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ISRO's proven capabilities for a secure lunar landing and surface roving are a great achievement

India tech story: better, faster, higher, cheaper

R. A. Mashelkar

Published: Jan. 30, 2024
Updated: Jan. 30, 2024

INDIA can be proud of its technology and innovation journey of the past 20 years. I was not just a witness but an active participant in this journey. What follows is a view from my personal window on the progress that we have made during 2003-2023.

Rather than providing a chronological listing of achievements in individual sectors, I will highlight the special features of the changing landscape in these 20 years. These are:

  • Mastering denial-driven innovation
  • Leading in inclusive innovation
  • Becoming the globally preferred location for technology generation
  • Becoming the key enabler for Atmanirbhar Bharat
  • Chasing exponentials



Indian technology grew in denial-driven mode on this 20-year journey, where for love or money, no technology was available to India for strategic sectors such as space, defence, nuclear energy, and supercomputers.

Take defence. India developed diverse missiles and rocket systems, remotely piloted vehicles, light-combat aircraft, etc. Brahmos is a great example of Indian prowess in a strategic technology.

Take atomic energy. The entire range of technologies, from the prospecting of raw materials to the design and construction of large nuclear reactors, was developed on a self-reliant basis. 

The Indigenous Nuclear Submarine (2009) was a proud achievement as it was our first indigenously developed nuclear-powered submarine, making India one of the five nations to achieve this feat.

Take space. The journey from Chandrayaan-1 to Chandrayaan-3, which showcased   ISRO’s comprehensive capabilities for a secure lunar landing and surface roving, are a great achievement just as is the Mars Orbiter Mission, making India the only nation to succeed in the first launch. The simultaneous launch of 104 satellites,is yet another brilliant example.



In the past two decades India has emerged as an undisputed leader in ‘inclusive innovation’, which creates products and services that are available, affordable, and accessible to the whole population, and not just a privileged few. It ‘includes’ the ‘excluded’ by deploying disruptive high technology, scalable products, and services — often through breakthrough business models. It ensures access equality despite income inequality.

Some of these have been truly game-changing and are taught as case studies in the world’s leading business schools. For instance, Aravind Eye Care doing high-quality cataract surgery at one-hundredth of the cost in the US or Narayana Hrudayalaya doing high-quality heart surgery at one-twentieth of the cost prevailing in the US.

Similarly, the Jaipur foot, a high-performing $28 artificial foot, which became a Time magazine cover story, is a benchmark for inclusive innovation.

In 2011, I started The Anjani Mashelkar Foundation in memory of my mother to propel an inclusive innovation movement in India. The start-ups that we recognize and nurture are solving India’s grand challenges of diagnosing cancer, heart disease, anaemia and lung disease besides helping in mother and child care in villages, to name a few instances. They are using the highest technology to offer healthcare at ultra-low cost. For this, they are fundamentally disrupting current best practices and inventing the next practice.

Swaasa is one such example that uses the AI-assisted smartphone to analyze the cough of a person and diagnose the state of health of their lung.

All this at less than Rs 1 for a test as opposed to Rs 1,500 currently paid by patients due to the requirement of expensive equipment, infrastructure and trained technicians. The science behind the innovation has been published in Nature, a premier science journal. 

India was well known for achieving inclusive innovation by using jugaad, which meant low-cost, low-science, ad hoc solutions.

There is a need to make high technology work for the poor in our Indian Inclusive Innovation 2.0 agenda.



India’s competitive advantage is that it generates more intellectual output per dollar invested than any other nation. Our own analysis for 2020 has shown that the ratio of R&D dollars spent by different nations as compared to India for producing the same output in terms of research publications varies thus: UK (2), Australia (4), China (5), Germany (6), US (7), Japan (12). India offers not only cost arbitrage but also value arbitrage.

The Mars Orbiter Mission was done at one-tenth the cost of the corresponding US mission with the same objectives. KPIT has just commercialized an indigenous world-class hydrogen fuel cell bus in partnership with NCL under CSIR’s New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative (NMITLI) programme.

It is remarkable that the NMITLI budget for 13 years was 10 times lower than the US Department of Energy budget of one year for the same goals!

India has an amazing competitive advantage. As a result of this advantage, India during these 20 years has transitioned from an outsourcing hub to a centre of innovation for global corporations.

India’s rise as a powerhouse for Global Capability Centres (GCCs) is remarkable, with over 1,500 GCCs employing 1.5 million people. India has over 45 percent of global GCCs, hosting 50 to 70 percent of global tech and operations headcount.

ATMANIRBHAR BHARAT Atmanirbhar Bharat should not mean just ‘make in India’ as in ‘assembled in India’ but should mean ‘invent and make in India’. India has made gradual progress in this over the past 20 years. Here we showcase only one instance that saved millions of lives.

When the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in India, we had negligible diagnostic capability, no point-of-care diagnosis, no vaccines, no therapeutics, and the biology and mechanism of the action of the virus were unknown. Our scientists delivered on all this and more.

Take diagnostics. The cost of the RT-PCR test was brought down from Rs 3,000 to Rs 100 by Indian scientists. Take vaccines. Indian scientists got into the act with multiple strategies for vaccine development. 

There were  ‘invent in India’ strategies. Bharat Biotech used inactivated virus and its Covaxin has been used to vaccinate millions around the world. Zydus is using spiked protein. Genova has developed mRNA-based vaccine.

There was ‘make in India’ by using overseas inventions as well. Covishield was developed by the Serum Institute of India in partnership with Oxford University and AstraZeneca.

During the pandemic, India administered two billion-plus vaccine dosages in a record 18 months. It was not just the development of the vaccine but management of its supply chain and monitoring of cases assisted by the COWIN digital platform, that made this execution happen.



In 20 years, there were some exciting developments in diverse fields, which were not incremental but exponential. Total innovation was the key. That meant synergizing technology, business model, system level, workflow, organizational and policy-level innovation.

Digital transformation is the most significant exponential achieved on this 20-year journey. With exponential increase in smartphone usage and affordable data plans, over 800 million Indians gained access to the internet and digital services.

India’s Aadhaar project was the largest digital social security inclusive innovation initiative globally which transformed the landscape of access to financial and digital services in India. Jio used Aadhaar verification to enrol 100 million customers in 170 days. In February 2017, India was ranked 152nd in data consumption over a mobile. Within one year of Jio’s arrival, it ‘pole vaulted’ to number one.

India rose to number one in real-time digital payments globally, with 89.5 billion payment transactions worth $1.6 trillion in 2022. The Unified Payments Interface (UPI) has surpassed the milestone of 10 billion monthly transactions with the total value of these transactions now exceeding Rs 15 trillion per month. India accounted for 46 percent of global real-time payments.

The Indian start-up ecosystem has been chasing exponentials between 2015 and 2022:

  • 247 times increase in the total number of start-ups
  • 15 times increase in the total funding of start-ups
  • 9 times increase in the number of investors
  • 7 times increase in the number of incubators

 Close to 50 percent of start-ups came from Tier II and Tier III cities. They are largely focusing on emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning  and data science.

Some  start-ups are chasing exponentials in terms of delivering an incredible price performance envelope. The start-ups nurtured by the Anjani Mashelkar Foundation are achieving exponential healthcare. Sanket, a credit card-sized, hand-held, 12 lead ECG machine, has recorded over three million scans in 12 countries. Forus health, which brings affordable eye screening to the poor, has touched the lives of over 7.5 million people in more than 40 countries.

The question arises whether our innovation ecosystem is growing exponentially. The answer is yes and no.

From 2003 to 2023, the number of IITs increased from seven to 23, Central universities from 18 to 56, total universities from 300 to 1,113. Besides, seven new IISERs (Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research) have been created. But R&D expenditure for the past 20 years has remained static at around 0.7 percent, well below the global average of 1.8 percent. The creation of the National Research Fund of `50,000 crore is great news, provided it overcomes the imminent challenge of almost 70 percent of the contribution coming from industry.

India is well poised to become the third largest economy in the world by 2030 and may even become the largest in a few decades.

This growth has to be science, technology and innovation-led. That means we will have to be world class. More important, we must ensure that this growth is equitable and inclusive. We hope this dream will come true as we leave behind these 20 inspiring years and begin our journey with hope and aspirations for the next 20 years. n


Dr Raghunath Anant Mashelkar is an influential thought leader who is globally recognized and honoured for his contributions to science and technology.


  • Shreya Marwa

    Shreya Marwa - Feb. 14, 2024, 12:01 p.m.

    Such valuable insights on India's innovation and tech journey, especially with regard to being a global leader in inclusive innovation. We must take pride in these achievements as a nation. I really learnt a lot from this piece.