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Technology is the study of techniques. Technology transfer is not a new phenomenon. It is as old as human civilisation and one of its unique characteristics. To cite a relatively recent example, the 16th Century Queen Elizabeth I imported German miners to develop England's mineral resources and establish a brass industry. Properly speaking technology includes not only the physical process or technique for production, but all the necessary knowledge and skills for execution including managerial and entrepreneurial skills as well. There is technology for producing physical objects, but also technology in the form of services and ideas. One of the most important technology transfers in history was the migration of the zero and what are erroneously called the "Arabic" numerals from India to the West via Arabia.

Today virtually every country of the world including the most industrially advanced look to each other as sources of new and improved technology. Japan, who twenty years ago was an example of a very good student anxious to learn and imitate technologies developed elsewhere, is now a teacher and source of inspiration for others. It is significant that the West is now looking to Japan not only for technical processes, but organisational skills as well.

There is a common misconception that we can only look to the West for sophisticated new technologies. Actually there are many technologies available in the West that may be old or obsolete from their perspective, yet quite appropriate in reference to India's present day needs and capacities.

For instance, the handmade paper industry was established in Europe during the 14th Century where it flourished until late in the 19th Century when modern paper technology was introduced. Even today there are a few small mills in France, England, Germany, and Italy manufacturing very fine quality cotton papers which cannot be duplicated by machine. There are over 200 handmade paper units in India, but the quality of paper produced is far below that made in Europe and the high labour cost makes it uncompetitive with mill-made paper. Many of these units are closed. Most of those which survive do so on the basis of subsidised sales through Khadi and Village Industries Commission. Today it is more of a welfare scheme than a viable industry.

Recently successful efforts have been made to upgrade the quality of handmade paper produced in India to international standards by importing and adapting technology from Europe. Export quality handmade paper is now being produced here for one-fifth the price of European handmade paper and exported for substantial profits to Europe and North America where there is a huge market potential. Like handmade paper there are many other obsolete western technologies which may be successfully adopted here.

Many western countries like USA, Germany and Japan have done extensive research in the development of commercially viable electric vehicles. Tens of thousands of vehicles are being produced in the USA alone and the US Postal Service has introduced electric cars for many of its delivery routes.

Earlier technical obstacles have been overcome to permit high speeds and longer travel range between charges comparable with internal combustion engine vehicle performance. Electric vehicles offer significant advantages in fuel efficiency, air and noise pollution.

A public or joint sector unit can take up manufacture of electric vehicles. In the initial stages it can concentrate on urban vehicles like city taxis and auto-rickshaws and local delivery vans. Automatic electric charging coin-operated meters can be installed at taxi stands in large urban areas to permit cars to recharge during rest and waiting periods.

Another appropriate field for technology import is the conversion of coal into liquid and gaseous fuels. The USA and several other countries have been involved over the past ten years in extensive research and experimentation to economically convert coal into a pollution-free liquid fuel. Several processes are now ready for commercial exploitation. In fact the US government will be spending over Rs.70,000 crores in the next few years to fund further extension of work in this field. The next step is to establish what are called "intermediate" scale conversion units on the order of 2000 to 5000 tons of coal per day. 5000 tons of coal can be processed to yield 5000 barrels per day of synthetic fuel oils. While this would represent an insignificant fraction of US requirements and have no commercial significance, for India it would represent a concrete step forward in an effort to develop substitutes for imported oil. Indo-US Collaboration in this field, which is already taking place through the Joint Commission at the level of technological exchange, could be extended into the field of implementation by construction of an intermediate size unit in India. Recently construction was begun in the US on the first 6000 ton per day unit with collaboration from Germany and Japan.

Technology not only meets needs, it also creates opportunities. It is worthwhile establishing a Technology Import Corporation to serve a function parallel to that played by the Export Promotion Councils, but with a commercial basis. The Corporation could study foreign economies in order to identify labour intensive or development oriented technologies suitable for India. The Corporation could purchase the technology and license its use by Indian companies to recover the cost, or it could purchase the technology on behalf of specific parties. It could also directly provide finance for import of useful technologies or support financial aid from other institutions within the country. By this means, many useful technologies can be introduced and many existing industries upgraded technologically to become more efficient and profitable.

For foreign technology to be successful here, it is not enough that technique or process know-how is obtained or even that skilled workers are available. Successful production requires the proper organisational set-up and appropriate systems. Furthermore, the entrepreneur must have the requisite dynamism and experience to create a new enterprise. One of the reasons for the slow development of Indian industry and its general inefficiency is the absence of an experienced cadre of managers and entrepreneurs within the country.

Western countries have the advantage of a huge pool of managerial and entrepreneurial skills accumulated over many decades and automatically transmitted to new generations as traits of national character. The life experience of an individual can never replace the wealth and depth of capacity passed on as a social inheritance.

This is the reason why projects involving foreign personnel as well as foreign know-how out-perform those in which a technique alone is imported. It is worthwhile broadening our definition of technology to encompass this wider field and designing technology transfer projects which import, not only the technique, but the managerial and entrepreneurial talents needed to operate it successfully until such a time that India's own pool of talents is filled to overflowing.

As countries become more developed, there is a gradual shift in emphasis from production of goods to provision of services. For example, after World War II a small company in New York developed a new service called "space utilisation" which was designed to study the growth rates and building space requirements of American companies to determine the optimum size and layout for their offices. In less than twenty years this service has become a normal activity of every architectural firm in the country and in 1978 that small company had a turnover of $93 million.

Even today there is ample scope for import of very useful and practical services which will improve the efficiency of Indian industry and the quality of Indian life. Management training and city planning are two such services imported from the West which have already taken roots here.

story | by Dr. Radut