21st century is India’s century: Vijay Bhatkar

From computing, swadeshi science and the current situation of India’s IT industry to his latest role as the Vice-Chancellor of Nalanda University, the father of India’s supercomputer Vijay Bhatkar gets candid at an Idea Exchange at The Indian Express office.

Published:July 1, 2017 3:27 pm
vijay bhatkar, idea exchange, indian express Vijay Bhatkar at the Idea Exchange. Express Photo

Geeta Nair: Where does India position itself today in the supercomputing race ?

The first supercomputer PARAM 8000 was built in 1988, followed by PARA 10000. Then in ten 10 years’ time, we built further upgraded supercomputers and now we are in the race of making the systems that perform 1 trillion trillion instructions per second. We now hope to retake our position in the hexa-scale building systems by 2020.

Geeta Nair: So, did we miss the hardware revolution?

Yes, I think there were some strategic decisions that were big mistakes. In 1980s, India decided to develop indigenous products having different strategies than the other countries. But when Malaysia and China entered the game, they focused more on manufacturing and assembly part than designing capabilities, which really left us behind. India did not have facilities to manufacture the chips as it requires huge investments , say of the order Rs 24,000 crore. This race was always led by the US, soon to be joined by Japan, followed by Europe.

Even while India was in this race till about 2008, subsequent budgetary allocations, made by varying governments towards Science and Technology and their changing priorities, India’s efforts in capability building slowed down and we began to lag behind. In fact, in China, it was a national mission and developing technology was their key aim.

Despite all this, most of the core technology and chips are designed by Indian engineers in India or at top companies like Intel or Microsoft. Most of these companies also have their design houses in Pune and Bengaluru. We were never fully prepared for undertaking manufacturing and earlier attempts were half-hearted. In order to catch up, India needs to bank on international collaboration now.

Anjali Marar: Can National Supercomputing Mission (NSM) help in any form?

NSM with a budget of Rs 4,500 crore, which is an installation of supercomputers and is for building the systems in academic and educational institutions and building their network. This budget is just enough for such purposes. Instead, we have a separate budget for National Microprocessor project, which is the design capability.

Anuradha Mascarenhas: Talking about your role as vice chancellor of Nalanda University, several controversies surrounded it too. Can you elaborate on your vision and goals for the university?

I never expected to be holding this post. I got an invitation and felt excited, also because being a scientist, heading a university that dealt humanities was a new thing. I would often give examples of Takshashila and Nalanda universities during my talks. Nalanda will will re-emerge to its past glories where students from different languages, religions and languages will all be accommodated.

Geeta Nair: In case of Nalanda University, you had the best brains of the world coming there, but you could not retain them. How do you plan to bring a change?

No, the case was different then. At present, there are only 3 schools running — philosophy, religion, buddhist studies and historical studies and environment and ecology. There are hardly 120 to 150 students and we need to increase this figure by many factors and develop newer infrastructure all together. What is also needed is to improve the faculty to student ratio.

The locality where the university is located is still a backward area and now, we have decided to have a campus that will have all facilities inside and will be identified as a model campus. We hope to regain the lost glory and in the next two years, plan to open seven new schools for archaeology, anthropology and heritage studies. It will become one of the world’s most beautiful campuses with academia that can attract more international students.

Sunanda Mehta: Like noted economist Amartya Sen had reported undue interference in the way of functioning at the university, did you personally experience anything similar so far?

No, I haven’t faced anything or any interference. What I have understood is that even if you have to head IITs, and if one has returned after working at foreign universities, there is a completely different set of working conditions prevailing here in India. They are not accustomed to conditions and challenges in India. Here, for example, there may be requirement for taking certain permissions for doing things, which some may feel as interference but it may not be an issue otherwise. So, it is often seen that those people who have succeeded abroad may not have been so successful in Indian circumstances.

Sushant Kulkarni: In the number of universities and colleges, India may be ahead but when will we attain the quality that foreign universities have ? How are budget cuts affecting quality?

Chinese universities are really good and they have achieved this because it was their national interest. If we compare with top universities like Harvard and MIT to IITs, their annual budget ranges around US$ 4 billion or Rs Rs 25 thousand crores, whereas IIT’s annual budget is Rs 400 crore. So, given the fees we charge, infrastructure we have and the bureaucracy we have, we have done decently.

Anuradha Mascarenhas: Is the brain drain still happening?

Foreign universities have better infrastructure, faculty, good research facilities and better education but one must also realise that it is Indian students and faculty that fuel the foreign universities. Earlier, there were more number of Indians moving abroad but slowly the trend is reversing. It has considerably changed now.

Sushant Kulkarni: Your name was also considered for the presidential candidate?

I was not in New Delhi when the names were being considered. It was only from some media reports that I learnt that my name was also in the reckoning. But I was never engaged in any formal discussions for this post.

Sunanda Mehta: Lately you have been promoting swadeshi science too.Isn’t this contradictory to a man who came up with the supercomputer?

No. According to me, it is India’s knowledge which started in Vedic times — say, simple issues like the nature of ‘0’, decimal system, place value system. But, being a student of modern science and computers, also having studied the history of numbers and computers, I can appreciate the swadeshi science, which I find to be a very liberal form of learning. It is only now that the west and others are realising the value of our discoveries while they are finding their applications in quantum mechanics.

Partha Sarathi Biswas: At this moment, India’s IT sector is facing one of its toughest phases. While a majority of them do not know what is happening, why, according to you, has it degraded?

This is very true and there is a need to understand the link between translating actual innovations to production and we need an ecosystem created for this purpose. Not simply restricting to innovations but how these must be commercialised too. However, with our education system being examination-centric , what we missed is this role of product innovation to translation, which requires huge infrastructure on the educational campuses along with the industry’s focused efforts to boost the research and development wing.

When Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) first designed short-term software development course, there were numerous software engineers sent to all parts of the world suiting the requirements then. The strength lies in addressing industry needs in terms of services. Now, I am waiting for a period where Indian students will create their own IT industries and it is possible as today, as the highest number of graduates in IT startups businesses in the US are from IITs . I am positive that this picture will change soon. We have missed many opportunities because of our policies.

Geeta Nair: How about IIIT, there was some industry support, but it still did not work?

Yes, it did not work out because of the High Court judgments, that one cannot start anything new that was the fundamental challenge. Thus, we could not take it forward.

Anuradha Mascarenhas: The budgets for science, education and research have been shrinking. How will it work?

On respect of budget and R&D, it is by 0.9 per cent of GDP, not even 1 per cent that many countries have as per their GDP. For example, China allocates 2 per cent of its GDP to science and technology and many other innovative countries like Israel have it even higher at 5 per cent to 6 per cent of their GDP. So, comparatively, our’s is much lower spending.

With respect to budget we have, we are doing everything — including private sector funding, alongside building nuclear power plants, satellites, supercomputers and many other technologies. In that terms, I appreciate where we are today because this budget is lesser than an MNC’s budget.

Sunanda Mehta: As a scientist and thinker, any message you would like to give the country?

21st century is India’s century and we are fast progressing towards achieving this. India will emerge and the nation would talk about us. In the next two to three decades, the country will be a leader. We have already proven ourselves in economy, space and national missions, we have taken top positions. Even in education, people will envy us. But I am for for more international collaborations with the whole world to unite and solve problems.

(Transcribed by Anjali Marar)

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