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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

Opposing Hindutava: US conference raises troubling questions

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Controversy over a recent ‘Dismantling Global Hindutava’ conference that targeted a politically charged expression of Hindu nationalism raises questions that go far beyond the anti-Muslim discriminatory policies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and ruling party.

The conference and responses to it highlight a debilitating deterioration in the past two decades, especially since 9/11, of the standards of civility and etiquette that jeopardize civil, intelligent, and constructive debate and allow expressions of racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes to become mainstream.

Organizers of the conference that was co-sponsored by 53 American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers, insisted that they distinguish between Hinduism and Hindutava, Mr. Modi’s notion of Hindu nationalism that enables discrimination against and attacks on India’s 200 million Muslims.

The distinction failed to impress critics who accused the organizers of Hinduphobia. Some critics charged that the framing of the conference demonstrated a pervasiveness of groupthink in academia and an unwillingness to tackle similar phenomena in other major religions, particularly Islam.

The campaign against the conference appeared to have been organized predominantly by organizations in the United States with links to militant right-wing Hindu nationalist groups in India, including some with a history of violence. The conference’s most militant critics threatened violence against conference speakers and their families, prompting some participants to withdraw from the event.

Opponents of political Islam noted that Western academia has not organized a similar conference about the politicization of the faith even though powerful states like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have lobbied Western capitals against the Muslim Brotherhood and its Turkish and Qatari supporters with notable successes in France, Austria, Belgium and Britain.

Academia was likely to have been hesitant to tackle political Islam because Islamophobia is far more prevalent than Hinduphobia.

Moreover, perceptions of political Islam, are far more complex and convoluted. Islam is frequently conflated with political expressions and interpretations of the faith run a gamut from supremacist and conservative to more liberal and tolerant. They also lump together groups that adhere and respect the election process and ones that advocate violent jihad.

Scholars and analysts declared an end to political Islam’s heyday with the military coup in Egypt in 2013 that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother, who was elected president in Egypt’s first and only free and fair poll. Political Islam’s alleged swansong loomed even larger with this year’s setbacks for two of the most moderate Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Morocco as well as hints that Turkey may restrict activities of Islamists operating in exile from Istanbul.

A more fundamental criticism of the framing of the Hindutava conference is its failure to put Hindutava in a broader context.

That context involves the undermining of the social cohesion of societies made up of collections of diverse ethnic and religious communities since Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The attacks fueled the rise of ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism not only in the Hindu world but also in the worlds of other major religions.

These include politicized ultra-conservative Islam, politicized Evangelism and Buddhist nationalism. Right-wing religious nationalism in Israel, unlike Islamism and politicized Evangelism, is shaped by ultra-nationalism rather than religious ultra-conservatism.

The worlds of religious ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism are often mutually reinforcing.

Scholar Cynthia Miller-Idriss’s assessment of the impact of Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States is equally true for India or Europe.

“In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the rise of violent jihadism reshaped American politics in ways that created fertile ground for right-wing extremism. The attacks were a gift to peddlers of xenophobia, white supremacism, and Christian nationalism: as dark-skinned Muslim foreigners bent on murdering Americans, Al-Qaeda terrorists and their ilk seemed to have stepped out of a far-right fever dream,” Ms. Miller-Idriss said.

“Almost overnight, the United States and European countries abounded with precisely the fears that the far-right had been trying to stoke for decades,” she added.

The comparison of politically charged militant nationalist and ultra-conservative expressions of diverse religions takes on added significance in a world that has seen the emergence of civilizationalist leaders.

Scholar Sumantra Bose attributes the rise of religious nationalism in non-Western states like Turkey and India to the fact that they never adopted the Western principle of separation of state and church.

Instead, they based their secularism on the principle of state intervention and regulation of the religious sphere. As a result, the rejection of secularism in Turkey and India fits a global trend that conflates a dominant religious identity with national identity.

Sarah Kamali, the author of a recently published book that compares militant white nationalists to militant Islamists in the United States, notes similar patterns while drawing parallels between far-right xenophobes and militant Islamists.

Militant Islamists’ “sense of victimhood […] is similar to that of their White nationalist counterparts in that [it] is constructed and exploited to justify their violence… Both mutually – and exclusively – target America for the purpose of claiming the nation as theirs and theirs alone, either as a White ethno-state or as part of a global caliphate,” Ms. Kamali writes.

Similarly, the Taliban defeat of a superpower energized militant Islamists, as well as proponents of Hindutava, with Islamophobic narratives spun by Mr. Modi’s followers gaining new fodder with the assertion that India was being encircled by Muslim states hosting religious extremists.

Modi is essentially helping the recruitment of…jihadist groups by taking such a hard, repressive line against the Islamic community in India, who are now being forced to see themselves being repressed,” said Douglas London, the CIA’s counter-terrorism chief for South and South-West Asia until 2019.

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South Asia

Panjshir – the last stronghold of democracy in Afghanistan

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The Taliban’s rapid advance in Afghanistan has briefly stalled only in the face of strong resistance mounted by the people of the country’s recalcitrant mountainous province of Panjshir. Whoever controls the region’s passes controls the routes leading to China and Tajikistan, but to seize this mountain valley and, most importantly, to keep it permanently under control has always been a problem for all invaders. Eager to let the international community see for the first time in 40 years a united Afghanistan as a sign of their final victory, the radical Islamists were prepared to make any sacrifices, including filling the approaches to the Panjshir Valley up with dead bodies. Moreover, the Taliban’s longtime ally Pakistan, which, regardless of its status of an ally of the United States, has provided them with direct military support. In fact, Islamabad admitted its less than successful role when it proposed signing a truce to find and take out the bodies of its special Ops forces who had died during the attack on the valley. However, drones flown by Pakistani operators, professional commandos (possibly once trained by the Americans), air support and other pleasant gifts from the allies eventually bore fruit letting the Taliban be photographed in front of the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Massoud Sr., the famous “Lion of Panjshir,” who controlled the valley from 1996 to 2001. The Islamists also took control of the province’s central city of Bazarak.

Having deprived the province much of its Internet access, the radicals, who control most of the Afghan territory, found it easier to wage an information war. Their claims of victories were now more difficult to contest, even though information about their retreat did reach the outside world. Reflective of the heavy losses suffered for the first time by the Taliban and their allies – the Haqqani Network and other remnants of al-Qaeda, as well as by the regular Pakistani army is the brief truce arranged by Islamabad. Looks like the mountain passes leading to Panjshir were literally filled up with corpses…

As for Massoud Jr., the young lion of Panjshir, and his supporters, they retreated to the mountains. In fact, they had nowhere to fall back to. The problem of Afghanistan is its ethnic diversity. Thus, the country is home to 23 percent of ethnic Tajiks, most of whom live in the Panjshir Valley. However, the Taliban rely mainly on the Pashtuns, who account for over 50 percent of the country’s population. As for the new masters of Afghanistan, they are ready to carry out ethnic cleansings and even commit outright genocide in order to bring the valley into submission. To make this happen they are going to resettle there their fellow Pashtun tribesmen. Local men aged between 12 and 50 are already being taken away and, according to the National Resistance Front, no one has seen them again. However, due to the information blockade, the Taliban will not hesitate to refute such facts. One thing is clear: Massoud’s Tajik fighters and the government troops that joined them are fighting for their lives, and there will be no honorable surrender!

The main question now is whether the young lion of Panjshir will receive the same support as his father once did, or will find himself without ammunition and food. After all, the Taliban leaders have reached certain agreements with the United States. Suffice it to mention the numerous remarks made, among others, by President Biden himself about the Taliban now being different from what they were 20 years ago.

But no, the Taliban`s remain the same – they have only hired new PR people. Meanwhile, hating to admit their defeat, Brussels and Washington will have to engage in a dialogue with those who are responsible for the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and for the numerous terrorist attacks in Europe. The Taliban are pretending to make minor cosmetic concessions. Minor indeed, since they are still depriving women of the opportunity to work and study, destroying higher and secondary education and brutally clamping down on people who simply do not want to live according to religious norms.

The United States is actually helping the “new-look” Taliban. Their potential opponents, including the famous Marshal Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, left the country under various guarantees, and Washington is trying to keep them from any further participation in the conflict. Democratic politicians naively believe that by creating an Islamic state and ending the protracted civil war in Afghanistan the Taliban will ensure stability in the region and will not move any further. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan do not think so and are strengthening their borders and preparing to protect their Afghan compatriots, because they know full well that the Taliban`s are not a national political party; they are a radical Islamist ideology.

It knows no borders and spreads like a cancerous tumor, destroying all pockets of Western culture. It can only be stopped by force. However, the two decades of US military presence in Afghanistan showed that Washington, which quickly took control of the country in 2001, simply had no strategy to keep it. The Afghans were given nothing that would appear to them more attractive than the ideas of radical Islam. As a result, the few Afghans who embrace European values are fleeing the country, and those who, like Massoud Jr., decided to fight for their freedom, now risk being left to face their enemy all by themselves.

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South Asia

Misjudgements in India’s Afghan policy

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India’s Afghan policy has always been obsessed with the desire to deny Pakistan the “strategic depth” that Pakistan, according to India’s perception, yearns. If India had a pragmatic policy, it would not have found itself whimpering and whining like a rueful baby over spilt milk.

India supported the invasion of Afghanistan by both the former Soviet Union and the USA, both losers. President Trump mocked Modi for having built a library for the Afghan people. Trump expected India to contribute foot soldiers, and by corollary, body packs to the Afghan crisis. India played all the tricks up its sleeves to convince the USA to make India a party to the US-Taliban talks. But the USA ditched not only Modi but also Ashraf Ghani to sign the Doha peace deal with the Taliban.

India’s external affairs minister still calls the Taliban government “a dispensation”. Interestingly, the USA has reluctantly accepted that the Taliban government is a de facto government.

Humanitarian crisis

The United Nations’ Development Programme has portrayed a bleak situation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is faced with multifarious challenges. These include prolonged drought and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, upheaval caused by the current political transition: frozen foreign reserves, and rising poverty.

About 47 per cent of its people live below the dollar-a-day poverty line. If the poverty line is pushed to $2 a day, 90 per cent of Afghans would be poor. About 55 per cent of Afghans are illiterate.

Ninety seven percent of the population is at risk of sinking below the poverty line, As such, Afghanistan teeters on the brink of universal poverty. Half of the population is already in need of humanitarian support. The UNDP has proposed to access the most vulnerable nine million people by focusing on essential services, local livelihoods, basic income and small infrastructure.

Currently, the gross national product of Afghanistan is around $190 billion, just a little more than the $160 billion economy of Dhaka city. The country’s legal exports of goods and services every year account for $1 billion. It imports$6 billion worth of goods and services every year.

About 80 per cent of world production of opium comes from Afghanistan. Every year, Afghanistan produces nearly 10,000 tons of opium and the revenue generated from it amounts to $7 billion approximately. About 87 per cent of the income of opium producing farmers comes exclusively from this single product. The illicit opium export by Afghanistan is worth $2 billion every year. The role of opium is significant.

About 80 per cent of public expenditure in this country is funded by grants. Since 2002, the World Bank has provided Afghanistan with a total of $5.3 billion as development and emergency relief assistance. The IMF earmarked for Afghanistan $400 million in Special Drawing Rights (SDR) for combating the Covid-19 pandemic in the country.

The United States has frozen about $10 billion worth of Afghan assets held at various banks in Afghanistan. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has withdrawn the $400 million worth of SDRs allocated earlier to Afghanistan for addressing the Covid-19 crisis. The World Bank has not said anything as of yet, but it may also put restrictions on its funding to Afghanistan.

India’s lip service to Afghanistan

India provided around $3 billion in aid to fallen U.S.-backed Afghan government.  It trained the Afghan army and police. But now it is not willing to pay or pledge a penny to the Taliban government. Look at the following Times of India report:

“India did not pledge any money to the Taliban ruled Afghanistan probably for the first time in 20 years. That it has not done so as Jaishanker declared … (At UN, India offers support to Afghanistan but does not pledge money. The Times of India September 14, 2021).The Hindu, September 11, 2021

India’s tirade against Afghanistan

Indian policymakers and experts say they see no guarantees that Afghanistan won’t become a haven for militants. “Afghanistan may be poised to become a bottomless hole for all shades of radical, extremist and jihadi outfits somewhat similar to Iraq and Syria, only closer to India,” said Gautam Mukhopadhaya, who was India’s ambassador in Kabul between 2010 to 2013.  He added that the Taliban victory could have an “inspirational effect” not only for Kashmir’s rebels but wherever religiously-driven groups operate in the broader region… Lt. Gen Deependra Singh Hooda, former military commander for northern India between 2014-2016, said militant groups based across the border in Pakistan would “certainly try and push men” into Kashmir, following the Taliban victory in Afghanistan  (With Taliban’s rise, India sees renewed threat in Kashmir, Star Tribune September 14, 2021). “Meanwhile, Rajnath Singh conveyed to Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton that the rise of the Taliban raises serious security concerns for India and the region. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appealed for an injection of cash into Afghanistan to avoid an economic meltdown that would spark a “catastrophic” situation for the Afghan people and be a “gift for terrorist groups.”). Afghan economic meltdown would be ‘gift for terrorists,’ says U.N. chief” (The Hindu, September 11, 2021)

 India’s former envoy to Kabul, Ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhyay is skeptical of the conciliatory statements by the taliban government. He advises: “We should welcome recent statements by Stanekzai and Anas Haqqani that suggest some independence from the ISI. But we should also ask some hard questions and judge them by their actions and words, and not let down our guard, both with regard to our multiple security concerns such as whether they can protect us from the Ias and ISI, sever ties with other terror groups, especially those supported by the ISI against India, deny Pakistan strategic depth, and preserve and build on our historic P2P and trade ties; and a genuinely inclusive govt in Afghanistan that accommodates the majority of Afghans who want the rights and freedoms enshrined in the 2004 Afghan Constitution or at least acceptable to the Afghan people.” (Taliban move to form govt, Naya Afghanistan brings new challenge for India, September 2, 2021).

Concluding remarks

India wants a “central role’ to be given to the UN in Afghanistan. India’s mumbo jumbo implies that Afghanistan should be made a UN protectorate. Indian media is never tired of calling the Afghan government a bunch of terrorists. They have even launched video games about it.

India needs to rethink how it can mend fences with Afghanistan that it regards a hothouse of terrorists.

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