Reema Gupta: It is a pleasure to welcome you here at the Indian School of Business, Dr Saraswat. You have been an accomplished scientist and led many defence projects. You have been the principal architect of the ballistic missile defence, been the chief scientific advisor to the India Minister of Defence and now you are at NITI Aayog, heading policy initiatives. Could you tell us a little bit of your journey from science to policy making?
VK Saraswat: This journey has spanned a period of almost 45 years. It started with building missiles like Prithvi and Dhanush, then spearheading a major programme for India’s ballistic missile defence ballistic missile defence, ballistic missile defence. Later, after accomplishing these missions, I had the opportunity to go to the corporate headquarters, i.e., the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), as a scientific advisor to the Defence Minister. In that role, my activities covered a wider canvas. From a missiles scientist, I became a radar scientist. From a radar scientist, I became a life scientist. Then, of course, I started looking at many auxiliary things about how to promote science and technology not only in the defence domain but across all centres. And that’s where we initiated some major programmes, such as a collaborative project with Kyrgyzstan at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai. We also did some socially relevant projects, for example, bio-toilets. How do you make toilets for the soldiers at Kargil when you know biodegradation at such low temperatures is a problem? Technologies like bio-toilets, shelters and green shelters for our armed forces could be translated to places like Lakshadweep. We installed almost 1200 bio-toilets in Lakshadweep, to ensure there was no possibility of the excreta going into the sea. It has been a very enriching journey. I have enjoyed every moment of it.
How has your thinking evolved now that you wear the hat of a policymaker? Do you look at the same issues from a different lens?
As a young scientist, I used to think that I have limitations and that is why I am not able to do certain things in my domain. Governments can do better than me. The people in Delhi can certainly solve all my problems.
Technologies like bio-toilets, shelters and green shelters for our armed forces could be translated to places like Lakshadweep. We installed almost 1200 bio-toilets in Lakshadweep, to ensure there was no possibility of the excreta going into the sea.
But after having seen at close quarters the functioning of the governments, the way policies are framed and implemented, I find that the limitations are similar, whether at the level of a DRDO scientist or as a member of NITI Aayog. Only the scale changes.
In NITI Aayog, I have applied my science and technology development experience to various sectors. Manufacturing has been one of my major areas of interest. How can we take the contribution of the manufacturing sector from today’s 15-16% to the 25% aim of the Make in India programme? My definitional contribution is to say that Make in India is not just manufacturing in India but also design and build in India. That is the path to real intellectual property. Manufacturing alone does not help enhance technology.
Fortunately, the Honourable Prime Minister has also incorporated this policy initiative into the future definition of the Make in India programme.
Similarly, look at policies on electronics manufacturing. I was just talking about preferential market access to indigenous products in this globally competitive world. Observe the scale at which manufacturing is taking place in countries like China. For a start-up or a new company starting manufacturing of good quality in India, the scale itself would make so much difference in terms of cost that it would not be possible to be competitive. Nobody can reach the scale which China has achieved. Obviously, there is a need for Indian products to have, for a limited period of time, preferential market access. And over a period of time, you can liquidate some of the subsidies or facilities you are providing. But certainly, you have to protect your infants. Otherwise, it is a problem.
We have to really support the system in such a manner that the innovator crosses the valley of death to support in terms of investments, scaling up of operations, and also taking it to the market by setting up new enterprises or integrating with existing enterprises.
This is the kind of thing which you do today at NITI Aayog. A lot of work on the steel sector and a lot of research on Skill India. So it is good learning as well as integrating my experience of development with the policies to be framed in these sectors.
That is a very important point that you make about indigenous development and giving preferential access. When we talk about innovation and building new products, one of the measures of innovation is patents. Sadly, India does not perform very well when we look at the patents metric. Most patents in India still come from multinational corporations that have a footprint in India. Is there some initiative from NITI Aayog in this area? Are patents really the right yardstick for innovation?
As part of the Atal Innovation Mission, one of the portfolio elements that NITI Aayog is promoting is the patent. That is patent rights, patent protection, patent legalities. We would like to create a network of incubation centres where patenting is professionally done. Today patents are being done at a very slow pace because the knowledge is not available with the academicians, industry partners and so on.
We have not created an ecosystem which will support the patenting process, despite the efforts of Dr. R.A. Mashelkar who as the Director General, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) gave an impetus to patenting in India. I agree with you that the scale at which patenting has to be done is yet to reach a desired level.
The conversion of patents into commercial products is another major issue. Over the last two and a half years, there has been a spurt of patents being signed. But if you see the extent to which these patents are getting converted into commercial products, it is in the single digits. The world over too, it is about 7-10% but we are far, far lower than that. That is where innovation for patents to be taken to the market comes into the picture. We have to really support the system in such a manner that the innovator crosses the valley of death to support in terms of investments, scaling up of operations, and also taking it to the market by setting up new enterprises or integrating with existing enterprises.
This builds up to my next question. When we talk about the commercialisation of intellectual property, what kind of support ecosystem is required? What role can academic institutions like ISB play in supporting that ecosystem? It is very heartening to see that NITI Aayog is promoting awareness about patents. There is a huge movement around Start-up India. A lot of incubation centres are being created. How do we make sure that they generate value and the failure rate is reduced or as they say “fail fast”?
We have people who know how to create ideas. But innovation is not just ideas. Innovation is taking that idea from the process of creation, ideation to adding value to it, converting that into a product and then taking it into the market. Now our innovators do not know all these steps. This is a major problem.
For example, an academician in a university or at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) or a college is very happy to prove the concept. On that basis, one may even file a patent. But ultimate commercialisation will depend upon scaling up. What is the size of the project? The questions of value engineering and then taking it to the market remain.
There is a need for us to create an institution where this process will be supported. I call it a value creation centre. A value creation centre is where the scaling up will take place, financial inclusion supported and marketing help provided. It will also support the education of a large number of our young entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurship itself is a technology, it is a science. And institutions like ISB can train people to become entrepreneurs.
Cultural change is also needed in the Indian ethos of risk aversion. We have to somehow, through the process of education, bring about cultural change so that a larger number of people will not be job seekers but job providers. That is what we need to do through this entrepreneurship programme.
So we will have value creation centres, entrepreneurship programmes and legal frameworks for business. But nothing will be done unless there is a champion. You have to provide leadership to this movement. With the right champions and ecosystem, the dropout rates for the innovations, including the start-ups which die down prematurely will come down drastically.
As the Dean mentioned, we at ISB are already undertaking quite a few initiatives in this area. One of the more successful initiatives is the technology entrepreneurship programme, where we train third year and fourth-year students in engineering colleges to take an idea and see how they can build a business plan around it. Industry 4.0 is right around the corner. With large-scale automation, robotics and AI creeping in, what kind of skills do we need to develop in our graduates? Could you shed some light from the NITI perspective on the focus areas? Also, what impact will Industry 4.0 have on our huge informal sector where lot of people are employed with very low skills? How do we consider re-skilling and skilling people with no skills?
Both are very important. When you look at reskilling, you look at today’s education system. At the NITI Aayog, I was asked to look at the curriculum of the various National Institutes of Technology (NITs), which are chartered to produce technologists for this country. To my horror, there were many institutions where the curriculum had not changed in the last 10 years.
If you are looking at Industry 4.0, you are looking at the next generation of technologies. I mentioned in my speech some 12 empowering technologies which have to be mastered. If they have to be introduced in our society, it is important for us to change our curricula. At the end of the curriculum assessment exercise, we said that engineering education has to migrate from engineering science to engineering technology.
Second, I think the knowledge givers also have to be educated. The training of the trainers is a very important aspect when you are talking about the next generation of skill development. If I am talking about machine learning, robotics, data analytics or data mining, there are not many institutions where experts are available to carve out a syllabus or develop a course.
If you are looking at Industry 4.0, you are looking at the next generation of technologies, some 12 empowering technologies which have to be mastered. If they have to be introduced in our society, it is important for us to change our curricula.
Sadly, these Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) do not always produce high-quality future employees. Can these institutions of higher learning have sister organisations, maybe sister schools? Maybe an IIT can mentor a group of local ITIs?
In fact, as part of a teachers training programme we were talking about, higher institutions like IITs or NITs could upgrade the skills of our teachers. Even corporates can help them to upgrade the skills of our teachers. We have to synergise institutions and create an ecosystem to use information and communications technologies (ICT) to provide skills in this segment. An institutional mechanism also has to be created for that.
If you are an information technology (IT) professional who is working in a particular segment, the basic qualifications for you to enter into that profession are going to change. Do you have knowledge of A, B, C, D, E facets or not? When you come to the unorganised sectors, I think we should look at our skilling institutions. For example, we have a few hundred thousand ITIs and nearly eight hundred thousand diploma colleges.
Their condition today, despite investments from the Government of India, is pathetic. Not only are new courses out of the question, even providing education in the existing segment is a major problem. They have not upgraded their equipment; they have not upgraded the skills of their teachers. As a result, the graduates of these institutions are not employable. This is also what is happening to our engineering colleges.
We have to put a break to this. Take stock of what has been done and how to correct it. Upgrading these institutions, upgrading the teachers. We have to also recognise those who acquire such skills. Their students did not join carpentry because they did not know how to do physics. The dignity of labour has to be provided.
For innovation in this sector, vocational and normal education courses should go hand in glove. In Switzerland, for example, up to the 12th standard, everybody does certain vocations as well as the physics, chemistry, mathematics, history, geography. At the end of the 12th standard, depending upon aptitude, students go to a college education. Otherwise, they continue in vocational training to become a great refrigeration expert or a medical device developer.
No wonder a small country like Switzerland has done very well in the innovation index. We have to alter our strategy as far as the unorganised sector is concerned to skill people, give them the dignity of labour and also improve our institutions for doing that.
Our Honourable Prime Minister made it compulsory that public sector, as well as private sector companies, take interns and apprentices. They can book it against corporate social responsibility (CSR) spending. Apprentices are taken not just for the purpose of a certificate. They have to be employed at a later stage for at least two years. To ensure that this programme does not burden the industry, the government is also giving 50% of the salary of this particular employee for two years at least. For two years if she is able to now sail through, then she is on a better footing. She can be captured by any industry or have her own enterprise.
A sustainability filter is one in which any suggestion, any idea, any plan or any analysis passes through the various dimensions of this filter. Is it energy intensive or energy saving? Is it inclusive or not so inclusive? All the attributes of sustainability have to be satisfied.
With all the focus on industry and economy, we should not forget that the environment is equally crucial for human survival. Could you talk a little bit about sustainability and what initiatives are being undertaken at the NITI Aayog?
Sustainability is a multi-dimensional subject. You need environment, you need economy and you need society. Unless they merge together, you don’t get sustainability. Since it is multi-dimensional and multi-organisational, there has to be an integrated process. It is a lifecycle approach.
That is why I use the term “sustainability filter”. A sustainability filter is one in which any suggestion, any idea, any plan, any analysis, passes through the various dimensions of this filter. Is it energy intensive or energy saving? Is it inclusive or not so inclusive? All the attributes of sustainability have to be satisfied on a scale of 10. If the score is poor, we have to shun that idea.
Managers, planners and implementers have to learn to say no. If you don’t say no and under pressure from a politician or a bureaucrat or your boss or your corporate chief, you implement those policies, then sustainability will only remain a word.
At NITI Aayog, we have a major initiative on sustainability. We are supposed to look at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), all 17 of them. We are supposed to facilitate action in the states. Through the sustainability matrices being set up today in each sector, the states are to be supported for implementation of those sustainability steps and evaluated.
We go to the states and then do a workshop. How many sustainability aspects is that state in a position to implement? If it is not able to implement, what are the reasons? Can any mid-course corrections be made? For example, take Assam. Agriculture in Assam is based on Jhum culture, where they keep moving from one place to another, they burn crop residue and so on. Why not minimise these practices? They are adversely impacting the environment. For one and a half days, there was a discussion among the agriculturists, farmers and academicians on how to reduce Jhum farming. This kind of a dialogue helps provide a 10-20% improvement. It is not a very fast process because it requires cultural change. But it will happen.
I have not visited all the states but I was in Assam. I found that Assam has done an integrated planning among all their ministries. They don’t call it a sustainability filter but they have made a checklist as to whether these plans are being met or not. Every week, they meet to discuss plans and actions. The chief secretary chairs these meetings. There is a push for sustainability in Assam.
There are about 10-12 disruptive technologies coming into the fray. Each will have its impact. For example, you take cloud computing, or you take ecosystem controls or automation. Each creates employment, and better opportunities for efficiency. It expands inclusion to the extent that education improves and health services improve.
You spoke about inclusive growth. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about India in the next decade. What would be inclusive growth or economic development? A vision for India we can foster? And what role can technology play in this area?
There are about 10-12 disruptive technologies coming into the fray. Each will have its impact. For example, you take cloud computing, or you take ecosystem controls or automation. Each creates employment and better opportunities for efficiency. It expands inclusion to the extent that education improves, health services improve. ICT can certainly bring tele-medicine, tele-education, tele-outreach services, tele-banking services, better governance. All these technologies have to be taken higher, for which you need skilled people.
On that note, we will conclude. Thank you so much for joining us.