It’s time to create real technology for Bharat

It’s time to create real technology for Bharat

By V. Siddhartha | 7 October, 2017
MOU, technology, Narendra Modi, GNP, WTO, IMF,  Nutrition Monitoring Bureau
This is the first of a two-part article on creation of productive employment using technologies that transform materials into products to serve human welfare.

Of the agreements entered into with Israel during the recent historic visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to that “start-up” nation, the most significant are the three-year development programme in agriculture, the memorandum of understanding (MOU) on state water utility reform in India, and the MOU on water conservation.

Besides agriculture and water, our most pressing problem—even looming nightmare—is the creation of productive employment using real technologies that transform materials into products that serve human welfare as directly as possible. But as with so many of our own efforts in science and technology, their fruition into widespread application is contingent on much else that is only sometimes proximate to, but often remote from the identifiable connection between technological activity and economic or social outcome.

THE BASELINES

Of all the post-colonial countries, bar only China, India has the largest and densest array of scientific and technological institutions. It is for us to use this asset for purposes we can decide, and in ways that we can fashion; liberties that other post-colonial countries cannot—and mostly dare not—contemplate, much less take.

One factoid that gets repeated is that India has the “third largest number of the world’s scientific and technical personnel”. This is wholly incorrect. The actual rank on this account is in the teens; the actual number depending on definitions. And the toll is now being felt of the ignored warnings over the past decade-and-a half. Of the consequences of mindless mis-application of engineering talent to near-routine key-boarding.

The second baseline is annual expenditure on S&T of the Central and state governments, plus the expenditure of enterprises in both the public and private sectors on “R&D” (of this, about half is accounted for by the strategic mission agencies of Atomic Energy, Space and Defence Research). While that total has never reached 1% of GNP in any year in the last quarter century, the spend has been increasing monotonically. Thus, the availability of money, per se, has not been a significant constraint on the nation’s conduct of scientific and technological activities. So, that non-constraint will not form any part of the rest of this article.

TIGHTENING INTERCONNECTEDNESS IN OUR ­WELL-BEING

In a short but telling article of 14 July 2016, Dilip Hiro notes, “The emphasis of the WTO and the IMF on export-led growth encouraged cultivators to switch from food crops to fertilizer-intensive cash crops like cotton, coffee, sugarcane, groundnuts, pepper and vanilla. As a consequence, the daily per capita availability of food grains declined from 510 grams in 1991 to 422 grams in 2005. The general lack of rural development and neglect of poverty alleviation has meant continuing malnutrition. A 2009 study by the official National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau showed 35 percent of Indians suffering from chronic hunger as measured by body mass index. During the first post-N(ew)E(conomic)P(policy) decade indebted farm households nearly doubled, from 26 percent to 48.6 percent. The ratio of debt to assets rose from 1.6 to 2.4, an increase of 50 percent. The trend has continued, with an increasing number of indebted farmers committing suicide.”

The point for this discourse of the quote is that the human condition that is masked by the statistic is not an inevitable effect of a hidden gene lurking unnoticed in agricultural technology. That condition is the result of explicit choices made for the middle class, by the middle class, but paid for in real terms by the farmer—in life more than in relief by self-inflicted death.

Within their lifetimes, the children of those reading this will experience the proximity of fellow Indians who will number some 1.3-1.5 billion, give or take half the total numbers of their parents and grandparents, or about half the ageing population of Europe.

Also within their lifetimes, but possibly without their realisation, the resilience in food chains and ecosystems accorded by bio-diversity will have dropped by the actions and inactions of us, their parents. So even modest changes in environmental circumstances brought about by climate change will have large effects on our children and theirs—the felt non-linearity common in complex, interconnected webs, well known to systems science.

By way of elucidation of what I call the “webs of contention”, Mayukh Hajra notes in a long blog of 15 July 2016 on the Goals of Sustainable Development, and their achievement: “…an increase in agricultural production and therefore food security (linked to Goal 2) can well be a result of conversion of forest land to agricultural use, over-extraction of ground water resources or introduction of GMOs which would impinge respectively on the protective management of forests (linked to Goal 15), water security (linked to Goal 6) and maintenance of biodiversity (Goal 15). The negative feedback of all of this would, in the long term hinder the sustainability of the enhanced production achieved. The experience of the green revolution in Punjab is just one of the well documented cases that serves to illustrate the dangers of having a narrow focus on the achievement of one goal without being sensitive to its wider and long term repercussions.”

What is not so well appreciated is that the ingredient that binds these “webs of contention” is technology. Incipient or mature; in the public domain or privately owned; producing energy or requiring it; sparsely available or ubiquitous; expensive of capital or not; requiring special skill to use or not; with a light or heavy impact on the environment; using of labour or displacing of it, inherently safe or dangerous; polluting of air and water, or relatively clean. How technology that may be so characterised is harnessed directly to public purpose, or to private purpose with public effect. Or is prevented from doing so—as in Karnataka, where a successful demonstration of the use of solar water heating for the silk-industry was prevented from wide-spread adoption by the fire-wood lobby—is self-evidently a matter of political economy.

By way of examples, to two such technology groups I now turn. The first is the creation of workplaces for productive employment. The second is an enabling technology; one that can communicate essential information without excessive demands made on ability to read and write. M.S. Swaminathan calls this “techniracy”—particularly amongst women—the ability to benefit from technical “show-how”, with no more than the ability to write one’s own name in one’s mother tongue—the UN definition of literacy.

How does one create off-farm jobs for youths who are unskilled (and undernourished), and who are coming off fragmenting farms?

INNOVATION FOR PRODUCTIVE ­EMPLOYMENT

Regardless of the whys and hows of the unfolding demographic nightmare, the question remains: How does one create off-farm jobs for several tens of millions (hundreds of?) of youths who are unskilled (and undernourished), and who are coming off fragmenting farms, particularly in the BIMARU states? The answer has to be a policy-goal in itself; not the use of labour as a factor of production in wider economic policy, amenable to the economics of trading in labour markets, even if legally mandated minimum wages in off-farm employment were enforceable.

And likewise, the sidewise jump we can make—if we choose to—in manufacturing is to plan and execute a programme in additive manufacturing. Although that sounds esoteric and “hi-tech”, imparting training in this manufacturing art is readily accomplished in Industrial Training Institutes—including those established especially for women—using equipment designed, built and sold in India.

Rather than wastefully removing material from a stock of raw-material by machining, a part or component is built layer-by-layer by adding material in a pre-designed pattern—entire buildings have been constructed using this technology; it can be used, for example, to build rapidly banks of toilet blocks. The machines are amenable to the use of modest amounts of decentralised energy per work place, for producing goods for mostly localised markets. The machines that are designed, made and sold in India. (Would it help to point out that Daimler in Germany is now adopting this technology for making automobile components?)

THE DESIGN OF ­CONTENT IN ‘SHOW-HOW’ ­INFORMATION NETWORKS

Growth in mobile phone usage has exploded from less than 37 million subscriptions in 2001 to crossing the one billion mark last year. But their use is linguistically circumscribed to the language of communication in the networks of use. However, younger people in even non-Hindi speaking states do know, besides their mother tongue, some Bollywood Hindi and SMS dialects that mix their mother tongue with English nouns and descriptors in common use in their nearest town.

A portfolio of brand-supplied messages, and representational icons, are available on our mobile phones.

In Karnataka, a pilot scheme (funded by the State Council for S&T) has been tried for communicating essential farming information through language-independent, custom-evolved, field-tested iconic representation. Obviously, such “show-how” information networks can be used only for communication, and good-practice instruction. They cannot be used for ideation, nor are they meant to be.

If such is do-able in one state, it must be doable in another. But for that an eco-system must exist in other states that can catch and replicate this specific innovation.

If it is not happening, it is not for want of knowledge of this pilot or its do-ability (every state has its own State Council for S&T, which exchanges information about its programmes with the others); not for want of opportunity or need; nor for want of money (farmer’s co-operatives in states like Maharashtra have enough money to support a pilot scheme). The reason has to do with the blocking influence of matters remote from the demonstrated benefits of the innovation and its widespread adoption.

Dr V. Siddhartha served over 2007-09 as a member of the Experts Group in New York of the Committee on UN Security Council Resolution 1540. An Emeritus Scientist in DRDO, he retired in 2004. He also served for some time as Secretary of the Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.

The second part on the deployment of employment-generating technology will be published on 15 October.

 

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