[A review of "A Failed Science ?" : A symposium on the state of technical establishment; SEMINAR (258), Feb. 1981]

Indian Science and Technology (S & T) today, like Indian economy and Indian polity, is in a crisis, and the S & T planners are in a fix.

S & T planning in India was launched in right earnest in the fifties with great fanfare, and with a solemn declaration by the planners through a resolution of the parliament of their faith in" the efficacy of S & T in solving the material and social problems of a country long ravaged by colonisation. It is not necessary to state that S & T for our planners meant western S & T in its modern phase. The essential elements of the grand strategy to graft the western S & T on the Indian soil were :

(i) Creation of a large scientific and technical manpower trained in the western mould, through the establishment of a number of elite technological institutes in direct _ collaboration with western “advanced" nations, and through other scientific and technological educational institutes staffed largely by foreign-trained scientists and technologists.

(ii) Creation of a modern industrial infrastructure through the establishment in the public sector of a large number of high techno logy plants bought from the 'advanced' nations on a turnkey basis.

(iii) Creation of indigenous technology to substitute the foreign technology in a reasonable time through the establishment of a large number of R & D laboratories.

(iv) Creation of a pure-science capability through the establishment of elite institutes and by encouraging science in the universities.

After three decades of vigorous execution of this policy, all the four elements of the grand strategy are in place. India can today boast of the third largest S & T manpower in the world, an1 industrial infrastructure which is capable of feeding secondary industries that produce everything from razor blades to aero planes, umpteen number of R & D laboratories that specialize in diverse fields like environmental control and atomic energy, and a large number of universities and elite research institutes working on the frontiers of western science. But in spite of all this, the dream of the planners of the fifties of creating an India in the mould of England seems as remote as ever- The vast technological manpower has failed to make any impact on the world scene; in spite of the established infrastructure, industry is continuously stagnating (growth rates for the first five year-plans in large-scale manufacturing sector are 6.0, 7.2, 8.0, 35 & 2.8 per cent respectively); in spite of all the R & D laboratories, the industry keeps clamoring for more foreign technological input and more and more degrading collaborations have to be made (remember: the Siemens deal; the fertilizer story, and now the oil sellout); and the 'elite' pure scientists remain elites only within the country. The grand strategy, after having been fully executed, has failed. That is the crisis, and nobody knows the way out.

The SEMINAR issue under review is a good mirror of this crisis and an indication of the type of solutions and excuses a failed scientific community is offering. Three of the five main articles in the issue are devoted to careful quantifications of the failure of Indian S&T in three different areas. S. R. Ganesh's article ("Training patterns") deals with the failure of even an elite institute like 11T, Bombay in imbuing its students with any sense of purpose, or even with a respect for academic technical training; M. R. Bhagwan's article ("Innovations in Industry") gives a meticulous history of the various phases through which the Indian industry has passed, and gives impressive evidence of the failure of Indian R &D to innovate and of the continued reliance of Indian industry on foreign collaboration (which seems to be becoming an official policy now); and Dinesh Mohan ("Sea of Mediocrity") attempts a rigorous quantification of the mediocrity of Indian scientists-of even those who work outside India.

The three articles are useful reading for anyone who needs evidence for the obvious fact that Indian S&T has failed. However, we shall advise all readers to discount the infantile remedies offered in these articles. We are not being harsh in calling these remedies suggested infantile. For example, S. R. Ganesh after having noticed (through his carefully planned sociological study) that even though the faculty gives top priority to teaching and the students value academic aspects rather low, suggests that: "there is no alternative but for most faculty members to become influential in all these aspects (career choice etc.) of the students' development".

Correct, sir! But how? Hasn't Prof. Ganesh ever met a sincere IIT teacher and seen him being respected, yet treated like some sort of a crank who does not know the realities of the world outside IIT? When in the industrial world outside the IIT the managers show "very little enthusiasm for innovating" and "great enthusiasm for the 'wonder that the imports of the 'latest' technology would do" [Bhagwan's article in the same issue], the students are not likely to bother much about the old teacher or senior post-graduate who persists in pursuing 'technological excellence’, nor are they expected to help in creating 'an environment where inquiry is encouraged; irrespective of the best intentions of those people who are courageous enough to face the contradictions'. Market forces, as we all know, always prove to be more powerful than mere good intentions. Again, Mr. Bhagwan, having clearly sketched the impossibility of Indian industry, as it is, to expand any further on the basis of the Indian market alone, and therefore being forced to seek markets abroad, obviously with foreign collaboration, blames the supposed contempt of Indian middle class for manual dexterity and manual skills for the lack of innovations in R & D-this after having proved that within the Indian industry, keeping in view the market it has to cater to, the R&D employees are largely redundant.

The task of taking an overall view of Indian S&T is left to the articles by B. Banerjee ["Research Institutions"] and P. M. Bhargava and Indradev ["Deficiencies and corrections"]. It is in these articles that we get a glimpse of the fix in which the Indian S&T planners find themselves and of the type of solutions they are contem plating. Banerjee's article traces the history of development of science institutions in the country, notices that these were western grafts on Indian soil, notices their failure and almost frankly admits that he does not know the way out: "What the scientists do remains irrelevant to the functioning of the society. Whether a basic change in the Social Structure will alter the scientists' role is at the moment an open question". This is an honest article and coming from an established scientist in, an elite institute (TIFR), is worth reading. One must, of course, excuse a western trained scientist working in TIFR, for referring to his countrymen as "natives" and for the propensity to brazenly make statements like "Early nineteenth century scientific knowledge was introduced into a society whose members' knowledge of nature corresponded approximately to that of fourteenth century Europe" May we humbly remind Prof. Banerjee that fourteenth century Europe was still in its dark ages, and that the original impetus for the colonizers to turn towards India was its famed prosperity.. May we also humbly recommend to Prof. Banerjee the reading of the rather easily7 available books by Dharampal " (Indian Science and Technology in the 18 century: Some Contemporary European Accounts Impex India, 1971) and Claude Alvares (" Homo Faber ", Allied Publishers, 1975), to disabuse himself of such myths.

Bhargava and Indradev's article is perhaps the most important article in the whole issue as an indicator of the thinking of S & T policy planners in India. The article begins by introducing a large dose of optimism in the general atmosphere of gloom and despair that the rest of the issue generates and comes out openly in defence of the S & T community, alienated from the local culture and needs though it may be. The basic argument advanced by Bhargava and Indradev is that:

(i) The 'development research' whenever practised, has succeeded. In 1975-76 we exported 128 categories of finished goods to 179 countries, whereas in 1947 we exported no goods at all. (How much of this export is 'manufacture' from the foreign designs and how much is 'development’ is a moot question: refer to the succeeding article by Bhagwan)

(ii) Indian Scientific Community in the last 3 decades has produced a number of outstanding scientists whose work constitutes fundamental contributions to many fields of modern science. (How does this excellence compare in competition with the rest of the world? Refer to Dincsh Mohan's article).

If in spite of these successes, continues the argument, the overall S&T planning does not seem to have succeeded, the failure lies with a number of socio-politico-economic causes and with the organization of S&T. They suggest a number of remedies: Greater recognition of scientists' achievements and their role, removal of bureaucratization from the working of S & T community, provision of more funds for S & T, involvement of talented scientists in planning and administration, etc. All this is often repeated and almost trite. The science policy resolution of 1958 itself recognized the need for all this and the policy was tailored accordingly (Remember the amount of power Bhabha, Sarabhai etc wielded and Sethna, Ramanna, Dhavan, Swaminathan etc still do). The new points made by Bhargava and Indradev, in view of the obvious failure of S & T planning in the country are two:

1. If the S & T practice of the last 3 decades has failed to resolve the basic problems of the people, of say food, clothing, housing etc, the scientists should not be blamed for this. The responsibility for this failure is not primarily scientific, but overwhelmingly socio-politico-economic. "Blaming our scientists for our failures is like holding American scientists responsible for the backward-ness of blacks in USA".

This is a curious argument, and almost a demand that scientists should not be held responsible for being socially irrelevant - a demand we thought had become outdated since the pioneering work of Bernal. Let us only add that the American S & T is responsible for the backwardness of the blacks there. It was the development of this S & T that necessitated and facilitated slave-trade and colonization in the first place. Also American blacks are a minority, and the scientists there may justifiably refuse to work in the interest of a minority. How can Bhargava et al refuse the responsibility of working in the interest of the majority of the Indian people on the basis of that specious argument ?

2. The second new point that the article makes is that since 'scientific temper' is essential for the development of S & T, "all activities which are not consistent with the scientific attitude must be deliberately and actively discouraged. This idea should be incorporated into the Directive Principles of our constitution".

What is meant by "activities which are not consistent with the scientific attitude"? Since 'scientific attitude' is supposedly a component of western culture1, the above phrase can cover almost all activities that are not consistent with modern western attitudes-And what actively discouraging “anti-scientific" activities can mean, we can only guess from history. The Britishers are known to have banned the prevalent local practice of small-pox inoculation in Bengal because it was “anti scientific", thereby unleashing major small-pox epidemics. Britishers in India and other colonisers elsewhere are known to have banned a number of similar local practices, both cultural and industrial-economic in the name of promoting “scientific attitude ", with disastrous results. Even from Indians the claim that Indian cultural environment is not conducive to the development of Science has been heard before. But this is the first time some Indians have demanded a ban on the local activities.

It is tempting to quote a passage from ' The Plague’ of Albert Camus. At the height of the plague, Dr. Rieux visits a cafe and finds:

‘…a naval officer, with a girl on each side of him, was describing to a" fat red-faced man a typhus epidemic at Cairo. “They had camps, you know,” he was saying, “for the natives, with tents for sick ones and a ring of sentries all around. If a member of the family came along and tried to smuggle in one of those damn-fool native remedies, they fired at sight. A bit tough, I grant you, but it was the only thing to do.”

Neither Camus nor Dr. Rieux seem to be in sympathy with the sailor, but Professors Bhargava and Indradev, by demanding a ban of all activities not consistent with " scientific attitude" (which in this context means all the local pre-British S & T practices) have put themselves securely on the side of the sailor.

After reading the issue it becomes clear that the Indian S & T is at the cross-roads. The optimism of the fifties that western S & T can be grafted on Indian soil is gone. Now the choice has to be made. You can choose "modern S & T" and “modern industry” at all costs (even at the cost of banning by law the local practices), and no questions asked about its relevance to the majority of the people. Or you can choose to be with the people, their needs, their culture, their customs and develop a relevant S & T. Bhargava et al. and the officialdom have made their choice. Is it to be taken lying down?.

Author:Madras Group

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