India has exported raw materials, from cotton to coal for long. In recent decades, the nation became known as an offshore services provider, especially in information technology. Yet, as the pandemic made it clear, perhaps it is time for the nation to get ‘AatmaNirbhar’ in scaling a fresh new horizon—its Research & Development (R&D) prowess.
The options range from attracting international companies to set up their R&D centres in India, and oh yes, lure back that globally caricatured brainy Indian geek back home. The eventual aim: to become a net exporter of R&D.
For too long dependent on the services sector for its GDP growth story, the carnage left behind by the coronavirus seems to be pushing an alternative growth model. Prime Minister Narendra Modi set the blueprint with ‘AatmaNirbhar Bharat’, with an accent on pushing manufacturing in the country rather than just services. Becoming an R&D base could be a defining point of the whole exercise.
In recent days, anyone from NITI Aayog to TRAI to the PM’s scientific adviser have spoken about the need for focusing on R&D. The mission plan itself is to hike R&D expenditure to 2 per cent of GDP by 2022, as per the recommendations of the PM’s economic advisory committee.
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At a round-table meeting with export organisations this week, K. Vijay Raghavan, the government’s principal scientific advisor pointed out how one of the striking lessons for the future we have been taught by the Covid-19 pandemic was the need to step up investment in R&D in order to prevent such crises. This could be done through global collaboration as well as exchange of services.
He’s not alone. On Tuesday, TRAI chairman P.D. Vaghela placed increasing investment in R&D to expand technology development capabilities and leveraging Indian IT’s capabilities for a global market as one of the steps to be taken for “speedy progress and to make India self reliant.” On Wednesday evening, NITI Aayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar spoke of ways to attract Indian talents back home to do R&D in various states, to bolster India’s eventual R&D export capabilities.
R&D exports are more relevant today than ever, says Vijay Raghavan, adding how the attention of policy makers so far has been on high-tech merchandise exports. India’s scientific manpower has been doing exceedingly well globally and they have already created a niche in the global R&D sector. Sharad Kumar Saraf, president of the Federation of Indian Exporters Organisation (FIEO) added that R&D was extremely important to change the profile of India’s exports to put more focus on high technology exports. The plan is clear—now capitalise on this global strength for a domestic ‘AatmaNirbhar’ push.
However, it won’t be an easy task. Despite the push to increase R&D spending to two percent of the GDP, India is still not a big player in the global arena of research and development. Its R&D service exports stood at just 5 billion dollars in 2019, as per data with FIEO.