By Mukesh Ambani
India, a nation of a billion people, is well on the way to becoming one of the three largest economies of the world. But there is another reality. India’s average gross national income per capita at $750 is nearly 20 per cent lower than that across all 53 African nations.
There is, therefore an urgent need to bridge the chasm between India’s potential and its realisation. This is important not only for India; it is equally critical for the world. An Indian transformation will be the forerunner of a fundamental global change in terms of reducing regional disparity and, also, in transforming the quality of life of the people all over because one out of every six human beings on this planet lives in this country.
To realise this vision, India must do several things on a priority basis. However, on top of my agenda is the need to integrate technology with every aspect of our economy and make it a major tool of addressing our social problems.
Global economic superpowers are technology leaders. About 28 per cent of the GDP of USA is contributed by technology sectors. Extensive use of technology can bring about transformation in several spheres in India also. For example, technology can help improve agricultural productivity significantly. I am convinced that agriculture has the potential to re-emerge as a strong engine of economic growth and social development. Farmers in India are subject to the highest risks in the economy.
They face climatic uncertainties, have no dependable assurances about off-take of their output, get poor prices for produce, are subject to market manipulation, have to do with poor availability and poor quality of inputs and, above all, pay among the highest costs for private financing.
Unfortunately, they have to follow a model based on low value crops, low investments, low yields and low revenues. They use resources sub-optimally, whether it is land, water, crop nutrition and crop protection. This is an irony. Because India has the highest proportion of arable land, as compared to most countries, notably USA and China. Indeed more than 30 per cent of Asia’s irrigated land is in India.
India has the potential to enhance agricultural production by over ten times. Israel produces US $5.8 million in agriculture output per square kilometre of arable land. India produces just US $88,000.
The Economic Survey 2006-07 has enlisted some of the structural weaknesses of the agriculture sector which include exhaustion of the yield potential of new high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice, unbalanced fertilizer use, low seeds replacement rate and low yield per unit area across almost all crops. Agricultural growth has also suffered since rain-fed areas still constitute about 65 per cent of the total net sown area.
The same story is true for water. India uses only one-fourth of the 4,000 billion cubic metres of fresh water that is available each year. This is caused by topographical constraints, uneven distribution of water resources over space and time and low dam capacity. Water productivity in agriculture is only about one-fourteenth of the best in class.
We missed the industrial revolution and were left behind. Fortunately, we were able to catch up because independence from colonial rule was followed by establishment of institutions of higher learning which produced a large reservoir of skilled manpower.
Economic reform unshackled the entrepreneurial energies of our young generation and globalisation opened new vistas. We have to build further on this foundation and seize opportunities knocking at our doors.
We did a great job with the green revolution with high yielding hybrid crops. But since then, our technological progress in agriculture has been slow. We must ensure that India does not miss the biotechnology revolution in agriculture. Today, India needs to develop technology for crops that are drought resistant and saline tolerant.
Technology can also transform Indian society. It can help atomise power to the individual level. True power lies in the ability of every individual to influence and shape his or her destiny. The world, in my view, will move from power among groups to power within an individual. Technology will bring about this transformation. Technology can enable every individual to choose, communicate, collaborate and create.
Following dramatic technological revolution, every individual can have the power to tailor-make a product or select a service according to his or her choices and preferences — whether it is an automobile, a hotel room ambience or a cloned pet. Every individual can have the power to communicate with every other individual in the world wherever, whenever and by any mode.
Every individual can have the ability to collaborate and engage on individual or group activities with anyone else in the world. Every individual can have the ability to create or produce most products or services.
Man’s expedition to new frontiers is eternal. The quest to gain new insights is infectious. Such infective inquisitiveness can be increased by extensive education, awareness and earnings, specially by lifting those at the bottom of the pyramid. There are many frontiers barely explored — the ability to alter the form, duration and quality of life, the untapped power of the mind, the mysteries of the universe and the secrets of ocean depths. Technology can help India and Indians seek new frontiers.
India has the necessary ingredients to become a technology-enabled country. It has a critical mass of educated and skilled young men and women, some of the world’s best institutions for study of science and technology, and the productive energies of a vibrant private sector. We need to scale up these endowments and give our people and our institutions the freedom to rise to global heights.
India must focus on a defining set of transformational technologies. To my mind, special focus is needed in areas of modern medicine, alternate energy, networked communications, public transportation, performance materials, biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics and automation and aerospace.
Many technologies in the developed world have emerged from the private sector. These have been facilitated by sizeable public funding for research, surpluses from traditional businesses of large corporations, protection for intellectual capital, vibrant venture capital participation, competitive market place and, above all, a demanding environment for academic researchers.
Locations of centres of innovation in the private sector, higher public spend on research and pursuit of research by leading companies will bring about greater innovation in India.
India must be an innovation powerhouse if it wishes to be a global economic power. India must place technology in the highest quadrant of her development agenda.
(Mukesh Ambani is Chairman and Managing Director, Reliance Industries Limited)