History, technology and the shackles of the present

History, technology and the shackles of the present

For the historian of science and technology, the Narendra Modi government’s ambitious push for electric vehicles (EVs) should ring a bell. After many decades, India is witnessing once again the unseemly fraternisation of high technology and authoritarian governance. On the one hand, the government has championed EV, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and packaged sundry technologies into neat acronyms. On the other, it has clipped Internet access to towns and villages when confronted with non-violent protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019.

In India’s case, history is merely repeating itself. In 1976, as India sank deep into the recesses of the Emergency, a group of bureaucrats and scientists sat down to ponder the future of technology in the country. The irony of analysing technologies that would unshackle the Indian economy, when basic rights of its citizenry were suppressed, was lost on the establishment. In fact, while the Indira Gandhi government built a surveillance state, Silicon Valley saw the birth of “public key cryptography”, used in modern-day encryption. India, it seemed, had regressed into the darkest chapter of its political history, just as the world began to use technology to preserve human rights.

Batting for electric vehicles

This dissonance did not seem to bother the high-profile group that had been brought together by the National Committee on Science and Technology (NCST). Its mandate: “study the outlook for India in 2000 A.D”. The group, set up in 1973, took seven years to submit their report, publishing an interim document during the Emergency. The Indian government’s commissioning a “futures study” was in step with the times. “Futurology” — the use of computer models for forecasting scenarios — became fashionable after the Club of Rome, a group of economists and planners, published its famous “Limits to Growth” report in 1972. The report painted a doomsday scenario of acute food and water scarcity in 2000. Unsurprisingly, this period also witnessed the “new wave” of science fiction, set in dystopic lands and featuring post-apocalyptic visions. Another kind of dystopia was unfolding in India’s present — while the civil liberties of Indians were cast aside, the government was busy discussing EVs and self-driving cars.

It may seem straight out of the pages of a sci-fi novel, but the first official assessment of EVs in India was likely published during the Emergency. The Committee on Futurology, as it was known, analysed long-term projections for many sectors, including transportation. This sector’s problems were two-fold. To begin with, there were just not enough vehicles for the larger public in India. Three decades after Independence, India had only 1,00,000 buses on its roads. (In other words, there was one bus for every 6,500 Indians). However, the number of cars and jeeps totalled nearly 750,000. In a still-impoverished country, the wealthy and powerful elite enjoyed vastly better mobility than the majority of the population.

The shadow of the oil crisis

Rising fuel prices presented the second problem. The NCST deliberated in the shadow of the oil crisis of 1973, brought on by a crude embargo imposed by the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Faced with the problem of scarcity and costs, the committee argued India was better served in the long run by developing renewable alternatives to petrol.

Almost concurrently, western laboratories had begun exploring the development of lithium-ion batteries, critical to EVs. The work of John B. Goodenough, Akira Yoshino and M. Stanley Whittingham — who were jointly awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of these batteries — was catalysed by the oil crisis of the 1970s. The NCST appears to have been mindful of such efforts: “it is imperative that some concentrated R&D is performed in the area of high energy-high power batteries”, it declared. The Committee even predicted EVs and self-driving cars – “adaptive, automobile autopilots”, as the report termed it — would be commercially available from the early 1980s.

Much politicking

Is it surprising the Indian government conjured up visions of technological advancement, while suppressing democracy? Hardly. Several autocratic regimes have tread down the same path, using technology as a totem to rally disaffected populations. But while the NCST made grand claims about the future, the government was actually clamping down on technology in the present. Indira Gandhi’s government, under pressure from labour unions, viewed computers with suspicion, and discouraged PSUs from adopting them. The Futurology Committee’s view too was jaundiced by the Emergency. Not all technologies were “neutral” and useful to society, the committee declared, citing the TV as an example. Meanwhile, Doordarshan had become an instrument of state propaganda. Faced with a financial crunch, the government also championed “appropriate technologies” that were small-scale — solar cookers and mechanised bullock carts — but did little to boost productivity. The left hand did not know what the right was doing: some sections of the government were trumpeting the arrival of self-driving cars, while others told the public to be wary of computers.

Despite this politicking over technology, Indians were, in fact, beginning to embrace machines. As C.R. Subramanian has noted, the import of computers tripled during the Emergency. The number of automobiles plying on Indian roads in the 1980s increased by a staggering 400% over the previous decade. The seeding of doubt against big technology by the government in the minds of citizens did little to improve prospects for scientific breakthroughs. If only Indians had the political agency to form their own views of technology, India may well have had a shot at developing EVs. It is a lesson today’s government too should learn: one cannot aspire to a ‘Digital India’ if technologies are wantonly used for mass surveillance, or cut off altogether when faced with non-violent, democratic protests.

Arun Mohan Sukumar is a PhD candidate at The Fletcher School, and the author of Midnight’s Machines: A Political History of Technology in India

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