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In-NO-WAY-tions : Why is India lagging in innovations?

innovationWhen it comes to innovations, in particular break-through innovations, India has always lagged, in the modern times. And it will continue to do so for quite sometime into the future.

In fact if we take an impartial and in-depth look at popular scientist names in India, most of them will be administrators and managers of scientific projects rather than research scholars themselves. In fact many of them aren’t actually technology leaders even.

They would be good administrators with the knowledge of ‘system’ more than technologies, projects and products and ‘know-how’ to work in the given system.

Though Indians have one of the best scientific and engineering temperaments in the world, India has hardly any true innovators doing breakthrough innovations.  The reasons are multi-fold.

Society

The first among them is society and the media that shapes the opinion of the society. The Indian society does not value innovation or efforts for innovation as such. It values only success. Whether a person is a cine-actor, dacoit, swindler, politician, adulterator or businessman, the society eulogizes that person if he/she is successful in what he/she does.

The fact of the matter is, there is no success guaranteed in any innovation. There is no money guaranteed in true innovations.  Innovations to a large extent are to be driven by the Spirit of the innovator/entrepreneur.  Hence innovators and entrepreneurs have to take a huge risk to do something different. But then they won’t be supported by society, businesses or government.

True innovators and entrepreneurs will not get a house to live or a girl to marry in India.

People who work in MNCs, Telecom, Software and Government (in that order) only can get even a rented house. From housing loans to vehicle loans financial institutions screen people for their place of work. If people work in MNC’s or big public limited companies, they get discounts on their interest rates. If they are entrepreneurs they are given the stick.

For that matter, today even vegetable shops prefer employed clerks of MNCs as their customer compared to self-styled CEO’s of startup companies.

Marriage is totally out of question, as such people are considered ‘not settled’. If they fail, which in most cases they will, they will be ridiculed and at times even abused.

Companies don’t recruit failed entrepreneurs or innovators.

They are seen as ambitious people, unable to work in team or subservient environments. They won’t even get a good job. Even if they get a job, they may have to compromise and accept a job several notches down their caliber.

So how can youth come forward to spend the bulk of their youth in innovation projects..? Their future itself may come to question, if they fail.  The risks are too much to handle.

So it is natural that most Indian youth, even when they are highly qualified with doctoral degrees, look for run-off-the-mill jobs or at best become conventional programmers and call themselves high-class techies, while in reality what they do, can be done by Higher secondary drop-outs.

Hence people working in innovation projects in India are employed in scientific/research establishments and are middle-aged or old-aged.  But then the priorities of that age in Indian society are different. People would be looking for securing enough wealth for post-retirement or education and marriage of their children.

No middle-aged or old-aged people working in a traditional Indian R&D establishment will go for true break-through innovations. They would try to do something with least risks. They would know how to work the system and try to achieve the maximum benefits by working through the system, rather than doing anything fresh and new. And if they get a hold over the system, they would become its administrators and mangers, thus gaining some popularity to go up in their career.

When scientists become administrators and managers, reach and cling onto high positions through various means, then they are respected in the media and by the society. No scientist or technologist is recognized by the society and the media for the work that he is doing or has done. He/she is recognized only for the position that he/she holds to.

All this does not mean that there are no true innovators in India.

I know of several professors in IIT’s and IIM’s, several scientists in leading Indian research establishments, several well-qualified young men/women, who carry on breath-taking innovation projects supported by their jobs or by their own dreams, putting country’s interest in the fore-front than all their personal interest. I know of several people who could have earned a lot sitting in boards of companies, but chose to spend their time in research projects in the hope of achieving something for their country.

But compared to the size of India, these are far and few. They don’t match to the size of India and its GDP. Hence I don’t consider them here.

Unless innovation becomes a phenomena of Indian youth, it has no chance to have an impact in India.

Funding

The second reason is lack of funding. Though Indian businesses are growing, services are coming of age, Capital still doesn’t belong to this country. Much of the investments happening in innovation projects are from U.S. This means that it is not easy to access capital. A startup with a bright idea will have easy access to Capital if it is in Silicon Valley or some other part of U.S (atleast before the Stock market crash). But for a Startup to be located in India and access the international Capital, it is difficult.

Indian businesses do not believe in Indian R&D.

For them Indian R&D does not provide the returns they seek. They are like most Indians. Conservative in their business mind-set looking at immediate and safe returns as much as possible. Most Indian R&D is CCP (Cut Copy Paste), as it has the safest bet on investments.

The rule in innovation game is for every 10 projects 1 or 2 alone may succeed. Another one or two may lead to a by-product that could of value somewhere else or whose time has not yet come. The rest will fail.

Since failure is a dreaded term in India, first thing businesses and businessmen do is to hoard money for their future in the form of various assets.

Hence re-investing the money in R&D is not of priority. Anyway they will get a TOT (Transfer of Technology) from a MNC, if there is a business case or do a CCP using loopholes in Patent laws.

Government can facilitate R&D by providing Tax Holidays for truly innovative projects. It will truly help many companies put their money into real R&D.  But then again our businesses will try to use the loopholes in the laws and package everything they do as R&D.

It’s because Indians and Indian businesses do not have strong ethics. As long as we are not caught, we consider it’s ok to bypass rules.

For us small violations and errors are not that big to worry about. It happens everywhere in our life. Only that the definition of small varies from person to person and time to time!

Hence Government is constrained to play a more defensive role to ensure that it does not spill out tax-payers money in its eagerness to promote innovation.

Innovative Climate/Culture

The third reason is Innovative climate and culture. From schools, colleges, universities to industry the climate for innovation does not exist. Performers are recognized based on their ability to repeat, re-do and re-work. The entire education system is based on augmenting the memory storage of students than the CPU capacity.

Marks and Ranks are provided based on tests. And these tests are primarily repetition competitions. Tests do not make students think.

Tests are aimed at testing the storage of student rather than the CPU power of the student.

Even M.S and Ph.D projects in Universities and educational institutes are not true innovations many times. They are either exercises in theoretic or theatrics to get approval from the guides and get onto a doctoral degree.

Even in research establishments, the climate for innovation does not exist in terms of equipments and processes.

Processes are more tuned for administrators and bureaucrats to hold the projects by the neck rather than to facilitate research and innovation.

There is not much of institutionalized long term strategic thinking, strategic direction and focus in such institutions. Most projects are either individual driven or mere run-off-the mill exercises.

What can be done?

Though this article may sound bleak, it is not truly bleak in that sense. Since I have portrayed the negatives alone, it may look bleak.

But the best possible way to foster innovation in this country is to start the habit of innovation in schools. The way we test the students in examinations should promote innovation in students. We need to promote an innovative culture in the society and media can play a big role in promoting such a culture.

Media can come out with interesting programs in prime-time about innovators from every corner of our society, innovators in leading educational, scientific and research establishments.

Currently media projects cine-actors, politicians and people from entertainment industry alone as the role-model for Indian youth.

So the role-model of every Indian youth is a cine-actor or musician or dancer. Instead it should change to innovators, entrepreneurs and other professionals.

Industrialists who have achieved success in life should function as role-models and come out of their safety cocoons by spending lot of money and time on innovations, irrespective of the risk they face.  Government can also try to facilitate as much as possible an innovative culture by direct and indirect means.

But the first basic change that we need to achieve in our culture is not to side-step simple rules and procedures, which makes Governments and Private players loose trust in people and acts as an impediment to try out anything new.

-TBT

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8 Responses

  1. lord mackaley (spelling thik kar lena) ke bad padhai ka system kisi ne nahi badla.
    jab hum paida hue to hame babu banane ki kasrat pure samaj ne shuru kar di thi.
    ye innovation kya hota hai?

  2. Dear Pavani,

    I agree with what u have written, as that is what I have also written. But I don’t agree with ur last statement asking parents and kids to take the first step.

    If you read through my post, i am pretty clear that individual parents and kids cannot change anything in this. Also read my response to iblogger.

    I think the first steps need to be taken from a societal level, as I explained in the post. May be some changes in rules/regulations/media exposure/marketing/tax plans/funding plans/recognition plans that help day to day life and things like that can help.

    For eg. innovators and small-scale entreprenuers can be given preferences/quotas and discounts in many places.

    Once upon a time in Tamil Nadu, (just 60-70 years back) for rich people to admit that they belong to a Backward or Scheduled caste was a shame. They tried to convert themselves to High Castes, with High Caste sounding names, joining High Caste Sabhas and organizations.

    Today nobody wants to say they belong to High Caste. Everybody clamors for lower caste status. The same families that had high-caste sounding names suddenly have very low caste sounding names and they clamour for MBC status or run organizations for MBCs.

    For eg this is an artificially induced societal change in societal perception by Government policies. Good or Bad, this demonstrates societal perceptions can be changed.

    -TBT

    • First of all, thank you for very well structured and wonderfully written article. I do agree with each and every point. In addition to factors you have mentioned, each of us should contribute and enable an innovation-friendly atmosphere. After all, society is made up by individuals and all these should start with us (you take a role of parent or an employee or an employer or a teacher or a student).

      There is also abundant talent in the rural and sub-urban areas (majority of innovations so far we have, is done in rural/agricultural area), which is not tapped yet. There should be some schemes/procedures/measures to be taken to tap that potential as well.

  3. Dear iblogger,

    While ur point about parents is right, Parents as a group cannot be blamed for this. There is nothing wrong in parents aspiring for their kids to be in positions which society appreciates and applauds.

    Particularly in India, the biggest investment for a person happens not in Share markets or banks, but in their Sons and Daughters. Sons and Daughters are the main pension scheme for majority of Indian elders. Hence there is nothing wrong in parents thinking of a secure, prosperous future for their kids. There is also this personal interest.

    Today we as a society (that covers variety of people, media, government, businesses, educational institutions, other institutions)do not appreciate/applaud or facilitate innovation or give due respect to it. Hence many parents don’t think of that as a future.

    We need to address this as a society.

    And I don’t see brain drain contributing to this in anyway. In fact migration of brain power is GOOD for this country, as most of the times, it is not a drain, but it is a process of osmosis that happens.

    And I see that there are millions of *real* brains in this country compared to few thousands that has left the country.

    -TBT

  4. Dear Sanrow,

    Thanks for ur comments and compliments

    TBT

  5. In our country where most of the population falls into the middle class category, financial security is the biggest challenge. Person below the poverty line dreams strong, and strives to become what he wants, person in the high income group has the independence to choose. People in middle class income group do not have the courage to take risks, involved in the process of doing something new, for they fear the loss of their existing social status and financial stability that they have secured. If boys dream of enterpreneurship, they are asked to think about settling down first and earning a decent salary. If girls think about doctoral studies, they are asked to first get married and beget progeny.Unfortunately age between 20-30 is the one where we have most energy and where we get carried away faster too!! so, it is for both the parents and kids to decide and take that risk!! Take that first step!

  6. Given the broad spectrum of things we have in India and the diversity, there are many factors that are causing this net effect. Here are a couple of them i personally believe adding to it.

    1. Parents - Majority of the middle-class kids are always taught to study well and become an IAS officer, IPS officer or some big officer in the public service. There are many reasons why parents say that to their kids. However, it does have an impact on the young brain and they become pre-programmed in that way.

    2. Brain Drain – Most of our engineers, doctors and other professionals end up in foreign countries for a better life style or career. Again here, there are many root level causes why this happens.

    and the list goes on…

    I think, the bottom line is, only education and increased social responsibility can change a nation.

  7. Wonderfully explained.