Learnings from tale of two neighbours – India and China

Tapan Misra

The source of military conflict with China is complex. It is part military, part Chinese desire of redrawing of Chinese territory, commensurate with their perceived and concocted historical Chinese sway and probably more importantly, Chinese desire to restrict India to low end manufacturing and dominantly consumer market. Both the countries, with their similar population (India 1.3 billion and China 1.44 billion) and burgeoning and wealthier middle-class, are lucrative markets to each other and also other industrial nations.

I have sourced from World Bank data the growth of per capita GDP of both the neighbours, presented in equal footing of US$2010. If we have a look into per capita GDP of both the neighbouring nations, both countries were almost at par in poverty status in sixties and seventies. Both the countries, China under rigorous communist regime and India with hybrid of democratic and socialistic framework, established quite strong scientific base in terms of academic institutions since their independence, following second world war. But no amount of investment in scientific institutions and academia could bring prosperity to their populace. Both countries started their improvement in their lot only when they liberalized their economy, shrugging off restrictive hold of apparatchik and bureaucratic stranglehold on industrial, commercial, banking, marketing and regulatory policies.

Deng Xiaoping, unleashed opening of Chinese economy in early eighties, after consolidating his power base in post Mao transition, following demise of Mao Zedong, Chairman of PRC, in 1976. He rationalised the conflict between communistic ideology and market economy with his famous rationale: “No matter if it is a white cat or black cat; as long as it can catch mouse, it is a good cat.” India followed the path of market liberalization from license raj and era of selective patronage of businesses, in early nineties.

From the plot of growth of per capita GDP of both the countries, we see the inflection point almost took a decade after initiation of liberalization. In case of China, it was early 1990s and in case of India, it was early 2000s.

The architect of China’s liberalization could witness early fructification of his risky policy. Deng passed away in 1997. Afterall, it is no easy task to shake off the shibboleth of well entrenched political system, accustomed to sense of supremacy in everything. But one thing is clear, once a policy environment is established, successive rulers of both countries augmented their GDP in their speeds.

One interesting point is to be noted. Chinese economy got one more inflection point within almost a decade after the first inflection point, at early 2000s, accelerating their growths further. In fact, second inflection ushered in dominance of China in world economy and surprising growth in high tech, capital goods, space technology, military prowess. In case of India the second inflection point seem not to be arriving even after two decades or so after the first inflection. Our growth rate remains moderate and stagnant. We seem to be losing out in high tech and capital goods industry. Our telecom industry has huge ingress of Chinese equipment, our auto industry has less and less of India designed product, our mining industry is importing more and more heavy Chinese equipment, we do not have any respectable presence at all in semiconductor and electronics market. In space our neighbours and friends in Asia are just moving too fast. A look at our trade reveals, raw materials dominate our export against import of finished goods, naturally pushing our trade deficit upwards. You look around. We are moving but we are facing more and more catching up to do. We are good at many things, but we can hardly claim to be too good for a few things.
In my view, the first inflection is because of liberalization of overall economy, which triggered proliferation of livelihood industries with moderate technology but large job creation. This in turn fuelled higher income, and more service industries. But they do give fillip to GDP as they create present day technology base and widen job employment. But continuation of business leadership in future, high trade advantage and accelerated growth can come only when we create technology of future in todays environment. That is where innovations and innovation friendly environment play a decisive role. My presumption is: China’s second inflection is mainly due to harnessing of their large innovation potential.

One of the broad-indicator of innovation environment of any country is the number of patents granted per year. In last decade, India’s share has jumped by a factor of five. Latest number is hovering around 10800, a miniscule contribution by billion plus population. For China, the numbers jumped in almost same proportion. Only difference is Chinese numbers are around 40 times that of India, latest number hovering just a notch below 400,000, to be precise at 399,878. That is stratospheric difference. Data show, if we have to achieve the second inflection to push up the GDP trajectory, we need to rethink what urgent steps, we have to climb, in vastly pulling up our innovation environment and support system.

I believe there are a few main ingredients of innovation culture: namely, imagination, knowledge, interpersonal communication and ethical value system. We have invested considerably in knowledge system. We have rapidly expanded AIIMS, IIT, IIM, NIT, Science institutions, Engineering and Medical colleges. But we made the entry system so difficult that private tution-shops are probably having more turnover than the funding in IITs!

We created a competitive rote culture, instead of learning culture, leaving imagination to backbenchers of college classrooms.

Actually, all children are born imaginative. But society, parents, education system and knowledge accumulation gradually kill imagination. It is high time we should focus on primary and secondary schooling, quality of teachers and their remuneration. We are not able to attract bright minds for teaching, precisely because of very lopsided investment. Still our country is progressing forward and this is because of dedication of individual teachers, in spite of hardships they face. We should remember, if you give peanuts, you get monkeys. We need to refashion our education system so that learning and imagination, both are fostered.

We also need to dispense with assessing the college teachers in terms of only publications. Patents, copy rights, design rights should be given much stronger emphasis for career growth. In fact, we give away many of our hard-earned knowledge and learnings, just for free, by insisting on publication without legally securing the knowledge for future monetization.

From my long experience and being holder of reasonable number of quality patents and copyrights, I can vouch that our scientists and engineers, many times, are not able to streamline their analytical thought processes, because they lack soft skills like expressing and communicating in succinct and coherent fashion. Somehow, an idea has invaded our minds that if you want to pursue a career in science, it is ok to not to pursue language and arts courses. This phenomenon is adding to killing of the spirit of innovation.

I had an encounter with Intellectual Property Right (IPR) lawyers. I am sorry to say, interaction with them, many times kills patent initiative. They have the uncanny ability to convert a scientific phenomenon to a legalistic draft, killing the patent at the outset. I remember, in Germany I could file a patent in 15 days flat, that is the general time limit awarded there, for converting a demonstrated idea or product to patent. But in India, I find that even filing takes a year or more. By then, your patent gets leaked, as it travels through many hands and somebody else in some other country, files a patent. Patent offices also take their own sweet time.

My experience says, many institutional heads, including the top men, do not believe in patenting or pursuing an innovation to the logical ends. More often they are guided by ignorance and lack of conviction. Also, many of them have not written a single patent to their credit. Many times, our systems believe that contributing scientists and innovators are best managed by technical and scientific managers, who turn out to be more often than not expert system manipulators. The price is being paid by the country. But I must say there are some exceptions. You will find those leaders from the innovation environment and products from their institutions.

I am not telling that patents are be all of innovation. Patents ensure that the idea or product has originality and its practicability is demonstrated. Bringing an idea to a logical end and demonstrating it as a product or software is a great trainer in discipline required for innovation. All of us know, publications need not ensure originality. Even replication of an existing idea also finds avenues for publication. But patents generally ensure originality in thinking and the implementation process.
Everything is fair in love, war and international commerce. The pinpricks in different forms will be expected from our international competitors of all hues. These pinpricks may include unnecessary military engagements, cyber-attacks, currency manipulation, trade embargo, unfair tariff, one sided global institution regimes, encouragement of social and political discontent. We need to deal with them as and when they appear. We can plan for avoiding or minimising them in future. But sustaining rebuttal of these adventures is possible when we jack up our GDP and well-being of our population. Only way out is a concerted effort and conviction of seizing future economy, by building technologies and processes for future only through the sustainable route of innovation.

Tapan Misra is a distinguished scientist, who contributed immensely to India’s space programme. He has headed the Space Application Centre and was also Advisor Department of Space.

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