The Indian government's relentless focus on making innovation a central tenet of economic policy is paying off, with the country jumping by 33 places since 2015 to break into the top 50 nations in the Global Innovation Index. But blessed by a grassroots culture of innovation, the world's fifth largest economy should now aim at the top 20 rankings of the same index.
India's rapid progress across the ranks of the Global Innovation Index and its achievement in breaking into the top 50 countries globally would have triggered widespread corporate celebrations if it wasn't for the battle against the coronavirus. India climbed four spots on the Global Innovation Index (GII) 2020 and is now at 48th position in the list of top 50 innovative countries in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) annual ranking. Switzerland, Sweden, US, UK and Netherlands make up the top 5 nations in this year′s ranking.
But for India, ranking at 48 is a major feat considering that the country was ranked at 81 in the same index in 2015. Acknowledging the massive effort that the Indian government exerted in the past 5 years, WIPO said that India remains one of the leading innovation achievers of 2019 in the central and southern Asian region, as it has shown a consistent improvement in its innovation ranking for the last five years.
This, WIPO said, was due to the immense knowledge capital, the vibrant startup ecosystem, and the amazing work done by public and private research organisations across the country.
But in many ways, the real challenge for India, its government and the corporate innovation apparatus, begins now - and breaking into the elite league of top 20 most innovative nations is a definite possibility if pursued with the right strategy, determination and patience.
As the index itself shows, the landscape of global innovation continues to shift, and Covid-19 will become a further catalyst in that transformation. Over the years, India - along with the Philippines, Vietnam and China - have emerged as the economies with the most significant progress in their GII innovation rankings.
The Covid-19 pandemic hit the global landscape at a time when innovation was flourishing. In 2018, research and development (R&D) spending grew by 5.2%, which is significantly faster than the median global gross domestic product (GDP) growth, with venture capital and the use of intellectual property (IP) hitting an all-time high.
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“As shown by India, the persistent pursuit of innovation pays off over time. The GII has been used by governments and others around the world to improve their innovation performance,” said Soumitra Dutta, Former Dean and Professor of Management at Cornell University.
Ironically, while the pandemic has disrupted much of the systematic innovation that lies at the heart of the progress of nations, it has also exacerbated innovative solutions and entrepreneurial ingenuity in the face of economic devastation - and nowhere is this more apparent than in India. Which is why, say economists, India entering the top 50 rankings for the first time in GII shows only a modest progress to tap its massive unused potential.
“The rapid, worldwide spread of the coronavirus requires fresh thinking to ensure a shared victory over this quintessential global challenge,” said WIPO Director-General Francis Gurry. “Even as we all grapple with the immediate human and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments need to ensure that rescue packages are future oriented and support the individuals, research institutes, companies and others with innovative and collaborative new ideas for the post-COVID era. Innovations equal solutions.”
While it's certainly true that India is on the way to be a world leader in innovation, yet as the world's fifth-largest economy by GDP, much more work needs to be done to bridge the gap with the world's most innovative countries - especially considering that India is expected to become the world's largest economy by 2050.
Nations such as Switzerland, Singapore and Germany offer a variety of clues and goals on how to bridge that gap. India needs a quality work and innovation revolution, bigger investment in research and development - and some of the basic foundations are already in place for that leap.
As cited by the GII, two of the most critical roles in consolidating the innovation matrix in India is played by the central policy and planning think tank Niti Ayog and legacy universities with robust R&D programmes. "Thanks to universities such as the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay and Delhi and the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, and its top scientific publications, India is the lower middle-income economy with the highest innovation quality,” GII said.
In addition, India ranks in the top 15 in indicators such as ICT (Information and Communication Technology) services exports, government online services, graduates in science and engineering, and R&D-intensive global companies.
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At the policy level, initiatives such as “Make in India,” “Start-up India,” “Innovate India” and “Digital India” - all rolled out under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi - have rapidly leveraged India's innovation performance, and now the task would be to strengthen these initiatives, a task where the NITI Aayog can play a crucial role in boosting policy formulations.
While a lot of attention has focused on the power of individual innovation in India, even corporate entities have had major creative successes in the past decades. The home-grown brand Amul, owned by the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation, is a classic example of converting the difficulties of the pandemic into opportunity.
With hotels, restaurants and café chains shut, loss-hit dairy farmers were dumping milk on the road to seek governmental attention. Amul solved the problem with a creative solution: buying an additional 3.5 million litres of milk per day during the lockdown months. It not only generated an extra income of nearly $10 million for rural milk producers, but also helped Amul create new pandemic-related dairy products. Even as other dairy companies stared at crippling losses during the pandemic, Amul consolidated its position as Asia's largest dairy company, and is now aiming at a turnover of $14 billion by 2024 to become the world's third largest dairy company.
Blessed by a grassroots culture of innovation, India today stands on the brink of a historic journey not only to leap into the elite league of top 20 most innovative nations, but also to rediscover the power of its self-reliance or Atmanirbhar Bharat.