India embraces technology as a tool to reach development goals

Rajagopala Chidambaram. File 2008. (Credit: World Economic Forum swiss-image.ch/Monika Flueckiger)

India’s long- and short-term vision to address poverty includes plans to increase energy production and scientific collaboration to expand access to technology.

Rajagopala Chidambaram, principal scientific adviser to the government of India, covered a wide range of technology initiatives ranging from the expansion of electricity access to rural tech programs in a Seattle talk last week.

“Energy is central to every other kind of security,” Chidambaram said. “Food and nutrition, everything is based on energy.”

The number of Indians who have access to electricity has grown from 50.9 percent in 1990 to 78.7 percent in 2012, according to the World Bank. In order to continue to close the gap and meet rising energy demands, Chidambaram listed low-carbon solutions like solar and nuclear power as India’s long-term strategy, but acknowledged that coal would be a necessity for the next few decades.

“If you want to use renewables you must have proper energy storage systems,” Chidambaram said, and that type of technology isn’t available for large-scale use yet.

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Another research and development focus for India is technology for rural settings. The Scientific Advisory Committee, which Chidambaram heads, has formed Rural Technology Action Groups (RuTAG) to help disseminate things like a motorized jute rope making machine and isotope-hydrology technology to recharge drying springs in Himalayas.

The committee doesn’t provide large amounts of funding, rather it sets research goals and helps agencies collaborate.

“Academic institutions are good in research, and the corporate sector is good in delivery. We have to create the strength in the development sector,” Chidambaram said. “Our funding is a catalytic funding – things that are not being done, I start it off, then we give it away.”

In a country with approximately 1,700 academic institutions, encouraging collaboration and information sharing can go a long way toward keeping scientists from duplicating efforts.

India wants to expand this strategy of mutually beneficial scientific collaboration to the international stage, and a joint statement on the second India-U.S. strategic and commercial dialogue that was released on Aug. 31 hopes to “take further steps expeditiously to enable greater cooperation in the area of co-production and co-development.” Internationally identified research priorities include solar energy, second-generation biofuels, energy-efficient buildings, smart grid and energy storage.

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Chidambaram also hopes to attract international firms from the private sector, but cautions that “there must be coherence between the transnational corporations who want to partner with India and the technology needs – existent and latent – of the host country.”

Although many U.S. corporations outsource jobs to India, he said few develop products for Indian consumers, who on average earn $4.36 a day.

India’s per capita gross national income is enough for it to be ranked as a lower-middle-income country by the World Bank, but poverty is still a huge problem. And although he thinks “there is no single roadmap for ‘sustainable development’ for all countries,” Chidambaram is convinced scientific research is part of the solution.

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Nikki Eller

Nikki Eller writes on environmental issues for Humanosphere, and is currently a Master of Public Health student at the University of Washington. A neuroscience major in college, she later served with the Peace Corps in Peru and worked for the UW Department of Global Health. Contact her at Nikki.humanosphere@gmail.com.