The meaning of Chandrayaan-3 and the twin goals of R&D and Rural Development
NASA would have spent 50 times the money spent by ISRO to achieve the same feat ISRO achieved. — Sridhar Vembu
India made history yesterday, safely landing the Vikram lander on the till-then-unexplored south pole of the moon. ISRO demonstrated to the world our growing technology capabilities.
The Chinese call their period of subjugation a-century-of-national-humiliation, and for India, it was a millennium of national humiliation, so it is particularly poignant to see India emerge steadily as a confident and independent nation, powered by R&D.
R&D has a far deeper meaning for me. I believe that to wipe out poverty in our vast nation, India will have to become an R&D superpower; in my mind, the twin goals of Rural Development and Research & Development are inextricably linked.
Why R&D? The problems India faces cannot be solved by merely importing technology, know-how, systems, and processes “context-free”. While we must learn from the experiences of Silicon Valley, Japan, China, Switzerland, Germany, and Taiwan, we must also accept that we cannot import solutions wholesale. First of all, those solutions are extraordinarily expensive and unaffordable for a poor nation. NASA would have spent 50 times the money spent by ISRO to achieve the same feat ISRO achieved.
UPI, Aadhaar, our Vande Bharat trains—these are all examples of homegrown technological solutions well adapted to our conditions. These are very low-cost innovations, for a nation where the vast majority of our citizens still struggle to earn $5 a day. We need a lot more of these low-cost innovations, and that can only come from deeper investments in R&D.
How is this R&D linked to Rural Development? India’s major cities are already stretched beyond reason, and we cannot keep growing their population. Our rural areas have fairly high population density already - in fact, India’s rural areas, on average, have about as many people per square kilometer as a typical suburb in America. So it is ruinous to try to move everyone to our already super-over-crowded cities. The scale of the infrastructure needed to support that kind of density is beyond what any country has ever built, and it will also be ruinously expensive even if we could build it. Japan has come the closest with Tokyo, but in the process of urbanizing Japan on that scale, Japan has lost its soul and its drive. We do not want to lose the soul of India.
A far better solution, as our beloved President Abdul Kalam repeatedly emphasized, is to help develop our rural areas, so that the population does not have to migrate. He called his vision PURA (Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas). The operational meaning of that vision for me is to spread R&D centres to rural areas. From our experience, we know that each rural centre needs one strong team as an anchor, with leadership that is local, and then we can have other teams present. We have started to build them out, and that will be our vision going forward.
The R&D jobs we create are very critical to the prosperity of these rural areas. Every job we create directly leads to 10 other jobs in the local economy, as our people spend their incomes in the local economy. This effect is already very visible in Tenkasi and it will be visible in other areas.
I strongly believe we cannot separate R&D from support, R&D from manufacturing, software engineers from housekeeping staff, and so on. It is that separation, that dualism, that leads to social problems on a vast scale. Our R&D people must be connected to the society we live in, and that society involves a vast number of fellow citizens who are poor. That is why I live in a small village. My living here has enabled me to think of solutions like digging ponds to improve our water table, so we can employ more farm workers - my BMW is the earth mover we buy to dig ponds! I get to enjoy the pond by swimming in it, so in that sense, the earth mover is far more important than a BMW for me.
That brings up the most important point. Western Civilisation, as it exists today, does not have any solution to the existential threat to humanity posed by climate change. Fundamentally, the Western way of life requires extraordinary amounts of energy per person. If India adopts the same lifestyle, if the average Indian were to spend the same amount of energy as the average American, the planet would be finished. People like Bill Gates dream of technology-based quick fixes (“suck CO2 out of air”), but those “solutions” involve even more energy. I don’t see how any of those proposed solutions work.
We, in India, have to invent a better way of life that combines prosperity arising from R&D with a vastly simpler way of life. When we dig ponds to restore the water table, when we plant trees for shade and a cooler micro-climate, we get to enjoy those ponds and the woods we create, we can work peacefully on our R&D projects, and we also end up helping the earth. That is the meaning of prosperity for me.
That spiritual sense of contentment is essential for us to live in harmony with Mother Earth. The soul of our nation, which considers everything part of the Divine Reality, worships trees and rivers and mountains and animals and snakes and rocks, worships Mother Earth herself, can create this synthesis of prosperity and contentment.
That is the meaning of Chandrayaan 3 for me.