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Technology at the Core: Science & Technology with Indira Gandhi: On Building India's S&T Muscle

On Building India


On Building India’s S&T Muscle

K J Joseph

to P N Haksar, Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, C Subramaniam, M S Swaminathan, M G K Menon and others.

The first part of the book provides a detailed account of the early initiatives in

t is a matter of great pride that the turnaround in India’s economic growth begun in the early 1980s has been sustained for more than two and half decades and by now the country has emerged as one of the fastest growing economies in the world attracting worldwide attention. Apart from the remarkable macro-economic performance, India’s performance in some of the science and technology (S&T) intensive sectors like space, atomic energy, information technology and others is a source of inspiration for many other developing countries and they look forward to India for plausible lessons. Drawing lessons calls for a proper understanding of the factors that shaped India’s performance. However, a general consensus on India’s performance hardly exists, when it comes to the underlying factors, as there is a view that India’s remarkable performance has been an outcome of the liberalised policy initiatives undertaken in the 1990s. In this context, the book under review by Ashok Parthasarathi, who occupied a ringside seat in Indira Gandhi’s inner science and technology circle, apart from providing insights into the S&T foundations of the present performance, shows that such an edifice was not simply the creation of market forces but built up over the years by active state intervention.

In a period when building a science and technology base was considered almost exclusively the domain of developed countries and developing countries were expected to simply choose intelligently from the international technology shelf, the approach of Jawaharlal Nehru was unconventional and radical in an underdeveloped country plagued by poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition. As evident from the Science Policy Resolution of 1958, Nehru believed that in industrialising a country a heavy price has to be paid in importing science and technology in the form of plant and machinery, highly paid personnel and technical consultants. It was his conviction that heavy external

Technology at the Core: Science & Technology with Indira Gandhi by Ashok Parthasarathi; Pearson Longman; New Delhi, 2007; pp 327, Rs 695.

dependence for technology is inadvisable for economic and strategic reasons. Hence he aimed at an early and large-scale development of science and technology in the country to facilitate the transformation of the country from a state of underdevelopment. No wonder, the science policy resolution envisaged fostering, promoting, and sustaining, by all appropriate means, the cultivation of science and scientific research in all its aspects – pure, applied, and educational. Nehru’s commitment to the promotion of science and technology for national development was manifested inter alia in the setting up of premier scientific institutions like IITs and a nationwide network of research laboratories.

Institutional Arrangements

The excellent exposition by Ashok Parthasarathi in this book running into 17 chapters organised in four parts with a foreword from the former president late K R Narayanan and a message from the former president A P J Abdul Kalam, clearly shows that Indira Gandhi was highly committed towards carrying forward the agenda set by Nehru by promoting the indigenous development of science and technology in the country. The book shows that the institutional arrangements and policy initiatives undertaken by Indira Gandhi in vital areas of science and technology like atomic energy, space, defence, electronics, agriculture and industrial technology in general led to strengthening further the national innovation system founded by Nehru. While the book highlights the important role of the author, as special assistant for science and technology to the PM, in the creation of various institutions and formulation of different policies and other actions, the author also describes the roles played by many other important personalities that include but not limited the development of the electronics industry in the country along with strategic initiatives by Homi Bhabha under Nehru and later by Vikram Sarabhai towards the development of nuclear power. In the second and perhaps the most interesting part the author describes the process involved in the formulation of the first science and technology plan of the country and various attempts towards developing technological capability in the sphere of electronics, atomic energy, space, defence and other related sectors through promoting indigenous development of technology. This part also deals at length with the strengthening and reorganisation of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), various steps undertaken to reduce dependence on imported technology and achieve self-reliance by streamlining the policy towards technology import and R&D in different sectors.

While the penultimate chapter in this part deals with various initiatives undertaken to promote agricultural research the last chapter highlights the commitment of Indira Gandhi to protecting the environment wherein the author deals at length, among others, with the steps taken to address the environmental impact of insecticide manufacturing plants, export of pollution by industrialised countries to developing countries and other related issues.

The third part of this book deals with the decisions taken by Indira Gandhi during her second term as prime minister and more specifically with technology acquisition for a remote telesupervisory and telecontrol system, setting up of the semiconductor complex and national silicon facility – an attempt at making India selfsufficient in the “steel of the 21st century”. The last part of the book presents some reflections on the style of functioning by Indira Gandhi and her personal traits.

Indira Gandhi’s Role

Indira Gandhi’s decision-making process involved wide-ranging consultation especially with the younger generation in the

december 1, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly


scientific community, and scientists were placed in key decision-making positions. This is clearly evident from the process involved in the formulation of the first science and technology plan that coincided with the Fifth Five-Year Plan of the country. It needs to be noted that it was only on account of her strong support to science and technology that the Fifth Plan witnessed a fourfold increase in the investment in S&T as compared to the Fourth Plan and the outlay for the last year of the Fifth Plan was as high as 0.85 per cent of the GDP. However, the trend could not be continued thereafter.

While the need for investing 2 per cent of GDP for science and technology has been often highlighted in different quarters, as we embarked upon globalisation in the early 1990s, the R&D in the country has taken a backseat with a marked reduction in the share of R&D in GDP. Though there has been a revival in recent years, even today India’s investment is only about 1 per cent of the GDP. If we are serious in terms of exploiting the potential of emerging as the knowledge superpower in the present century, we need to learn from the past.

The detailed account of India’s “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974 and health and safety issues relating to nuclear installations provided in the chapter on atomic energy and on the INSAT programme provided in the chapter on space and missile programme in the chapter on space are useful reference material for students of history of science and technology in India. In the case of atomic energy, however, Parthasarathi considered the target (2,700 MW in 1980 and 4,500 MW by 1985) set for electricity generation through nuclear power as almost unattainable. He was proven right, as the actual nuclear power capacity achieved in the year 2000 was only 2,800 MW. The book provides a detailed account of the process involved in the setting of different atomic power plants and the problems associated the US supplied Tarapur Atomic Power Station. Though India’s position in 2007 is different from that in the late 1960s, history indicates the need for being more careful while dealing with the US on nuclear issues.

Indira Gandhi stood for promoting indigenous development of technology in key

Economic & Political Weekly december 1, 2007

and strategic sectors of the economy. In electronics, for example, explicit policies were formulated to develop the production base in consumer electronics, professional electronics and components wherein the prime role was given to public sector units with a view to generate employment and achieve balanced regional development, the small-scale sector was also given priority. In computers, in a context wherein foreign firms had limited manufacturing operations in the country and were involved mostly in renting computers, the policy initiatives aimed at developing a manufacturing base not only by influencing the behaviour of foreign firms but also by promoting public sector units and by evolving an import policy to facilitate the process.

Neglect of Exports

As the policies were mainly domestic market-oriented, the export market did not receive much attention apart from special concessions offered to the exportoriented units operating from the export processing zones. This meant that the overall scale of operation of Indian firms was at a lower level as compared to their global counterparts with its obvious bearing on cost. Nonetheless, India was able to establish a broad-based electronics industry by the late 1980s. Moreover, as shown by the author, the total output of India’s electronics industry in 1975-76 was about Rs 3,250 million higher than the target set by the Bhabha Committee on Electronics in 1965. When compared to other countries like South Korea our performance was not exemplary. While the electronics output of South Korea in 1971 was only about 60 per cent of India, by 1975 India’s output was only about 52 per cent that of South Korea. But it must be added that it may not be appropriate to evaluate the investment in S&T by such short-term performance in output growth.

For economists it is a well-established fact that, while technology was indeed at the core during Indira Gandhi’s regime, the record of economic performance as manifested in GDP growth during that period was less remarkable. This might induce some to declare the decade as a “lost decade”. But, for a careful observer, it is evident that the systematic effort towards developing a science and technology base and the national system of innovation was a precursor to India’s revival in the 1980s. Thus it could be argued that, neither deviation from the “textile first” strategy during the initial decades of planning and emphasis of self-reliance and indigenous development that marked the second phase nor the gradual opening up of the economy followed by globalisation of the last decade involved any “policy blunder”. Being a democracy, India has been rather gradualist and cautious in approach and hence never a “star performer” or in deep trouble. If the Davids of India are able to face successfully the Goliaths in the world market today, it is not simply because of the trick of market forces but, as demonstrated by Parthasarathi in this book, the much needed competitive muscle was built up systematically over the years.

The book clearly shows that certain key individuals are involved in the policymaking process in any country at any period of time. But the process of policymaking and strategy formation remains by and large a black box as the key individuals involved in the process rarely write up and publish their experience. It is hoped this book will induce today’s Parthasarathis to document their contribution, which will be an invaluable asset for the future generation.


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