The latest issue of New Scientist (cover date Feb 19-25) has a special collection of stories on India as an upcoming knowledge and technology powerhouse. The stories cover topics ranging from biotechnology and GM crops to the Indian space agency and satellites, with pieces about information technology, mobile communications, and energy along the way. Unfortunately, while the stories are all online, most are available only to subscribers. Two of the articles can be read for free, however, and even if you're not going to run out and buy a copy of the magazine, these are worthwhile reading.
The first, "Vaccines for pennies," is a short piece on a pair of Indian ex-pats who wanted to bring an inexpensive new vaccine for hepatitis B to India, but couldn't get venture funding in the US to produce the drug. SmithKline Beecham sold a vaccine for $20 a shot; US venture capitalists couldn't believe there could be a solution for far less. By returning to India and setting up shop there, the company they founded, Bharat Biotech, "now sells the vaccine in developing countries for 28 cents a shot."
More telling, however, are the statements from the Bharat founders used to close the article:
Krishna Ella says he wants to tackle third-world diseases neglected by the multinationals, a sentiment often voiced by Indian entrepreneurs who believe scientists have a duty to the poor.
"It feels very satisfying," says Suchitra Ella. "We are on top of the world because we are doing something that is really required for countries like India."
This simultaneous existence in the world of transformative new technologies and in the world of development at the edge of poverty is a recurring theme in the leapfrog nations, and in India in particular. The leapfrog value of knowledge-enabled technologies such as biotech and information tech is that companies and markets can spring up without requiring a vast industrial base; this means, however, that the parts of the society and economy tied to these technologies will start changing far faster than the less-connected elements. It isn't just a "digital divide," it has the potential to be a digital canyon. As the second free New Scientist article, "The next knowledge superpower," describes, the contrasts in India are especially acute:
It has the world's 11th largest economy, yet it is home to more than a quarter of the world's poorest people. It is the sixth largest emitter of carbon dioxide, yet hundreds of millions of its people have no steady electricity supply. It has more than 250 universities which catered last year for more than 3.2 million science students, yet 39 per cent of adult Indians cannot read or write.
High-tech is not the sole preserve of the rich. Fishermen have begun using mobile phones to price their catch before they make port, and autorickshaw drivers carry a phone so that customers can call for a ride. Technology companies are extending internet connections to the remotest locations. Small, renewable electricity generators are appearing in villages, and the government is using home-grown space technology to improve literacy skills and education in far-flung areas.
The article is a lengthy overview of this transition moment for India, and it makes plain the challenges the nation faces. Some come from the sheer size of the population; others come from the schism between the rapidly-changing parts and the solidly traditional parts of the society. India's success is by no means guaranteed.
Pundits (including New Scientist) like to compare India and China as up-and-coming world powers, competing to become the 21st century Asian giant. China is generally seen to be "ahead," at least economically, but I doubt it will last. Looking in from outside -- and despite the many challenges ahead -- it seems clear that India, with its traditions not just of entrepreneurialism, but of democracy, will have more of an ability to adapt successfully to changing conditions. Democratic institutions coupled with leapfrog technologies and economic growth, can allow India to assemble the pieces necessary for building the society, economy and future it will need to thrive in the coming decades.