In December 2007, at a conference hosted by the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, Sam Pitroda, a leading technology guru, was asked: Wouldn’t you agree that China is able to achieve quicker technological progress than India, owing to its one-party rule and ability to take quick decisions?
Pat came the answer: I’d rather be part of a democratic set-up, where all our voices can be heard.
Pitroda, recently appointed as India’s first innovation czar, should know—for, almost three decades ago, his voice was heard by a dynamic premier, Rajiv Gandhi, who was on the lookout for creative ideas to bridge the technology divide and bring telecommunications to the masses.
As with most leading innovations, Pitroda’s idea was a fairly simple one. Getting individual phone lines to all houses in rural India was impractical, even impossible. Coin-operated booths, as was widely prevalent in the US, could not have worked in India. Perhaps the best option was to leverage the existence of small establishments such as paan shops, grocery stores and local pharmacies that spanned the length and breadth of rural India. And thus was born the trademark yellow PCO booth that took Bell’s legendary invention to the remotest corners of India.
Hailed as one of the most admirable social innovations, this idea came to be replicated in other developing countries. Pitroda has now been appointed India’s first innovation czar, a post curiously titled as the “infrastructure, innovation and information” adviser to the Prime Minister.
This appointment couldn’t have come at a better time. For, despite India’s rapid economic progress and technological proficiency, it has failed to produce any real innovation on its soil. Consider our software industry, which continues to remain content with a cyber coolie “services” model, and our pharmaceutical industry that thrives on a copycat generic model. What is most puzzling is the fact that the very same brains that fail to create on Indian soil do so the moment they land on foreign shores. What ails? Do we really lack an innovation culture? How is it that a country that boasts of a Sushruta and rudimentary cataract surgery as far back as 600 BC does not have a single blockbuster drug to its credit?
Pitroda laments that in a rapidly expanding international market for ideas, Indians often end up using their brains to solve the problems of the Western world, but neglect their own. Consider the plight of villagers from the Sunderbans, where a furious Aila polluted agricultural lands with a massive infusion of salt water. Traditional wisdom holds that their livelihoods are doomed, as nothing ever grows in salt water.
Can we not think of creative ways of solving this problem—perhaps by eliminating salt water in a cost-effective manner or identifying crops or plants that are likely to withstand salt water? Ought not the government offer “prizes” or other incentives to encourage some out-of-the-box thinking here? No amount of Aila relief will help as much as an idea that guarantees a future sustained income to these poor villagers.
The key challenge for India’s innovation czar will be to help create an ecosystem that engenders innovations of this sort. What works for the more innovative economies such as the US may not work for India. Nobody understands this better than the czar who often quips that while most of his innovation and wealth creation is in the US, his social work is in India. The challenge for India is to create an innovation ecosystem, where future Pitrodas could leverage their creativity on Indian soil, rather than having to rush to Western pastures. And who better to drive the creation of such an ecosystem than Pitroda himself.
Shamnad Basheer is the ministry of human resource development professor of intellectual property law at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org