Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

Why India lags in innovation

International patent applications filed from India dropped to 1,423 last yearas compared to Japan's 44,235, China's 29,846 and South Korea's 14,626 in the same period

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship Make in India initiative seems to be a grand success. It has notched up overseas investment commitments of more than $400 billion over the past two years. India will have turned a new leaf in attracting foreign direct investment if these commitments are realized.

The government plans to create 100 million new factory jobs by 2022 and increase manufacturing’s share in the economy to 25% during the next six years. That India is open to international business and willing to remove all regulatory hurdles to embrace foreign capital has become a clarion call of Modi and his finance minister almost on a daily basis.

But, in one area, the Make in India programme is yet to generate positive results. This is the area of “incidence and location of innovation", which is a pre-requisite for generating new knowledge in science and technology.

Consider international patent applications filed from India to assess the innovative activity generated by the much-publicized Make in India initiative. According to figures released by the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization under the Patent Cooperation Treaty, international patent applications filed from India dropped to 1,423 last year—as compared to Japan’s 44,235, China’s 29,846 and South Korea’s 14,626 in the same period.

In 2014, Indian research and manufacturing entities, both in the private and public sector, filed 1,428 international patent applications as compared to 42,381 by Japan, 25,548 by China, and 13,117 by South Korea.

The US, numero uno in the arena of innovation and inventions thanks to the sustained large-scale public funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the defense department, filed 57,385 international patent applications last year.

Surprisingly, the filing of patent applications by Indian firms and research departments over the past three years remained almost flat with 1,320 in 2013, 1,428 in 2014 and 1,423 in 2015.

While the US, Japan, China and South Korea continue to dominate global patent activity, India remains a bit player. China, a late entrant into the world of innovation and inventions, is now racing ahead in its long march to be the world’s champion of the latest technologies. It has developed technologies across areas, including solar technologies for harnessing renewable power.

China’s Huawei Technologies, with 3,898 patent applications, almost three times the number of patent applications filed from India, ranks first among companies in the world.

Paradoxically, at a time when India has eclipsed China as the world’s fastest growing major economy with its gross domestic product forecast to increase to 7.6% in the fiscal year through March, it has performed poorly in generating measurable innovative activity.

Despite sending an orbiter to Mars and making strides in fields such as pharmaceutical products, India is nowhere to be seen on the international science and technology radar.

It is a different issue that the country’s most talented human resources continue to dominate inventions in several areas abroad.

How does one explain India’s poor performance in creating new knowledge that is useful for tackling its bread-and-butter as well as environmental problems? Is it because of an attempt to ‘saffronize’ science based on ancient claims of landmark scientific discoveries (the Pythagorean theorem, zero, genetics and plastic surgery, among others), thereby undermining the need for fresh research on the ground that everything is already there in the Vedas? Is it due to a lack of investment in basic and applied science and technology that is essential for innovation which, in turn, accelerates the pace of intellectual property activities? Can innovation and inventions happen in India when there is no transmission of existing knowledge, which is the basis for the generation of new knowledge?

These are some questions that continue to baffle analysts and historians of science.

“The problem of demarcation between science and pseudoscience is not merely a problem of armchair philosophy; it is of vital social and political relevance," said Imre Lakatos, a Hungarian philosopher.

Surely, this could not be truer anywhere than it is in India today, according to Meera Nanda, a science historian. “All possible lines of demarcation between legitimate science and ideas pretending to be scientific are being erased," said Nanda.

Lamenting the lack of rigorous scientific study, mathematician and historian D.D. Kosambi once said: “...the western mechanism of scientific study is blunted in our (Indian) hands to a crude toy for producing the feeblest of memoirs and papers, for grabbing a few allowances and grants." Unfortunately, he said, “Renaissances are not ‘made’ in this fashion; they have to bloom as the expression of a new form of society, one far more productive and kinder to its members than the older one."

The greatest obstacles to research in any underdeveloped country are those needlessly created by scientists or a scholar’s colleagues and fellow citizens, according to Kosambi. Instead of throwing money “away on costly fads like atomic energy", Kosambi argued more than six decades ago for developing “solar energy, neglected by the advanced countries because they have not sunlight as much as the tropics". He also squarely blamed the religious system of beliefs for India’s backwardness.

At the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos over two months ago, a prominent Indian IT businessman, who asked not to be identified, said that his greatest worry about India is the increasing “saffornization", which is slowing progress in science and technology.

“Science is the cognition of necessity; freedom is the recognition of necessity," Kosambi had famously said, for finding out why a certain thing happens, which we can then turn to our advantage rather than be ruled helplessly by the event.

In the current climate that seems to foster “un-questioning", the Make in India push could turn out to be a new phase for producing indentured labourers for the 21st century than building a reservoir of scientists and technologists. Alas, such a programme cannot coexist with anachronistic and antediluvian social beliefs, which undermine scientific inquiry and questioning.

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