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The Not-So-Missing Case of Indian Innovation and Entrepreneurship

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Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Unsplash

Hitendra Singh and Gauri Noolkar-Oak*

Recently, an article published in Modern Diplomacy caught our attention. The author has cited Mr. Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, and found his famous statement on Indians lacking enterprise and innovation to be ‘music to his ears’. He has then gone on to paint Indians in broad strokes – ironic, for it is something he has accused Indians of doing – and labelled them as a nation lacking entrepreneurial and innovative spirit. While his reasoning certainly has an element of truth and an instant appeal, our response looks to add nuances to his argument and provide a more realistic and complete picture of enterprise and innovation in India.

To begin with, the terms ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘innovation’ cannot be used interchangeably; not all entrepreneurs are innovators, and vice versa. There are more than 50 million medium and small businesses operating in India which contribute 37% of India’s GDP and employ around 117 million people. These numbers sufficiently prove that entrepreneurship is alive and kicking in the Indian society; Indians are running businesses not only in India but are leading and successful entrepreneurs in many countries of Asia, Africa and rest of the world. Hence, an argument that Indians lack entrepreneurship does not hold much strength.

In the case of innovation and creativity, a different story is emerging. It is slow but is happening and it is solving some of the largest social and developmental challenges in India – from grassroots, to research labs, to top-tier institutions such as ISRO and various DRDO labs. At a global level, India has not only moved up six places in its GII ranking in 2017, but is also ranked second in innovation quality. India has also won international acclaim for its innovative and cost-effective technology; such as its first mission to Mars in 2014, the Mangalyaan, was successful in the first attempt, made entirely with domestic technology, and cost less than the Hollywood movies ‘Gravity’ and ‘The Martian’. It is surprising that the author spots lack of innovation in a household broom but does not see innovation in a nation that sends a successful Mars mission on a budget that is less than that of a Hollywood movie about Mars.

At the national level, grassroots innovation and entrepreneurship are gaining more and more institutional recognition; the National Innovation Foundation (NIF) and the annual Festival of Innovation at the Rashtrapati Bhavan are perhaps the only high-level government initiatives supporting and celebrating innovation in the world. Additionally, many universities and educational institutes across the country host innovation competitions, festivals and incubators.

Several remarkable individuals are nurturing India’s growing innovative and entrepreneurial spirit.Prof. Anil K. Gupta founded SRISTI (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions) in 1993 and the Honey Bee Network in 1997 to connect innovators from all sections of the society to entrepreneurs, lawyers and investors. For more than 12 years, he has walked around 6000 kilometres across the country, discovering extraordinary grassroots innovations on the way. Dr. Raghunath Mashelkar, an eminent chemical scientist, has led multiple scientific and technological innovations in the country, earlier as the Director-General of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, and now as the President of the National Innovation Foundation.

And then, there are thousands of common men and women, hailing from various walks of life, innovating continuously and creatively to solve pressing everyday problems in the Indian society. There are the famous Arunachalam Muruganantham, who invented a cost-effective way of manufacturing sanitary napkins, and Mansukhbhai Prajapati, who invented a clay refrigerator which runs without electricity. Then there are Mallesham from Andhra Pradesh, who sped up the process of weaving Kochampalli sarees and reduced the physical pains of the weavers, and Shri Sundaram from Rajasthan, who found a way to grow a whole tree in a dry region with just a litre of water. Raghav Gowda from Karnataka designed a cost-effective and painless machine to milk cows, while Mathew K Mathews from Kerala designed a solar mosquito destroyer. Dr. Pawan Mehrotra of Haryana has developed a cost-effective version of breast prosthesis for breast cancer survivors while Harsh Songra of Madhya Pradesh has developed a mobile app to detect developmental disorders among children.

Three women from Manipur, OinamIbetombi Devi, SarangthenDasumati Devi and Nameirakpam Sanahambi Devi invented an herbal medicine that is proven to promote poultry health. Priyanka Sharma from Punjab developed a low-cost biochip to detect environmental pollutants, while Dr. Seema Prakash from Karnataka revolutionised eco-agriculture by inventing a cost-effective plant cloning technique. AshniBiyani, the daughter of Future Group CEO Kishore Biyani, leads the Khoj Lab, which collaborates with the NIF to help commercialise grassroots innovations and ideas.

These and thousands of such examples present a very encouraging picture of the creativity and innovation of Indians. The innovation that the author admires are rooted in a context. Apple and Google (or Lyft or Uber or Spotify) could be created because there was an end consumer who was looking to pay for their products. There are many India innovator-entrepreneurs, such as those mentioned above, who have created products for a necessarily less glamorous but useful India context. Products like brooms and packaged food add convenience to the time-stretched urban and middle and upper middle classes; with a large unskilled and semiskilled workforce competing vigorously for such jobs, does the Indian society have an incentive to invest in innovating them?

Having said that, it is true that upsurge of innovation in India is relatively recent, i.e. about two to three decades old. It is also true that the Indian society has been experiencing socio-economic affluence on such a broad scale only for the past three decades, since the market reforms of 1991. It has been 70 years since Indians have gained sovereignty and control over their resources. The top five innovative countries according to the GII – Switzerland, Sweden, Netherlands, USA and UK – have been sovereign states for about at least two and a half centuries. It would perhaps then be more accurate to compare India’s current innovation scenario with, for instance, the USA’s innovation scenario in the mid-19th century.

Further, given the economic and resource drain faced by the Indian society over centuries, Indian innovation was geared more towards surviving rather than thriving. This explains the ‘group mentality’ strongly rooted in mainstream Indian society; staying and cooperating in a group increased one’s capacity to cope with and survive through all kinds of adversity. Individualistic aspirations, beliefs and actions were then a price to be paid for the security blanket it offered. And yet, once relative stability and affluence began to set in, the innovative and creative instincts of Indians lost no time in bursting forth.

Long story short, both innovation and entrepreneurship are thriving in India. They might not be as “macro” or glamourous as Apple or Uber, but they are solving fundamental problems for the Indian masses. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of room for improvement and growth – India has a long way to go to be recognised as a global leader in innovation and entrepreneurship. However, the scenario is not by any means bleak, as these many examples point out. The trajectory of enterprises and innovation in India is only upward. The future is promising.

* Gauri Noolkar-Oak is Policy Research Analyst at Pune International Centre, a liberal think tank based in Pune, India.

Views expressed by the authors are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation.

Hitendra Singh is Head of Social Innovation Unit and Gauri Noolkar-Oak is Policy Research Associate at Pune International Centre, a liberal think tank based in Pune, India

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South Asia

The Potential of Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Stabilizing Afghanistan

Shaza Arif

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Afghanistan today remains afflicted with instability and looming threat of terrorism. Kidnapping, killings, bomb blasts and other such notorious activities continue to vandalize the lives of millions of Afghans. Moreover, it also poses a perilous threat to regional security and has the potential to jeopardize the ongoing economic projects, the most pertinent of which is the Chinese initiated Belt Road Initiative (BRI). After a protracted stay of 17 years in Afghanistan, the U.S forces have ultimately decided to withdraw its troops and bring an end to the Afghan War. However, the withdrawal of the United States will change the security dynamics of Afghanistan. The regional players are well aware of this fact and have galvanized their efforts to avert the possibility of chaos in the region after the United States extricates.

BRI is a colossal initiative and is the manifestation of China’s ambitions to entangle the region into an economic interconnectedness. This magnanimous project will evolve a number of opportunities for other regional states including Afghanistan. A stabilized Afghanistan is a dire requirement of BRI; partly because the integration of Afghanistan into the initiative will be very fruitful and partly because turbulent conditions in Afghanistan can pose obstructions in the functioning of various projects particularly, China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Furthermore, countries like China and Russia are extremely apprehensive of the spillover effect of terrorism to other states.  Hence, chalking out a secure environment is crucial.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is the largest and most populous regional organization which commenced in 2001 for the fostering of friendly relations between the members, expediting regional connectivity and eradicating terrorism. In 2005 SCO-Afghan Contact Group was established to put forward recommendations and proposals for the cooperation between SCO and Afghanistan on security matters along with various aspects of mutual concerns such as enhanced trade activities. Even though the activities of the forum remained stalled till 2009; However 2017 onwards the SCO-Afghan Contact Group held three annual meetings. Moreover, in 2012 SCO accorded the observer status to Afghanistan.

In the 2017 meeting of the SCO-Afghan Contact Group in Astana Kazakhstan, the organization readjusted the Group activities in the light of the expansion of the organization by adding new members: India and Pakistan. All foreign ministers endorsed the building of a stable Afghanistan and exchanged opinions to combat the prevailing threat of terrorism and carve out a secure environment. Similarly, all the parties generated a consensus on the dire requirement to bolster the SCO-Afghanistan cooperation in the future. In addition China offered to host the 2018 Contact Group meeting which was accepted by all of the parties to materialize the initiatives proposed in the meeting through further discussions, proposals and frameworks.

In the 2018 meeting in Beijing, all the members again reasserted their support to intensify the cooperation between Afghanistan and SCO. Secretary-General Rashid Alimov also attended the meeting, and  made the opening remarks by stating,  “The leaders of the SCO member states are unanimous in their firm commitment to Afghanistan’s sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity, as well as their invariable support for the Afghan Government and people as they strive to restore their country and strengthen democratic institutions”.

Again in 2019, the meeting held for the third time. The participants discussed the current status of the security condition in Afghanistan, Afghan reconciliation process along with a roadmap draft for future actions. Furthermore, parties agreed on fostering further cooperation between Afghanistan and SCO members on terrorism and the prospects of regional connectivity.

SCO has emerged as the largest and most populous regional organization. The BRI initiative will indeed be the manifestation of regional interconnectedness. It opposes unilateralism and trade protectionism. Moreover, the SCOs principles of non-interference and consensus are also quite captivating for Afghanistan. Likewise the geostrategic location of Afghanistan is very pertinent for the BRI initiative. China has become either the first or second largest trading partner of most of the SCO members. Hence Afghanistan can benefit a lot from this initiative provided the security conditions are tamed.

The Chinese attitude towards Afghanistan has been very amiable. In June 2018, during a meeting between President Ghani and President Xi Jinping, Xi called for the amplifying of high-level interaction, bolstering local-level cooperation along the anti-terrorism and trade cooperation. Moreover, he also praised the endeavors of the Afghan government towards peace and stability in view of the announced cease-fire with the Taliban. The President also highlighted that an “Afghan led and Afghan owned” reconciliation process will serve as the sole driver for paving sustainable peace in Afghanistan. An engaging aspect is that China being a dominant regional player has the capacity to pacify the tensions between the Afghan and Pakistan government, this will be a mighty achievement and will serve the interest of regional security. Similarly another area where Afghanistan needs assistance is the governance. Augmenting the weak institutions of Afghanistan is mandatory for the efficient functioning of the state. SCO members can play a part in fortifying the institutions through a proper framework.

Most important is the urgent need to curb the ISIS from protruding its network in Afghanistan. This is a very pressing task and requires a synergized action by all the regions through efficient intelligences sharing and the training of Afghanistan’s forces in a manner that they can tackle this potential threat on their own.

Taliban are an indispensable part of Afghanistan. Years after fighting, all the parties have realized that there is no military solution to the Afghan issue. China and Russia are active actors in the Afghan Peace Process and are even in talks with the Taliban. Hence, they can play an instrumental role to steer them to the talking table with the Afghan government.

The China-led organization serves as a potential driver of stability in Afghanistan in the long run due to the economic interconnectedness which will curtail the onerous economic crisis which Afghanistan is tackling at the moment and at the same time aid Afghanistan for security measures. The SCO members, observers and dialogue partners can collectively push towards stabilizing Afghanistan. Moreover, the expansion of SCO is quite likely in the future with the prospects of roping in Afghanistan as a full member are also on the table. Afghanistan can attain a lot from SCO and vice versa. Changing geopolitical landscape, geostrategic location of Afghanistan coupled with the ongoing economic initiatives has opened a pathway on which Afghanistan can tread towards stability.

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South Asia

The need of China- Pakistan ties

Muhammad Usman Ghani

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At times the significance of neighboring countries can’t be denied or ignored. History is the biggest beholder that any country who fancied cordial terms with its neighbors has enjoyed the taste of development and otherwise. In the contemporary world, the links get to establish on the plank of how strong are you economically. Gone are the days when the relationships would foster for the reason of being the nuclear might. At the present era, the countries offer you even hand in case you are economically well instituted and dominate the world market. China the world’s biggest emerging economy is fantasized by the majority of the countries. The countries perceive China as an ideal country to foster good terms.

In this respect, Pakistan is fortunate enough to have the best terms with China. The amicable terms of Pakistan and China are an eyesore for many countries particularly the U.S. and India. The saga of Pak-Sino ties began in 1951 when Pakistan recognized nationalist turned communist China. From those very moments, the relationship between both states experienced the unending boom. The friendship between China and Pakistan has now strengthened much more than ever. The rationale behind that intimate bond is now transactional and strategic needs of both the states.

China an economic giant shares 523kms border with Pakistan and situated in the northeast side of the latter. During recent times its significance for Pakistan has grown multiple times. China is vital for Pakistan strategically and transactionally. The BRI (Belt Road Initiative) that envisages China’s connectivity with the world incorporates CPEC is fate changer for Pakistan. The thriving consummation of CPEC would ensure Pakistan’s economic triumph. Pakistan shares a history of a troubled relationship with India. As per the designs of India, it wants Pakistan diplomatically isolated from each front. When it comes to Afghanistan, the North Alliance there doesn’t enjoy good terms with Pakistan. It doesn’t possess virtuous viewpoints about Pakistan. It has ever blamed Pakistan for the instability in Afghanistan. In the west, Pakistan has another neighbor Iran, with which the relationship rosary is somewhat fragile. The U.S. sanctions bearer country (Iran) has mixed contemplations about Pakistan. The story of Pakistan’s ties with Russia doesn’t portray the perfect portrait. Across the continent, there is a global power the U.S. that has a longing desire to dictate Pakistan. It has commanded Pakistan whether it is the cold war or the global war against terror. The U.S. outpoured the money in Pakistan whenever it desired and froze the aid according to its desire. Thus, Pakistan is not at good terms with the U.S.

Amidst all the scenario, Pakistan is in dire need to maintain good terms with the one that could mitigate its sufferings. In this respect, China holds the best prospect. Besides, China always came forward to assist Pakistan on international organizations like the U.N. and the S.C.O (Shanghai Corporation Organization). Along with it China being the dominant member of N.S.G (Nuclear supplier group) has always endorsed Pakistan’s membership bid. On the other side, China negates India’s desire to become a member of the N.S.G. The resolution of the Kashmir issue is among the national interest of Pakistan, and China always stood by Pakistan in this matter. The matter is not confined here, China being an industrial and the technological giant outpours its products in Pakistan. The transfer of technology and products from China to Pakistan has helped the latter up to a greater extent.

Indeed China has been kind to Pakistan, but the question is; why China showers its magnanimity over Pakistan.

The answer has multiple dimensions. Aforementioned, China is dominating the global economy. It is emerging as the world’s biggest economy by upsetting the U.S. This upkeep of China is an eyesore for the U.S. Globally, China shares irksome ties with the U.S.  Last year the U.S. entered into the trade war with China. When it comes to the region, Asia, China finds India as its competitor that seeks regional dominance. Additionally, the consummation of the BRI has now become considerably important for China. China is well aware of these challenges and astute enough to read the trends of the time. It deems Pakistan as a considerate opportunity in this respect.

Pakistan and India are rival countries and vie for the dominance in the South-Asia. Also, India seeks Pakistan’s isolation on the diplomatic front. Whether it is LOC skirmish, water dispute, and the Kashmir issue; India and Pakistan ever remain at loggerheads over any of these issues. Such stalemate is an ideal context for China because the U.S. has opted India as its strategic ally in South-Asia. China, Pakistan, and India all the three countries share borders with each other. Regrettably, these three countries have reservations over territory and have fought wars as well. The nexus of Pakistan and China is undoubtedly capable of countering the Indian interests. However, this nexus is more in favor of China than Pakistan. Engaged in other affairs like trade war, operating the BRI, seeking an alliance with other states; China doesn’t want to involve more in countering India. China sees Pakistan as the best option for this purpose because this serves the interests of China and Pakistan as well.

When it comes to technological advancement, China has hit the mark in the world. Industries, power sector, automation houses, such departments require energy to run. Central Asian Republics (CARs) are renowned for being rich in energy resources, and the unique location of Pakistan joins it with the CARs. The CPEC is initiated for this purpose of providing the shortest route for transiting fuel to China from energy-rich countries, and Pakistan is playing its role as the energy-conduit state. Pakistan through the CPEC is conserving China’s transit cost and time as well.

China and the U.S. share a fraught history of bonds and remain at loggerheads; Pakistan in recent times has also experienced cold shoulder from the U.S. The cold war rival of the U.S., Russia is yet another camp that is not at good terms with the former. The neighbor of Pakistan, Iran that is reeling from the vicious cycle of the economic downturn is also the victim of the U.S. rage. Last year the U.S. torpedoed the JCPOA unilaterally, and during the same year, Donald Trump heralded the sanctions on Iran. Iran also initiated a project with India to counter the CPEC on its Chabahar port. China by the cooperation of Pakistan can incorporate Iran in the CPEC, and the alliance of China, Pakistan, Iran, and Russia can counter the dominance of the U.S.

The recent visit of Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan to Pakistan is a good omen for both countries. The Chinese reservations that reared head following the terrorist attack in Gawadar would diminish by the visit of vice president. Wang Qishan also held meetings with PM Imran Khan, President Arif Alvi, CM Usman Buzdar and Governor Punjab Chaudry Ghulam Sarwar.

It is also in the national interest of Pakistan that it should seek an alliance with other countries and the foreign policy agenda of Pakistan has also the same appeal. PM Imran Khan with his foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi must have to strengthen the bond further since the cordial bonds with China would ensure Pakistan’s prosperity.

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South Asia

India’s Continuing Tussle Between Hindu Nationalists And Reformists

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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On the evening of January 30, 1948, as he walked to his regular interfaith prayer meeting, Mahatma Gandhi was shot and killed.  The assassin Nathuram Godse was a Hindu nationalist who opposed Gandhi’s inclusiveness towards those of other faiths, particularly Muslims. 

Manifested in its worst form in the assassination of a revered figure, this conflict between liberal and nationalist Hindus continues to this day.  The chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, is the current target of the Hindu nationalist BJP’s scorn.

In India’s recent general election, the BJP and Narendra Modi the prime minister were returned to power with an increased majority in the lower house of India’s parliament.  Their usual poor showing in West Bengal, even though improved in this election, has led to comments designed to arouse public ire — like the state has been turned into a mini-Pakistan.  It is worth noting that Gandhi’s killer was a former member of the RSS, leaving it to form an armed group.  Also the RSS is considered the ideological fountainhead of the BJP, and Mr. Modi continues to be a member. 

Not long ago Gauri Lankesh was murdered outside her home for expressing liberal views.  This time in the Kolkata disturbances against Banerjee, it was a bust of a secular reformist liberal that was decapitated:  the venerated Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891) was a lawyer, philosopher and reformist who contributed to rationalizing the Bengali alphabet and prose, and fought for Hindu widows’ right to remarry.

But the difference between Hindu nationalists and liberals is of earlier origin.  In the 19th century, social reformers like Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade were opposed by others like B. G. Tilak.  If Ranade supported the Age of Consent Bill raising the age when girls could be married from 10 to 12, then Tilak thought it to be an interference by foreigners in Indian customs and traditions.  Tilak had also formed cow protection societies raising communal tensions in his Bombay base — sound familiar to the present situation where meat eaters and leather tanners are often targeted?  Ranade sought to keep religion private and foresaw the potential conflict

The practice of celebrating the birthday of the god Ganesh was old and the ‘puja’ or worship usually performed in the home.  Tilak now encouraged a public ‘puja’, encouraging people to bring the Ganesh idols out of their homes and celebrate openly.  The festival of loud music and idols in procession continues to this day and is now spread out over ten days.

The consequences had been predicted by Tilak’s reformist adversaries, notably Justice Ranade and G. G. Agarkar, the latter a friend 0f Tilak who had become a critic.  In September 1893, Bombay suffered its first communal riot leaving nearly 100 dead and 500 injured.  Minor clashes had already occurred over the incessantly loud music and general disruption of daily activity.

The religious flavor so imparted to the independence movement gave pause to Muslims; the glue binding secular society was being dissolved.  Feeling marginalized, they soon formed the Muslim League to protect their rights, and not long thereafter began to demand a separate homeland … Pakistan. 

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