The Time Press
Opinion

Drones at the service of an Atmanirbhar Bharat


The appeal of self-reliance in India is almost self-evident, even unique. An outsized artwork of Mahatma Gandhi’s Charkha installed at our busiest airport is symbolic of much that we hold dear. This includes a national will to rely on ourselves. Last year, the Centre eased its rules for private drone operations in the country. Amid talk of revolutionary use cases, from the delivery of wifi and vaccines to the scanning and spraying of farms, India’s ministry of civil aviation snipped away red tape and opened up more airspace for us to fly our own little whirligigs and pilotless aircraft more freely. ‘Air freight’ took on a new meaning; even air-taxi services were envisioned. Not only had Indian skies been opened nice and wide, state incentives worth 120 crore over three years were held out for the local manufacture of drones and their parts. Last week, the government made an even bigger move aimed at an Atmanirbhar Bharat. It banned the import of drones and their assembly kits, unless needed for research and development, defence or security purposes. The message was loud and clear: Jobs created by our buzzy skies should be held within the country to the extent possible.

The buzz had only just begun. While locally-made drones do hover around India, often with imported motors and flight controllers snapped onto local rotary-blade airframes to make common commercial drones, the kind with carriage clasps and cameras as ‘eyes in the sky’, most drone services have been relying on ready-to-fly imports. Globally, the market for these aerial devices is dominated by DJI, a Chinese firm that far outsells the rest, although the likes of Intel and Boeing are also in contest. As with any hot sector that’s rising rapidly, drone evolution looks set for a heady incline in technology, especially of the fixed-wing variety. Fierce rivalry is expected over payload, endurance, flight range, etc, apart from cost efficiency, in a rush to counter DJI’s mass-market edge. With drone imports barred, however, local operators will lose the benefits of all this action overseas. They must rely solely on domestic suppliers now for their needs. This would clearly be far costlier. Should big capital be invested, local competition could plausibly cheapen Indian drones. Foreign drone-makers could set up plants to compete with, say, Reliance’s Asteria venture. But this will not happen overnight. Nor can it assure us world-class output.

Drone usage weighed down by an import ban may seem like a small price to pay for a thriving industry at home. Yet, unless this barrier is preset to decline over the years, a shielded industry might never be able to offer top-notch drones at low prices, as available elsewhere. Not for any lack of expertise, strategic intent or money, but as a result of the missing external pressure on its performance. Till we opened up our markets in 1991, a vain pursuit of self-sufficiency across sectors had held the economy back by raising our cost base and depriving it of a global edge. Sure, world trade has taken a mercantilist turn since then, with its win-win gains no longer a theme song, while India remains broadly open. Even so, just a few chosen fields kept insulated on state support could shield inefficiency, overburden other markets and thus weigh overall job generation down. India’s self-reliant aims would best be realized by the rise of our own world champs. On a zoom-out view of likely scenarios, though, a reduced role for global forces of demand and supply in local market outcomes looks unlikely to achieve that.

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