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Why India is not developed as a great scientific power?

'The best way to predict the future is to create it' -Peter Drucker

The above lines signify that if a nation wishes to change its fortunes, it must create, build and innovate. India too, needs to do the same, if it aspires to be a global power. As we complete two decades of this century, great changes are taking place around the world. It is also very clear that these changes are being led by science and technology which is the main force. However, India is yet to establish itself as a technology and knowledge powerhouse while many others that became independent along with her.

Ancient India was known to be a centre for knowledge. India was a land for scholars and world class universities like Nalanda, Taxila and even learned people from far-off lands visited the country to study here. Sushruta Samhita, one of the important surviving ancient treatises on medicine and the foundational text of Ayurveda, shows how India was a leader in science and discoveries. Aryabhatta's contributions like calculation of Pi value, explanation of solar and lunar eclipse and Charaka's treatise on medicine show that ancient India had a great scientific appetite. However, with time, the thirst for knowledge is found waning during the middle ages and India got entangled in many other issues. The presence of caste system, gender discrimination and outdated social customs caused a drag in India's quest for knowledge. On the other hand, Europe and the western world were coming under the influence of renaissance. They had come out of dark ages and there was a fresh school of thought based on scientific reasoning, rationality and humanism. This was followed by scientific discoveries and inventions. Thus began the discovery of faraway lands of North America and far-east. Eventually they brought colonies under their control as they relied on modern warfare and better equipment than their colonial counterparts. India too fell into the hands of the East India Company due to its own shortcomings in technology and modern political thought.

While India's history shows a fall in scientific innovation, its post-independence scientific achievements have been encouraging. Today she is one of the leaders in space program and has won many accolades like being successful in sending a Mars Orbiter Mission in first attempt, that too at comparatively lower costs than its peers. The space program has also been known to be commercially successful as India has set many records in sending large number of satellites for a variety of international customers. Likewise, India is also known for its peaceful nuclear power programme as well as being a responsible nuclear power. Though all these achievements celebrate India's growing scientific expertise, there are also many shortcomings which make India short of achieving a leading scientific power status.

While there has been a growth in spending on research and development, the total expenditure on R&D continues to be less than 1% of GDP and has shown a decline since the last decade. Other peers like Brazil and China have invested more than this amount. The state of Indian higher education has also shown a lag. Only three universities have found a place in top 200 of QS world ranking-2018, for universities. Also, though the All India State of Higher Education report (AISHE 2016-17) shows a rise of GER in tertiary education, however this is still lesser than economies like China. There are various other reasons which have been a cause of concern. Universities lack autonomy and appointments to higher posts like Vice-chancellors are based on political leanings. Rampant corruption and bureaucratic ways of approaching scientific education and training has also been a bane on reforming the way scientific research is done in India. While there have been a rise in number of universities imparting technical education in the fields on engineering and sciences, a lack of quality impedes their capabilities. Critics have also argued about the role of UGC and AICTE in this regard, which have been found to be unable to maintain standards required in these institutions. However, no other reason compares as much as the poor state of Primary and secondary education. The Annual state of Education report-2017 has shown the dismal state of affairs, where students have been found to lack the basic numerical and literacy skills. Apart from this, the gender divide continues to keep girls enrollment falling with age. Thus unless the basic education level is sufficed, it is difficult to promote an environment of learning and applying skills needed for advancing scientific research in the country.

Along with the state of school education many other reasons are responsible for India's lag in technology and research. Apart from DRDO, ISRO, IISc, the country does not has other research organizations of repute. In addition to this, India lacks a technology transfer legislation that would enable the commercialization of the valuable research done in University labs. Many developed and developing countries have a legislation in place to foster relationship between industry and academia. The number of patents filed by India is also very less than advanced economies while new entrants like China are pushing through with new innovations like Quantum computing and other latest technologies. Therefore a mix of low spending, lack of basic skills in education and better policies that promote innovation are some of the reasons as to why India is yet to become a scientific power.

The government has taken a few steps to improve this state of affairs. A Higher Education Financing Authority has been set up to boost infrastructure, state of the art laboratories in key institutions like the IITs. The government has also come out with the concept of 'Institutions of eminence' to promote autonomy to institutions for making it to world's best universities list. Other steps include Atal Innovation Mission and Atal Tinkering labs to inculcate scientific learning and innovation at school level. Structural reforms are being carried out through various measures like creation of National Testing agency, NEET and reforming MCI though National Medical Commission bill. While these are progressive and have opened a new step in enhancing learning and research quality, much more is needed to be done.

There is a need to increase spending on higher education and research in institutions. Reputed Foreign universities must be encouraged to open their branches here. Industry and academia must work together to find solutions to problems that need technological solutions. Appointments to various institutions known for their quality, must be made transparent and a merit based one. Schemes like Make in India, Digital India must converge in a way that promotes domestic innovation, learning and training. Finally a legislation needs to be enacted to promote transfer of the knowledge from research labs to industries for commercialization. This will encourage researchers, help funding and boost entrepreneurship and consequently the employment scenario in the country.

As an engine of growth, the potential of technology is endless. New technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Internet of things, Crypto-currencies, self driving cars, quantum computing and many others are going to alter the way we connect, transact, communicate and even travel. Also, the rise of incidences of climate change and environmental disasters show that scientific progress will decide the fate of agriculture, livelihoods and urbanization. India must work towards transforming itself from being a net consumer of technology to producer as knowledge will be the only tool to stay ahead and perhaps even afloat too, in future.

- Ritesh Kumar