As Mint reported on Thursday, a national proposal to design and develop a microprocessor in India faces a false start if the ministry of information technology, and its user community, do not participate in full spirit. The ministry should look at it as a broad-scale engineering effort in view of the fact that a lot of dual-use technologies are still difficult to obtain, if not outright denied to India.
Historically, all major scientific endeavours have had government involvement, be it the US defence department’s Arpanet which proved to be the precursor of the Internet—or CERN’s nod to an information management proposal which led to the World Wide Web. India’s own space and atomic energy programmes have yielded a host of civilian-use technologies, giving us an array of benefits, from low-cost water purifiers to prosthetics, explosive detection to diagnostics. Utilizing their expertise from serving national initiatives, Bharat Electronics Ltd and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre have produced a unique semiconductor radiation detector which was used for the Big Bang experiment at CERN in Geneva. More importantly, the detector can find several commercial uses in sectors such as automotive, communications, defence and medicine.
Ironically, when it comes to hardware, India has maintained a self-imposed scientific and technological isolationism. A few decades ago, one argument, among others, could have been the economy wasn’t ready to absorb the technologies, but it isn’t so today. An ecosystem is waiting to lap it up, and so is a generation of technology buffs eager for a targeted project to provide semiconductor bootstrapping capability to the country.
It’s true that the microprocessor technology has, over the years, become a game of titans, with the going rate of a chip fabrication facility being anywhere from $2-4 billion. But the question is: do we want to become an Intel or an AMD? The answer is neither. The dilemma, or even the doubt, in the government is reminiscent of the country’s light combat aircraft mission days and the agonizing years spent over it—should India do it or should it not? Should it be a single-role or multi-role aircraft? Who would use it?
The key is, India should look at such projects from a strategic viewpoint, as a mission that will fill the conspicuous, but so far covered, gap in India’s hardware capability. Commercial benefits will fall in line automatically if things are done right. The spin- offs will serve the nation way beyond a single microprocessor.
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