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From the Linear Model to Incremental Innovation Research and Industry in India

Nasir Tyabji ( is a economic historian working in the areas of technology, innovation and industrialisation.

In the course of the first 45 years of India’s post-independence development, the focus of research activity was changed from research into methods of raw material survey and extraction, oblivious of any industrial imperative, to research into the process of material production, aimed at inducing technological awareness within industry. This change in focus was accompanied by policy hesitation, and faced reverses. The result was a diversified industrial base together with considerable, albeit highly uneven, levels of technological competence. The subsequent 25-year period is characterised by a reliance on the market mechanism as the channel directing research activity and industrial energy. Market fundamentalism is dismissive of the necessity of creative thought on the contemporary dialectics of the science and industry relationship. This, let alone providing the basis for further advance, has led to the degradation of achieved capabilities in comprehension of the changing dynamics of this relationship.

In the historical process of evolution of production systems, the industrial revolution was the great marker. It was the turning point after which scientific knowledge became, to an increasing extent, an organic part of the knowledge of the production process, or of technology.1 In other words, scientific research became the driver of technological advance. However, the relationship was not one way; increasingly, technological demands began to set the agenda for scientific research and science and technology became two interacting, if not interpenetrating, systems of knowledge (Anchiskin 1987: 101–205; Rosenberg 1982). In the period spanning a century and a half between the industrial revolution and Indian independence in 1947, there were two further milestones in developments in technology, and in the nature of the science–technology interaction: the chemical or continuous processing revolution of the late 19th century and, above all, the Scientific and Technological Revolution (STR) of the post-World WarII period (Bernal 1971b; Heinman 1981; Teich 2008).

It has been argued, perhaps provocatively, that the STR is not merely a milestone in technological development, but marks a truly epochal change from the dominance of the mechanical mode of processing material (cutting, forging, stamping, shaping, and so on) to the increasing use of biological, chemical and, in general, molecular- and atomic-level transformations of the materials used in production (Kolontayev 1981). For countries such as India, the significance of such a qualitative change in the basic processes underlying technology was that they had now not only to achieve comparable levels of expertise in the domain of pre-STR production processes; if they were truly to achieve world parity as nations with developed systems of industrial production, they had also to manage the transition to the new forms of material transformation.

The recognition of the enduring validity of List’s (1909) concept of the National System of Political Economy, through its reincarnation as the “National System of Innovation,” dates from the late 1980s, almost 150 years after its exposition, on the basis of Christopher Freeman’s examination of post-war Japan’s success in innovating new products and processes (Freeman 1988, 1997; Lundvall 2010). In this reincarnated form, List’s concept is a useful prism: through this, India’s performance in establishing an institutional structure (necessarily operating within a contested macro socio-economic environment) through which the progress towards technological goals set by the political leadership can be coherently assessed. This is for two reasons: first, the concept is drawn from List’s elaboration of the National System of Political Economy which he so fervently advocated for during the period when Germany was experiencing the effects of post-industrial revolution growth in Great Britain and, to a smaller extent, in France (Freeman 1997: 5). More importantly, List’s prescriptions (Freeman goes so far as to say that the title of his book could as well have been “National System of Innovation”) advocated what later came to be known in India as a strategy of self-reliance, incorporating an import substitution industrialisation strategy.2 To this end, the imposition of import duties, and the subordination of trade, monetary and fiscal policies to the imperatives of industrialisation was justified (List 1909). The Prussian nationalistic impulses motivating List were quite distinct in their origin to the anti-colonialism underlying Indian nationalism (as also, it might be added, Algerian and Indonesian nationalism amongst others). However, this line of reasoning resonates strongly with Indian aspirations voiced in resolutions passed by the Indian National Congress in its annual sessions, from as early as 1929 and 1931 (Indian National Congress 1954). Although the concept of the National System of Innovation was formalised much later, it needs to be emphasised that the independence movement in India had witnessed considerable discussion on a “National System of Political Economy” for India (Fiscal Commission 1950; Nayar 1983; Abrol 1995; Sinha 1995; Godin 2009).

In terms of the Indian developmental expectations, there were three broad ranges of technology that were the subject of policy and analytical concern. The first was that of epoch-defining technological systems (embodying what came to be known as information technology, biotechnology and new materials technology)—associated with atomic energy, of space and of ocean exploration. The second set of technologies were those that underlay the industrialisation strategy: the development of a capacity to produce capital goods, based on enterprises in the public sector, in the areas of steel, fertilisers, petrochemicals, heavy electrical engineering and so on. The third level of technology was predominantly in the batch processing industries embodied in the private corporate sector, which in terms of the number of firms dominated the country’s industrial sector.

There were, then, three industrial research systems that had to be conceived, institutions established to undertake relevant research, and credible linkages with production systems forged and sustained: those for the post-STR or new generic technologies, for the new technologies of the pre-existing epoch and, finally, the upgradation and modernisation of technologies which industries in India utilised at the time (Tyabji 2000). Unlike the single task set for the designers of innovation systems in industrialised economies, in 1947, their counterparts in India had to forge a system that would simultaneously complete the ongoing task of bringing the country’s conventional technological systems of production upto contemporary standards, while initiating research in the post-STR processes.

The task of designing the system of research required recognition that there were a number of dimensions of the problem. These may be identified as the comprehension of the relationship between science and technology in the contemporary era; the elaboration of institutional structures housing specific research activities within the innovation chain; and the creation of linkages between these distinct activities located within discrete institutional structures. These were, of course, the requirements of any effective national science and technology system in the post-World War II era.

However, in an ex-colonial country such as India, there was a further set of issues to be considered in the project to establish an up to date integrated industrial structure. For this, it was necessary to ensure that an economic strategy was undeviatingly pursued that aimed to change the terms of India’s relationship with the world economy, from a raw material supplying appendage to a position of partnership in international trade in industrial products. This would require macroeconomic management skills of a high order; and, second, to induce a determination amongst private industrialists that the firms under their control would ensure the integrated and coherent operation of the innovation chain, which was an equally complex task in social engineering.3

The historical record shows that while the understanding of the handicaps of India’s partial and lopsided industrialisation to date was apparent to the political leadership of the independence movement, questions of technology and the issues connected with it obtained only partial recognition, and this too, in highly segmented areas. In the area of energy supplies, the combination of the post-war euphoria over the seemingly unlimited prospects of atomic energy, and the personal standing of Homi Bhabha led to the early recognition of the role of this new source of energy, and a concerted drive to establish the scientific and technological infrastructure to develop this source.4 On the other hand, the investigation of new materials, an important component of the STR, had to wait for 20 years until the space effort was firmly established in the 1970s. While developments in organic chemical technology, dependent on the petrochemical industries, originated in the mid- 1960s, sustained attention to the biological processes began in the 1980s (Bhagavan 1997; Bhargava and Chakrabarti 1991).5

Of course, given Indian scientific and technological expertise in the first two decades after independence, not much more could have been expected even if the potential of biological and petrochemical based industrial processes had been more early and more comprehensively comprehended. The real basis for a fair estimation of the forethought in Indian scientific and technological planning lies in the second and third science and technology systems, of new technologies of the current epoch, and the upgradation of pre-existing technologies already in use in Indian industry, principally cotton and jute textiles, sugar, cement, and light and medium engineering. In these cases, there was an integrated approach which found expression in the constitution of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). The thrust of this paper is towards mapping the evolution of thought on technology policy, centred on the CSIR, in India’s attempt to enter the contemporary technological world. However, the discussion will incorporate those developments where the effects of often contradictory macroeconomic impulses impacted on the intentions of formal technology policy and its associated institutions.

From Research-for-Extraction to Research-for-Production

Industrial development in India can be dated from the mid- 19th century, with the establishment of the cotton and jute textile industries. This was followed by the initiation of steel production at the Tata Iron and Steel Plant in the first decade of the 20th century, some heavy inorganic chemical units and a more widespread growth of sugar and cement manufacturing units in the interwar years. These initiatives were enabled by the presence of specific niches in the imperial balance of payments systems (cotton and jute), or by specific considerations of the imperial state (steel, sugar, heavy chemicals) which granted special exceptions to the generally obstructionist, if not overtly hostile, state policies towards Indian industrialisation (Bagchi 1972; Ray 1979; Tyabji 1995). As a result, by the time of independence, India had a significant though both structurally and geographically highly imbalanced industrial base.

Together with this production structure, an edifice of research institutions had also come into existence, with imperial research organisations dating from the late 19th century, and starting just a little later, the establishment of nationalist supported research institutions (Dasgupta 2011). Neither of these systems was oriented to research-for-production. By imperial design, the focus of the state institutions was towards research-for-extraction, the investigation of methods by which India’s raw material base could more efficiently be investigated and excavated (Kumar 1995; Arnold 2000). The nationalist institutions, on the other hand saw their primary motive as the creation and consolidation of scientific expertise in laboratory-based research, unconnected to the demands of industry. Under the pressure of the national movements, there were some attempts by provincial governments at development work aimed at encouraging small-scale industries (handlooms, leather and simple metal working) but this was essentially derivative work, however ingeniously these initiatives were devised (Tyabji 1995).

A further factor that militated against the start of research-for-production, even when opportunities for the scientific analysis of existing technologies were identified, was the general indifference of Indian industrialists to the benefits of this approach (Tripathi 1996). Thus, proposals to increase the ability of the sugar industry to withstand international competition by the investigation of commercially useful by-products, thereby increasing the value added of sugar manufacture, were spurned by the manufacturers. An unwillingness to devote financial and managerial resources to the improvement of the technologies in use was to prove to be an enduring characteristic of Indian industrialists stretching, in fact, to the present day; this added one more dimension (of social engineering) requiring attention before a system of research-for-production could be set in motion (Tyabji 2000).

Both in the sphere of political economy and in the domain of the architecture of the science–technology system, three phases have been identified in post-independence Indian history (Subrahmanian 1987; Ganapathy 1971). These comprise, first, the period from independence in 1947 to the mid or late 1960s. The second is from 1970 to the decisive interventions towards liberalising the external economy in 1991 through a structural adjustment programme, and the third is the period of the deepening of the measures to liberalise the internal and the external economy, from 1991 to the present.

Research Industry Interface from 1947 to 1970

As has been mentioned, the pre-independence period had seen the growth of research institutions albeit oriented to research-for-extraction. This was associated with the growth of an industrial structure under the auspices of an industrial class which, though surprisingly entrepreneurial in overcoming colonial constraints, was entirely disinclined to allocate resources for the internal generation of technological expertise. Thus the demand for a research establishment geared towards generating research-for-production came from Indian scientists dismayed at the prospect of a continuing dependence on technology imports (Krishna 1995). From the time of establishment of the Department of Industrial and Scientific Research (DSIR) in post-World WarI Britain, there were repeated calls for the creation of equivalent facilities in India. When the Board and then the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research were finally established in 1941, they were modelled on the institutions in Britain. This was to have a number of consequences: in Britain, which itself was not a notable example of dedication to technological development, much of the generic research was conducted by industrial research associations, with DSIR organisations (principally the National Physical and Chemical Laboratories) engaging in fundamental areas of research. It was presumed there that the industrial research associations, in association with individual firms, would bridge the gap between fundamental research and the subsequent stages of the creation of commercially viable production processes.

If the establishment of the Council of Scientific Research was the first rudimentary step towards the creation of a National Innovation System, even before independence the Government of British India was again prevailed upon by nationalist concerns to establish a committee to plan the contours of a system of industrial research. The problem, as the committee saw it, was twofold (CSIR 1945: 7).

The capacity of Indian industry to withstand international competition will depend materially on its vision and readiness to implement the latest results of research in a continual effort for improving its productive efficiency by economy in the use of raw materials, utilization of by-products, reduced power, cost and so on. Research is thus calculated to play the part of a decisive factor in India … not only for the maintenance of the integrity of our industries against foreign competition but also for the development of ones for which the opportunities in this country remain imperfectly explored. Only a fraction of India’s agricultural, forest, mineral, botanical and zoological resources have been turned to industrial use.

In the committee’s view, there were two objectives of industrial research: the first was to be based on adaptive engineering, increasing the efficiency of the manufacturing process by economising in raw material and power usage, and by reducing per unit fixed costs by commercialising the by-products of the manufacturing process. The second was to develop new products and their manufacturing processes based on India’s natural resource base. This was a good illustration of the linear model of innovation, even if the starting point was not basic (scientific) research.

The committee, in its report, laid out a conceptualisation of the innovation process by a two-way division of research: fundamental or pure research (scientific research) and applied research. This latter was itself divided into two: basic applied research and specific applied research. The first was seen as concerning problems of a general or long range character while the second connoted research on the specific problems of an individual industry. Universities were judged to be the natural institutional base for fundamental research, while applied research was to be the preserve of the laboratories to be established under the aegis of the CSIR.

The report of the committee recognised that it was inconceivable that industry, unwilling to finance even its own in-house research, would be prepared for cooperative research in what it termed specific applied research (CSIR 1945: 14–15). This was so even in the few areas (cotton and jute textiles, sugar, cement and light engineering) where an industry (as opposed to a handful of firms) existed at the time. What was problematical, then, in the design of the innovation system was the (unexplored) presumption that, in the absence of industrial research associations where specific applied research would be undertaken, the CSIR laboratories would be able to take their discoveries through both stages of applied research up to a point where an individual firm would find it profitable to invest its resources in bringing the process and associated products to the stage of commercial production.6 It is interesting that as early as in 1949, during the first review of the CSIR, a senior scientific policymaker made a significant remark in a comment that was published as a part of the proceedings of the review process. He pointed out that the director of research at Eastman Kodak had stated that a large proportion of the overall costs of introducing a new production process were incurred in the penultimate phases (CSIR 1949: 26). This observation had obvious implications on the probability that Indian firms would be attracted to new, commercially untested technologies that CSIR might develop, but it had no discernable effect on policy at the time.

The assumptions underlying the design of the innovation system incorporated the concept of the linear innovation chain, from pure research to applied research, the scaling up of processes to pilot plant scale, and the ultimate development of commercially viable processes (Godin 2006).7 These processes would then be used to manufacture products. In practice, it was assumed that the first two phases would be housed in CSIR institutions, even though the Industrial Research Planning Committee had suggested that pure research was to be the preserve of the universities (Kuchhal 1995). Pilot plants for scaling up exercises were installed in very few cases (Vishvanathan 1985). In the event, it was the individual firm that was expected to take the process further after the applied research phase to commercialisation. In a situation of Indian industry’s well-recognised indifference to in-house research, this was an unrealistic assumption. A further assumption, unexplored it would be emphasised, underlying this version of the innovation process was that industrial firms would acknowledge the potential commercial viability of processes developed in CSIR laboratories and take the technology further (Ministry of Scientific Research and Cultural Affairs 1963: 29–30). In other words, the entire design of the innovation system ignored the fact that the links in the chain were embodied in distinct institutional structures which were not under single, unified command. Of course, all this presumed that the research studies undertaken in the laboratories were themselves amenable to industrial application at all. In fact, during the first 10 years of the CSIR systems’ existence, there was little focus on the choice of study of any research problem based on the possibility of its eventual industrial application (CSIR 1964; Parthasarathi and Singh 1992; Anderson 1999a, 1999b).

Recognition of the limitations of the linear model and, more crucially, on the behavioural presumptions about how the institutions in the innovation chain were operating, came slowly and obliquely. As has been mentioned above, the critical phase in what came to be known as development, lay beyond the domain of the CSIR under the existing structure, and within the responsibility of industrial concerns; this drew attention to one of the reasons why firms were unwilling to buy CSIR- developed processes (Ministry of Scientific Research and Cultural Affairs 1963). Setting the context for this hesitation, however, was the aura surrounding foreign collaboration as the preferred (and indeed, the only possible method presumed) of industrialisation amongst influential sections of decision-makers (Ministry of Scientific Research and Cultural Affairs 1963; CSIR 1964; Subrahmanian 1966, 1968, 1972; Ministry of Industrial Development and Corporate Affairs 1968).

CSIR Expertise

An additional problem which encouraged recourse to foreign collaboration, stemmed from the supply-driven model of innovation. This assumed that the technologies developed in CSIR laboratories would define the structure of new industrial enterprises. A prominent example of this was the disconnection between the sequence of initiation of CSIR laboratories, and the planned structure of industry.8 Coordination here was obviously critical if import-substituting industrialisation was to be accompanied by technological self-reliance. Complex technologies could not have been expected to be available from CSIR laboratories within the time frame laid out for the initiation of new enterprises. However, CSIR expertise could have been used during the process of absorption and adaptation of the imported technologies. In the event, by the time CSIR came to be associated organisationally with the overall industrial planning process, most of the laboratories had already been established, or priorities had been laid down.

A major development in the evolution of the research-industry system came as a consequence of the Scientific Policy Resolution of 1958. The resolution, which spoke with some inspiration on the role of scientific research, was noticeably less comprehending of the role of technology (Tyabji 2007). However, at a series of conferences attended by scientists, industry representatives and government officials in subsequent years, the problems underlying the presumptions under which the CSIR organisation had been developed became evident (Ministry of Scientific Research and Cultural Affairs 1958, 1963; CSIR 1966; Nayudamma 1966; Committee on Science and Technology 1971). Apart from the skewed distribution of the costs of development of new processes mentioned earlier, there was new information from Japan: although technology import transactions were as prevalent there as in India, the Japanese research effort was concentrated on a cyclical model of technology upgradation, where investments were made in the incremental improvement of processes that had been imported. By this procedure, the Japanese were able to compete effectively with their erstwhile technology suppliers, surely the desired goal for Indian industry (Ministry of Scientific Research and Cultural Affairs 1963; Oldham 1968; Gomory 1992).9 Not only did the comprehension of the implications of this information provide greater urgency towards ensuring linkages between the firms importing technology and the associated CSIR laboratories, it also introduced a new source of innovation, which arose in incremental steps.

Research Industry Interface 1970–91

The outstanding achievement of the first period was the advance in the understanding of organic chemistry, specifically, the chemistry of the pharmaceutical industry. Chemical processes were the precursors of the characteristics of the technologies of the STR era, atomic energy above all, in basing themselves on fundamental laboratory investigation. In that sense, the linear model could be said to be not so much invalid, as a generalisation based on the new epochal processes. The physical processes which underlay the mechanical sciences, the base of the engineering industries, were well understood. As the Japanese had shown, it was through applied research on established technologies that productivity gains accrued. These distinctions in the innovation characteristics of specific industries were later to be theorised as sectoral patterns of technical change (Pavitt 1984). Indian expertise in pharmaceutical chemistry was to be made evident in the growth of the indigenous industry after the enactment of a new patent law in 1970, which allowed “import substitution” of pharmaceutical processes to manufacture drugs discovered elsewhere (Bagchi et al 1984; Chaudhuri 1984, 2005).

A more nuanced appreciation of the innovation process was evident during this period in other areas, in addition (Nayudamma 1966; Parthasarathi 1969a; Parthasarathi 1969b; Parthasarathi 1970). Recognition of the critical need to encourage in-house research, by inducing firms to establish research and development (R&D) establishments, was accompanied by the introduction of fiscal incentives to encourage import of the necessaryR&D-related equipment accompanied by other state support measures (Subrahmanian 1971; Department of Science and Technology 1974). The more or less perfunctory technological appraisal of foreign technology transactions gave way to considerably more rigorous scrutiny (Subrahmanian 1966; Singh 1971; Parthasarathi 2007). An attempt was made to establish a planning process for science and technology with the formation of the National Committee on Science and Technology. Although the effort to introduce this exploratory exercise on an institutionalised basis failed, it was itself a sign of the recognition of the dynamic nature of the science–technology interaction process (Bhaneja 1976). The abandonment of this exercise was largely the result of the economic liberalisation process initiated in the mid-1970s which made the exercise of the projection of research, now increasingly commercially oriented, less viable.

The cleavage between an increasingly more focused technology policy and a more market-oriented economy was characteristic of this period (Aurora and Morehouse 1972; Reddy 1977; Bhatt 1978, 1980; Morehouse 1980; Mitra 1981; D’Mello 1985; Subrahmanian 1986; Kumar 1987a, 1987b, 1990). There was a process of divergence between the more sophisticated cognition of the nature of the innovation process, of the linkages entailed by this new understanding, and the controls placed on indiscriminate technology transactions, with a growing reliance on the market for the individual firm’s decisions in the area of new product introductions (Desai 1980; Alam and Langrish 1984; Kathuria 1987; Singh 1987b; Gumaste 1988; Subrahmanian 1991).

One of the features of the earlier period had been the growth of production capabilities in critical areas of technology within the public sector (Pillai 1978; Dasgupta 1981; Khanna 1984; Mani 1989; Ram 1990). As in the private sector, the emphasis here had been on the acquisition of production expertise, sometimes to the detriment of technological expertise; however, in many cases the actual scale and complexity of the technology made in-house process knowledge imperative (Dhar 1984, 1985; Ghosh 1986). In a few cases during this
period the process knowledge was developed to the stage of high-gradeR&D capability of an order that allowed these firms to compete internationally, even posing a challenge to the original technology suppliers. Here there was evidence of an integrated research-industry interface within the organisation, along the lines of established transnational corporations: these public-sector corporations embodied the fruition of the Indian conception of self-reliance in industrial structure and in self-reliance in technology (Nath and Misra 1994).

It was perhaps these exemplars in indigenous technological capability that led the authors of the 1986 CSIR Review Committee, at the tail end of this period, to reiterate that the natural location of fundamental research was in the universities (whose talents had been cannibalised in the efforts to staff the CSIR laboratories), while the natural home forR&D (specific applied research in the terms of the 1945 CSIR Research Planning Committee) was within the corporate sector (CSIR 1986). CSIR could then have as its rightful role the arena of research in the production sciences (basic applied research). Such a role would have provided scope for CSIR researchers to function as researchers (rather than technicians working to industrial priorities) thus providing the base for Indian industry’s transition to the new epochal areas of technology. However, the realities of the continuing corporate disinclination to engage with challenging areas of research remained, now accompanied by with the imperatives facing a now fiscally-challenged state (a consequence of the process of decreasing revenues inevitable in an economy in transition to deregulation). An awareness of these constraints pointed the committee away from addressing problems of the technological challenges of the 1990s, and towards organisational recommendations in quite mundane areas (Singh 1986, 1987a; Valluri 1989, 1990; Sandhya et al 1990).

Research Industry Interface 1991–2016

After a promising rate of industrial growth during the Second (1956–61) and Third (1961–66) Five Year Plans, the economy relapsed into near stagnation for a decade. In response to this, the strategy of sustaining demand for consumer goods, and the derived demand for industrial goods, by a generalised increase in income levels was modified. Greater reliance was now placed on demands for goods meeting the requirements of higher income groups, principally in consumer items. Towards this objective, internal liberalisation of the Indian economy, allowing industrial producers the discretion to produce according to felt market demands, was initiated in the 1976 budget, and these tendencies were reinforced in 1980 and 1985.

From the 1980s, this process was accompanied by worldwide changes in economic growth strategies associated with the graphic terms of Reaganism and Thatcherism, which were soon bundled under the more neutral and agreeable expression of globalisation. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist economies of Eastern Europe gave further impetus to the preponderance of the market as arbiter of international economic relations, and it was in congenial context that the Structural Reforms Programme was introduced in India in 1991.

The policy objective of the programme initiated in 1991 was to induce technological consciousness in Indian firms, so as to increase their competitiveness and India’s export earnings from manufactured items. This was to be achieved through the market mechanism, specifically through removing barriers to investments (and takeovers) by transnational corporations. To this end a major pillar of the pre-existing National System of Innovation, the subordination of other elements of macroeconomic policy to the requirements of industrial policy, was dismantled: henceforward, monetary and trade policies were to be determined autonomously.

If the object was indeed to force technological consciousness amongst Indian firms through the pressure of market competition from transnational corporations, it could have been expected that the roles for universities, industry and the CSIR in research would have been redefined along the lines contemplated by the 1986 CSIR Review Committee, mentioned in the previous section (Bhagavan 1995). This would have required industrial firms to shed their technological torpor and engage in industrial research so as to withstand the competition of transnational corporations now allowed free play in the Indian consumer and capital goods market. On the contrary, the period saw through processes engendered by the market both the dismantling and the decoupling of the institutional base by which the three elements of the system could interact (Valluri 1993, 1997). The basis for the National Innovation System was thus demolished, leaving a residue of discrete and uncoordinated programmes for specific industries, a situation that was clearly apparent 20 years later (Krishnan 2010: 109–111). For a substantial period of time, the universities were squeezed of funds, while scholarships in schools which had often determined the choice in favour of following a scientific career were reduced in volume and scope (Krishnan 2010: 112–19). Rather than a focused attempt to ease the transition to the operation of the world economy, the corporate sector was left to its own devices, to exit areas where competition was the most intense (or corporate animal spirits were lacking), to collaborate with transnational corporations, trading knowledge of local conditions for access to the Indian market, or to leave the industrial sector entirely, after selling out at a substantial monetary gain (Alam 1993; Subrahmanian et al 1996; Alagh 1997; Aggarwal 2000; Katrak 2002; Bowonder and Satish 2003; Kumar and Aggarwal 2005). Shortly put, this phase does not exhibit any identifiable coherent conception of the research-industry interface (CSIR 1996). That this was not a problem that faced India alone was evident from the spate of publications that emerged in the 1990s that debated the role of a National System of Innovation in an international context where governments had far fewer levers to sustain technology policy initiatives.10 Rather than engaging with the issues highlighted by this literature, CSIR itself embarked on a whimsical role tangential to the logic of improving on achieved technological capability within Indian industry. Instead it embarked on a strategy of providing its expertise on the national and international market irrespective of whether the buyer was an Indian or a transnational firm or organisation (Abrol 2007).

The two successful instances of industrial performance in the post-liberalisation era lie in the export earnings generated by the software and pharmaceutical industries, with the biotechnology firms achieving some technological breakthroughs, though not yet achieving substantial commercial success, internally or internationally (Natesh and Bhan 2009; Bagchi-Sen and Lawton-Smith 2008; Mallick and Ejnavarzala 2010; Soby et al 2012). The case of the pharmaceutical industry was mentioned earlier as an instance of capability accumulation during the first phase, combined with the administrative support extended by a modified patent law that permitted product patents while disallowing patents on processes. This allowed Indian pharmaceutical firms to build on their expertise and produce drugs on a scale that made the Indian generic pharmaceutical industry a world player. The performance of the industry after the introduction of the World Trade Organization regime in 2005 has also been noteworthy, particularly in the recent period when the slowdown in new drug developments has led the transnational section of the industry to identify the area of generic drug production as promising (Srinivas 2006; Gehl Sampath 2006; Dhar 2003; Abrol 2004; Ray 2004; Greene 2007; Technology Analysis and Strategic Management 2007; Basant 2010; Chaudhuri 2011; Joseph 2012). This enduring expertise seems to be based on a specific niche area of competence with no evidence of a new phase of the research-industry interface accounting for it (Tyabji 1999; Basant and Chandra 2002; Krishnan 2010; Krishnan and Jha 2011). The software industry, also recognised as exemplar in terms of its export earning potential is equally a case of identification of niche areas in the international information technology “supply chain” with little technological backing from external institutions (Heeks 1996; Parthasarathi and Joseph 2002; Ramachandran 2006; Bhatnagar 2006; Lee at al 2014). It is again acknowledged that the basis for this expertise lies in a historical legacy. This lay in the nurture that key policy initiatives provided during the short period during which there were focused attempts to regulate both technology imports, and areas of industrial investments, in the first half of the 1970s (Sharma 2009; Saraswati 2012, 2013). In short, the 25 years since the structural adjustment programme was initiated in 1991 have shown no evidence of conceptual developments, which might underlie a new logic of the research industry interface, in an era where the prerequisites for a National System of Innovation have been degraded (Krishnan 2003, 2010; Mani 2007, 2011; Abrol 2010).

A Coda

The first phase of India’s post-independence history, distinguished by a specific research-industry interface, is characterised by more or less consistent measures to establish an industrial base through the strategy of import substitution, with an attempt to locate critical industrial technologies in the public sector. Towards this end, specifically from the Second Five Year Plan (1956–61) onwards, there was a conscious subordination of monetary and foreign trade policies to the requirements of industrial policy. However, this period was also associated with a prolonged process of understanding of the specifics of the science–technology relationship on the one hand and of the technology–industry relationship on the other. The first required the resolution of how the research undertaken in CSIR laboratories was actually to increase the stock of technological knowledge in the country. The second understanding required both technological and political acumen: the latter concerned the precise institutional mechanism by which this new technology was to be made acceptable to private industrialists, who were notoriously indifferent to technological issues, limiting their concern towards ensuring that the equipment they bought functioned effectively. They were now expected to be partners in technological experimentation. This scenario was further complicated by the easy assumption that guided the industrialisation process during this period, that private firms’ transactions in the international market for the import of capital goods were a process necessarily synonymous with actual technology transfer. The import of capital equipment from recognised international suppliers was a much more attractive option for private firms than partnering CSIR laboratories in the commercially hazardous process of bringing prototypes to the production stage. This was to have serious effects on stifling the initiation and growth of a process of virtuous interaction between the science and technology systems and industrial firms (Suri 1968; Ganapathy 1971).

By the time of the second phase, there was a much greater understanding of the nature of the science-technology interface and, as the period progressed, institutional mechanisms were identified, designed and operationalised to ensure that the infrastructure was at least in place (Parthasarathi 1987).However, after a relatively short period, by the mid-1970s, the demands of a changing political economy began to affect the performance of the innovation system (Subrahmanian and Pillai 1976; Subrahmanian 1978, 1991; Pillai 1979, 1990). Earlier, from the mid-1960s the strategy of import substitution based on the potentially large market for mass consumption goods came against the constraints of the inadequate purchasing powers of the bulk of the people, particularly in rural areas (Raj 1966). In response to indications of this crisis, apparent in terms of declining growth rates and underutilised industrial capacities, the decision was taken from 1976 onwards to introduce politically carefully graded measures of internal liberalisation (Raj 1976). This enabled industry to respond to the effective demand for high-end consumer non-durables and a range of consumer durables associated with upper income urban as well as a segment of rural households. Although economic and, in particular, industrial growth rates considerably improved, the demands for advanced industrial technology to service these demands led to an increasingly palpable contradiction between the aim of technological self-reliance, and the actual record of foreign technology acquisition decisions.

The contradictions experienced by the economy in this period, combined with more strident demands that the only route to the resolution of these contradictions lay through the substantial integration of the Indian economy within the world economy, led to the structural reforms of the post 1991 period. This phase, now almost 25 years old can be characterised, most simply, as based on a variant of market fundamentalism, that is, that the market is not only benign in its operations, but after the historical evidence of the socialist societies of the 20th century the only reliable and effective mechanism for resource allocation. It is within this broad delineation of India’s post-independence history, that this paper has located the changing nature of the research–industry relationship.

The 45 years between independence and 1991 showed significant and impressive developments in the task of grappling with the multidimensional task of establishing a modern industrial structure. This task was well-described by Ronald Dore (1989: 1673) through a hypothetical situation:

If IG Farben built an ethylene glycol plant in Indonesia which uses the latest chemical technology and is wholly owned by Indonesian capitalists, that is only the beginning of technology transfer. It is only the beginning as long as there are German technicians there supervising the running of the plant, as long as crucial spare parts can only be imported from Germany, and as long as German experts have to be called in when plant refurbishing and maintenance are required. Only when there are Indonesians who understand enough of the workings to deal with all production and maintenance difficulties; only when some of them have the underlying theoretical knowledge used in the plant’s processes, and when that knowledge is incorporated into university engineering courses so that it can be locally reproduced—only, in short, when the knowledge which went into the making and the maintaining of the plant is transferred fully from German heads to Indonesian heads—can one say that technology transfer has taken place.

This task in India remained substantially incomplete in 1991. During the 25 years after the introduction of the structural reforms programme, the share of manufacturing has stagnated at about 15% of the gross domestic product. India’s contemporary international image is clearly not based on its productive prowess. To the extent that this image has any material base, it rests on the performance of the software services industry and on generic drug capacities in pharmaceuticals. While the drug industry’s performance has long been acknowledged to be based on expertise in chemistry and on administrative measures such as the 1970 Patent Act, there is now increasing acceptance that the software industry also owes its success to developments specific to earlier phases. Two instances of the vagaries associated with India’s flat-footed integration with the world economy have recently caused some reconsideration of the market fundamentalism that has characterised policy since 1991. The first is the acquisition of leading pharmaceutical firms by transnational corporations; the second is the fragility of India’s software exports due to the after-effects of the 2008 recession and the concerns expressed in the United States over job losses due to the relocation of routine business processing operations abroad. However, there is no evidence yet of application of mind to the fundamental problem of reformulating the research industry nexus in the contemporary context.


1 The term industrial revolution first used by Engels in 1845, has been, of course, subject to serious historical interrogation since Arnold Toynbee’s popularisation of the phrase in the 1880s. See, for instance, Deane (1965) and, more recently, Mokyr (ed) (1993). So also, the association of the concept of technology with a particular historical phase of the evolution of production-related knowledge initiated by Bernal, though commonly used, has not found unquestioned acceptance (Bernal 1971a: 24). For a more recent statement in support of Bernal’s view, see Salomon (1984). However, evidence that historiographically questions still remain unresolved is shown by the concerns expressed by Marx (2010) and Edgerton (2010).

2 The clearest statement of this is in the Report of the Fiscal Commission (India 1950: 9).

This view places the rationale of protection in the proper perspective of “developmental protection,” the object of which is not merely to foster particular branches of production but to induce such a change in the demographic and industrial structure as will transform the economic environment and raise the level of productivity in the country as a whole.

3 For a Latin American counterpart, see Vessuri (2004).

4 Homi Jehangir Bhabha FRS (1909–66), known as the chief architect of India’s nuclear programme, also established two research institutions, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), and the Atomic Energy Establishment at Trombay, later renamed the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). He also played a crucial role in the development of the electronics industry in India. It is no disservice to Bhabha’s contributions as a scientist and institution creator to insist that his achievements should be located within the context of specific political circumstances. His greatest successes occurred during the decade from 1947 to 1957, perhaps the golden age of the worldwide prestige of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, his supporter and political mentor. See, also, Phalkey (2013) and Chowdhury (2016).

5 The innovation systems for the post-STR technologies, specifically atomic energy, space exploration, electronics, and biotechnology were located in dedicated organisations, the Atomic Energy, Electronic and Space Commissions and the Department of Biotechnology.

6 “[I]n the planning of research, the vital need is to bring the research organizations and industry into more intimate contact by the two-fold method of imparting a more practical bias in the outlook and activities of the research organizations and infusing among our industrialists and promoters a better appreciation of the significance of research as a major factor in industry” (India 1945: 8).

7 A more pugnacious view suggests that the linear model did not ever exist outside of academic assertion, that it was a gross oversimplification and was outmoded as a way of thinking about innovation (Edgerton 2004).

8 It was ironic that the Industrial Research Planning Committee had this to say in 1945 (India 1945: 8–9).

… research can yield its best results only when it is backed by a comprehensive industrial plan. Such planning would … serve the practical purposes of indicating an order of priority in the various lines of investigation that are to be taken up by research institutions either by themselves or in coordination with industry.

However, it set forth its preferred sequence in which industrial research laboratories were to be established two years before Indian independence and five years before the Planning Commission was established (see also, Parthasarathi and Singh 1992).

9 Of course, one component of incremental innovation, achieved by “learning by doing” had been identified by Arrow in the early 1960s, but the Japanese practice involved a systematic approach to R&D on existing production practices.

10 Five texts that cover substantial ground are Archibugi and Michie (eds) (1997, 1998);
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