75th anniversary year of India’s independence. During these commemorative events, AIPSN and its constituent organisations have been looking back at the achievements and weaknesses of this 75-year journey in its different aspects, particularly to understand how India is placed to meet the challenges of the coming decades, which have been characterised as the “knowledge era,” both domestically and in the global scenario.
The path of self-reliance in science, technology and industry was a key aspect of the development path adopted during the early post-independence decades. As early as 1938, Subhash Chandra Bose, then president of the Indian National Congress, constituted a Planning Committee under the chairmanship of Jawaharlal Nehru. This committee and its post-independence successor steered a path with public sector undertakings (PSUs) running core industrial sectors, while also building indigenous knowledge and capabilities through institutions of higher education and research. This enabled India to resist neo-colonial pressures and assert its strategic autonomy. It also contributed significantly to India achieving a level of industrial development that was at par with, if not ahead of, its developing country peers in Asia and elsewhere. Background documents of the symposium brought out that, under the influence of neoliberal reforms starting in the mid-1980s, and pursued vigorously under the present dispensation, self-reliance has been systematically undermined, rendering India once again dependent on developed countries and multi-national corporations. Currently, numerous projects are being brought in through FDI bringing in supposedly advanced technologies claiming that this represents “atma nirbharta,” whereas they increase external dependence and stifle indigenous capabilities.
The symposium sought to discuss these developments and their significance for the future, by bringing together academics, development planners, policy specialists, subject experts from industry, representatives of officers and workers of PSUs, trade unions, civil society organisations and, of course, activist-scholars of the Peoples Science Movement.
Papers covering the status and challenges to self-reliance in a wide range of sectors in science, technology and development were presented in the symposium. Since space constraints prevent a detailed coverage of the papers and authors, only brief highlights of the major arguments made are presented. The final declaration adopted at the conclusion of the symposium is then reproduced here which conveys the broad consensus among the participants and the stakeholders they represent.
Presentations in the inaugural session, as well as some papers in specific sectoral sessions, unveiled the history of the PSUs that formed the backbone of the autonomous Indian industry, had achieved scale enabling competition at the global level, but which were nevertheless gradually dismantled, supposedly to bring in more advanced technologies and efficiencies possible only under the private sector. However, this only achieved a loss of autonomous capability and scale in key industrial sectors such as power generation equipment, machine tools, heavy machines and capital goods, along with increased dependence on import of technologies and external inputs. It was brought out, through detailed examples from a few important sectors, that the import of technologies into the domestic industrial ecosystem does not by itself imply or bring about self-reliance, whose key aspect is the possession of knowledge underlying the technology and the science involved in products and processes. Needless to say, since no foreign corporation or external agency will willingly part with knowledge which give them greater profits and control in the global economy, such knowledge has to be acquired or developed indigenously to achieve true self-reliance.
Other papers looked at specific industries, technologies or related science.
Semi-conductor technologies for manufacture of chips, already a major element of numerous products, technologies and sectors and slated to acquire even greater salience in the future, were covered in detail, especially in the light of the recent much-touted project in Gujarat involving Vedanta and one of the world’s largest sub-contractor Foxconn of Taiwan. Presentations brought out that India, through PSU Central Electronics Ltd and other efforts, had made pioneering endeavours in the 1980s to develop chip-making knowledge and capabilities, and set up a manufacturing unit, which would have put India at the forefront of the semi-conductor industry in coming years. An unfortunate series of fires, which some people still attribute to a conspiracy, destroyed these hopes and unfortunately no efforts were made to re-start that venture. The present collaboration sees huge financial support by the government including grants but the technology brought in would be in the lower rungs of the value-chain and would remain with Foxconn.
Military aviation was also analysed in some detail in one paper which argued that sub-optimal efforts were made at indigenous R&D, initially due to biases against indigenous aircraft at least partly due to extraneous considerations. It was only after prolonged efforts by the present government to attract FDI to set up aircraft manufacturing in India had failed, combined with recent successes by HAL and DRDO, that the government is once again turning to products developed and made in India. Other urgent needs, such as for armed drones, for which substantial R&D is required were also pointed out.
Other industrial sectors covered included pharmaceuticals, in which the vaunted generics and bulk drugs industry is now increasingly dependent on imported intermediates, liquid-crystal displays and glass in which efforts at R&D in India were thwarted, and the poster-boy automobile sector in which outward payments for royalties and crucial components are steadily increasing, thus showing external dependence.
A paper covering research institutions which were being starved of funds, and forced to scrounge for their own funds, thus preventing any serious R&D, pointed out that not only was the government spending a meagre 0.7 per cent of GDP on R&D, considerable Indian manpower was now engaged in R&D in India for multinationals. Another paper pointed out that many provisions of the National Educational Policy (NEP) would be an obstacle to developing research capabilities and quality human resources required for the future.
After considerable discussion of the above papers and presentations made in the open session, the following declaration was adopted.
Newly independent India had embarked on a development path emphasizing self reliance especially in science, technology, (S&T) industrialisation and, later, agriculture. India built strong public sector undertakings (PSU) in core sectors of the economy, and also built human resource capabilities in the form of institutions of higher education in science and engineering and a network of national research laboratories. This path was adopted as being crucial for India to be truly liberated from the clutches of colonialism and neo-colonialism, and to achieve strategic autonomy. Due to this self reliant path, the Indian economy and industry during the first few post-independence decades were at par with, or ahead of, other comparable developing countries.
Now, however, when India is approaching the fourth quarter-century of independence, and standing on the cusp of an era expected to be dominated by new technologies, India has fallen behind its leading developing country peers in S&T and most human development indicators.
While various industrial policies and programmes are currently being introduced in the name of “atma nirbharta,” the results are the opposite of self-reliance. FDI is being invited with the idea that advanced technologies will be brought into India, but that has not happened. Under the influence of neoliberal policies since the 1980s, PSUs have been steadily weakened and are nowadays being outright sold-off under the prevailing view that “the government has no business being in business.” But private sector corporates have not taken the place of PSUs either and, with a few exceptions, are content with foreign collaborations on which they are dependent. Launch of manufacturing units in India by multinational corporations or foreign corporates is being hailed as “atma nirbharta,” even though crucial technologies remain the property of the foreign entity and India essentially only gets labour charges. To obtain even such investments, the government is giving huge grants, tax waivers and other incentives, even though technologies being used are near the bottom of the innovation and value-chain.
Domestic investment in technology absorption and R&D is languishing at well below 1 per cent of GDP. Domestic R&D expenditures are steadily declining in comparison with technology imports, and royalty payments abroad are burgeoning. This is an import-dependent pathway, not “atma nirbharta” or self-reliance. Meanwhile, foreign entities in India currently engage about 40 per cent of Indian S&T professionals working for the benefit of the foreign corporations, not for the benefit of India, thus constituting an “internal brain drain.” At the same time, national laboratories and other research institutions are being starved of funds, and being closed or merged.
India’s future will be bleak if we follow this path of technological dependence on other countries and do not recover our strategic autonomy. India badly needs to make up for opportunities lost in earlier times. India requires to develop its own know-how, technologies and industrial capabilities so as to carve out its own place in the world in this knowledge era. For this, India must revive and strengthen its PSUs and research institutions with a renewed purpose to develop identified technologies that will take India to the forefront in the global scenario at least in some sectors. India needs to strengthen its universities, other institutions of higher learning and skills-cum-education infrastructure so as to build its human resources and the educational system in general so as to enable its youth to achieve their aspirations while contributing to the well-being of the people of this country.
This task can only be done by public institutions dedicated to the common good. Contrary to this goal, the National Education Policy (NEP) will deprive large masses of the Indian people of access to education and skill-building, and will promote private institutions especially in the sciences, engineering and medicine whose main goal is to make profit and train students to serve elite sections of society.
The path of self-reliance also demands new pathways of agriculture which would ensure food security of the Indian people and support the livelihoods of large sections of our population. Self-reliance also requires new models of rural industrialisation that would promote revitalisation of the rural economy, obviate mass rural-urban migration and upgrade broad-based skills.
The symposium on self-reliance held in Delhi on November 12-13, 2022, resolves to work to promote true self-reliance in India. The symposium further resolves to build a broad-based coalition and a powerful movement of academics, planners, officers and workers of public sector undertakings, trade unions, people’s movements and civil society organisations towards these goals.