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Shyam Saran: Unleashing India's innovative impulse

Overcoming the silos in our minds is key to the country's social and economic development

Shyam Saran  |  New Delhi 

India confronts a large number of cross-cutting challenges which can be dealt with successfully only through multi-sectoral and inter-disciplinary approaches. It is no longer possible to use specialisation or expertise in one discipline to resolve issues that have multiple dimensions. This is as true of government as it is of the Breaking the firewalls between line ministries or agencies and between functional and hierarchical corporate divisions has now become a critical administrative and managerial challenge.

There is, additionally, need to put in place mechanisms to adapt and scale up the very large number of innovative solutions to difficult challenges being generated at the local, community or company levels. There are real life examples to illustrate these issues.

In Uttarakhand, north of Kathgodam, there is a vast acreage of closely planted pine enveloping an entire range of mountains. There is, however, a 20-km stretch right in the middle which is dense and much darker in shade. The vegetation here is extremely variegated. While there are clusters of villages and cultivated plots below this darker zone, there is hardly any sign of farming in the plains below the pine forests. Afforestation with rapidly growing pine species is a success story for the forestry department but a disaster for farmers in the plains below. Pine needles become a thick carpet on the forest floor, preventing any other vegetation from growing. They also prevent rain from penetrating the soil below, to recharge the water courses and underground springs. Instead, the water mostly runs waste off the surface. The fields at lower altitudes are soon starved of water. The village economy can no longer survive. In the 20-km zone of original surviving forest, trees of the most incredible variety flourish. The forest floor is alive with all kinds of grasses, ferns and bushes as well as worms, insects and small animals and birds. One can almost feel the sub-soil water pulsating through this precious moisture-rich zone. This is what sustains productive agriculture in the lower reaches.

If in drawing up this afforestation scheme, the ministries of agriculture and water resources had also participated, this negative impact on agriculture, water and food security could have been avoided. The replanting of the denuded hillsides with local endemic varieties may have taken longer to mature than the fast-growing pine, but this would have been well worth it in the long run.

Let us now take an example of cross-cutting synergy. India may be adding at least 75,000 Mw of coal-based thermal power over the next 20 years. Some of the units will use modern super-critical technology, with efficiency levels near 33-35 per cent compared to 29-30 per cent for sub-critical units. Technology and equipment for these plants will mostly be imported. Meanwhile, the world is already moving towards ultra-supercritical plants, which will have efficiency levels of over 40 per cent. These plants would thus produce more energy per tonne of coal and their carbon emissions would be significantly lower, an important consideration in view of rising climate change concerns. Under the leadership of the principal scientific adviser, several brainstorming sessions were held with participants cutting across various disciplines, from public and private sectors, to see if we could indigenously develop ultra-supercritical technology. Success would mean huge benefits given the scale of the proposed thermal capacity addition.

When thermal power producers were asked to identify the key constraints in this regard, they listed two: One, would have to handle very high temperatures, in excess of 800º C to 900º C. This imposes requirements for equipment and materials very different from sub-critical plants that normally operate at 300º C to 350º C.

Two, the boilers have to handle much higher pressures and withstand corrosion at high temperatures. The special alloys and sophisticated metallurgy required were not available in the country. The assembled experts were asked if they had any solutions to offer. A representative of the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), responsible for developing India’s fast breeder reactor programme, said his Centre had mastered the advanced technologies required for ultra-supercritical operations since they were similar as those needed for the breeder programme. This was despite long-standing international sanctions and technology denial. It was agreed that a prototype plant should be set up to adapt and to test these technologies in a thermal power setting. Thereafter, these technologies could be made available to industry, saving huge resources and developing critical local skills. This is now being implemented through an MoU among IGCAR, and but other partners are welcome. This is one concrete accomplishment of a silo-breaking exercise. I am convinced there are many more.

While implementing India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change, one came across a very large number of innovations in different fields from every nook and corner of our country. In Andhra, a few visionary young bureaucrats, agricultural scientists and NGOs have put in place a highly successful Sustainable Agriculture model. Instead of the prevalent crop yield-based strategy, here the farmer is the focal point for raising productivity and promoting resilient livelihood. Diversification of the farmer’s economy through crop rotation and integrating animal husbandry, horticulture and forestry, is one aspect. The other is to use traditional as well as advanced bio-chemical materials to wean the farmer off toxic chemical pesticides whose prolonged use gives diminishing returns while creating immense health problems for farmers who rarely use protective gear while spraying or applying pesticides. These health costs go unaccounted but can ruin a farmer’s livelihood. Chemical fertiliser use is also being minimised while alternative techniques of promoting soil fertility, including through organic nutrients, are being popularised. Much of this is being done through women self-help groups organised by local NGOs. They have now become the extension workers for spreading the new techniques to other farming communities. What began on an experimental basis on about 10,000 hectares three years ago has now expanded to over 100,000 hectares, increasing farm incomes and productivity.

One could cite many similar success stories. The challenge lies in scaling them up to the national level. This requires a national platform where such experiences can be shared and pulled together and can help in evolving policies that deliver a bigger punch. Overcoming the silos in our minds and in our institutions, and creating dynamic synergies among a wide range of stakeholders is what we need to script an alternative, more productive and more sustainable narrative for India’s

The author is a former foreign secretary and is currently a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research

First Published: Wed, January 19 2011. 00:49 IST