What got made in India before Modi, how it was done

Last Updated : 21 December 2019, 17:59 IST
Last Updated : 21 December 2019, 17:59 IST
Last Updated : 21 December 2019, 17:59 IST
Last Updated : 21 December 2019, 17:59 IST

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When Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 and announced the ‘Make in India’ programme, India was abuzz with hope that the country’s industrialisation and manufacturing prowess would pick up quickly. Nowhere was this optimism so strong as it was in the private sector defence industry. More than five years later, the ‘Make in India’ programme largely remains a failure, with an occasional success here and there.

In contrast, consider what got made in India in the defence, nuclear, missile, aeronautics and space sectors long before Modi, and how it was done and in what circumstances.

Nuclear Power

India is today one of the world’s leading countries in nuclear research, in the ability to build nuclear power plants, and we are a nuclear weapons power. In 2012, Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US, wrote in Physics Today, “India has the most technically ambitious and innovative nuclear energy program in the world. The extent and functionality of its nuclear experimental facilities are matched only by those in Russia and are far ahead of what is left in the US.” How did this come about?

It happened because Jawaharlal Nehru and Homi Bhabha, the ‘father’ of India’s nuclear programme, began planning and working towards establishing it even before independence. The Atomic Energy Department was established, a survey was conducted of the available nuclear materials and, by 1954, they had a plan for how to go about extracting the maximum energy out of India’s limited uranium and abundant thorium reserves. It is called the ‘three-stage nuclear programme’, and that was what Hecker was referring to.

Nehru and Bhabha, with their contacts among the top Western scientists and government leaders, struck a series of partnerships – with the UK, Canada, the US, and later France and Russia. Even in those days when India faced a crushing shortage of funds, especially foreign currency, Bhabha would pick the brightest Indian minds and send them abroad to study and come back to contribute to India’s nuclear and science programmes. Thus did almost every science leader of post-Independence India rise – from Raja Ramanna, who was later instrumental in making India a nuclear weapons power, to Abdul Kalam, and hundreds in between. India’s first research reactor, Apsara, was built in 1956, its first CANDU-type reactor in 1961, with British and Canadian help respectively. By the 1970s, with the Madras Atomic Power Station at Kalpakkam, India was able to build nuclear power plants on its own.

In 1974, when Indira Gandhi conducted the first atomic bomb test, sanctions were applied on India, all foreign partners withdrew cooperation, and the world’s strictest regimes of technology denial – the NSG and the MTCR – were formed to strangle India’s nuclear programme.

France was to help India move to the second stage of the programme to build breeder reactors, but it backed out. India did not give up. It took the challenge head-on and built the first research reactor of this generation (FBTR), commissioned it in 1985, and went through a horrendously difficult learning curve until the late 1990s.

Today, the Indian nuclear establishment can justifiably claim to be at forefront of breeder reactor technology. By the time Modi came to power in 2014, a 500-MW Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor had been built and has stood ready to be commissioned since at least 2015. Why does the Modi government seem uninterested in this?

Missiles and Fighters

In 1983, Indira Gandhi embarked on the guided missile programme that has since given India the Prithvi and Agni missiles. The missiles and their command and control systems were all developed from scratch, and amidst India’s poor economy at the time and foreign technology denial. Remember, India could not even obtain an Apple PowerPC or a Sun workstation in those days without bending US rules.

The Light Combat Aircraft was also thought of in 1983. In 1956, Nehru had invited German aircraft designer Kurt Tank to help build an indigenous supersonic fighter.

The HF-24 Marut was built and was in service by 1966, but the programme withered away after Nehru’s death. About a 100 Maruts were built and saw service in the 1971 war, but were retired by 1980. In 1983, Indira Gandhi picked up the threads, but by then fighter aircraft had entered the fourth generation of technology. Electronics and software had come to be key to aircraft performance. With advances in computing, the world’s leading powers had moved on to designing aerodynamically unstable aircraft that required computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to keep them flying. India did not have any of the technologies of the modern fighter at the time.

The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) was founded, and its first head was given a table and a chair to sit in a corner of the National Aeronautical Laboratory and work it all out. By 1998, the CFD software had been developed and India was on its way to developing a technology demonstrator of the LCA. It did so by 2001, Vajpayee christened it Tejas, and the programme to develop the combat aircraft began in earnest.

The IAF is now flying the first iteration of the Tejas, and awaits Tejas Mk 2. The Modi government took nearly three years merely to decide whether to proceed with Tejas Mk 2 or not.

The Scorpene Submarines

India’s submarine building programme was approved in 1999 and the Scorpene deal was signed in 2005 -- the French company DCNS (and Spain’s Navantia) would help build six submarines in India with technology transfer. The Mazagaon Dock Limited had little experience in building submarines. Its whole capability – from management to industrial and technological – had to be built up through this project. When I interviewed the head of DCNS in 2013, the man was frustrated that things were moving too slowly, but he also appreciated the fact that MDL, and India, had taken the difficult route to learning and building the managerial, industrial and technological expertise. The Manmohan Singh government had stayed with the programme and with MDL through thick and thin. That’s how defence industries and capabilities get built.

The Scorpenes were to be followed by project P75I to build advanced diesel-electric submarines through technology transfer to an Indian private sector player. In nearly six years, the Modi government has neither been able to identify the foreign vendor nor the Indian private company to partner the vendor. Why?

The Rafale Deal

India started the formal process for acquisition of a medium combat aircraft in 2007 and had, after the extensive technical and field evaluations of six competing aircraft, selected the French Rafale fighter in 2012. The negotiations with the French company on the details of the contract proved to be tough and protracted. It included obtaining the maximum technology transfer, a 50% offset component, financial, time and quality guarantees, and lifecycle costing for 40 years of maintenance and support.

A deal as big and as complex as this – indeed, it was called the “Mother of All Deals” by the foreign press – would have taken perhaps another year of negotiations, if only the Modi government had stayed with the original process to buy 126 fighters.

Instead, Modi reduced 126 fighters to 36, gave up on technology transfer (the most crucial and strategic element of the deal), the offset benefit went to a company that was until then nowhere in the picture, and Indian industry – public or private – got nothing to learn because the aircraft was bought off-the-shelf, fully built in France.

Thanks to the projects that successive Indian governments have undertaken, all the major industrial houses of India and thousands of SMEs have built up varying levels of defence industrial capability. By the time the Modi government came to power in 2014, a broad foundation of technological and industrial capability had been built up. All that the Modi government had to do was to build on it. So far, it has failed.

Published 21 December 2019, 17:59 IST

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