Prime Minister Manmohan Singh likes to say India should aim to be a “knowledge superpower”. Unfortunately, a number of studies show India is falling behind in achieving this otherwise exemplary goal. Both the CII-Insead Global Innovation Index and the World Bank’s latest Knowledge Economy Index indicate this slippage is happening because other countries are doing more to collect and develop the ingredients for innovation.
Innovation is a cycle by which new ideas are created and converted into economically useful products and concepts. At a time when capital and labour are available on tap, it is innovation that increasingly separates top-rung nations from the rest. India’s innovative abilities have traditionally been held back by two obvious and glaring bottlenecks: a poor literacy rate and an abysmal physical infrastructure. But the Global Innovation Index shows that other drags, and ones which could be addressed more quickly than the other two issues, are university-industry research collaboration and the overall state of government innovation. Indian universities, even the much-touted Indian Institutes of Technology, produce little when it comes to research and development. They are rock-bottom when it comes to converting knowledge into something tangible for the economy. Nine-tenths of the patents filed from India are done so by foreign multinationals based here. The Indian government’s research and development, largely geared to defence purposes, similarly contributes little to the larger economy. There has been no reform of higher education in India. The universities have been unable to scale up either the quantity or quality of their students — and the human resource ministry has shown itself unable to think beyond the prevailing and failing education model.
At least the greenshoots of a competitive innovation culture are beginning to emerge in India’s private sector, notably in pharmaceuticals. But it is sobering to see countries like Qatar and Kuwait, let alone Brazil and China, rate much higher in the knowledge sweepstakes and move faster up the ladder than India. The silver lining is that a recent Hewitt Associates study shows that India, as usual, straddles both ends of the spectrum. While south and north-western India are knowledge-empowered, eastern and northern India are areas of darkness. A new national innovation bill is pending. However, this cannot exist in isolation. It is the lack of broader structural reforms in education, infrastructure, even finance and intellectual property, that need to be addressed.