We need to design in India first We need to design in India first

Ajai Chowdhry, Founder of HCL and Chairman – of the Board of Governors, IIT – Patna, gives a detailed review of Make in India, its strengths, weaknesses and the way forward. Edited excerpts from the video interview…

On Government Performance-Linked Incentive Schemes (PLIs)…

The diagrams themselves are excellent. They serve the purpose for which they were created which is to increase the manufacturing of electronic products in India in different fields. They all started with phones, then they wanted components, then hardware, etc., and recently semiconductors as well. All are designed to create more manufacturing in India. This objective is therefore served.

What’s not happening and that’s the area that’s got the government’s attention now from what I’ve read in the semiconductor policy is that we need to have more value added in India. If we continue to manufacture only with 5-10% added value and give large amounts of incentives for low added value, we will not achieve our goal. One of the things we have tried to impress with the government is to introduce programs where design comes to the centre.

All products in India over the past 10 years are not made in Indian electronics. Almost all products are made in China, USA or South Korea. How many brands in India have disappeared in the last 10-15 years?

Fortunately, in Semiconductor Policy, they not only announced a design-driven incentive, but they also specifically mentioned that to help industry growth, they will aggregate government demand for semiconductors . I think that’s a huge breakthrough as far as we’re concerned. This is something I have been telling the government for a while. Use the power of your great government demand to create an industry. It’s something they added to semiconductors. I would like that to happen in all areas.

Bringing Indian brands back…

Second, design must become the center of everything. If you want to manufacture semiconductors in India, who will give you the business today? All products in India over the past 10 years are not made in Indian electronics. Almost all products are made in China, USA or South Korea. How many brands in India have disappeared in the last 10-15 years?

If you look at this situation, we have to work to bring these marks back. We need to work on creating Indian brands. Only when you have Indian brands will the design be done in India, the components will be sourced from India and the assemblies will be sourced from India. Finally, when the semiconductor factory comes into being, the chips will be purchased from India. Today, all these decisions are not made in India. Fifty percent or more of the products in each category come from China. The Chinese use their own chips. They won’t buy chips from us even if they make them here.

What has been proven now is that many startups have created products in India that are not only made for India but also made for the world. You see companies that are amazing and happening.

The importance of design in India

I think this is a very important change that we need to make. We have to make sure that the products become the center of everything. Through products, design and added value, we will have a very successful industry. Design in India is what will take us far.

If we continue to depend on the conceptions of others, we are not using our intelligence, our abilities, our IQ, our knowledge and the skills we have acquired over the years. You will be surprised to find that there are many electronic design companies in India that design for the world. But we don’t design anything for India.

Startup products will give us global recognition

Startups are important in every field you can think of. I’m very deeply involved in the whole startup ecosystem. I think over the last 8 to 10 years you’ve seen really good startup growth. In my opinion, the products and the work they do is not a fad. They truly create world-class global products. Ten years ago, we were all asking ourselves this question in living rooms: why doesn’t India have Google? I think that’s history now. What has been proven now is that many startups have created products in India that are not only made for India but also made for the world. You see companies that are amazing and happening.

Look at Zoho. Their head office is in a village in Tamil Nadu, but they cater to the whole world. There has been a huge shift from services to products. Startups have taken the lead in creating products in India, not big companies. I think valuations are very stretched today. But we are moving towards a nation of products and that makes me very happy because these are the products that will make us recognized globally.

The government has done a great job of bringing together research, academia and startups. They had so many programs, campaigns and strategies that they put in place to create products in India.

Our leading position with India Stack

A very good thing that has happened in India is that due to government initiatives and some organizations like iSPIRT, there is a huge growth of India Stack (Editor’s note: largest open API in the world). This is driving much of the product development growth that is occurring. India today occupies an absolute leading position in the world in this field. If we want to do soft marketing of India globally then the government should take care of it and make a G2G deal with many governments and very softly we will be in the mind of the world just like the China. The United States and Europe do not have what we have.

Collaboration between universities, research institutes, industry

Academia and research are really important if we want to be a world-class technology country. I think it’s our weakest link. Universities and research organizations still do not work very closely with industry. I think the links are pretty much very poor or broken. Often, many leading institutes are waiting for the industry to come and talk to them. It should be the other way around. Universities and research institutes should go out and talk to industry and share their knowledge, skills and capabilities. They should involve startups, students, and industry in research at an early stage. Universities around the world thrive on research, not just teaching.

What’s needed is for all the different institutions to change their courses to make sure that people don’t just learn to design, but have to make. If he does not manufacture, the product is useless.

Something like this happened during Covid. It was very interesting. The government has done a great job of bringing together research, academia and startups. They had so many programs, campaigns and strategies that they put in place to create products in India. So suddenly when we had a shortage of PPE, we were multiplied by a hundred. Same with test kits. I was part of a team from IIT Kanpur that created a ventilator in 90 days.

Many online courses are also available. Lots of companies are doing it, whether it’s management skills or technical skills…it’s all happening online. People who have been left behind for the past 5 years have caught up during Covid. E-commerce has grown in popularity over the past few years.

The roadmap for the future

There is a huge shortage of AR-VR Metaverse type skills that you see today. Shortage of blockchain and full-stack skills. We must expand the education system to meet this requirement. A huge amount of work needs to be done to create the new IT skills that are lacking today.

If you look at software, yes, in terms of products, we seem to be on the right track, but if we don’t have the right skills required for today’s products, then we’re going to end up in a situation where products will become more expensive and take longer to develop.

As for the hardware, we just need to start making designs. We need to bring back the brands from India. Often people say that if we do so well in software, what does it matter if you don’t do well in hardware. I think that is completely wrong. Because the reality is that today the boundaries between hardware and software are blurring. Lots of hardware has lots of software. It is impossible to create a hardware product without understanding AI and ML. Very important, you need to incorporate these elements even when designing chips. This is what the country needs. We have to manufacture and design in India.

(Watch the full interview on PCQuest’s YouTube channel.)

By Sunil Rajguru

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About Octavia A. Dorr

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