Bangalore: Nine months after the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) made public its intent to spearhead a national initiative on India Microprocessor, a public-private programme, forming a special purpose vehicle called Zerone Corporation, to design and develop a microprocessor at an initial investment of about $200 million (Rs908 crore) in collaboration with the ministry of information technology (IT), the latter remains non-committal about the project.
The ministry’s lack of interest doesn’t just indicate a difference of opinion with CSIR—not entirely new in the microprocessor business where turf wars are common—but reflects, at a larger level, India’s approach to hardware in general.
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CSIR, meanwhile, plans to go ahead with the project, with a smaller budget, and some support from the technology community.
“My plan budget has increased this year; I will allocate Rs25 crore for this project and get started,” said Samir K. Brahmachari, director general of CSIR. He said at least eight private sector firms have sent their letter of intent to be part of the project. The idea, a blueprint of which it has readied, is to own intellectual property in this space. “The Prime Minister has asked us to do big projects; I have to pay attention to that call,” said Brahmachari.
The ministry of IT was originally supposed to chip in with funds, and serve as a nodal agency for the project. One ministry official, however, told Mint that the project was primarily CSIR’s. Another asked: “Why do we need to develop microprocessor in India, there are enough good and cheap ones available in the market. So many other countries haven’t developed a microprocessor of their own?”
Both officials asked not to be identified as they are not authorized to speak to the media.
Why made-in-India chip?
A microprocessor shouldn’t be confused with computer chips (although all computer chips are microprocessors), because there are myriad uses for it, said Vinnie Mehta, executive director of Manufacturers’ Association for Information Technology. Experts say the technology involved in microprocessors spawns a whole range of technologies—memory design, peripherals, compiler expertise, system integration—along its developmental path and is a must in a country’s technology basket.
“A nation without silicon (technology) is like a person without heart,” said Mehta, who was part of the initial discussion on the project. He added that microprocessor technology is entirely missing in the Indian technology ecosystem.“What CSIR plans to do is to design a chip that can go into several things. Even if we were to fail, it’s worth all the learning.”
According to a report on IT and electronics hardware manufacturing prepared by a task force set up by the IT ministry and submitted in December, the global electronics market is currently worth $1.75 trillion (Rs79.5 trillion) and is the fastest growing manufacturing sector in the world; it is projected to reach $2 trillion by 2014. The Indian market was worth $45 billion in 2009; of this, 56%, by value, was imported. The domestic market is projected to grow to $125 billion by 2014 and $400 billion by 2020.
Even though the report lists several suggestions, championing “uniquely Indian products for uniquely Indian needs at uniquely Indian prices”, it overlooks microprocessor research and development (R&D). Mehta clarified that this is because it is an industry report. At this stage, it’s the government that needs to muster support for microprocessor development, industry will have to come in at a later stage, he added.
Incidentally, the government’s track record in nurturing hardware in India isn’t quite heartening. The only public sector semiconductor unit, Semiconductor Complex Ltd (SCL) set up in Chandigarh in 1984, was destroyed in a fire in 1989. Till date, it’s a mystery whether it was a malicious act or an accident. “Why did the government not rebuild SCL to the best global standards? When it comes to electronics, we have virtually lived on the grey market,” said Prabir Purkayastha, chairman of Society for Knowledge Commons in New Delhi who has long been associated with the IT ministry as an expert committee member on industrial applications. “There’s reverse protection of hardware in this country. Strong entrenched lobby in the government has hindered hardware manufacturing.”
In high growth sectors such as electronics, say experts, where variants of microprocessors are at the heart of every product, lack of technology ownership has enormous business and strategic implications for India. “People feel happy that companies like LG, Samsung, Nokia and others are assembling products here, but less than 5% of the components are local,” said Sanjiv Narayan, vice-president and managing director of Calypto Design Systems India Pvt. Ltd. His argument: CSIR is not proposing to design a BMW or a Mercedes, but a Nano. “Let it be a 4-bit chip, that is what is put in traffic lights and we don’t even produce that.” An Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi alumnus who studied and worked in California before setting up Calypto’s India operations, Narayan is ready to work with Zerone if it takes off.
But do we really need it?
The ministry’s argument of microprocessor technology being done to death and cheap chips being easily available doesn’t make the cut with technology enthusiasts.
“Having worked in adjacent areas, I think there’s scope for a lot of innovation. Moreover, buying chips, or even networking equipment, from overseas has security concerns; there are backdoors…systems can be hacked into,” said Ajit Shelat, co-founder, president and chief executive officer of Nevis Networks (India) Pvt. Ltd in Pune, which makes security products for local area networks. Nevis is one of the eight companies to write in supporting Zerone. An IIT Bombay alumnus and a serial entrepreneur, Shelat sees a wide range of low-cost applications coming out of home-grown technology.
Technophiles compare Zerone to the setting up of Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DoT) in 1984. When C-DoT began with 120-line exchanges, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd was already importing 10,000-line exchanges, but it was due to the former, and its eventual 256-line exchange, that we saw the rural telephony revolution in India, said Narayan.
Others cite the example of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which supported a local microprocessor initiative nine years ago; today, in its third version, the Chinese microprocessor, named Godson-3, doesn’t just have specifications that match the best in industry, but enormous free software support as well. Designed by the Chinese, the chip is manufactured by the Italian-French semiconductor company STMicroelectronics NV. “Do you know how much will China save by not having to pay Intel and Microsoft when theses systems become mass usable?” asked Narayan.
Still, noble as Brahmachari’s intentions may be, a project of this magnitude where there’s a new technology iteration every 18 months, needs long-term political and financial commitment. More importantly, it needs to be done within the IT ministry’s ambit as the latter has end-to-end domain expertise and deals with the user industry. Zerone is already losing time as the publicly available OpenSPARC architecture that it initially planned to build on, will become obsolete in three-four years. Realistically, said a CSIR official close to the project, “unless the ministry of IT and the user industry gets on board, not much will come out it”.
Brahmachari said there was similar scepticism when he started the open source drug discovery programme two years ago, but that today it has hundreds of Indian and overseas researchers hooked on to it. Praising it, Bernard Munos, an adviser in corporate strategy at American drug maker Eli Lilly Co., said: “When it comes to big ideas for dealing with the innovation crisis in drug R&D, the leadership has come from three sources: Francis Collins (director of National Institutes of Health, US), Samir Brahmachari, and WHO/TDR (World Health Organization’s special programme in tropical diseases). If it were not for them, we would be in even bigger trouble. All three had the vision to see trouble ahead when the rest of the world could not be bothered; they had the courage to speak up about it, and the drive to act. In the case of Samir and WHO, they also did it on a shoestring.”
It took scientists four years to build consensus for Chandrayaan-1, said Brahmachari. “We’ll convince people about Zerone as well.”
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint