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Mainstream, VOL LV No 1 New Delhi December 24, 2016 - ANNUAL 2016

Imperative Need to Protect and Promote Self-Reliance in S&T Today

Monday 26 December 2016, by Ashok Parthasarathi

The following is the speech by Prof Ashok Parthasarathi after accepting a volume of Festschrift (collection of writings in his honour) from the Vice-President, M. Hamid Ansari, at a function in New Delhi on November 15, 2016.

It is a matter of great gratitude and gratification for me to the honoured today in my 75th year with a Festschirift. That I should have received the Festschrift from your hands, Mr VP, makes it a particularly unique honour for me.

I do not know if you remember, Mr VP, but I first met you in the mid-1980s when you were our High Commissioner to Australia. I had gone to that country as the Secretary, DOE along with the CMD of our public sector company Central Electronics Ltd. (CEL) which is pioneer in the area of solar electricity-based systems at the world level. The purpose of my visit was to conlcude an agreement with Professor Martin Green and his team at the Department of Physics of the UNSW in Sydney under which CEL would licence from UNSW its laboratory scale process to make ultra high efficiency solar cells and engineer and upscale that process into a multi-mega watt commercial production plant at CEL’s campus at Ghaziabad. After satisfactory concluding the agreement, I had gone to Canberra primarily to meet you and inform you of the conclusion of the agreement. Athough it was our first meeting, I remember how warm you were to me. Thereafter I have had the pleasure of knowing you when you were Vice-Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University, Chairman of the National Commission on Minorities, and the Vice President of the nation. Your address of the first G. Parthasarathi Memorial Lecture at the JNU was a stirring one.

I first met Professor M.S. Swaminathan way back in 1968 when I was Proressor of Physics in the BITS at Pilani and he was the Head of the Genetics Division of the IARI here in Delhi working with Dr B.P. Pal, the Director General of the ICAR, and that remarkable Minister of Agriculture, Mr C. Subramaniam, to bring about the Green Revolution. As we all know, Mr Subramaniam was later to get the Bharat Ratna. Later, in 1972, when I was the S&T Adviser to our late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, I had played a major role in Indiraji appointing Dr Swaminathan as the Director General of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research in succession to Dr Pal. Within two years Dr Swaminathan gave a major boost to all ICAR Laboratories. In 1974, Dr Swaminathan proposed the government setting up a government arm for the ICAR in the form of a Department of Agricutural Research and Education (DARE). I persuaded Indiraji to accept Dr Swaminathan’s proposal and to appoint him as the First Secretary of DARE so that he would be Secretary, DARE and DG, ICAR. The DARE acronym was most appropriate as Dr Swaminathan was a man who really dared to do things others felt could not be done. He was also the father of the Green Revolution. I thank him warmly for his writing such a wonderful Foreword to the Festschrift volume and his kind words about me today.

Professor Roddam Narasimha and I have been close friends and colleasgues for over forty years. He is one of our most distinguished aerospace scientists and engineers. His contribution to the Festschrift volume is a sterling one. I am particularly disappointed that he is not physically with us today. However, he would have been making his first visit to New Delhi in the last three years in order to attend the function. I thank you, Roddam, for your comprehensively very kind words about me today as read out by Professor Sachin Chaturvedi.

Dr Malti Goel, my fine M.Sc (Hons.) student from the Physics Department of the BITS at Pilani, has made a set of remarks that have moved me greatly. Thank you very much, Malti, for those warm remarks.

In my opinion, an occasion like this is one on which one whould look back at one’s career in S&T and the evolution of our S&T system over that period. I was brought up by my parents, my teachers and my mentors, like Dr Homi Bhabha, Dr Vikram Sarabhai, Professor M.G.K. Menon and the venerable Principal Secretary to Indiraji, Mr P.N. Haksar, to believe that our country should be self-reliant in its economy and S&T particularly. This was in the tradition of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. They always drew a key distinction between self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Self-reliance is the promotion of S&T and their application to the development and security of the nation means that decision-making and action in key areas of the policy, the economy and S&T should be securely in national hands. It did not mean autarchy, or closing the doors of our S&T capacity and capability to the outside world and not draw on the world’s store-house of these two inputs to nation-building and national security. It does not mean that we should aim to design and make in the country every pin, nut and bolt of a system or an equipment.

Nehru believed in—indeed was obsessed with—Science. But Indiraji realised that Technology was far important than Science, that Science was a body of knowledge whereas Technology was an instrument of action. Thus, while Nehru was the architect of the Scientific Policy Resolution which he drafted along with Bhabha, Mahalanobis, Bhatnagar or Kothari and got it approved by Parliament as far back as March 1958, Indiraji was the architect of the Technology Policy Statement of 1983 in the drafting of which I was privileged to play a significant role as her S&T Adviser.

Such an enunciation of self-reliance in regard to both the economy and S&T and undertaking both policy-making and execution, though first enun-ciated and launched during Indiraji’s governments of 1971 to 1977 and 1980 to 1984 were adopted with minor modifications by all succeeding governments from the Janata Government of 1977-80 and by Rajiv Gandhi Government of 1985-1989 and the V.P. Singh Govenment of 1989-90. However, the launching of Economic Reforms by the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh Government of 1991-1995 with its credo of liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation (LPG), steep reductions in import duties, near totally free imports of technology and opening the doors to FDI dealt a body-blow to the strategy of self-reliance in both the economy and in S&T. However, the reforms retained the policy of maximising domestic production. Moreover, the strong support to promoting S&T and applying them to the Development and Security of the nation remained. This strategy and policy-frame was continued by Atal Behari Vajpayee’s BJP-led 24 party coalition over 1999-2004. The UPA governments of 2004 to 2014 did likewise. Consequently, the core of our S&T programmes and creating strong doemstic industrial production levels remained.

However, with the coming to power of the present government headed by Narendra Modi in 2014, the whole policy-frame has changed drastically. Except for the Space Progreame of ISRO, in all other areas, particularly Defence R&D Production, government support to the agencies and companies concerned has totally dried up. The watchword became import of not only consumer products but even Defence-related Systems and Equipment. These have come to be unncessarily imported.

The following example would illustrate this.

In early 2015, the Air Force projected to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) their requirement for 22 helicopter gunships. Accepting the requirment, the MoD floated a global tender for procurement of such gunships. The evaluation of the bids received against the tender led to the shortlisting of the Apache gunships bid by the Boeing Company of the USA and the Mi-28 gunship bid to the Millionshikor company of Russia. Further, inter-evaluation of these two by the Tender Committee led to final selection of the Apache. Meanwhile, the Army Air Corps projected to the MoD their requirment of 38 gunships of practically the same specifications as that projected earlier by the Air Force. So, the nation was set to procure some 60 helicopter gunships all of one type.

When I came to know of these developments, I contacted the Chairman of the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) and enquired from him whether HAL was familiar with the Apache and, if so, whether HAL could make such copters. He said he was familiar with the Apache and so was sure HAL could do so. I, therefore, asked him to send me, as urgently as possible, a proposal from HAL. I got a fine 25-page techno-economic proposal three weeks later. So, I asked the Chairman, HAL to formally submit the proposal to the MoD which he did.

In parallel, I took a copy of the proposal and went to see Mr Arun Jaitley, the Finance Minister who was at the time holding additional charge of the Defence Ministry. At the meeting with Mr Jaitley, I explained to him several things.

First, that the Apache was of mid-to-late 1960s vintage and had been extensively used by US forces during the Vietnam War. However, by the same token, despite several incremental improvements to its design and engineering and sub-systems and components, the basic air frame and engine were highly obsolete.

Secondly, that direct import of 60 Apache copters would result in a completely unnecessary outflow of some Rs 45,000 crores in foreign exchange.

Thirdly, as no local production of the Apache was involved, we would be perpetually dependent on Boeing for spares. Moreover, it had repeatedly been our experience that, while the initial set of spares that came with the main equipment were reasonably priced, subsequent spares were marked up in price by two, three or even five hundred per cent.

Fourthly, as the HAL proposal indicated, that company felt confident of making the copters on the basis of transfer of technology from Boeing.

Fifthly, like all other suppliers, Boeing could be entirely expected to charge us an arm and a leg for training our engineers and for deputing their engineers to solve technical problems which would inevitably come up in the course of the use of the copter by our Air Force and Army.

Sixthly, should a war with Pakistan arise, the US Government would immediately stop the supply of spares and the provision of technical assistance by Boeing.

I concluded by saying that for all these reasons, the government should set up local production based on transfer of technology by Boeing to HAL.

When I had finished, Mr Jaitley said that he was horrified by the account I had given. No one in MoD had brought these facts to his attention. He concluded by saying he would immediately stop the proposed direct finished import of the 60 copters and direct MoD to proceed on the basis of the HAL proposal which involved a foreign exchange outflow of only Rs. 10,000 crores. With that assurance, I left Mr. Jaitley’s office satisfied that he would ensure that the self-reliance route was followed. Unfortunately, a month later I saw an item in the newspapers that the government had placed an order on Boeing for the import of 22 copters in fully finished form for the Air Force!

About a fortnight ago another tragic develop-ment took place. The government decided that Central Electronics Limited (CEL) should be privatised, that is, sold to the private sector. CEL is only the second company in the world to have gone into the area of solar energy way back in 1975 and of course is our lead company in the area. Over the last forty years it has designed, developed, manufactured, installed, commissioned and maintained around thirty different types of solar electricity systems falling in three categories—rural, remote area and industrial. As on date, it has one million solar electricity systems in the field—both at home and abroad—the largest by any solar company in the world. As far back as 1986, it transferred its solar energy systems technology to another public sector company, Rajasthan Electronics and Instruments Ltd. (REIL) in Jaipur, which today is the second largest solar company in the country. CEL has exported its solar systems to some 15 other developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. It has also made exports to Germany and Italy. The company has gone further and exported complete solar energy product technology and set up manufacturing plants based on that technology in Syria, Sudan and Mozambique. What is the government’s rationale for selling off such a superb performance company to the private sector? It is that a profit of Rs 30 crores on a turnover of Rs 400 crores is not “enough”.

The helicopter gunships and the CEL cases indicate that our scientific, technological and hi-tech industrial communities cannot depend any more, as they could in the Indira Gandhi era or even the Atal Behari Vajpayee era, on the government of the day to protect and promote their contribution to national development and security. They therefore have to pull up their socks and sensitise, educate and lobby with Parliament and the media even to stay alive. Simultaneously, they must continue to fight within the government for the same objective.

I would once again warmly thank the Vice-President for allowing this function to be held in his auditorium and to have done me the signal honour of receiving the Festschrift from his hands. I will always remember it. I am also grateful to my chela, Professor Sachin Chaturvedi, to have got the Festschrift prepared in record time and for having organised today’s wonderful function. I am delighted that so many of my colleagues, associates, professional and personal friends have taken the trouble to be here today. I thank them one and all.

The author is a former Secretary to the Government of India in various Scientific Departments and erstwhile S&T Adviser to the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.