Who makes our vital policies?
Feb 20 2013
During the presentation, one of the senior secretaries suddenly asked a question, “What is wrong if tourists and pilgrims bought and consumed our fruits instead of processing them?” Given the sensitivity of the occasion, I politely responded that, “This was being done by the local people of the state for the past thousand years and they would continue to do so for another thousand years and for that, they did not require either a government or a permission”.
The state and the people, as far as my understanding goes, is economically still where it was a decade ago, if not worse.
The reason for bringing out this old story is that I have been unable to fathom, who in our country makes and creates policy, especially relating to investments in ‘intangible’ areas such as: science and technology, newage businesses, environment and climate, creation and retention of relevant talent and knowledge? This incident also reflects what is referred to as the ‘persistent dynamic tension’ between complex-networked models and policy-makers’ needs for simplicity and tractability.
For the past few years, some of the world’s heavyweight, diverse, and largest commercial organisations, including British Petroleum, BASF, Siemens, GE, Boeing, Monsanto, Bayer, P&G, IBM, among others have been spending prime research dollars on developing applications of a new wonder material. They are not only having their own R&D work overtime, but also supporting academic research institutions in their quest for quick patents. Unfortunately, I do not see any Indian organisation anywhere on the horizon in this vital game. Graphene’s breathtaking properties are already having applications affecting not only industries, but sectors as well. Whether it be defence (including stealth aircraft and very lightweight bulletproof jackets), infrastructure, computing, energy, healthcare, agriculture, telecom, sports, among others.
Meanwhile, and not surprisingly, China has rapidly become one of the largest producers of graphene in the world, whereas we have not even started.
Graphene is just one of the newest materials, changing the already rapidly evolving world, since its discovery in 2004 (the two scientists who discovered this material received the Nobel Prize in 2010). Ironically, its industrial-scale production and applications has become possible only because of developments in another basic-science area called nanoscale manipulation. Nanotechnology has become one of the key examples of a ‘general-purpose technology’ that is affecting and transforming the industry and society in the 21st century. Graphene, just like nanotech and semiconductors, would be so basic that it will interact with and enhance most other technologies.
The tragedy of Indian policymaking has been that governments and politicians have a limited vision of the ‘next’ election, and policy formulation and implementation is completely dominated by economists and bureaucrats. Within this, much time is spent on day-to-day firefighting, operational issues, and publicly visible intentions. Issues about which public knowledge may not be available or which may not have a huge visibility factor yet having largescale, across-the-spectrum societal and economic impact over a long period of time, get crowded out and sidestepped.
Knowledge shifts over time and it does so in predictable ways, says Sam Arbesman in the book The Half-Life of Facts. Scientific ideas require vital new connections to take roots and flourish. In our case, even the seeds of ideas are not planted! The policy must create an ecosystem that connects ideating scholars with entrepreneurs and supported by a facilitative design so that ideas can move forward to become commercial, marketable products. Unfortunately, this is not only a patient game but also a silent one (no pun intended), and our politicians are not known for these qualities. In the cutting-edge technology game, the balance sheet may not ‘balance’ for a long time since there may be nothing to show on the righthand side. Without such an understanding, a nation is destined to always play a catch-up game (as we do). It inadvertently keeps paying billions and trillions of dollars on a regular basis to companies (from much smaller nations which have otherwise no natural resources) for value-added products and technologies across a broad-spectrum of businesses!
Our senior-most ministers must sit together to understand why China hardly imports any major equipment and has become the world’s largest exporter, while we keep on harping on our world-class scientific and technological manpower, yet have to import trucks for carrying missiles. Policy-making cannot be devoid of vision.
Remember, the middlemen are just the crumb-pickers, for the real booty goes to the killing multinational lions.
(The writer is a professor of strategy and corporate governance, IIM-Lucknow)