Why India Needs A Robust Research Base

An IIT Kharagpur graduate who through all semesters did exceedingly well finally left his mentor and teacher disappointed when instead of doing PhD and spending his life in research and furthering the frontiers of knowledge, he took up a job with a leading foreign owned FMCG group. Over the years, he became a senior vice president of there and was in contention for the office of chairman. He didn’t wait for the outcome of the final roulette. Instead he accepted directorship of Tata Sons, the holding company of all Tata enterprises from automobile to steel to information technology. A great success story in the corporate universe by any yardstick. But his late mentor would never hide his disappointment that the world of academia lost a potentially great researcher to the pull of corporate security and financial rewards.

What happened to this man some five decades ago is still a common occurrence in India. But this is not a unique Indian phenomenon. In developed economies too, many who would do well in pure science research are lured away by the corporate world. There, however, the problem is less acute. Senapathy Kris Gopalakrishnan, cofounder of Infosys and its CEO and managing director from 2007 to 2011, says the problem would not be manifest to the prevailing extent in India had the research ecosystem allowed people to take risks that will not lead to career ruination.

He himself asks the question and then gives the reply: “What is it that allows you to take risks and safely fail without it destroying your entire life? A lot of people tend to pick what is safe because that is more likely to be successful. There’s is a carefully chalked out path for research in academia and when it comes to innovation, we don’t try to be transformative, we try to be incremental. That’s because we are trained to be risk averse, and we recognise that consequences of failure can be very high.”

But times are changing, though not when it comes to undertaking highly time-consuming fundamental research. Let’s consider why are we seeing so many start-ups in the country and some of them becoming unicorns (a unicorn is a privately owned company with a valuation of over $1 billion) over a period of time? From Flipkart, a start-up that Walmart bought by paying $16 billion in 2018 May to hotel aggregator Oyo that is ready to make an IPO to raise over Rs8 billion, many new entrepreneurs have successfully promoted businesses making innovative use of internet and IT.

No doubt what has aided start-ups are family encouragement and funds availability first from venture capitalists (VCs) and then when incubation period is over from hosts of domestic and foreign investors. The media as it is its wont will highlight stories of successful start-ups. There are failures too, not meaning, however, the end of road for start-up founders. Gopalakrishnan wants the same to happen in the “academic and the research environment allowing one to take highly risky, ambitious projects and then try and succeed. Some of these are very long-term, so there’s a commitment required for maybe 10-20, sometimes 30 years.”

What family indulgence and VCs are doing to start-ups, patronage of the government and industry, both in the public and private sectors could do to bring about a fundamental change in the texture of research in India. Take our IT industry of whose rapidly growing turnover, exports and profits we remain boastful. The world is evolving from knowledge economy to the age of artificial intelligence and virtuality. Worth of our IT companies should be judged by their prowess in consulting and capacity to develop software for a variety of applications. As one observer rightly points out, “Indian IT groups are stuck as bottom-feeders, a breed of techno-coolies with no high-end development to claim credit.” The industry may, however, seek solace that TCS, Infosys, HCL Technologies, Wipro and Tech Mahindra find place in Thomson Reuters’ list of “Top 100 Global Tech Leaders.”

The Indian groups in the list are certainly not in the same league as Microsoft, Apple, IBM and Accenture and none of them regrettably is doing enough to get to the coveted position. Even then that Indians working in the West are among the best IT visionaries in the world are borne out by the likes of Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai and Arvind Krishna guiding Microsoft, Google and IBM, respectively to future growth through robust investment in research and talent and encouraging researchers to take risks without being afraid of failures.

So given the kind of environment that creates a Satya or a Sundar, Indians working in India will be able to take the IT industry to a plane that will be in alignment with the best in the world. No doubt the realisation is donning on the industry here that its R&D needs reinforcing. But look at Infosys annual report – both in financial years ending 2020 and 2021, its allocation for R&D was just 0.6 per cent of revenue. Chairman Nandan M. Nilekani and CEO & MD Salil Parekh must address the issue forthwith. Leaders of other iconic Indian IT groups should also do the same.  

Companies whether in IT or in any other industry will not have to do all research work by themselves. Many of them are already assigning projects to IITs and research institutions and reaping benefits of such partnerships when research results are successfully commercialised.  What a phenomenal collaboration the world saw recently when AstraZeneca and Oxford University worked together for development and distribution of the “recombinant adenovirus vaccine aimed at preventing COVID-19 infection from SARS-CoV-2.”

A few years ago, India too has seen a major breakthrough in developing an early variety and very high sucrose content sugarcane first grown in Uttar Pradesh. The large scale cultivation of the new variety of sugarcane CO-0238 since its introduction in 2012-13 has made significant contribution to the country breaking cyclicality in sugar production to become an ever export surplus producer. Developed at the Indian Council of Scientific Research’s Sugarcane Breeding Centre at Coimbatore, the high-yielding seed is getting progressively introduced in many other sugarcane growing states. This remains a shining example of what an Indian research organisation is capable of doing when there is an ideal collaboration with the industry (in the present instance sugar factories represented by Indian Sugar Mills Association.)

Nobody will question the capacity of Indian scientists to deliver. The challenge is in making available sufficient resources and the right kind of infrastructure. Gopalakrishnan says: “We need to also think about mission-mode programmes with clear goals, ambitious targets and larger teams working on a problem.” The problem is inadequacy of funds for carrying out research work. Just about 0.7 per cent of the country’s GDP is spent on research and most of that coming from the government with a share of 0.6 per cent. Gopalakrishnan would like this to go up to 3per cent of GDP, contributed equally by the government and private sector.

That being said, he says: “We need more people getting into science and scientific research. This has to start from school. We need to create curiosity in children to taken on careers in research, etcetera. Second, we need to ensure that we have enough students getting into PhD programmes. We need to have some mission for the nation to look at certain areas where we direct scientific infrastructure…” The two important goals that the country wants to pursue vigorously are “Aatmanirbhar Bharat” and “Make in India” for the domestic and world markets. To make a success of these, the country first needs a robust research base.

Artificial Intelligence, Actual Challenges

People in power expectedly seek comfort in the fact that India has more than achieved the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended doctor to population ratio of 1:1,000, described as the ‘golden finishing line’ in 2018. In fact, the ratio is approaching 1.5. This is, however, taking into account the registered medical practitioners of both modern medicine (MBBS and higher degrees) and traditional medicine (AYUSH, the acronym for Ayurveda, yoga & naturopathy, unani, siddha and homeopathy). The yearly intake of nearly 70,000 MBBS students at institutions regulated by the Medical Council of India may look impressive on paper, but this is to be seen in the context of pathetic state of health services beyond cities in vast expanses of semi-urban and rural areas.

People living in Bharat are the sufferers for the low allocation for healthcare in the Union and state budgets year after year ignoring the sane advice of the world’s leading development economists. Indian leaders nurse the ambition that the country be counted among super powers. Nothing wrong in that. But how can that happen when the country is among the lowest budget allocator of GDP in healthcare in the world. Not to cite instances of developed countries, India is distressingly spending less in healthcare, as a percentage of GDP, than Brazil, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Outside tier 1 to 3 cities in India, people may get good, if they are lucky, to indifferent services of general medical practitioners and rarely of specialists. But relief is likely to come to the vast majority living wherever they maybe, depending on how soon the healthcare system will be enabled by artificial intelligence (AI) to be of universal service. The challenge then is to go on feeding the computer with enormous amount of data culled from international and domestic sources relating to diseases, their symptoms, identification and diagnosis, the tests to be done and treatment to be followed thereafter.

The problem that will still be there is the lack of equipment and trained doctors and nurses in rural hospitals and health centres. When it comes to India, the major problem, as has been identified by Anandalal Roy of National Institute of Health, Washington and Kunal Sen, global chief information officer of Encyclopaedia Britannica is the lack of reliable health related data. They say most of the data are illegibly handwritten, almost impossible to decipher and therefore, it is difficult to create an appropriate database.

According to Roy and Sen, in the absence of an ideal training data in database, the computer will not be able to diagnose diseases and recommend ways of treating them. The basic premise is if wrong or incomplete data is fed into the computer, then it will generate wrong results. They, therefore, recommend that steps should be taken to centrally digitise all health related records. Once this enormous time-consuming work is done, it will be possible to access any health record from anywhere by using the computer. In course of time, once sufficient records are collated and fed into the computer they are to become part of database. Roy and Sen say though India is making progress slowly in this direction, it mercifully has remained in course.

Health is, however, one of the many areas where AI will work wonders in terms of service improvement, booster of efficiency sparing people from doing routine work over and over again and operational cost reduction. No wonder then a growing number of companies engaged in manufacturing from metals to automobiles, FMCG products and financial groups are doubling down on introduction of digitisation and AI in their systems in the wake of the globally disruptive Covid-19 pandemic.

ALSO READ: How Artificial Intelligence Fuels Hatred

From logistical planning to supporting sales without being physically in touch with buyers to scripting overall business strategy, AI is proving to be of major aid. Who did coin the word ‘artificial intelligence’ and when? Stanford University professor John McCarthy was the first to use the word in 1955 when he proposed a ten-man summer research on the subject. In proposing the research, McCarthy wrote: “The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.” Moreover, his invention of computer programming language LISP remains the universal language of choice for AI.

As AI continues to make inexorable march to perform humongous amount of work, there are concerns not confined to India that machines progressively taking over many tasks routinely performed by human beings will lead to job losses. But H. James Wilson and Paul R Daugherty say in an article published in Harvard Business Review that “while AI will radically alter how work gets done and who does it, the technology’s larger impact will be in complementing and augmenting human capabilities, not replacing them.”

In their research involving 1,500 companies, the principal finding is that companies achieve maximum performance improvements when humans and machines work in harmony. “Through such collaborative intelligence, humans and AI actively enhance each other’s complementary strengths: The leadership, teamwork, creativity and social skill of the former and the speed, scalability and quantitative capabilities of the latter.”

This and many other similar research findings will help in dispelling misgivings about growing AI application. What must also be taken into consideration are the emerging links between AI and creativity. The survey of a large number of global businesses and leaders in information technology (IT) by MIT Technology Review Insights found that nearly half of them agreed that because of AI “we could dedicate more time to thinking creatively about the business challenges we and our clients face.” AI is exactly freeing people from tedious routine work to be able to be engaged in creative and innovative pursuits.

India has a unique advantage in rapidly employing AI in sectors from health to industry to finance to farming. Not only are the world’s maximum number of students are majoring in the subject in Indian colleges, but this country also hosts the globe’s largest number of companies engaged in development and application of AI, ahead of the US and China. Even while India has this distinctive edge in AI education, Roy and Sen, both residents of the US, regret that beyond graduation, the students migrate to foreign countries to pursue further study, including PhD on the subject. As is expectedly the case, once they leave India, they settle down abroad where employment opportunities in the field are growing fast. Roy and Sen recommend the ways to staunch the brain drain of this intelligent kind will be to create condition for appropriate investment in AI higher education, including facilitating research work and assured jobs after completion of education.

Amir Khusrau

Under the Spell of Amir Khusrau

Ten years ago, Pradeep Sharma Khusrau decided to dedicate his life to spreading the work of Khusrau throughout the world, and in the process, he acquired a large, enviable collection of books, music, postal stamps, records, audio and video cassettes, CDs and DVDs on the poet saint. Sharma has even guided students to complete their thesis on Khusrau. His story in his own words:

The biggest feat a human can achieve is to find the purpose of his or her life. Until then, we are just wandering souls, in search of our calling. But, I have found mine. Thank God, for the night a decade ago, when I happened to listen to a rare gramophone record on the writings of the legendary saint, poet and musician of the 13th century – Amir Khusrau.

The record was titled ‘The Multi-faceted Genius of Amir Khusrau Dehalvi’. I was so spellbound by the poetry that I kept playing the record over and over again, all night long. His poetry was crafted to fit all forms of Hindustani music – classical, semi-classical and folk. The record also had riddles called, keh (sayings) mukarnis (denial) which were specifically written for adolescent girls and children. The writing style, the selection of words, left me sleepless. Next morning, I rushed to the market to look for more literature on Amir Khusrau.

I was surprised to find the sheer dearth of books on Amir Khusrau and his works in book shops and universities. So, I decided to delve deeper. During my quest, I met Mohammed Yunus Salim – the former Governor of Bihar. He is the founder member of Aiwan-e-Ghalib Society and All India Khusrau Society. He had a few books on Amir Khusrau and he presented three of them to me. One of them was titled, ‘Amir Khusrau Dehlvi’ (edited by Dr Zoe Ansari).

It is touted to be the world’s most comprehensive encyclopaedia on Amir Khusrau. It is a compilation of national and international writings on Khusrau and was published in 1975. After reading that book, I realised that multi-faceted is an understatement to define Khusrau’s personality. I was amazed to know that he was not just a poet and a Sufi saint, he was an astrologer, a linguist, a mathematician, a historian, a musician, a warrior, a philosopher, a scholar, and an instrumentalist.

He taught in the most prestigious universities of world and his works transcend different subjects. He is regarded as a legend in Central Asia (where his roots are).  The more I read about Khusrau, the more attracted I was towards him. Disappointingly, much of his work in India is now lost. What remains is largely in the Persian language.

It was shocking to find such neglect of one of the greatest poets India ever had. None of his original works have been translated and published. There are commentaries on his work, but they have been made in a scattered manner. I decided to dedicate my life in preserving and spreading the work of Khusrau. I took a vow to get his Persian writings translated in Hindi, English and Urdu, so that Khusrau can reach out to as many people as possible.

The challenge was to find Persian language experts, who could take up this project, with very less remuneration. I did not belong to a very affluent family and could barely make living with my career as a journalist and cartoonist. Still, I managed to get 5,000 pages translated from Persian to Hindi and English.

And got two books published —Qiran-us-Sadain (Conjunction of two lucky planets) and Matla-Ul-Anwar (Dawn of Lights). Four more translations are ready to be published. I have written three books, ‘Amir Khusrau Ek Bahuaayami Vyaktitv’, ‘Hazrat Amir Khusrau Ka Atal Bharat Prem’ and ‘Amir Khusrau Dehlavi’. I have written the first e- book on Amir Khusrau in Hindi for Ministry of Culture.

Now, I run the Amir Khusrau Academy in Delhi and have 35 more books in the pipeline. Though, I haven’t done a PhD on Amir Khusrau, many students have written their thesis on him under my guidance. I keep in touch with authors and publishers from all over the world to collect Amir Khusrau’s as many works as possible. In the last 10 years, I managed to collect 200 rare audio and video recordings of Amir Khusrau’s music from all over the world.

I have 2,500 books and manuscripts of and on Amir Khusrau in various languages; 100 gramophone records; and 200 rare paintings, illustrations, postal stamps etc. I participated in various projects on Amir Khusrau with organisations such as ICCR, IGNCA, UNESCO, Aga Khan Foundation, INTACH, Sangeet Natak Academy, Urdu Academy etc. I have sent copies of Khusrau’s Persian works collected from across the world to various scholars in India, to see if they are willing to translate any of his works voluntarily.

To my delight, a few of them have shown interest and have started the translation. My dream project is to re-write the history of Indian literature in the context of Amir Khusrau. It is challenging, but it’s worth it.  Khusaru is a one of the greatest writers and poets of the world, but his work ought to reach the common masses.

His teachings on Hindu-Muslim harmony and communal integrity are especially relevant now. Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia found his greatest disciple in Amir Khusrau and I aim to exit this world as Khusrau’s biggest follower, admirer and messenger.