About 80 per cent of India’s R&D budget is allocated for strategically targeted research done by 12 premier scientific agencies. Frequent delays in crucial projects run the risk of squandering precious resources, and are symptomatic of a larger problem.
DRDO leads the pack, cornering 30 per cent of this allocation. Yet some of its biggest projects are marked by large cost overruns, frequently revised deadlines and failure to deliver. Its ambitious plan to achieve 70 per cent weapons indigenisation by 2005 has been an abysmal failure.
A Parliamentary committee report of May 2006 had noted that only eight to 10 per cent of DRDO’ budget was spent on fundamental research with imports accounting for almost 26 per cent of total defence expenditure.
Self-reliance is virtue taken to extremes by DRDO’s penchant for reinventing the wheel. In a rapidly changing security scenario, tentative progress has compromised our defence preparedness. Agni III, part of the Integrated Missile Development Programme launched in 1983, crashed two years after it was initially scheduled for testing, undermining our modest nuclear deterrence
The Brahmos missile, successfully developed in a joint venture with the Russians, can perhaps be a more realistic option in an age of outsourcing and technology cooperation. The Chinese J-10, unlike the ambitious LCA, is a good example of a step-by-step approach to indigenous development, with constant upgradation of available technology.
Scientific output rests on the quality, availability and optimal utilisation of manpower. According to a 1999 CAG audit, the development of the Pinaka, a multi-barrel rocket launcher, was compromised by the non-availability of qualified manpower. The DRDO’s scientists are grossly outnumbered by upto four times the auxiliary staff than found in similar private sector establishments.
Most of its labs are shrouded in secrecy, and most projects represent weaknesses in the research-innovation- adaptation chain. ACAG report of 2000 found that in DRDO’s Vehicles Research and Development Establishment, just 18 projects were completed, of which only four went into bulk production during 1988-1998.
Even India’s success stories fail to pass muster when held up against our global competitors. Showcasing some of our best achievements,ISRO, has channeled budget constraints and sanctions into successful indigenisation, but it is way behind China.
The latter has launched 24 foreign satellites so far, sent two manned missions into space, is believed to be planning human mission to Mars in 2017 and a satellite navigation system akin to the European Galileo.
India has only just begun to debate sending a man into space and, would still take another 7-8 years to launch a manned space aircraft. Favoured over manned missions, the GSLV crash is a big setback to India’s entry into the $2 bn commercial satellite launch market.
Like other organisations, both ISRO and DRDO are battling shortage of qualified manpower, given the increasing lure of the private sector with its high salaries, greater autonomy and transparency. India lacks a comprehensive policy to recruit and retain talent, making the pursuit of science a viable academic and commercial proposition.