Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Indian S&T 1947-97

Business India, August 11-24, 1997

Prisoner of autarky

Indian S&T is yet to recover from the fallout of autarkic policies and the Pokharan nuclear explosion

Shivanand Kanavi

Along with the rise of the modern nationalist movement and an attendant intellectual renaissance, the first quarter of the 20th century saw the rise of a few brilliant scientists like S. Ramanujan, C.V. Raman, S.N. Bose and M.N. Saha. They won worldwide acclaim for their work in number theory, molecular physics, quantum statistics and astrophysics. Although Europe was the seat of high science at that time, they did not emigrate and instead continued their pursuit of science in India despite the paucity of funds and poor educational and research infrastructure. In the process they also trained a few young researchers. The research groups pre-Independence were centred around these individuals in the mould of guru shishya parampara.

Institutional science
Then came Independence and along with Nehru and his brand of modernisation, a new breed of scientists like Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai and Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar took over as science administrators. Having studied in Europe, Bhabha and Sarabhai saw the rise of organised science in the period between the two World Wars, and they tried to repeat the experience in India by building government-funded R&D institutes outside the university system. The era of institutional science began.

Their access to Nehru and prominent industrial houses helped Bhabha and Sarabhai in raising new institutions like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and the Atomic Energy Establishment (now called the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre) at Mumbai and Physical Research laboratory (PRL), at Ahmedabad ..

Bhabha attracted a large number of talented scientists and engineers from India and abroad to work at the institutes. He understood that Indian science would gain only through international contact. He not only sent a large number of young scientists abroad for higher studies but also ensured that a large number of distinguished scientists including Nobel Laureates visited TIFR to give lectures. He modeled TIFR after the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton and encouraged the development of first rate groups in mathematics and physics. Expertise in many emerging fields like nuclear physics, electronics, computers, radio astronomy, and elementary particle physics was developed here.

Under Sarabhai's leadership the PRL at Ahmedabad, with its emphasis on cosmic rays and radio physics, became the birth place for Indian expertise in space sciences. Besides being excellent basic research centres, TIFR and PRL were the cradles for the nuclear, and space programmes that took off later.

Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar wanted to develop the more mundane industrial technologies. A council to encourage industrial research had been set up by the colonial government in 1942. The idea was developed by Bhatnagar with Nehru's active encouragement and a network of laboratories starting with the National Physical Laboratory, (Delhi) and the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL, Pune) were built in 1950. From this grew the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) which at present is the largest chain of publicly funded research laboratories in the world comprising over 40 laboratories.

Within a decade of the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1948, India became the first Asian country to build its own research reactor-Apsara in 1957 at Trombay. The problem that worried Bhabha was how to use India's limited resources of uranium to produce electricity without enriching uranium and more importantly how to use the vast reserves of thorium on the beaches of Kerala. The Canadians came forward with an answer with their Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor technology. India adopted this, while at the same time buying conventional reactors from General Electric Company of USA to gain experience in nuclear power. As a result, Tarapur Atomic Power Station was built on conventional grounds and a contract was signed with the Canadians to build the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station.

While the Trombay group went ahead in acquiring expertise in nuclear physics, the PRL Group under Sarabhai started the space programme, modestly. Sarabhai negotiated with the Bishop of an old church at Thumba (near Thiruvananthapuram) to use the premises to fabricate the first sounding rockets in 1963. Since everything in the field of rocketry had to be learnt from scratch, Sarabhai used his contacts in NASA, and among the scientists involved in the French and Russian space programmes to get as much information as possible. After Bhabha's death in an Air-India crash near Geneva in 1966, Sarabhai took over the leadership of both space and nuclear programmes. However, matters changed drastically for the nuclear programmes after Sarabhai's death in 1972. To the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, atoms were an instrument of power. Within a short while, she reoriented the programme towards generating a bomb.

Pokharan fallout
The underground nuclear explosion at Pokharan in the Thar desert in 1974 changed the course not only of the nuclear programme but of Indian science in general. Till-today, Indian R&D institutions and technology programmes cannot import a state-of-the-art CNC lathe or a special purpose pump much less hi-tech electronics and supercomputers, thanks to the embargoes. In fact, Canada abandoned the Rajasthan nuclear power project mid-way.

The wisdom that flowed from the PMO at this time was self reliance and import substitution. Nobody asked the question 'Is it cost-effective, original or globally competitive?’ as long as the science mandarins claimed it was a breakthrough in indigenous import substitution. The darkage of post-Independent S&T began. From which we have yet to recover.

With great difficulty; nuclear engineers have today managed to grasp the Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor technology, but in the process, are left with obsolete technology. A latecomer like South Korea with S&T infrastructure hardly comparable to India's, today produces 10,316 MW of nuclear power with 11 nuclear reactors, while India has an installed capacity of only 1,700 MW from 10 nuclear reactors.

Moreover, the transparency of the nuclear programme during. Bhabha and Sarabhai's time, later turned into extreme intolerance towards critics. Today there are serious questions to be raised about the money spent on atomic energy and the returns on it.

However Satish Dhawan, who took over the leadership of space programme in 1972, retained the openness and informality required for the cutting edge in science and engineering. Even though the technology embargoes were forcing Indian Space Research Organisation too to reinvent the wheel, he used the build-or-buy choice intelligently. Solid fuelled rocket technology had obvious applications in missiles and hence- no one was ready to give it. So Dhawan concentrated on developing it at Thiruvananthapuram.

Liquid fuelled rocket engines, which are the more efficient and necessary components of satellite launching technology, were a different cup of tea. Using his excellent personal contacts, Dhawan convinced the French to transfer the liquid fuelled rocket technology. He also formulated a well charted road map to reach the goal of satellite launching capability. Another group concentrated on learning the intricacies of remote sensing and communication satellites. When they did not get an electronic component from the US they either built it themselves or bought it -from the Europeans or Japanese. Dhawan also negotiated for free launches from the French and the Russians. Today the space programme stands out as one of the few publicly funded initiatives in India that has achieved world class standards.

With the gradual opening up and liberalisation in trade in the 1980s, a new initiative to focus on certain technologies was taken by the then PM, Rajiv Gandhi. Operating "on a mission mode", where a multidisciplinary group comes together to achieve a target and is then disbanded without creating bureaucracies, became the new paradigm. Sam Pitroda and his team in the telecom technology mission came to the fore. Belatedly India decided to enter the era of digital telecommunications. The result was the switch designed by the Centre for Development Of Telematics (C-DOT) meant for small exchanges. However before C-DOT could deliver the large switch it suffered a setback. In an increasingly fractured and revengeful polity Pitroda's closeness to Rajiv Gandhi was the excuse used by the succeeding government to cripple the telecom mission. So in the 1990s, when worldwide, telecom is undergoing fast technological changes, India once again lags miserably.

In the last ten years, successive governments have been busy fighting for survival and the initiative for the development of S&T has fallen to an extent on lower level R&D managers. Many science administrators have
created bureaucratic fiefdoms while a few have used the opportunity to reform.

For example R.A.Mashelkar, director of NCL, used the opportunity to make his colleagues aware of their intellectual property rights and pushed them towards proactive global technology marketing. NCL today has emerged as a world class centre in catalysis and polymer science. As the director general of CSIR, Mashelkar now has the task of converting his slogan of 'research as business' into reality.

At cross roads
Research in the private sector has been a joke so far. Equipment and wages of personnel involved in routine quality control, which is part of the manufacturing activity, listed by the industry as R&D expenditure to avail of the tax breaks. However the new GATT regime and the pressure on India to change, its patent laws is forcing a handful of domestic pharmaceutical companies to invest in new drug research.

If the state of bio-technology is poor due to the indolence of the private sector the fate of the other major technology of the 21st century-infotech- has been sealed by a luddite attitude towards computers. As a result there is hardly a domestic base for information technology without which no real software industry can come into being. The software industry requires the installation of a large number of computers in the government, financial sector and the corporate sector who then drive the market for application packages. However due to flawed policies that looked at computers not as an opportunity to increase productivity and create new jobs but as villains that would take away jobs India today has a pitifully small number of computers, hardly a quarter of those installed in China, leave alone other advanced countries. In the circumstances, Indians have developed core competency in customized solutions and software services for corporate clients abroad. This sector is growing at an impressive 50 percent growth rate. Software product development with higher margins and visibility has started only in the 1990s, that too on a low key. As an observer said: "What software industry do we have, we have not produced even a video game.”

To sum up, in the last 50 years Indian S&T has gone through a series of periods characterised by brilliant scientists before Independence, institutional science in the 1950s and 1960s, autarky and bureaucratisation in the 1970s and 1980s and opening up and the chance to leverage ourselves in knowledge based industries in the1990s.

Will our government, science satraps and entrepreneurs seize the hour or will we keep marking time, hearing inanities about the “third biggest pool of scientific power”?

M M Sharma, Indian Chemical industry, UDCT

Business India, February 10-23, 1997

The chemistry of industry
Prof M.M. Sharma, FRS, was the first Indian engineer to be made Fellow of Royal Society of London. Recently he was awarded the Leverhulme Medal established on the occasion of the tercentenary of the Royal Society “in recognition of his work on the dynamics of mu1ti-phase chemical reactions in industrial processes”. The medal has been awarded to only five other chemists and engineers since 1960.

He has made significant contributions in making the University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT), Mumbai, of which he is the director, into a world class centre of excellence in chemical engineering. He spoke to
Shivanand Kanavi on industry-academia interaction.

How did you acquire the mindset of doing basic research of very high value and at the same time being concerned about commer­cialisation of scientific results?
The answer to your question on my interest in interaction with indus­try goes back to the roots of the organisation (UDCT). There is no family history of business or great academic work. The desire to link practical problems with academic work is a later development.

Early faculty members at UDCT, like Professors Venkatra­man, G.P. Kane, G.M. Nabar, N.R. Kamath thought that UDCT should have organic links with industry in a professional way and not in terms of lip service.

As soon as India became inde­pendent, there was a vacuum. Who will advise textile mills in textile processing? The industry knew only spinning and weaving. After the Second World War, BIOS reports became available, to pro­vide the guidelines for organic chemical industry. Thus, a mutually beneficial relationship could be sustained.

From my Cambridge days, I had been publishing papers in Faraday Society Transactions, etc, but I was working on a problem which had links with industry even in the puritan atmosphere of Cam­bridge. In fact, those days, I was lucky to have an idea patented in my name and sell it to Shell International. My original con­viction became terribly strengthened with this exercise.
I would say that the monograph that I wrote with my mentor, the late Professor P.Y. Dankwerts, FRS, GC, in Cambridge, on 'Absorption of carbon dioxide in amines and alkalies', gave me great satis­faction. I think it became a sort of classic in chemical engineering where we explained how from the very first principles you go to the design of final industrial equipment.

What led to your celebrated work on 'microphases'?
At UDCT from the beginning, we had taken up problems, which were very heavily idea-centred because we had no budget. A problem of making precipi­tated calcium carbonate (which goes into toothpaste, etc), came to us. On the face of it, it was very simple. Calcium oxide plus water gives calcium hydrox­ide, which, with carbon dioxide, gives calcium carbonate.

At that time an idea came to us about the role of 'microphases', a phrase that we used much later. Microphase is a phase where the characteristic dimension is less than the diffusion path. In simple language, particles, which are sub-micron to few microns in size - it could be a small bubble, a small liquid droplet, solid particle - constitute the microphase. The microphase changes the dynamics of the process. For example, when you hydrate calcium oxide you get particles within micron range with­out expenditure of energy. Therefore, you see how real life problems are the harbingers of problems of great the­oretical interest!
It is a great pleasure for an applied scientist, when his idea works, and he can demonstrate its academic purity by way of research publication. It gives you a kind of thrill, which has a powerful catalytic action.

You mentioned the BIOS reports. Can you explain what they were and how the war triggered applied research in UDCT?
After the German defeat in World War II, teams were formed with experts from allied forces to visit every German chemical plant and other plants and find out all the details about their manufacturing processes. German dyestuff industry and textile aux­illiaries were well known. The mother company was IG Farben from which Bayer. Hoechst and BASF were later born. The British Intelligence Office pro­duced these reports. Every detail of the manufacturing process was given in these reports.

They were then the starting point for entrepreneurs in India to start industries, we at UDCT had access to these reports and they were a fantastic source of infor­mation. The entire recipe was given in detail. Indians had to learn textile pro­cessing. Our textile-processing course was immensely helpful. It provided trained manpower when British experts had left.

Textile and sugar are mother indus­tries in India. They gave impetus to many things. All the original chemical compa­nies in India were textile houses ­Mafatlals, Sarabhais, Srirams in DCM, Jaikrishna Harivallabhdas. Ambika Mills, Atul. etc. From textiles to dyes and bulk chemicals is how we developed in India. Plastics and synthetic fibres, which dominate the chemical industry today came into the scene much later, in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Your advice is sought by almost the entire Indian chemical industry, Why not develop technology and licence it rather than be a consultant?Licencing is a complicated business. To advise industry on how to get more from existing assets is the most rewarding experience in terms of relationship between an academic and industry. Industry gets benefit immediately: more profits, less load on effluents, much more throughput out of existing equipment. The academic gets the benefit of seeing his ideas work and gets emboldened. It also buttresses his income. The student gets tremendous advantage because the quality of lectures he gets improves.

There is lot of talk in India about uni­versity-industry interaction, but it is only talk. People never put it into practice.

Consultancy by faculty members should have a wider base. If one person is involved in a faculty of 20, the spread fac­tor is very limited. At least one-third of the faculty should be involved.

Last year we generated Rs.43lakh through consultancy. Bombay University got one-third of it. This year will we be able to do it? Was it a freak year? No. by all indications we will make it this year also.

Lawyers, chartered accountants, doc­tors etc. practice consultancy, why not engi­neers? Of course, a high level of professional integrity is required. One black sheep can give a bad name to the institute. Any underhand dealing will get exposed - sooner rather than later.
Intellectual curiosity is also satisfied along with material needs and we have a greater chance of retaining a good per­son. This is important; after all an acade­mic's salary is nowhere near corporate salaries.

What do you think about sending teachers to industry on a sabbatical? Or about academics being on the boards of companies?
We have practiced these things very rig­orously. In the beginning, instead of sending a faculty member for a whole year, we see them on vacation place­ment so that he does not have to take leave and worry about continuity in service etc. A number of people have been on the board of companies and even many companies simultaneously. We encouraged it.
We have created as number of visiting professorship through private endowment, for persons from industry. We have not left any stone unturned.
Industry is realizing that their engineers need to upgrade and retrain. So they are requesting us to design refresher courses of 2-3 weeks’ duration.
Being science-based, the chemical industry is receptive to new ideas. If -you see Department of Science and Tech­nology's booklet on R&D in Indian indus­try, it is the chemical industry which leads; largely domestic companies and especially the technocrat-driven companies. 'The big C in their capital is technology and they have to be superior to be competitive nationally and internationally.
Of course, in India there is horizontal pilferage of technology because of Which the industry has acutely suffered in the last 20 years. The cost of innovation is high while that of pilferage is zero.

What is your view on the IPR controversy?Let us be very objective. When the cost of development is abnormally high and that too based on private money, it will be I treated as property. After a drug or agro­chemical molecule has been found, anybody can improve the technology and sell at a lower cost because the developmental costs have been borne by someone else. Why are we feeling diffident that we can­not generate ideas of that calibre?

I will give an example of missed oppor­tunities from chemistry. N.R. Iyengar had a brilliant idea to make an intermediate for rubber chemicals. He published that paper in Tetrahedron Letters. If he had the awareness, he would have patented it. Two or three years later there was a patent from Monsanto where the first paper referred to was N.R. Iyengar's! Based on that idea a commercial plant can be put up which costs less and is less polluting. A known product but made by a better route. I am just giving an example. If he had patented it, it is quite likely that Monsanto would have bid for it. He could also have then published it.

The debate on what can be patented and what cannot be, goes on all the time. An obvious thing cannot be patented but there is too much sensationalism in India ­"neem is being patented, tulsi is being patented.” etc. Something, which we know in everyday life, cannot be patented.

With the increasing integration of the Indian economy with the world econ­omy, there is a fear that Indian R&D will suffer. What is your view?I am convinced that globalisation will give a big boost to indigenous R&D and that it will get recognition internationally. The cost of research is so much lower in India than anywhere else. Talent is in reasonable abundance. All said and done I here is a worldwide trend against sharing technology. Therefore, the desire to come out with alternate technology, which is superior and patentable, will get a boost. Even in this liberalised atmosphere, many are not able to put up plants because nobody is ready to sell the technology to them. This will continue, because the developed nations perceive India as a potential competitor