Vimarsh on Technological Aspects of Indian Strategy by Shri Sridhar Vembu, Founder & CEO, Zoho Corporation, India
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In the contemporary Information age, technology has become an integral and ever-present part of every nation’s society. Technology has empowered citizens in various ways, including ease of access to technology and States’ economic sectors benefit through businesses in digital space. It is the era in which technology can be utilised as a strategic tool for the nation to turn the wheels of growth while protecting its sovereign interests. Keeping the continuity of monthly discourse on contemporary issues, the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), on 07 September 2022, organised Vimarsh—a public lecture series—on “Technological Aspects of Indian Strategy”, in which the guest speaker— Shri Sridhar Vembu, addressed the audience over the theme threaded as in— Rural Economic Revival, Technological Self-Reliance, and Rejuvenation of India’s Civilisation. Shri Sridhar Vembu is the founder and CEO of the Zoho Corporation, India.

In his welcoming and introductory remarks, Dr Arvind Gupta (Director, VIF) highlighted the contributions of Shri Vembu (also referred to as “the speaker” hereafter) in the field of technology central to India’s interests, including establishing Research & Development (R&D) centres in rural India. Setting up a state-of-the-art R&D centre in rural India is remarkable as rural India is always associated with backwardness and labour migration issues. Dr Gupta informed that during his earlier conversations with the guest speaker, Shri Vembu pointed to the need to create a technological ecosystem in rural India to meet the aspirations of young minds. Along with establishing R&D centres, Shri Vembu is actively involved in rural schools’ socio-economic development and skill sets. The model of R&D centres in rural India must be included in Indian strategy, especially in the area of science and technology. Dr Gupta stated that India had a good track record in science and technology development since ancient times; even during the colonial period, the efforts of Indian scientists received several accolades, including the Nobel Prize. The contribution of Indian scientists encouraged the growth of science and technology in independent India. Insufficient investment or expenditure on R&D and fragmented efforts are affecting growth in technology, which is dynamic. As young people are refraining from entering fundamental research, much focus has been shifted to applied research and services. As a result, dependencies have been developed for several components, including intelligent chips, rare earth materials, and electronics, and the supply chains are not passing through India. Such scenarios give birth to a “brain drain” situation where talent is going outside India. The bigger question is how we shall address the “brain drain” issue despite having the required resources and elements.

Addressing the audience, Shri Vembu emphasised that in the era of competition among States, multi-millionaire corporations, and business magnets, we should not be bothered about so-called rankings as a parameter of success or wealth. As for wealth, we must have a mindset that we are the caretaker of these assets meant for our community and our nation. The ego-driven consumption of resources is one of the main problems that the world is facing in modern times. Large cities breed competition and ego-driven consumption, making contentment much harder to achieve. Shri Vembu highlighted the importance of the connection between technology and civilisation and stated that we must connect ourselves to our civilisational ethos. Any strategy must mesh with cultural values; strategy and culture are inseparable. A self-confident nation is essential, but it has to be rooted in humility; as the old wisdom suggests, "the prosperity which is not rooted in contentment destroys the earth.” The word contentment is deep-rooted in Indian culture, civilisation, and Dharma.

Shri Vembu shared his journey from the United States to India in 2019, his “romantic” idea to uplift the small village in the Tenkasi district in Tamil Nadu, India. The speaker highlighted that the underlying assumption that drives mainstream economic theory is that villages will continue to decline, and urbanisation is the only path to prosperity. This has become almost a conventional wisdom in modern economic theory. Shri Vembu recalled the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, who had rejected the image of rural areas as hopelessly backward and the rural people must be “rescued” and urbanised. In a similar context, the speaker shared that China’s Communist Party opted for urbanising its population as a part of its policy goalfor 25 years. However, in the last 02-03 years, China adopted a crucial change as in “politburo reverse response” on the same policy because they [China] realised that if not reversing the existing policy, it would ruin China and end its civilisation.

Shri Vembu emphasised that there can be no Dharma without reverence for nature and everything around us. Are rural areas economically doomed? Answering the question, the speaker talked about the fundamental rural economic problem, citing examples from his interaction with people facing such issues— where college graduates are employed with remuneration of merely ₹3,000 to ₹5,000 per month. Recalling the era where 100 years ago, villages in India had a self-reliant local and regional economy, supported by an efficient ecosystem of farmers, oil makers, potters, masons, goldsmiths, Vaidyas (physicians), priests, astrologers, and many others. But, over some time, the descendants of the rural artisans have become landless labour or urban migrants in the slum— neglecting their strong roots in the village. The speaker also mentioned the Principle of Economic Balance where our rural village has demands for motorcycles, smartphones, refrigerators, and a wide variety of advanced manufactured goods, and for payback— rural people have no choice but to sell off lands and become migrant labour in other cities in India/abroad, get into debt, and rely on government welfare programmes. We shall not treat rural citizens as consumers, but we must equip them to become producers.

The speaker suggested the mantra for rural revival— creating a balance through producing manufactured goods in rural areas. Through District-Driven Development Model (3DM), we must create clusters of manufacturing capabilities in every district, mainly focussing on the production of household goods. Under the 3DM, a variety of household goods can be made in district-level clusters by small-to-midsized enterprises. As employment will be generated from the framework, it will keep people closer to their roots, which is desirable. As a part of raising the production of household goods, Shri Vembu made some recommendations—

  1. Strongly encouraging and incentivising the production of household goods by relying on tariff and non-tariff barriers (2-3 years plan) and creating employment.
  2. We need to import capital goods, but we must focus on a 05–10-year plan for indigenous production and leap-frog in capital goods in the form of a tech R&D initiative.
  3. Through R&D investments, we can retain our talent and avoid “brain drain”.

Citing the transition of the mainframe to the Personal Computer (PC), Shri Vembu confirmed his belief in a broader capital goods revolution, where India could lead the wave and leap-frog over other nations. Shri Vembu highlighted the critical technological trend— Mechatronics, a holistic combination of mechanical, electrical, electronics, and software. The speaker stated that the fundamentals of mechatronics could be applied to the phenomenon of capital goods. Applying mechatronics in capital goods will positively impact the economy, where small-scale, decentralised, rural production becomes economically viable. The speaker also admired India’s Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC) standards attempting to open the e-commerce ecosystem to break marketplaces' monopolies further. Similar efforts, such as promoting standards and machinery interoperability, pushing software-driven machines, and lowering their cost, should be incorporated for machine tools, mainly those that help make household consumer goods.

In the conclusion of his address, the speaker put forward an action plan—

  1. A 100-day effort to identify 100 crucial technologies in which India must achieve the best in the world.
  2. Indian private sector must be strongly encouraged, incentivised, and pressurised to invest in R&Ds.
  3. As for ranking, India must rank Indian companies and compare them with global leaders annually on where we [India] stand on those 100 critical technologies.
  4. Likewise, we have Arjuna awards for sports people applauding their achievements. We must encourage Vishwakarma Awards for engineers.
  5. Premier institutions, such as IITs, IISc, and Government R&D labs, must play an essential role in supporting, assisting private sector R&D, and publishing standards for capital goods and technologies.

By implementing all these measures effectively, we nourish the roots of our civilisation by enabling the rural areas to be robust and self-reliant or Atmanirbhar.

Event Date 
September 7, 2022

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