Study these two propositions in parallel – India has been the largest exporter of IT and IT enabled services globally and India is the largest defence equipment importer in the world, from assault rifles to aircraft carriers and everything in between. Now, read the next sentence ever so slowly… The defence sector thrives on cutting edge technology being developed by people with expertise in software and cutting edge technology.
What could be more ironical this?
Earlier this week, India was introduced to a Bengaluru-based tech start-up through an article published on the Livemint.com website. Tunbo Imaging created the thermal-imaging based night vision systems that has been used by the US Military and Israeli Army for several years to act as eyes of soldiers going into enemy territory without limited information of the ground situation.
Great news isn’t it? Well, not so when one juxtaposes it with the fact that the Indian Army got to know about the company during a joint exercise with NATO forces eight years ago and were told by the Americans that the technology they were using was invented and manufactured in our backyard. So much for all the Make in India propaganda and the decision to open up Defence Production to FDI.
The technology, which was famously used during India’s surgical strike across the border in Uri, has been in existence for close to a decade and creates night vision using thermal imaging and artificial intelligence that supports real-time decision-making of those in command. Tonbo Imaging founder Arvind Lakshmikumar says he feels sad that his country accepted the technology only after they received a sign-off from the US Army.
Which brings us to the question of defence preparedness and indigenization. Does India have requisite resources to outsource its needs globally? If not, should it be looking inwards and support those who can build kickass products like the ones Tunbo Imaging did? There are already a handful that are making waves in their chosen realm.
Make What in India?
The problem is quite simple really. Over the years, India has witnessed several scams related to defence deals, none more virulent than Bofors in the mid-1980s and Rafale over the last couple of years. There were also those related to Augusta-Westland and coffins in between.
Now, look at the stunning fact that in the United States, whose defence expenditure is more than the next seven countries on the list, never witnessed the politicization of defence deals. Why? Simply because the US Army merely orders what they need from local manufacturers, says former minister, Milind Deora in an article published by the Economic Times.
Despite being in the opposition, Deora vehemently argues for strengthening India’s indigenous defence production. Indigenisation is a potential game changing solution that India has never earnestly considered, he says while pointing out that the DRDO is ill-equipped to produce the kind of high quality research and tech that is essential for domestic companies to flourish.
So, before we start making in India, we need to have a list of stuff that can be made and the technology that ensures supremacy for such products in a highly competitive global market. Which is what Tunbo Imaging has done with its technology.
Many More Tunbos
And here is where the good news needs to be appreciated and accepted. Union Defence Secretary Dr. Ajay Kumar spoke to The Sunday Guardian Live recently and praised the Indian start-ups for their technology innovations. He revealed that India’s defence exports grew over the past three years from Rs.1,500 crore to Rs.10,500 crore last fiscal year and should touch Rs.15,000 crore by end-March.
And, Tunbo is not alone here. A report published in INC42.com writes about Gurugram-based start-up Staqu which came up with an AI-based surveillance system that is currently being used by prisons in Uttar Pradesh. The system is being installed in 70 prisons across the states to allow enforcement agencies to continuously monitor activities within without having to conduct manual checks.
The AI-backed Jarvis System is fed millions of videos depicting violence and unruly behaviour that helps the forces predict any untoward incidents. The company, founded in 2015, also enables facial recognition to enable potential matches with the National Crime Records. Last January, Staqu’s predictive policing technology was selected by Dubai Police, which suggests that Indian innovation is standing up to global scrutiny and winning.
Who is to Blame?
It couldn’t be one single factor, certainly. It is the combination of multiple factors such as zilch trust on its native industries, ill equipped R&D capacities, which come together and keeps the local defense industry on fringes. The question here is not about the weaknesses but about the persistence in weaknesses. Where and why do we continue to lag?
Is it a matter of human intelligence? Is it about money not flowing into the right enterprises? Is it because of lack of original ideas and entrepreneurial acumen? Or, is it simply because those who are entrusted with developing technology that supports our brave soldiers have been on a perennial nap?
Milind Deora makes the point by quoting from one of his earlier articles published in the Indian Express where he draws a comparison between the work done by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the United States and the DRDO. Established in 1958, the DARPA was working on the internet when DRDO was busy making mosquito repellants.
While we have come a long way from those days, there is still a long way to go in catching up with the kind of R&D capabilities that DARPA boasts of, he says while pointing out that the Government of India squandered a historic opportunity to facilitate the creation of a strong indigenous defence industry in the past and “continues to do so by splurging billions for the Rafale jet.
In conclusion, all we can say is that while the government and opposition plays out a blame game with little in terms of outcome for India’s defence forces, small mercies that start-ups are getting into the narrative and creating innovations that makes us believe that there is some hope yet.