Tag Archives | innovation

In Times of India: No Room for Jugaad on Mars

I write in the Sunday Times of India on how India must pursue high excellence like reaching Mars and get rid of the culture of jugaad.

Think of numbers about Mars. One jumps out at you. Rs 450 crore (approx $75 million). India crossed a technological milestone this week by successfully injecting a spacecraft into Martian orbit. While celebrating the fact that India has been able to achieve an elusive goal, we also want to celebrate the idea that ours is the cheapest mission to make it to Mars. A successful series of ads from Maruti Suzuki in 2010 showcases our love for the “low-cost” like no other. In one ad that was spooky in its foresight, a NASA tour guide is showing off a top-notch new spaceship meant for Jupiter. The first question that an Indian visitor asks is, “Kitna deti hai?”

ISRO did not get to Mars by using duct tape and M-seal to make the orbiter work. ISRO is not trying to repair cars by refashioning cycle chains. It takes several minutes for the ISRO command centre to beam a message to the orbiter and an equal length of time to hear back. The “thoda adjust kardenge” attitude of jugaad with people tinkering on the fly would have failed like a wet cracker here. ISRO built a top-class launch vehicle and payload, and we should not cheapen its success by harping on any number. India’s space programme is a testament to a culture of tackling hard challenges because they are hard, not because they are easy. Of doing the best, and not the cheapest. Jugaad in India was born as a necessity in impoverished conditions, and instead of elevating it to godhood we should be trying to escape a culture of jugaad as quickly as possible. ISRO is showing us the way.

[Full Article: No Room for Jugaad on Mars, September 28, 2014]

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A Culture of Boldness

In 2009, there was an article posted on by an anonymous Chinese strategist saying that ‘If China takes a little action, the so-called Great Indian Federation can be broken up’. The notion of the Indian state being that fragile sounds laughable in 2013, as it did in 2009 – notwithstanding separatist movements in certain corners of the country. But it wasn’t always so.

When India became independent in 1947, it numbered among the boldest experiments in democracy the world had ever seen. There was a lot of skepticism that the Indian union would last any significant length of time. That such a plurality of peoples, cultures, languages and attitudes could have a single imagined identity of ‘India’ was ludicrous to many. But India proved them wrong. And the nation did so by ensuring universal franchise from the very beginning. And by having a constitution designed for great social reform.

The boldness with which India began its tryst with destiny has become a rare commodity in recent years. Poverty, malnutrition, subsistence employment and all the other problems that ail India are used as convenient excuses to cover up what is essentially a failure of imagination. We want to develop ‘low cost’ technologies instead of wanting to be the best at something.

The nuclear tests of 1997 were the last, really bold step that the nation took, with the golden quadrilateral highway programme perhaps coming close.

As Saurabh Chandra noted on twitter a few days ago, ideas as ‘crazy’ as Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is ideal for a country like India to adopt. Like the country leapfrogged over landline phone connections to cellphones in almost every household today, only our imagination is limiting us from doing the same in dozens of other fields. We mistake jugaad for innovation and get lost on inventiveness with terms like ‘appropriate technologies’.

We can use a lot more of the boldness this nation was born with – in technology, social reform, governance, art and in every conceivable field of human endeavour. And it is that boldness that will allow us to be independent in every sense of that word. Happy 67th Independence Day, India.

Do take a look at the Independence day posts from my fellow bloggers: Sarah Farooqui, Saurabh Chandra, Priya Ravichandran and Nitin Pai.

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In Pragati: Not quite over the moon

I write in Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review this week about the Indian space programme and the challenges it is facing today.

Space exploration is a public venture in more than one sense. It has traditionally been taken up by nations and it rarely escapes public regard and reason, be it for better or for worse. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) completed its one hundredth mission last September, by launching two French satellites into a low earth orbit. While space exploration is a public venture, discussions around it in India remain limited and fall into two categories. There is an endless refrain about how a poverty-stricken country like India can spend public money on space, and there is often significant discussion around the popular scientific and technical aspects of space missions. Beyond this, there is little critical debate around what the Indian space programme needs to do to stay relevant and useful to India at large.

Third, ISRO needs to accelerate its transformation to an outward-facing organisation. ISRO developed its culture of innovation in isolation, but today foreign states, international and Indian corporations are all capable and willing to partner with India. As a credible player in space, ISRO is in a position to do so on equal footing. Space and defence are two high technology sectors where having a diverse set of innovators allows for greater spinoffs that benefit the larger economy. While the United States and other countries are reducing the size of their much larger space programmes and laying off talented people in the process, India has the opportunity to absorb as many of them as possible. FDI in space is an equally attractive option that has unfortunately garnered little discussion to date. Indian commercial needs, especially of transponders for broadcasting TV channels, has been growing at a faster rate than what ISRO can provide for. This begs the question of whether commercial space technology needs to be provided by a monopoly public institution, or if some competition can be incrementally introduced.

Thanks to human ingenuity and the establishment of strong institutions, Indian space exploration has come a long way since the launch of a sounding rocket in 1963. Going forward, the Indian Space Research Organisation has to aim high and pursue lofty goals like human spaceflight, take the public into confidence and embrace a more open culture of innovation.
[Full article – Pragati, July 2013]

We cannot stop today at just cheering successful satellite launches, but need to expect a lot more from ISRO. To paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson, going into low earth orbit is to boldly go where many have gone before. The Indian space programme needs loftier goals to truly benefit Indian society at large.

PS. You may also be interested in reading the very first post on this blog, on why we should stop using poverty as an excuse to reduce public spending on space.

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