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Special Content

volume-13, 29 June - 5 July 2019

Developing Contemporary Technologies Biggest Challenge: CSIR Chief


Employment News caught up with Dr. Shekhar C. Mande, a renowned Scientist of the country. He heads the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), New Delhi as its Director General.  

Tell us about the pivotal role CSIR has played in the field of scientific and industrial research in the past 2-3 decades.

You have said past 2-3 decades, but let me take the liberty of starting from the beginning. So when we became independent in 1947, we were not self reliant in anything. We were importing food, we were importing clothing and everything was coming from outside and one of the major challenges before the nation was how to become self reliant in every aspect of our life and CSIR actually started working towards its objective from the very beginning. And one of the first achievements of CSIR was how to empower every citizen of the country for voting.  The indelible ink used in elections is a technology given by CSIR to Mysore Inks. CSIR participated very significantly in the 1960s in the Green Revolution. The entire mechanisation of agriculture was spearheaded by CSIR labs including developing the first indigenous tractor Swaraj, which was developed in our Durgapur Laboratory.  We also developed many pesticides etc. Subsequently, from 1970s to 1990s was an era of technology denial by the world to India. So we had to develop the technology indigenously by reverse engineering.

Tell us about the contribution of CSIR to the healthcare sector.

Way back in the 1970s and 80s when new diseases such as AIDS were emerging, the first medicine which became available for HIV therapy was extraordinarily expensive, no Indian could afford it, let alone people in Africa and sub Saharan countries. CSIR reverse engineered some of these chemicals   made it 1000 times cheaper. The World Health Organisation mandated that medicines be produced in India and Cipla took the technology from us. We are  very proud that we made medicines very cheap and catalysed another revolution  in India, which is the generic pharma industry. So the beginning of generic pharma industry is the direct contribution of CSIR.

Lets talk about other important sectors where CSIR has made significant contributions.

Today, we live in a globalised world and our challenge is how to develop technologies which are contemporary and which can actually stand up  to the  rest of the things in the world. You would have noticed that we are actually developing a plenty of new things in the last 10 years. If you would have noticed last couple of seasons, you do not see many flight delays in Delhi airport, unlike in the past. One of the things that we have deployed in major airports in the country including Delhi airport is the system called DRISHTI which is a transmisometer, which assesses the visibility at the airport before the aircraft lands and the information is available to the pilots online. DRISHTI technology is contemporary and is the best in the world and our competitors are from western Europe and our technology is as good as that but much cheaper about 1/5th of that cost. 

You have a vast network of laboratories across the country, but are all of them giving tangible results.

Oh yes, we are proud that all our 37 laboratories are giving results in their specific domains.  I will give you a couple of examples.  CSIR's Indian Institute of Petroleum in Dehradun has great expertise in petroleum technologies. And  they have installed a plant alongwith Indian Oil Corportion in Jumaligad in Assam for wax and that has brought down the import of wax by about Rs. 500 crores a year. Now a completely different sector - the mining sector- the mining sector lab in Dhanbad is doing quality testing of coal for many PSUs routinely. The National Aerospace Laboratories in Bangalore has developed a new indigenous aircraft SARAS to improve rural connectivity, the aircraft has already done several test flights. Two aircrafts are under development, a 19 seater aircraft and a slightly bigger aircraft, a 70 seater, which we believe will transform the rural connectivity in the coming years.

Most of the laboratories which we are talking about were established decades back. Are you also looking at establishing new laboratories to focus on emerging technologies that have come up in the last 10-15 years.

Yes indeed, science and technology is never stagnant and continuous development is taking place. One of our big challenge is how do we keep up at the cutting edge of science and technology. Some of the new areas that have come up for example artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning all these things have come up very strongly in the last few years and we believe that they will make inroads into almost all the sectors.  Now how do we address that, unless we have a dedicated group of people who will be working in these areas. We are very keenly exploring at this moment whether we should have a separate institute for that or should we have people working in many of our existing labs. We plan to augment the strength of these labs. But we may also consider establishing new institute and labs for this.

The road from laboratory to industry seems to be very long.  At times, you get to know of innovations which has been made in the lab but it never sees the light of the day, it never becomes commercially viable and successful.  Why is that.

There is a scale called Technology Readiness Level or TRL. It was proposed by NASA several years ago that TRL 1, 2, 3 are essentially very early phase of discovery, what we do in the lab.  TRL 7, 8 and 9 is the highest level and TRL 9 is when it is ready to be deployed in the field at the very large scale. In between there is a gap and that gap typical in academic labs, is what we call as the translational research, which is not that easy to fill up because we have to show the scalability of the product, you have to make the prototypes, we have to make sure that these prototypes work and all of it and it not easy gap to fill up.  There are many ways of filling this gap up, one of the ways of filling the gap up is  industries and academy work together make sure that whatever technology is emerging from the labs, we handhold each other and then scale up, build the prototypes and demonstrate on the field.

But the industry is more concerned about ROI, return on investment and profits, Isn't it.

Exactly, that's where the problem lies. Industry are many times not willing to come in at the early phase of discovery.  One of the powerful way of doing this is through the means of start-ups. There is big revolution of start-ups coming in India and start-ups are the ones who can take up the challenge of filling this gap. Taking the technology from TRL 3 to TRL 7 and this is what start-ups can do and that is another way of filling that gap.  And as you see, in the last 5 years a  major revolution has taken place with the Start-up movement and Start-up India is a part of that.

One of the pressing issues today is to look for alternatives to fossil fuel. Although, a lot work has been done as far as electric vehicle are concerned but still we don't have commercially viable electric cars.  Is CSIR working towards that.

There are two issues of reducing our dependency on fossil fuels - one is fossil fuel derived from crops- you know it is most common but there are many different crops which can give you fuel and we have already demonstrated technology on this, when you saw on 26th January this year in the Republic day parade, Air Force flew a AN 32 aircraft, which flew on Jathropa fuel which were developed by our Dehradun Lab. The second way of addressing it is our electrochemical laboratory in Kairaikudi in Tamil Nadu. The lab is making batteries for electric vehicles. They have ambitious plans which we would be unveiling in the next few months.

The Govt has ambitious plan of housing for all by 2022. The housing sector probably needs a revolution like the mobile phone revolution. Is CSIR looking at cost effective housing material.

There are two laboratories focussing exclusively on the housing sector. One is the Central Building Research Institute (CBRI), Roorkee and the other is Structural Engineering Research Centre in Chennai. Both of them have been deeply involved not only in India but also in neighbouring countries in arriving at affordable housing for both rural as well as urban areas. The labs are looking at pre fabricated housing but stable structure. The CBRI lab has submitted a project to Nepal Govt regarding earthquake proof housing.

Tell us about the job oppurtunities for scientists in CSIR.

We have 6000 odd scientist positions across 37 labs and the New Delhi Headquarters, out of which roughly 3000 posts are filled up. We are looking to fill up these postions in the next 10-15 years. We don't want to fill them up in one go but want to see the emerging fields where we would be needing people. We want to fill up roughly 10-15 % vacancies every year.

Is there ample scope for non-technical personnel in CSIR.

The administrative jobs in CSIR are of typically three kinds- one is General Administration and Establishment, second is Stores and Purchase and the third is Finance and Accounts. We have large number of vacancies as well and we would be looking to fill them up in the near future.

Do you go the extra mile to retain talent, is CSIR a pay master with attractive packages

Yes, indeed it is. CSIR generates absolute state-of-the- art infrastructure which no other laboratory could even dream of. For example the wind tunnel in the National Aerospace Laboratory is the only place in India where you have it. Even Defence sector and Space sector use our Wind Tunnel for testing missiles and space shuttles. That is a major attracting point for people to come to us. We offer exciting scientific atmosphere in all our labs.

Are you aligning your aims and objectives with our national priorities.

This is absolutely essential. For any organistation in the country the immediate priorities of the nation are the highest priorities of that organisation. It is true for CSIR as well. All the programs that you see which govt launches like Swachh  Bharat, Swasth Bharat we are participating significantly in all those programs. Whatever the Govt feels is right for the country or for the society CSIR is an enthusiastic partner in all  these programs.

Where do you see CSIR headed in the next 5-10 years.

CSIR's principle role is to connect Industry with Academia. We work on technologies which will benefit the society immediately. Large group of people should benefit and should lead a very respectable life, like the Aroma mission which I mentioned is a part of that particular effort. We will not be able to reach the society unless we have a strong industry connect. We do not have the wherewithal to take the technologies ourselves to the field, we will have to partner the industry. All the work that we do in CSIR is very industry oriented. Many of the large corporate have taken technology from us. There are many success stories which we can talk about. Amul milk powder is our technology, Tata iodised salt, Tata Swatch and many more. We also work with small and medium enterprises, they become our social responsibility to promote innovation and technology transformation. They also become our vehicles to reach the society. Another important aspect is that any technology has to be backed up by very strong science and therefore CSIR labs do very deep science.

(The interviewer S. Ranga-bashiam is a New Delhi based News Anchor with All India Radio.)

Views expressed are personal.