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Dr. Raghunath Anant Mashelkar, National Research Professor, has been the Director General of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Chairman of National Innovation Foundation, the President of Indian National Science Academy, Global Research Alliance and Institute of Chemical Engineers (UK). In recognition of his pioneering research contributions in polymer science & Engineering, he has been honoured as a Fellow of Royal Society, Foreign Fellow of US National Academy of Science as also Engineering.

He has received 42 honorary doctorates from many Universities around the world apart from the 60+ awards won by him which include the prestigious TWAS-Lenovo Science Prize, Business Week (USA) award of `Stars of Asia’& JRD Tata Corporate Leadership Award. He is the member of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister for over thirty years and has been honoured with India’s highest civilian award Padmashri, Padmabhushan and Padma Vibushan for his exemplary contributions for mankind

Dr. Debleena Bhattacharya, Associate editor, InnoHEALTH interviewed Dr. Raghunath Anant Mashelkar in November 2020, for his valuable scientific insights.

Q1. India post covid-19 is ready to reinvent itself. You have been at the helm of affairs from a Science &Technology perspective. What is your advice on the top 3 thrust areas for the country to be?

I would say that there are three D’s that  we need to concentrate on. These are technologies that will drive digitalisation, decentralisation and decarbonisation. Let me explain each of these.

First digitalisation. The dream of digital India is taking good shape. For example, it took India 25 years for 2G but Jio helped move India to 4G in just 3 years. India jumped  from 155th  position in mobile data consumption to the first position in just a matter of few months, thanks again to Jio. But digitisation of education, health, financial services, and also digitalisation for business transformation was proceeding slowly. Post COVID the digital transformation will take place at a rapid pace. Why?

Satya Nadella has saidthat two years of digital transformation took place in two months. A medical expert in UK has said that what would have happened  in tele medicine in 10 years time, has happened in just 10 days. And in USA, it is reported that what one would have seen in e-commerce in 10 years has  happened in 10 weeks.

Working from home, telemedicine, digital financial transactions are gathering pace. For instance, it was reported that India jumped to the top position in real time digital financial transactions by doing 41 million transactions per day.

But digitalisation will become critical in other areas. For example, within hundred days,  1.6 billion children around the world  went out of school, and home became their school and Indian children were no exception. Online learning by using digital technology became the new norm. This process was taking place slowly, it has suddenly accelerated. Indian poor suffer from digital depravation. Their children will suffer, if we do not do digitalisation.But no digital access would mean no access to education.

The second is decentralisation. Rather than aiming for mega factories in urban India, which causes the shift of migrant labour from rural India, we  need to aim for decentralised development. We need to promote technologies that will make it possible.

For example, 3 D printing, which is based on additive manufacturing, helps in decentralised manufacturing and does away with usual manufacturing, which involves huge supply chains, which create carbon foot print.

We need technologies that will create less carbon footprints. For instance, hydrogen produced from centralised large refineries is one option, which has the additional burden of  cost of transportation, but hydrogen produced from local biomass can do away with this problem, while also generating local employment.

Rather than having centralised medical testing facilities, creation of decentralised point of care non invasive user friendly testing technology will again lead to decentralisation. Shifting to decentralised micro grids for electricity  is already happening. In every endeavour, be it energy, water, health, and several other endeavours in manufacturing and services, development of technologies leading to decentralisation is possible.

The third is decarbonisation. The pandemic was a trailer of what would happen if there was a full fledged impact of our inability to control the climate change. Huge disruption of supply chains, also of demand, and also extremely rapid global transmission and amplification happened during the pandemic. Worst will happen with climate change  threatening our common future.

We need green growth and for that we will need green technologies, that will help us become  net carbon neutral in coming years. Renewable energy, be it solar or wind orbio based will be the key.We will have to focus on technologies that will help us build our new economies, like bio economy based on biofuels technologies, hydrogen economy based on hydrogen fuel cells technology, etc. We have to look at similar strategies fo technologies in other areas such as electronics, where our import from China is heavy.

Q2. When we look at healthcare, the new normal is digital delivery of health care. PM recently launched the National Digital Health Mission.  We have always resisted digitisation in traditional sectors in the country. Healthcare is one of them. What challenges and opportunities do you see for a diverse country like India with Digital Health? 

COVID-19 has amplified digital innovation  to historic levels. Healthcare organisations around the world are setting aggressive technology agendas to explore the enormous benefits of emerging digital technologies. The greatest shift in the pandemic is  towards digital health, and especiallyTelehealth. Customer adoption of Telehealth during the pandemic has skyrocketed worldwide. For instance,  the pandemic, in USA, use of Telehealthjumped to 46 percent which was just 11 percent in  2019. But India was no exception. 50 million Indians accessed healthcare online from March to May 2020, with 80 percent of all telemedicine users and patients using it for the first time.

Indian shortages in doctors per patient are not only severe but also very uneven. In India, 60 % of hospitals, 75 % of pharmacies, and 80 % of doctors are in urban areas. This creates the challenge of access for the rural areas. But we can meet with this challenge with Telehealth by ensuring better connectivity in villages, which is the agenda of GOI anyhow.

Internet of Things(IOT) —connected devices—is part of the Telehealth revolution. Smart devices have become more prominent as people have invited them into their lives to help fight COVID-19 and to share data with their doctors.

Dozee is a young Indian  start up,  which showed the power of IOT. It  created a contact free health monitor based on IOT,  that can be placed below a mattress and track vital parameters,  which can convert any bed into a continuous health monitoring unit, almost like converting normal beds into step down ICUs. Let me tell you about other breakthroughs in digital health created by Indian startups.

Mumbai-based startup uses an artificial intelligence powered solution to identify 24 abnormalities in a chest x-ray including ones indicative of a Covid 19 infection. And does it fast and very cheaply.

Hyderabad -based start-up Salcit technologies addressed  the issue of pre-screening of Covid 19 patients by re-proposing its mobile application  that uses artificial intelligence to analyse the coughing.

But there are concerns also about telehealth. In a recent healthcare consumer survey, 70 percent said that they were concerned about data privacy and businesses tracking their online activities, behaviours, locations, and interests. Digital health of the future has to address how we’re going to protect data privacy.

Q3. Has COVID-19 been a boon for some of the industries?

Technology companies (for example Apple, Amazon, Google)  that had adapted to platformisation did very well.  Jio Platform was a classical case, being able to get an amazing investment of US $15 billion during the pandemic.  Technology sectors got a big boost as working from home, disappearance of physical meetings and emergence of virtual meetings took place.  For example, Zoom Video Communications  grew exponentially during the pandemic.  Zoom began the year with a market cap of $19 billion and on  Oct 29, Zoom’s  market valuation crossed  $139 billion, surpassing the oil major Exxon Mobil!

The Online Gaming and Entertainment grew exponentially with Netflix adding  25.86 million subscribers in the first half of 2020,  giving the company its biggest growth spurt in its history. The E-Commerce growth was phenomenal, for instance, Amazon’s Market cap grew from $945 Billion to $1661 Billion since beginning on the year.

The same was the case with Fintech. For example, Zerodha, a broking firm jumped from  1 lakh new customers per month to about 3 lakh customers per month during lock-down period. UPI payments jumped from 1.3 billion in February to 2.07 billion in October. Google Pay grew 3X in September 2020

Closure of schools during the pandemic and demand on online learning suddenly catapulted the Edtech sector.   About 5X growth in funding was observed in just 12 months, with India  becoming  home to the second highest number of Edtech companies after US.

There are 4000 + active Edtech start-ups in India today. Among these new-age Indian edtech companies like Byju’s, Unacademy, Vedantu, Toppr and Whitehat Jr grew exponentially as consumers in India as well as outside lapped up their services.

Q4. How do you see the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative by the GOI? What does Atmanirbhar Bharat mean to you in today’s globalised world?

‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ means self reliant India. But in today’s globalised world,  idea of self-reliance cannot be about a return to import substitution,  or  to licence-permit raj and inspector raj  but an active participation in post-COVID global supply chains coupled with a strategy to attract  foreign direct investment.

Atmanirbhar Bharat must be built with Atmavishwas, with self confidence, it is all about standing up confidently in the VUCA world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. It is not about isolationism behind “narrow domestic walls” but it is about integration with the world.

Also ‘make in India’ has to be converted from assembled in India to invented and made in India.

In 2020, the situation has changed dramatically. With the Chinese Government and their companies being viewed with great suspicion by the global business community, India has a great opportunity to establish itself as a global manufacturing hub. India will be able to attract global investment provided it brings in the much needed reforms in terms of land, labour, law, logistics and cost of inputs. We must also insure our industry from vulnerabilities of different kinds and make it resilient.

Q5. What are these vulnerabilities? How do we make our industry resilient?

I have recently proposed ten tenets of resilience for Indian industry. These are adaptability, agility, resilience thinking, scenario-based planning, building a purpose-driven organisation, platformisation, digital readiness, ability to foster self-disruption, climate preparedness and autonomous innovation. Our industry must become future proof against all our current and future vulnerabilities.

What are these vulnerabilities? Let’s look at the Chinese import component in various sectors of the Indian economy. In descending order, it is Pharma API (68%), Electronics (45%), Manufactured Capital goods (32%) and the list goes on. Secondly, let us look at how strongly our exports are dependent on  Chinese imports to produce our own exports.

The Foreign Value Added (FVA)  contribution of China to India’s exports as a total FVA is overly dominated at 34.1% as against that from imports from Germany (5.2%), US(4.9%), South Korea(3.6%), etc. That’s a very heavy dependence. There is no other option but to reduce it. We can’t suddenly go Chinaless, we have to go for ‘less China’ and more precisely a pragmatic China +1  with a calibrated strategy.

Q6. Can you illustrate this calibrated strategy that you have in mind by taking some sector specific examples?

India is known as the pharmacy of the world in terms of manufacturing of very high quality generic drugs and therapeutics, which we export to the whole world. But this industry is  hugely dependent on the imports of APIs from China. We had shocks during the COVID times, because for some time, the Chinese exports stopped. Now new shocks are coming because China is recently increasing the prices of APIs. What happens if they altogether stop the supply of APIs just as they stopped the import of coal from Australia?

Now there is a welcome rethinking at a national level in terms of boosting indigenous API manufacturing. Government of India has acted decisively, rapidly and positively. The  proposed new incentives and investments , setting up of API parks, etc  are exactly the right steps.

We must, however,  remember that we stopped manufacturing not only because imported APIs were cheaper but also  because API manufacturing was polluting. So now we must gear up our great Indian strength in process chemistry and process engineering for green manufacturing, that will produce cost competitive APIs. That will be the challenge in our quest towards make in India, with invent in India.

We have already received these shocks of the penalties for just going  for  assembling and not inventing, when we make in India.

Q7. Very interesting. Can you sight some  more specific examples and say as to what are the lessons from these for building Atmanirbhar Bharat of our dreams?

Indian mobile phone manufacturers had begun dominating the domestic market. Home-grown brands, such as Micromax, Karbonn, Lava and Intex, held a 45 percent smartphone market share in 2015. However, demand for these brands was decimated quickly once Chinese competitors like Xiaomi, Vivo and Oppo entered the Indian market.

From a mere 9 percent market share in 2015, these chinese brands reached 68 percent by the end of 2019, while the Indian brands in the smartphone category plummeted from 45 percent to  a mere 7.5 percent by 2019, just in 4 years!

How did Indian brands lose their home turf despite having early movers’ advantages, in a short span of four years?

Indian companies largely adopted a trading business model. They were not Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs). Their  ‘manufacturing’ activity was limited to mere assembling,  since then they were importing Semi-Knocked Down (SKD) kits, instead of Completely Knocked Down (CKD) kits. Further there  was no product research or innovation done.

Chinese did aggressive  innovations, localisation to reduce their tariff tax and transportation cost, innovative customisation for local customers, and large economies of scale. The lessons for us on what not to do and also on what to do are obvious. Innovate or perish.

Q8. Can you give us some specific examples?

When the pandemic arrived, we had negligible diagnostic capability, no point of care diagnosis, no vaccines, no therapeutics, the biology and mechanism of action of the virus was unknown. Our scientists delivered  actionable science to the decision-maker that was timely.

Indian innovations during the COVID pandemic have made a difference in all areas. Also they came from young startups to big industrial enterprises, from universities to national research laboratories, from foundations to NGOS. All Indian hands have been on deck in times of crisis.

Q9. Has the Indian scientific community risen to the challenge posed by the pandemic? Have their actions given you the confidence that they will not just be at the periphery but at the centre, while building Atmanirbhar Bharat?

Let us just take Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, our largest chain of publicly funded R &D institutions.

In March, 38 laboratories of CSIR formed one ‘Team CSIR’, which quickly identified the unmet needs, assessed its strengths and capabilities for addressing the pandemic and adopted a multi-pronged strategy of working on diagnostics, surveillance, drugs and therapeutics, vaccines, hospital assistive devices, personal protective equipment and supply chain and logistics.

Over 100 technologies in the last 6 months have been developed with the strong partnership with major industries to MSMEs to start-ups. CSIR laboratories contributed to the molecular, digital surveillance alongwith the development  of diagnostics and  augmentation of  COVID-19 testing.

In  the  drugs and  therapeutics  vertical,  the strong  chemistry  expertise  and  experience  in pharmaceuticals  of  several  CSIR contributed  immensely  to the  development  of  repurposed  drugs  such  as Favipiravir,  Remedisvir,  Umifenovir  and  others for  COVID-19.

They also had world class breakthroughs. Let’s just talk about one world class breakthrough that is in the news. IGIB laboratory of CSIR created a game changing innovative test called FELUDA, which  uses cutting edge CRISPR technology for detection of genomic sequence of novel coronavirus with 98% plus selectivity and specificity.

Its main advantages are rapidity (detection in just one hour),  affordability (Rs 500 only), relative ease of use and non-dependency on expensive Q-PCR machines.A company from the TATA group  is bringing it out in the market, with an aggressive drive  of these diagnostic test kits. Just imagine we were importing millions of them from China, when the pandemic started earlier this year!

Q10. How do you feel Startup India, the flagship program of the GOI to encourage private entrepreneurship can play a role in Atma Nirbhar Bharat initiative? What type of incentive should entrepreneurs provide?

Indian startup ecosystem has risen magnificently to the challenge. Here are some examples first in health and then in education.

Mylab startup in Pune is nearly all-female team of researchers, that developed a PCR diagnostic tool using RT-PCR in a record setting six weeks. It was the first Indian medical kit to receive the commercial approval from CDSCO.

Take education now. Because of the lockdown, classrooms have been forced to shift online and digitise in a short span of time. Ed-tech startups  have gained immense popularity post lockdown. At least 15 ed-tech startups including Vedantu, Classplus etc. have raised funds during COVID-19 and even before that BYJU’s and Unacademy had raised large investments.

Six Indian start-ups beat the pandemic to become unicorns this year. They are Pinelabs, Razorpay, Zerodha, Unacademy, Postman and Nykaa. The way to incentivise start-ups is by making life hassle-free for them.

For instance,  I chair the Maharashtra State innovation Society. We created a new start up policy with several incentives for them but also a special tendering process for the start ups, so that they get work orders from the government departments based on their excellence and not get handicapped due to  of lack of experience, which is the handicap of a normal Government tendering process. I am happy to see that different states are competing with each other now in this space!

Q11. Recently, the GOI came up with the new education policy (NEP). What improvements would you suggest in the same if we have to create a workforce that is capable of undertaking all types of roles required to make Indian Atma Nirbhar?

The NEP is excellent. However, in terms of the workforce, I suggest that nationwide audit of all the higher educational technological institution should be undertaken to understand the current level of preparedness in terms of exponential technologies, industry 4.0 and the needs of future jobs, that will replace the old jobs in Industry 3.0.

These exponential technologies, as you know,  are Internet of things (IOT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) (Machine Learning),  Robotics Process Automation (RPA), Virtual/Augmented/Mixed Reality, Sensors, 3D Printing, 3D Visualisation, Mobile Internet and Cloud, Big Data Analytics/Open Data, Blockchain. In what way are they exponential?

New skills in the era of industry 4.0 will be the ability of the students with complexity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, cognitive flexibility, creativity, etc. Considering creativity, India’s education system has given more importance to logical thinking and reasoning capabilities, but now, with Al, the new jobs will be more focused on creative thinking.

Universities of the future need to transition towards a learner-centred education model where learning and work go hand in hand. Customised learning modules coupled with adaptive, dynamic and agile life-long learning should be the focus of the universities to create workforce with long-term sustainability.

Indian academia must adjust to the power of open disruptions such as open knowledge (Udacity, Courser, a Kahn), open-source development/collaboration (GitHub), open innovation (Quirky) and open research (Materials project, OSDD).

The disruptions post-COVID in terms of huge acceleration of digitalisation must be factored into NEP, which was written in the pre-COVID era. India will have to move from ‘right to education’ to ‘right education’ to ‘right way of education’ in view of the great disruption that exponential technology is going to create. NEP, that was framed in the pre-COVID era must factor this in now.

Further, new exponential technology will be high technology. It will be based on a solid foundation of high science. India must continuously raise its investments in high science, so that India’s high science base remains strong and globally competitive.

Interviewed by Dr. Debleena Bhattacharya, Associate Editor, InnoHEALTH interviewed him where he shared his insightful perspective about the recent pandemic situation and the way India can bounce back with speed, scale and sustainability.

InnoHEALTH magazine digital team

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