An article in Swarajya recently described the launch of a new organisation by the Railway Minister, called “Special Railway Establishment for Strategic Technology and Holistic Advancement, or SRESTHA”, whose exclusive purpose is to promote long-term research and development (R&D) in guided transport. Dr V K Saraswat, chairman of the advisory group of experts for upgrading technology and leveraging Make in India on railways, was tasked with preparing a concept note with the vision to make Indian Railways “a global leader in railway technology by developing advanced R&D capabilities for breakthrough innovation and empowering railways to deliver quality service, making it the preferred mode of transport”.
SRESTHA is described as an extension of the Research Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO), which has been the repository of knowledge on railway technology and “has done a sterling job of maintenance, reliability, life extension and safety engineering, [but] its focus on cutting-edge railway technology has been usually subordinated to the former”.
It is surprising that Suresh Prabhu, who is a chartered accountant and one of the leading reformers in the current government, should support such an idea. There are at least five reasons why launching SRESTHA is retrograde, illogical and anti-reforms in the current context.
A dispensable boondoggle
The idea for another centralised “R&D” organisation within the government is not just anachronistic and out of place in today’s world but is a relic of the Nehruvian era. India practiced this idea for six decades and has very little to show for it in terms of innovation, indigenous technology development or boost to the domestic technology ecosystem. The benefits have been meagre and we continue to import our technologies, forever seeking a “transfer of technology”.
Over 80 per cent of the railway budget today goes towards wages and salaries, a major reason why the organisation finds it difficult to get the funds necessary for safety, track upkeep and production when passenger fares cannot be raised to increase revenues – leaving aside induction of newer technologies. In this scenario, to create one more bloated staff unit that would likely duplicate the work that ought to have been the raison d’etre for RDSO’s existence is plain indefensible.
The railway bureaucracy – especially the one at RDSO – possibly feels the fear of being eclipsed and made irrelevant by newer technologies such as bullet trains and tilting, axle-free trains, of which they have little knowledge and know-how. They realise (but would be loath to admit) that the RDSO, based in Lucknow, has a reputation among the railway family at large of being a cozy sinecure for a large number of railway bureaucrats influential enough to get transferred there. This outfit has neither provided research nor designs – the reason they come up with new arguments is to discover legitimacy. Defending the RDSO will get them nowhere, but how about a brand new organisation that spews modern management-speak with the word innovation at every turn?
If you’re among the many people who believe you were conned by the idea of the “commanding heights of the economy”, which had been pushed since Independence, and at great cost, you will no doubt have little expectation of research or innovation in this new entity. There are enough examples of that with taxpayer-funded public sector undertakings (PSUs) to expect anything extraordinary, least of all “a global leader in railway technology… for breakthrough innovation”, which the concept note sets out to achieve.
Dr Saraswat in an earlier avatar was director general of the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). This “research” unit of the Defence Ministry only vaguely resembles, when you spell out the acronym in full, the storied American agency of the US Department of Defense – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The similarity ends there.
DARPA, originally known as ARPA, was created by US President Dwight D Eisenhower in 1958 in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s surprise launch of the Sputnik. Remarkably, it has a staff of 240, a budget of $3 billion, and only formulates and executes R&D projects in collaboration with academia, the private sector and other government labs. And its project outcomes have been legendary: creation of the wide area packet switching network ARPAnet, which presaged the internet, time-sharing computing, NavSat, which was the predecessor of the GPS, packet radio, graphic user interface in computers and hypermedia, to name just a few.
Our DRDO, on the other hand, has no such feather in its cap – racking up bills for the Indian government with very little to show for it, only unending failures that have been extensively documented: the Arjun battle tank, which had a time overrun of 20 years and cost-over-budget of Rs 2,000 crore; an upgrade of the artillery gun that was completed by the Israelis after much expense and failed trials; thermal imaging sights for the tanks that were never finished and finally purchased from Israel; the integrated guided missile development programme that was shelved; and the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), which has surpassed all cost and time projections for completion, and was recently rejected by the Indian Navy. The list is even longer.
The biggest indictment against DRDO is, as India Today noted, that almost 60 years after its establishment India still imports over 70 per cent of its defence equipment. In half the number of years that DRDO has been around, Israel has come from nowhere to become a world leader in defence technology, so the cost of misadventure with state-run R&D is truly mind-boggling. The person once leading this infamous organisation is now being tasked with another white elephant-in-the-making! Let’s face it: DRDO is no DARPA, and SRESTHA, taking its cues from DRDO, would only mean more taxpayer money down the drain for a duplicate and somnolent RDSO.
Where are the smarts?
Really, Mr Prabhu, where are the smarts to staff SRESTHA? In the heroic decades immediately after Independence, many an intelligent engineer went into government service, both from a spirit of national service and the fact that there were few jobs in the private sector. Today’s India could not be more different. When a career in government service has diminished in importance and respectability and the wage differential with the private sector is enormous, how is this entity going to attract the really good ones for “breakthrough innovation”, as the authors put it, and forsake a career with Apple, Google, Amazon, GE, Alsthom, Bombardier or Tesla and Indian companies like Tata, Mahindra, Godrej, Maruti Suzuki and Bharat Forge? Or even to start their own ventures? The technologies now coming to fore in the railways – bullet trains, mag-lev trains, advanced logistics, smart signaling – are exciting to the new generation. But seriously, would they want to come work for a dowdy government setup? Not any more.
Product or service organisation?
The confusion among people in the Railway Ministry owes to their inability to define clearly what the organisation stands for. Is it a “people mover” that is forever chained to the whims of domestic politics and subsidy? Is it fated to play second fiddle to other kinds of transport, even in a nation of billions, and continue its slow slide in ridership and freight patronage? Can it reclaim its role by providing efficiency, speed and quality both at the low end and the high end? All of these are service dimensions and do not require product development or innovation per se. Innovation in business models, certainly, but innovation in technology is beyond the scope. Few, if any, railway organisations around the world do well in both. Admittedly, the Railway Technology Research Institute (RTRI), creators of the Shinkansen bullet trains, is part of the Japanese National Railways. But that is Japan – they are disciplined, focused and minimalist.
The article, in extolling the opportunity, conveniently hides the fact that it would be extraordinarily difficult for the railways to assimilate, digest and contribute new innovation in areas they do not have the foggiest ideas about and which calls for expertise in multiple domains. In a new setup or old, we would only see, repeatedly in slow motion, what we saw with the DRDO for over 50 years. Time spent trying to re-invent the wheel with nothing to show for all the taxpayer money poured into it.
Do what ISRO has been doing
Among all the failed, failing and walking dead which describe the hundreds of government labs and PSUs in India, is one shining star: the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). It has had more successes than failures and this could be attributed to a culture of sharp focus, incrementally advancing goals (compared to the empire building ambition of DRDO) and active collaboration with the private sector. It has been incredibly focused on problem-solving from Day 1 and only taken up challenges that it has felt confident of combating in the medium-term. This is what the Indian Railways needs to do. Rather than mimic DRDO, SRESTHA could duplicate DARPA in only formulating and executing projects in collaboration with industry. For that, you don’t even need SRESTHA – a radical makeover of RDSO with a significantly reduced workforce would suffice. Relocation could be a start – to replace an ossified culture with a new one and build momentum.
Belief in markets, private sector and building ecosystems
It is a travesty that in the twenty-first century, India is only beginning to talk about ecosystems. Had we had a clearer idea of what we expected of government labs – for example, pursue applied research in collaboration with the private sector and license the technologies, we could have developed a vibrant ecosystem in many areas that would have mimicked what Israel has achieved in about 25 years. This could have encompassed electronics, materials science, complex mechanical and structural engineering, robotics, photonics and crystallography, advanced chemistry, genetics and so on.
All this would have required a different mindset: giving up Soviet-inspired ideas of a super-centralised research bureaucracy that knows all and replacing it with a collaborative culture that seeks to foster and develop islands of competence and expertise. These could have been geographically clustered for specific skill sets, such as Italy has developed. Or engineered through spin-outs or spin-offs of active research group technologies working within or with government labs, such as Israel has built into a fine art. Or government-funded competitive development challenges to the private sector to spark innovation and award lucrative production and supply contracts to the best, such as by the US Department of Defense.
Instead, we concentrated specific areas into individual PSUs that spawned huge workforces and unions and rendered them unviable. Today, that experiment lies in tatters and the nation has hardly produced any applied technology that is worthy of note or monetisable in global markets. We have fed ourselves on a myth of indigenous technology developed inside the government and repeated, ad nauseam, the contrafactual appeal for transfer of technologies. This belief is at once both pitiful and nonsensical: which company anywhere would part with its latest technologies on which it has spent considerable time and resources?
Now, in the twenty-first century, we cannot repeat these mistakes. Our private sector is both financially and intellectually strong, unlike in the 1950s, and able to amass resources at a far larger scale than individual government units. The government needs to repose faith in them, in free markets, in the notion of collaborative partnerships, and in applied research. Our focus from here on should be in building the necessary institutional and regulatory structures to make this possible. In the area of reforms, India is still squeamish about markets and competition.
Dr Saraswat and others come from a different era of “government knows best”. The fact is, it does not, and there is overwhelming evidence for this.
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