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July 27, 1998


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Chopping off chips: Seven scientists are expelled from semiconductor labs in the US. How will this impact India's IT-critical future?

Zasha Penn

The more global the world economy gets, the more difficult it is to deny technology to any single nation.

Yet, the paradox is that the colonial battles being fought for the control of tomorrow depend on control of technology today.

Email this story to a friend. When India tested its nukes in the desert at Pokhran, it gained a powerful weapon of mass destruction. But in the process, it may have put in jeopardy its dreams to build the ultimate tool of mass construction -- factories that will churn out computer chips.

Chopping off chips
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Historically, whenever India has been denied a technology, it has painstakingly developed it on its own: from atomic energy and aerospace to supercomputing.

Perhaps that is why, this time round, the US anti-nukes actions are not immediately denying critical technology.

They are doing better by cutting off the reverse brain drain, which has traditionally supplied the talent to achieve technological breakthroughs of national importance.

This reverse brain drain is of scientists of Indian origin who have gained knowledge that could put India firmly on the course for making the next logical leap in economy-critical technology.

The recent expulsion of seven Indian scientists from laboratories in the US seems to be aimed at crippling India's development of computer chip technology.

The seven were working on two semiconductor-manufacturing and ceramics-processing projects at a US government facility in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Semiconductors and other advanced materials, including ceramics, go into chip manufacture and are critical to instrumentation and control mechanisms for missiles, avionics, atomic power, supercomputers and almost anything to do with electronics.

Even vocal proponents of the swadeshi ideology like Union Minister for Science and Technology Dr Murli Manohar Joshi have often said that "India does not want US technology for making potato chips but could do with technology for semiconductor chips".

Significantly, even the latest Param 10000 supercomputer developed by the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing at Pune uses imported UltraSPARC-II chips manufactured by US multinational Sun Microsystems. In Param 10000, these chips rest alongside C-DAC's own communications processors.

The C-DAC example is yet another demonstration of how direct denial of technology by the US does not work in today's reality.

The sophisticated UltraSPARC-II chips in the Param supercomputers are all commodity products that Indian engineers can pick off shelves in most parts of the world! Having cleverly wired them together India got the superfast computing speeds it wanted, now the next logical goal would be to build the chip itself.

Even India's Manufacturers Association for Information Technology, the largest industry grouping of its kind, is aware of the implications. It recently announced a plan to move towards chip manufacturing by first establishing the country as a chip designing base by leveraging its expertise in software. This involves a sub-plan to woo back IT design talent of Indian origin.

Subsequently, a Rediff investigation put the task at hand in perspective and scale. In an interview to this newspaper, Vinod Dham, the father of Intel's Pentium processor, summed up the challenge in one line: "The devil is in the details".

It is the knowledge of these details that the US may now be denying by expelling Indian scientists from its semiconductor labs.

Public Enterprise Selection Board Chairman N Vittal, who is also a former secretary of the Department of Electronics, laments "No advanced industrial society can exist without controlled access to an advanced electronics industry and India is a long way from building one on its own."

Vittal points out that for India to build and sustain an advanced electronics industry it must have access to an advanced microelectronics or chips industry somewhere.

The world chip industry is currently dominated by massive companies in the United States, Japan, Korea and Europe with Intel of the US as the clear world leader.

India has only a small share of the chip industry. It lacks the enormous capital, counting up to tens of billions of dollars, and the vision to create it either through the private or the public sector.

Vittal brings up the example of Malaysia, which systematically built a semiconductor industry by attracting multinational investment in the area of packaging first and then fabrication. Dham told Rediff of a similar story in Taiwan.

Can US actions now prevent India from simulating such Asian successes?

The key to advanced semiconductor products is an understanding of advanced materials, which include conducting polymers, biomolecular substances and ferroelectricals as well as techniques like laser processing and electron-assisted etching.

The US was the first to enact a law addressing the intellectual property rights of integrated circuits or chips through the Semiconductor Chip Protection Act as far back as 1984.

To counter this, India's Department of Electronics is trying to build a base in the country, covering labour, research and development and technology at academic institutions and laboratories.

Though with limited success, the DoE has also tried to promote use of 'application-specific integrated circuits' by the indigenous electronics equipment industry and upgradation of the technological and manufacturing capabilities.

Without access to the dynamic electronics industry in the US, India's chip-manufacturing agenda is likely to find the going tough. This has been aggravated by the anti-nukes sanctions. For instance, some of these measures are directly aimed at Indian semiconductor ventures like the Bharat Electronics Limited.

Yet, the challenges to India may not be insurmountable; only very difficult.

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