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Powering Aatmanirbhar Bharat through Innovation and Entrepreneurship

An ongoing pandemic of unprecedented proportions, Covid-19 has impacted lives and livelihoods across the globe. Even as the best minds in the world race towards finding preventive and curative solutions to combat and curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, the current crisis has been an eye-opener to several opportunities that have presented themselves during this time.

To this end, Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi made a clarion call for an Aatmanirbhar Bharat, or a self-reliant India, that would be a source of local ingenuity creating global impact. He exhorted fellow citizens to utilize this time of crisis to be vocal for local and be self-reliant.

He eloquently identified five pillars on which Aatmanirbhar Bharat would stand and on which a New India could pole-vault to an era of sustainable economic prosperity and societal good, bridging the economic as well as digital divides between the haves and the have-nots.

To make these pillars truly powerful and resilient, designed to withstand any onslaughts of potential new crises, it is imperative to strengthen them through the creation of an underlying ecosystem of institutionalized skills development, advanced research, and technology-driven innovations. This would incentivize a massive upsurge of world-class startups and entrepreneurs, that would create new livelihoods across the length and breadth of the country.

Creating a nation of job-creators and not just job-seekers is the key. And central to this, is the need for an extensive collaboration between corporate industry, academia, and governments at the village, district, state and central levels. Such synergies have indeed gained momentum with the Covid-19 crisis and need to be further capitalized on.

Let’s examine the five pillars through the lens of innovation and entrepreneurship.

We begin with the pillar of demographic dividend. With over 65% of our country under 35 years of age, more than 1.4 million schools and 10,500 engineering and related institutions, a whopping 39,000 colleges and universities, India enjoys a demographic dividend like no other in the world. It is imperative that we enable the channelization of this youthful energy towards nation-building activities by focusing on developing vocational, technical and managerial skills, while fostering a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship at the school, university and industry levels. Innovative ways of leveraging emerging digital technologies can create and promote such ecosystems. This presents a huge opportunity for hundreds of edtech startups to build and leverage wireless, 5G communication, mobile AR/VR, and AI technologies to power the same. Existing government initiatives—such as Atal Tinkering Labs and AI curricula at school levels, incubators and innovation cells at university levels, and fostering startups and vocational training in emerging new areas—must also be accelerated to strengthen this pillar.

Second is the pillar of infrastructure. India has over 715 districts, more than 4000 cities and 6,00,000 villages. Undisputedly, innovation and entrepreneurship will be key to ensuring the development of both physical as well as digital infrastructure across all these regions in the country. The nation needs smart villages and several hundred smart cities to become active hubs of livelihood enablement, innovation, and job creation. Smart water management, transportation, energy management, and housing present tremendous opportunities for innovations and startups.

This is vital to prevent a lopsided development of our economy and an unsustainable urban migration to a handful of tier-1 cities. The pillar of infrastructure would also require construction of digital highways, which would ensure that innovations reach every common citizen be it in education, healthcare, housing, or job enablement. This presents a glorious opportunity for young creative entrepreneurs to tap into and create growing organizations with global impact.

For the third pillar, demand, India has the perfect environment. It has over 1.3 billion people, a youthful population, a growing middle class, one of the fastest-growing economies of the world, and affordable, available advanced technology to reimagine new solutions to existing and emerging consumer needs. An ideal situation for thousands of startups and companies to capitalize on and fulfil pent-up demand for new solutions and consumer- or citizen-centric services in every vertical— agriculture, healthcare, education, water management, clean and renewable energy, affordable housing, defence, space, transportation, or retail.

The pillar of demand presents an unprecedented opportunity for Make in India in every industry. There has been an increasing number of challenges launched by various ministries—MeitY, AIM (Atal New India Challenges), DST (Kawach), DBT BIRAC (biotech challenges)—as well as Covid-19 challenges for preventive assistive solutions, spurring a remarkable slew of innovative solutions.

The recent announcements of private sector participation for innovations in the space and defence sectors open up a flood of new opportunities for the MSME industry. Any solution developed for 1.3 billion people can also be a possible solution for the 7+ billion people on the planet. The recently launched Bharat App Innovation Challenge by MeitY, MyGov, and Atal Innovation Mission is a welcome step to identify and create world-class apps that can be used by the rest of the world too. 

Next, we come to the pillar of technology. The remarkable growth of the fast-growing 180 billion USD IT/ITES and biotech industry in India over the past decade has showed the world India’s scientific, engineering and technological prowess and capabilities. The best multinationals of the world are leveraging Indian talent and rushing to set up large R&D hubs in India. Aatmanirbhar Bharat has now turned the gaze of this world-class innovative talent inwards, to create products and services for the Indian market at par with other countries. Catalysing this stupendous potential are affordable, accessible, advanced IR 4.0 technologies, including 3D printing, IOT, AR/VR, biotech, cognitive computing, AI/Blockchain, to name a few. With one of the fastest-growing startup ecosystems—over 30,000 startups and 250 incubators—India can surely position itself as one of the leading innovative nations of the world.

Final, is the pillar of socio-economic growth. With 22% of its population still below the poverty line, 44% of its economy still agri-based, many districts still combating unacceptable percentages of infant mortality and maternal mortality, and only a mere 13% of women entrepreneurs, India needs to ensure that rapid economic progress encompasses societal progress.

The time is ripe for micro-finance and rural-financing schemes to spur great innovations and entrepreneurial initiatives on the socio-economic front. It is crucial to ensure gender equality, address economic disparity and equal opportunities for differently abled communities. Fast-growing economies such as ours also need to be extremely wary of climate change–related issues. Therefore, it is important that the Sustainable Development Goals remain the overarching objective of every organization.

Aatmanirbhar Bharat provides a truly watershed moment in our history to ignite the innovative entrepreneurial spirit of New India by focusing on strengthening the above pillars, which will ensure an unprecedented wave of long-deserved growth, prosperity and well-being that can serve the interests of the rest of the world as well.


*R. Ramanan is Mission Director, AIM. Views expressed are personal.

R. Ramanan