Readers, I am not going to traverse the beaten path of, by now, the incontinent narrative on Atmanirbhar Bharat. Enough has been said and proclaimed. It may or may not be a discourse full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, the thought of Shakespeare, uttered by Macbeth. We will know in good time. In this post, however, I will try to bring in a simple, but hopefully, a pithy and meaningful message.
Let me get the déjà vu, the been there done that away. I will not talk about the PM’s economic package worth Rs 20 lakh crore or 10 per cent of GDP or in reality merely 3 lakh crores and so on. Time will tell how significant the package was and whether it indeed helped every section of the society including workers, farmers, middle class and industrial units through various sops and measures.
In an interview to ET, the new CII president Uday Kotak emphatically says getting growth back is non-negotiable and a demand side push is needed and if that is done strongly, the trend of growth month-by-month can arrive at a level close to normalisation before the end of this year. Further growth will, in any case, require stronger push. Once again, even as we do not see a strong push by the government, let us wait and watch.
Let us gloss over the impassioned pitch by the government for Atmanirbhar Bharat intertwined within the global platform with the spirit of Vishwa Kalyan and wonder whether it could actually altruistically cater to its own and indeed the world aspirations. Whether our Yoga and manufacture of medicines would make us a vanguard in global path to help mankind or we remain what we were, a factory for inexpensive medicines whereas all the R&D to develop new medicines would be done, as usual, in the west, or now-a-days, even in China?
We will soon begin to see whether the so called global opportunities that were or are staring at us actually boosted for Indians to capture them so we will wait to make a judgment on that. Specific to China and amidst all the hullabaloo, we have to wait and see how our attempts to blank out China from our industrial and consumer space pan out; these are early days. India has not been a favoured destination for global investments because of several reasons and not many of them have changed for the better. We need to shed all semblance of a centralized command economy to let entrepreneurial innovative spirit be freed from bureaucratic hurdles. It is about self-confidence & pride in not local brands per se but local brands of value. Structural problems like cost of capital, manufacturing eco-system and supply chain, corporate labour laws, some permanence of policy and not frequent changes, infrastructure and skill levels remain and we talk of sustained reforms to address these areas but will the government walk the talk? The government does appear to be unapologetic about privatization of PSUs, which is good, but do we see perceptible progress? We wait and watch.
Industry has to do its bit; more built-up of stories of, let’s say the one by Srinivas Kantheti, MD WheelsEMI. He has written thatwhile he had no quarrel with the discourse on the unfair practices of China, he talked aboutan industry where China had been beaten by India, the two wheeler segment. Yes, Indian industry has to rise to the challenge and deliver the way Hero and Bajaj did but enough has been said about that already, isn’t it?
We have spoken ad nauseam about lack of and therefore the requirement to develop skill sets among our workers. I take you to an interesting interview of Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, at the Fortune Global Forum in 2017. He said that it was unthinkable for any country to reach the level China had reached because they have acquired a level of extraordinary skills, an intersection of craftsman skill as well as sophisticated robotics. Well, everyone is talking about skilling of our workmen and we have to wait and see how meaningful our actions are going to be in this area.
Everyone’s job is cut out. But there is something which is missing or at least not come to the fore with the same significance and purport. It is the spirit of innovation and creation, a pride in products and technologies developed by Indian minds.
I have always said that Make in India has not really taken us far. This model defines local content as the total value of items procured excluding the domestic tax minus value of imported content including custom duties as a proportion of the total value and if you are at 50% or more, there are sops in government orders. Unfortunately, this is open to manipulation and even misuse. USA also has an equivalent Buy America policy and all overseas manufacturers have to go through a stringent audit verification at component level. Our audit, if at all, is perfunctory.
But that’s not the point. True Make in India must have a makeover. It must envisage and encourage development of concepts and designs as an essential, else we remain an importer of technology or a leased manufacturing space. I can tell you of umpteen appalling instances of lack of government and corporate support for new home-grown technologies and products. If we don’t develop our own, we will continue to hop back to where we were, every fifteen years. There are a million minds in India, if I may say so, with a bee in their bonnets with new ideas, and I use it in a positive sense, but institutional support prevents us seeing these dreams turn into a vision followed by action and fruition.
What should we take pride in? We have developed a fighter aircraft, the ill-fated Tejas, after nearly 35 years of struggle. I am no one to defend the mess created by HAL and the Air Force in the delays. But today, a handful have been deployed and further orders would need significant tinkering. I hope it turns out to be really gainful. Yet, as it is, it is our own and a matter of national pride. But, national pride sprung out recently in all its stupid elation and posturing with the landing of the first batch of Rafale aircrafts at Ambala. All the news channels went gaga over it. The refrain on national channels was, “Rafale aaya, Cheen tharraya. Goodness! How juvenile a discourse can get? As if the achievement matched that of our Chandrayan or Mangalyan successes or perhaps even more. I am not saying even for one minute that Rafale aircrafts should not have been purchase. Sure they should have been purchased and this government did show decisiveness in procuring them. But these aircrafts have been shopped, not developed by us.
Talk about all the chest-thumping and back-slapping about manufacture of ventilators, PPEs and masks in large numbers. Does that make us great innovators or manufacturers? We cannot set our sights so low that for a country of our size, such marginal feats be celebrated as great achievements. I am neither underplaying this accomplishment not am I the devil’s advocate but we have to guard against becoming a victim of our own rhetoric and buzzwords. Do we want to limit our manufacturing competence in screw-driver technology from imported SKD/CKD kits under license production, with almost no value addition in terms of design, technology or process engineering?
We are where Japan was in the fifties or China in the nineties? And it’s time to take that bull by the horn and invest in development of our own products and technologies. My cliché now-a-days is that Transfer of Technology (ToT) contracts can take us only so far. Our acquisition of technologies from developed nations was needed for us to learn and assimilate the latest trends in product design and technologies. But ToT is, in reality, an oxymoron. Because technology is much more than a set of documents, drawings, specifications, test plans, vendor qualification protocol etc., classroom training and meetings to make it amenable to any transfer. Technology is a creation. It lives in the mind and heart of the creator. This ToT business has gone on for too long, it has now become a crutch, an albatross around our neck, making us a slave of superior intelligence. But our intelligence would remain inferior unless we mutate it to the next level and nurture it. It is time now to unleash the creator in us. I am not advocating the foolishness to tread in areas where we are still miles behind, I am talking of areas where we can tread and succeed.
We must act. Development of our own products and technology, has to be the soul of self-reliance in long term. Industry and similar institutions should do their bit. But the primary role in this effort has be that of the government. Only the government can exploit large projects and the attendant huge investments to drive indigenous effort, private entities with their own bottom lines can only do so much. Only large projects and huge investments can drive indigenous effort. One example, rolling stock, or simply said, development of trains, in China. After inviting all world majors to set up shop, they learnt the technology, even refined it and they now challenge these majors. We have also invested heavily in Metro and even Indian Railways trains but we manufacture either 25 year old technology coaches or current technology trains with low-end assembling. India has gone for massive investments in renewable energy sector with solar installations. But why is it that all solar installation equipment, be it panels, electronics and the Lithium Iron batteries are sourced almost entirely from China? Talk of Battery Buses for which there is a great push but the heart of the technology, the electronics and controls, apart from the batteries, are all imported. There are other areas of government spend which have unnecessarily been made holy cows with practically no growth of home-grown technologies
The government must support the industry morally and financially, through subsidies and incentives and more than that, preferential orders. Subsidies and incentives like cheap land, specially-sourced raw materials, export facilitation, even enabling government manpower from laboratories and design centres. And ordering with clear reference to Indian companies who believe in R&D. Government has to underwrite the risks for emerging companies and believe me, there are many straining at their leash for the government to embolden them to experiment and flourish. I quote the poet Ali Sardar Jafri who covered it well in some other reference:
Naya chashma hai patthar ke shigafon se ubalne ko,
Zamana kis qadar betaab hai karvat badalne ko
(A new stream is bursting forth to boil from the stones, the world here is passionately impatient to turn a new leaf.)
We have ISRO and DRDO which worked under a regime of denial of technology by developed nations and but freed from stifling bureaucracy and restrictions, they gave us Chandrayaan, Mangalyaan and missiles. We need wide replication with a sense of purpose and I express it here poetically:
Ab falaq yun kare ki sach ye khwab ho jaaye
Barson ka mera shafaq ab aaftab ho jaaye
(Let the sky make this dream come true and after years of twilight, let the sun shine)
This is not a matter of dimagh alone, it is a matter of dil, dimagh aur jigar; dimagh for talent & skill, dil for passion & intensity and jigar for boldness & chutzpah. With the support of the government, India can develop thousands of home-grown technologies in a matter of years and that is what would make us truly atmanirbhar.
The entire article of Srinivas Kantheti can be accessed at:
The full interview with Tim Cook can be accessed on YouTube at:
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Former General Manager, Integral Rail Coach Factory, Chennai