August 22, 2021

Self-Reliance: 75th Year of Independence


THE nation has been debating our collective achievements, weaknesses and failures over the past 74 years since Independence in relation to the vision of the republic’s founders and of the independence movement. This article discusses two key founding ideas which do not always get the attention they deserve or do so largely in an obligatory fashion. However, both ideas are crucial and may well determine the future of India, especially in the so-called knowledge age of the 22nd century in which we are situated but have not duly acknowledged.

The central importance of self-reliance in science and technology (S&T), explicitly linked to industry, was seen even before independence as vital to the development of India, to building the envisaged welfare state, and to delivering its benefits to the people in diverse ways.  In subsequent decades, various meanings were attached to the term by different commentators depending on their own proclivities and whether they wanted to either promote or oppose the idea. Without getting into those semantic debates, S&T self-reliance was seen as comprising development of indigenous capability in strategic sectors such as space, nuclear energy and defence, and development of public sector industries in “core” sectors of the economy. These goals were perceived to be crucial for maintaining strategic autonomy of the newly independent country, free from pressures and inducements from big powers. Premier research institutions in frontier S&T areas, higher education institutions such as the IITs, IISc and AIIMS, and the network of industrial research laboratories under the CSIR were set up in pursuit of these policies.  

It cannot be anybody’s case, certainly not from the Left, that these policies delivered everything they promised, or that other priorities for the development of the Indian masses were not missed out, such as free and universal school education and an effective public health system. These have not been achieved even today, 74 years after independence! At the same time, it is undeniable that S&T self-reliance and the industrial foundation of the early decades after 1947 propelled the country forward to a leading position among newly independent nations, and largely holds a similar position even in contemporary times. Question is how relevant is S&T self-reliance today, and where does India stand with regard to it, and how does this impinge on India’s developmental future?

The second idea was that in order for citizens to fully realise their potential in a modern India, they needed to be imbued with what Jawaharlal Nehru in his Discovery of India called a “scientific temper,” an “individual and social process of thinking and acting which uses a scientific method” of evidence-based reasoning and critical thinking. Article 51A (h) of the Directive Principles of the Constitution describes it as a “spirit of inquiry and reform.” Limitations of space compel us to deal with scientific temper in a subsequent article, and deal only with self-reliance in this one.


It bears repetition that over at least the first three post-independence decades, the pursuit of S&T self-reliance resulted in an impressive industrial base in major sectors led by the public sector and a good, if narrow, base in basic, applied and industrial research, and higher education in science and technology. Perceptions have been deliberately fanned over the years by vested interests that public sector dominance ideologically was pushed to promote a “socialist” path and to suppress the private sector. The reality is that the captains of India’s private sector had agreed in their famous Bombay Plan of 1948 that government should set up and run core sector industries since the private sector did not have either the capital or the capability to do so, while the private sector would concentrate on consumer goods and light engineering.

By the 1970s, the public sector heavy industries while making significant contributions to the economy and to the exchequer were also unfortunately technologically stagnating in many areas, impeding their competitiveness and potential for contribution in the future. Some may now blame the PSUs for this weakness however, it must also be understood, that the PSUs had, and even now continue to have, little autonomy to chart their own paths for modernisation, upgradation and R&D investments. On their part, private sector industries such as in automobiles, two-wheelers, consumer durables etc, never even attempted to go beyond their original collaborations with foreign partners, stayed with old and outdated models for decades comfortable in a fully protected sellers’ market, and felt no need to acquire autonomous capabilities on their own. Private sector entities felt no need for self-reliance, neither for themselves nor for the nation, and R&D remained a far cry.


By the 1980s and ‘90s, the initial direction and impetus of self-reliant development led by the public sector had lost steam, as dominant forces in the polity started moving towards courting foreign investment, divestment of PSUs and a gradual withdrawal of the State from public services, the social sector and many industrial sectors under the influence of the by now internationally dominant neoliberal economic framework championed by the IMF, World Bank and other international agencies. These trends climaxed with a full-fledged embrace of neoliberal policies in the 1990s with the stated aim of unleashing the “animal instincts” of the domestic private sector and foreign corporations, who were provided numerous incentives such as de-regulation and opening up of almost all sectors of the economy.

However, in the real economy, a different story unfolded. A boom in consumer durables got underway, boosted by wage increases of public and private sector employees, and generous loans by banks. Foreign companies entered the Indian market in a big way, while Indian companies rushed into collaborations with the former to enhance product range and quality. Yet, few gains were made in self-reliance and enhancing the autonomous capability of Indian industries, especially in the private sector. Foreign brands made it big in India, many Indian companies made a lot of money, but one can think of few Indian brands or products made with indigenous knowhow making a mark in international markets.

This trend has worsened since the present dispensation came to power in 2014. Grandiose promises have been made to take India into the 21st century, become a developed country or become a $5 trillion economy in the next few years. The government has also made much of its campaign for “atma-nirbharta” or self-reliance. Yet the government has spent most of its time inviting foreign defence majors into the country. Finally fanciful perceptions and wishful thinking had to face the hard reality that no country would part with advanced technologies for love or for money. This has also been the experience of all countries that have gained significant international economic standing, and who have therefore done so based on indigenous efforts to build autonomous scientific and technological capabilities.

Japan followed by South Korea in the 1970s and ‘80s, then some other South-East Asian countries, and later China, have all realised and demonstrated the value of self-reliance and development of autonomous S&T capability, which are not merely means to develop the economy, but essential stepping stones towards playing a larger role in the global economy. These countries today, largely through indigenous efforts and investments in R&D and human resources, have a prominent place in the technology, innovation, manufacturing and value-chain in consumer durables, electronics, micro-processor chips, computing systems, cellular phones and communication backbones, robotics, capital goods and many other sectors. China especially now stands at the threshold of achieving a major foothold in technologies of the future like 5G, artificial intelligence, internet-of-things, automation, autonomous vehicles, battery storage systems etc.

India is undoubtedly a good market for foreign goods, even if they are sometimes made in India, such as automobiles or white goods, or even if they are wholly imported or only assembled here such as cell phones. Even the largest Indian private corporations, except a very few in the single digits, are junior partners of MNCs or other foreign entities, have developed no autonomous S&T capabilities, make few products or brands of global standard. Even though the private sector is not interested in R&D or in developing significant indigenous capability, the government is hell-bent on privatising and divesting from the public sector, the only industrial force who could have undertaken the R&D and technology development tasks required to enable India to face the future with confidence. The future is not looking bright for the country unless it once again embraces S&T self-reliance, strengthens its PSUs bringing in correctives where required, and increases public investment in research and education in general.