By Srijan Pal Singh
The nation remembers its 11th President, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam in many forms – missile man, space scientist, nuclearization leader and people’s President. But one common trait which runs through all his roles was his unflinching optimism and devotion to being productive for the nation. The year 2020 marks a landmark year – it is the milestone of the Vision 2020, which he laid down two decades ago as a pathway to an economically developed India with societal inclusion.
The cornerstone of this vision relied on three principal factors – we need to realize and unleash our potential as a nation, we need to build an economy based on technological leadership and finally, we need a balanced growth model where rural and urban can not only co-exist but thrive together.
While we co-authored Dr. Kalam’s final book, Advantage India in 2015, he told me a story that highlights this aspect of identifying our latent national potential. In 1975, ISRO needed beryllium diaphragms for a new device. Today, we can find these diaphragms in high-quality audio speakers. But few nations had the ability to make them 40 years ago. Dr. Kalam and his scientific team approached a US-based firm that agreed to sell them to India. Just when the deal was about to go through, the US government blocked the sale as the material was being used in their strategic missiles.
Denied a critical product, India started learning more about it; and discovered something startling. The US diaphragms were made from beryllium rods produced in Japan — and the Japanese makers had outsourced the beryllium from us! India was among the top four producers of this rare element. The team was dismayed to learn that a product whose raw material we possessed almost exclusively, was denied to us. A committee of top research labs was then constituted to make our own beryllium diaphragm. In four months, we triumphed.
In this real-life run of a story similar to “The Alchemist”, the message is clear. There are many “raw berylliums” hidden in our nation. Often they are ignored, sometimes even discredited. Dr. Kalam saw this latent potential foremost in the youth of the nation – whom he believed we need to trust and invest more. He talked about revamping our education system, via rebuilding legacy institutions like Nalanda and creating a World Knowledge Platform in India to transform the nation into a “vishwa guru”.
Secondly, we need to build a spirit of technological nationalism. This is a broader and inclusive nationalism we need. Technology provides developing economies the ability to leapfrog certain stages of development. Our mobile phone revolution, for instance, leapfrogged the landline stage, growing from a million mobile connections in 1999 to over 760 million smartphones by 2021. India with its market can also build collaborations across nations based on technological abilities. A shining example is the BrahMos Cruise Missile co-developed by India and Russia. While India brought its knowledge in developing the targeting mechanism, Russia contributed to the propulsion system. It gave both nations the capability to develop and produce perhaps the best cruise missile system in the world with a business volume of over $7 billion.
Today, India has the world-class ability in IT, communication, pharmaceuticals and space — let us find collaborations for them and unleash true entrepreneurial energy into them. What do we need to leapfrog here? The stage of environmental degradation associated with manufacturing. Make in India, Make it Green, and Invent in India.
There is also a need to make our spending on research and development more result-oriented. It concerns me that no Indian citizenship holder has won the Nobel Prize in any of the sciences, despite India’s National Gross Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD) in science and technology to over Rs 1 lakh crore annually.
The third aspect is about making the rewards of development reach across rural-urban, across genders, and across economic groups. One key opportunity which has arisen out of the current pandemic crisis is our chance to transform our habitation-economy model. The pain of the exodus of migrant workers must compel us to discover a new India where there are opportunities for income in villages and smaller towns – and where the only path to growth is not via the painful process of migration. Dr. Kalam devoted a decade of his life pursuing the model of PURA or Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas – where he promoted a model of connectivities in village clusters to spur economic development and urban class services of healthcare and education in India’s 600,000 villages. The post-pandemic India has a chance to not just go back to older times, but also to create novel pathways. What road shall we choose?
India has tremendous potential to innovate and rise to the occasion. In March 2020, at the beginning of COVID-19, India was reeling in its medical system. Hospitals had no PPEs, markets had no sanitizers or masks. India was then importing nearly 100% of its PPEs. It was thought to be the basket case that would collapse under the pandemic. But not only did India endured through one of the longest lockdowns across the world it silently revamped its entire medical supply industry.
By June India was making 200,000 kits a day and by the end of July 2020, India opened up to export PPE and other protective supplies to the rest of the world. Pune-based Serum India is planning to produce 100 million doses of COVID vaccine as soon as the clinical trials are positive. But why does it take a crisis and panic to start our genius innovation? Why cannot our inventive brain apply constantly, under the motivation to enable a developed India? How do we create this ecosystem of constant improvement in a time when India is being seen as a global opportunity to cushion against the Chinese dominance in manufacturing in a post-COVID world?
One of the firm thoughts of Dr. Kalam was that forward-looking societies need to be careful about selecting who their adversaries are. Powerful nations like India will eventually win over their select opponents. So it is on us today, whether we choose to contest poverty, illiteracy, or disease – but we designate our own fellow citizens as our adversaries based on their difference of political leaning, faith, or region. A nation is as great as the challenger it chooses to confront.
(Srijan Pal Singh is the CEO of Kalam Centre. He was the Adviser for Policy and Technology to Dr APJ Abdul Kalam and co-authored the book Advantage India. Views expressed are the author’s personal.)