C.V. SESHADRI: Scientist as Innovator-Epistemologist

Dr.C.V. Seshadri, Director, Murugappa Chettiar Research Centre (MCRC), is well known for his theoretical and practical contributions in the area of Science, Technology and Development, Born in 1930, he had his education at the Universities of Madras and Bombay as well as at the Carnegie-Mellon University from where he obtained his doctoral degree in Chemical Engineering in 1958. He has been involved in teaching and research at a number of institutions such as the Mas-sachusettes Institute of Technology, IIT, Madras. A.C. College of Technology Madras, HSc Bangalore and IIT Kanpur where he also performed administrative functions. He left IIT Kanpur in 1974 to set up India's largest yeast factory at Mysore. He founded the MCRC in 1977 with the support of the Murugappa Group of Industries, and has been its director since then.

Prof Seshadri has pioneered the development of a number of innovative technologies that can benefit the poorer sections of our society, most well known of which is the development of mass culture of microalgae for nutrition. He is equally well known for his foundational work in exposing the biases and interests that go into scientific theory-making, with the specific examples of Energy and Thermodynamics. He has been the founding president of the Indian Society of Biotechnology. Known for his pioneering theoretical and practical contributions in the sphere of technology for social development. Dr. Seshadri has been associated with a number of governmental bodies at the state and central levels in the areas of S 8c T planning, rural development and social welfare.

Dr. Seshadri talked to us on a wide range of issues and his responses to some of our queries are summarized below. Given at the end of this interview is a list of papers and monographs that provide more in-information on the, work of Prof.Seshadri and MCRC.

There is a general feeling that our scientists by and large display little signs of originality and innovation. What would be your view on this?

Most of our science is import-substitution. Not that our scientists are incapable of thinking up their own ideas, but most of our science is that way (import-substitution). There is a great barrier in our minds towards understanding creativity, possibly because of our colonial background. So, even today, our system actively encourages import-substitution, rather than innovation. It is almost taken for granted that it is not possible to innovate under Indian conditions. This attitude can be overcome only if one accepts that* Indian conditions are always going to demand newer kinds of innovation. If we are stuck with the belief in the Western notions of progress and devise our plans, we shall always end up in import-substitution; very few people realise that we cannot replace India with a Western country here. But then this is the prevalent attitude; for example, citations of NRDC President of India Awards for invention mention that because of such and such a device so much foreign exchange was saved and so on. We must recognise that we need to develop a new approach towards understanding of creativity, innovation, of how knowledge is generated. Innovation in that sense, innovation in generating knowledge - innovation in epistemology - is as important as the knowledge itself.

This is why we say, we in India must develop our own paradigms of development; science and technology should be integral to the paradigm we choose. One important aspect of evolving such systems is the recognition that failure is an essential part of innovation; it is an important part of learning. In India today, we are taught to perceive knowledge a "finished product", whereas it is not so in the other system (the Western system). It is a massive effort, to develop a "knowledge system" for India, and we must recognise and learn from the failures in this process wherever they occur.

Could you please elaborate on this? Could you please give some examples of how Indian-ness gets incorporated into 'doing a specific scientific discipline, say Chemistry?

Giving an account of how one operates the knowledge system for India in a (specific discipline, like chemistry, is difficult. It is so because this kind of 'approach is premised on the belief in the existence of a discipline as a necessity and on insisting that it should be pursued in a certain fashion. Granting these are difficult questions, I can take up a classic problem in India: we have’ been looking for oil in this country for over 40 years, to meet our fuel and feedstock requirements. This is in a country where there is an abundance of carbohydrate residues (such as those from agriculture or horticulture), which can form the basis for feedstock. But we have not bothered to ask, does this country have a carbohydrate-basis to meet its fuel chemical needs? For instance, the most abundant starting material is cellulose, and India has never had any limit on its availability. If we had put in even a tenth of our effort in the oil sector in the area of cellulose technology, we would have been way ahead (of others) by this time. Not only fermentation, a number of other technologies could have been evolved with cellulose as substrate; materials could have been produced from this instead of from petroleum.

Take another example. During World War II, oil supplies to Germany from the South European oil fields had been disrupted by the Allies. But the Germans had anticipated this, and even by the beginning of the War, had started to work on using coal as the basis for fuel and chemicals. They had abundance of coal and calcium (lime); so they chose the route of calcium carbide manufacture, from which acetylene could be made. From acetylene every other hydrocarbon was synthesized. This kind of capability can be developed only through an appreciation of the overall impact a technology has on the society.

In India, we did have a chance. The late Hussain Zaheer (who was Director-General of CSIR in the early '60s) had often emphasized that coal should be the basis for our feedstock. He had suggested gasification of coal in the mines; the gas could then be supplied through pipelines to various parts of the country. So there was this thinking in this country.

There is also the example of biofertilisers. Over 20 years back, we already had developed advanced scientific skills in this area. There is Professor G.S. Venkataraman of Indian Agricultural Research Institute, who had obtained some useful results relating to biofertilisers. But the leading agricultural scientists would not encourage this; their attitude was - the synthetic fertilizer technology was easily available abroad, the availability of naphtha (raw material in fertilizer production) was unlimited, so why try biofertilizers? Now, the West is after biofertilisers and so are those agricultural scientists who had earlier talked dismissively of them. These things occur because we lack our own paradigm of what science should be and how it should tie up with development.

All I can say is: it is not possible to speak of putting in Indian-ness in each -discipline. There is an attitude that needs to be ingrained and that should be the Indian attitude. Our science or technology must emerge from this attitude. (This point is explained later in this interview). We have not innovated at all in that sense. We are perhaps handicapped by a subliminal association, derived from our own culture, of science with knowledge (vijnana); however, science is a purely exploitative exercise and has nothing to do with absolute knowledge, consciousness or jnana!

From what you say, it appears that on many questions we did have the correct ideas on how to go about: But how come it is largely the wrong ideas that eventually got implemented almost always?

We did have the ideas, but did not put them to work in the last 40 years. May be we are impatient; may be it takes much longer. At the turn of Independence, we did make a decision to go for big machines. There is an economist who remarks that these machines are necessary to provide food and shelter which are fundamental needs; till such time when food and shelter may be so made available, the people will have to learn to eat these machines if necessary, but these machines, these complexes must be there! Once you have these machines, you have to feed the jaws of the machines; they evolve on their own logic and are not easy to control. Such experiences are plenty even in-the US, where, for example, a conscious decision regarding non-use of supersonic aircraft in passenger transport was arrived at after considerable deliberation, only after much effort. They made the decision against "the technological imperative". So, there is this logic of big machinery which seems to move regardless of issues of relevance etc. For example, once we decided to have a petroleum base, we had to import everything and the question of having a coal base receded. As I said, Hussain Zaheer did fight on this issue, he fought Meghnad Saha and Lahiri (who was Director of Central Fuel Research Institute). But the decision was made in favour of having a petroleum base. Now with that came import deals which more or less forced us to put up naphtha-based fertilizer plants in a coal belt! So this is how this logic works. At the time of Independence, the leadership did not want to do experimentation on such matters. Pandit Nehru often said so. However critical we may be of this attitude now, looking back, this attitude looks natural!

Over 25 years back, there was often talk that the situation was difficult, that we had to feed this huge population, so there was no time to think of evolving alternatives. Twenty five years later, we say we are in the same situation but that can't be. We overlooked long-term gains in favor of short-term gains and went in for imported versions of agro-technology to feed our people. And1 we have not done as well as China, who has managed to feed larger population on smaller amount of land. We could have evolved alternative strategies and models then and we must do so now. Looking back, I could say that if we had made a single-minded effort to fleecy the population,' it would have worked; but we got confused, trying to give them this or that also, like how they should possess transistor radios' etc! Ours is a very large country, and has large problems. But there is no large vision, large enough vision in perceiving them and in tackling them.

One of the serious problems in this regard is that there are many stock attitudes towards technology and innovation. In India, there is often talk of a technology proving itself in "the market"; the market being the driving force in technological growth. This is not quite so. There are some countries with that kind of experience, but this is not true of India. The decisions regarding technological choices in this country are made elsewhere not in the market place, as we saw (in the examples above). We believe in the myth of the market, but here is a situation where nearly every price is administered! Market here is not a "free market" in the usual sense, and we must make a conscious effort not to impose technologies on our people, which were evolved under "free market" conditions.

Much of your work in recent times has been in the area of finding solutions to specific technological problems, especially of the poor people. Is it your understanding that such technological interventions can bring out qualitative changes in the conditions of the poor in our country?

There are two trends of thought: one emphasises that the technological change is important, and that it must precede the process of social change; the other emphasises the primacy of social change. Though I do not think I belong to either one of the trends, as a practising engineer I tend to lean toward the "technology" side. In India we did have a revolution; Independence was a revolution. But then the technology took over; it became the end of social change. This is what necessitates the need for a drastic change in technology, a technological revolution in the present. Besides radical social changes which have become necessary, we must also have radical changes in technology.

Our own work in technology intervention is often concerned with specific or locally disadvantaged persons, like the tribals, the (artisanal) fishermen, or with womenfolk. We work with a large perspective which has a place for the particular device, say a new kattumaram, in it. Thus, there is this perspective which has some comprehension of the interconnectedness of problems and there are local solutions. We emphasise the connectedness of various technological issues, while, our devices may offer local solutions. This has been the strength of our work with devices, in technology intervention.

On the one hand you have been involved in developing specific devices for immediate application, and on the other you have also worked on foundational topics such as energy in thermodynamics, concept of time, etc. What is your specific understanding of these topics? How do you see the relationship between these two levels? How are they connected?

Basic to our understanding is the perception of interconnection between the energy problem and the food problem in this country. The largest part of our energy use is in cooking food, that is to derive metabolic energy from the foodstuff. This energy has the highest quality for us as we are concerned with improving the life quality of a person in this country. Such assignment (of high quality to food) may be peculiar to our country and may not be universal.

Now, energy use is intimately connected with the environment (because substantial "part of useful energy in India is derived from environment). The interconnections in the energy-environment nexus (e.g. "Greenhouse effect") are becoming clearer now. Since energy use is already connected with food, we have a food-energy-environment nexus. So, it is possible to conceive of interconnections or processes which would convert what is "rejected" into environment, "the waste from energy-use, into food. For example, the off-gas, the waste from combustion of fossil fuels (to generate useful energy) may be used in food production. Thus, a waste, a pollutant, may be converted into a resource if applied to food production.

Thus, we arrive at an important concept, namely, that in a country like ours, "waste" is a free good, source. The whole science, or the knowledge system, will have to be modified to suit this view which enables use of waste as a resource. Then the knowledge system will be suitable to us.

This is what led me to a consideration of what is "waste" in science. In thermodynamics, there is the concept of availability (which is used to determine what part of energy is available usefully). Our question is: when some part of energy becomes unavailable thermodynamically, does it become so forever, or only for a limited time? I believe this kind of question has been nearly dismissed in rigorous formulations. This question introduces the aspect of time into thermodynamics, which it formally cannot handle. The implicit understanding is that unavailability is forever - that is, the entropy increases irreversibly. But as practitioners of chemical engineering, mass is as important to us as energy is and we notice that carbon dioxide from a power plant can itself be used as a substrate (in photosynthesis). There are of course other losses (due to mixing, loss of sensible heat in the off gas etc.) but this mass does become useful. So, if one included the mass part of a process, unavailability cannot be considered "for ever".

But it is the energy part which is thought to be useful in assigning "intrinsic values" to products and processes, besides economic or social values. There are many official scientific statements to this effect. If one accepts them, then one would find that, for example, the whole process of rain cloud formation (in monsoon) is low quality" because it takes place in the ambient (the energy quality of ambient processes is very low); yet the entire country is driven by this process. How could we then agree that energy specifies an absolute or intrinsic value to processes or products? This is how the questioning starts.

This questioning led me to consider the concept of entropy, which lies at the core of the quality issue. Entropy has a profound history and is such a foundational concept in modern science, that it would have been invented at any event. To me, it represents a compromise between the post-Galilean science and the Church. The entropy concept has much to do with the messianic Christianity which affirms that there is no cycle of birth and death -these events take place once, and you go to heaven or hell thereafter; things happen once and for all. There are numerous sects and subsets within Christianity but these beliefs are common to all of them. These beliefs give rise to a notion of unidirectional time, and entropy is the modern concept which "fixes" that direction. I would point out the kind of hold that such a concept has on thinking at various levels: for example, political leaders in the Christian West often behave the way they do, because in their vision the destruction of the world is certain and they want to control the process The entropy concept and such beliefs, I believe, are mutually reinforcing. I believe that we in India are the only alternative to such thinking.

We need not and should not believe that time is one-way - there is no proof. Theories such as "big bang" are no proofs, because they only express a basic tautology between various systemic beliefs!

This understanding has led me to the belief that our own preferences, our own values must be built into the very basis of the knowledge system, into the very axiomatics. Failure to do so will drive us in the direction of others' paradigms and choices. For example, centralised power production is a product of the experience of using electricity in Europe, where the physical sizes of countries are small. There is no reason why it should be tried here. Yet it is done, and there are false arguments from thermodynamics and the incorrect "economy of scale" principle which are used in support. If we must have electricity, we must have it in our own way, not along the lines of centralised power generation systems. We in India have this very great advantage of possessing a value system that is completely different (from that of the Christian West) and we must make use of it in evolving our own knowledge system. No knowledge system could ever come out without a value system, a supporting ethical theory. Many scientists in the West, sensitised particularly by the damage done to the environment, have begun to question how and where the values are coming into science (and not just whether there is value in science). 1 could say no one except Indian scientists believes that science is value-free!

The traditional systems of knowledge have a major role to play in this. Maybe we could start by first formalising them. One could take, for example, the traditional health care systems: a great part of our scientific effort in health care should be to formulate a health care system based on the traditional systems. This will have to be given priority, as high as what is given to the expeditions to the Antartic!

Before joining MCRC, you were holding positions in leading institutions like the IITs. Would it not have been possible for you to take up such foundational level investigations in those institutions? Or, are you-of the opinion that nothing worthwhile can be done within the existing main-stream S & T institutions and establishments?

On this issue, it is worthwhile starting with recounting an experience in the IIT system. The IITs were founded because there was clamour for a certain type of engineering curriculum. Those concerned said, our engineering education then was backward, poor in quality etc., and used these arguments to promote setting up of IITs. There was a lot of enthusiasm, without any consideration of the basic issues involved, namely the relevance, and the content of engineering education in India. There were other reservations.

For example, Lakshmanaswamy Mudaliar pointed out that the University system already possessed a good infrastructure, a good set of engineering colleges, such as Guindy, Roorkee etc., - why not just strengthen them? Opinions like this were not taken seriously. Mudaliar was not alone in voicing this; Bhabha held similar opinions. But IITs were founded anyway.

As a teacher in an IIT, I found that we trained students so that they could go abroad. This could not be stopped easily. It was part of systemic changes taking place. We had started importing all kinds of technologies; naturally the students thought that it was best to get trained abroad, because in any event they would have to work on imported technologies here. Once they got trained abroad, they never came back. I left teaching at IIT because I did not want to train students to go abroad. I do not think that the situation is different now.

I believe that the institutions, which are creations of human beings, should be allowed to die in the way humans do. There is no reason to keep up institutions if they are no longer useful. Major laboratories in the Western countries, which came up during the World War II, were shut down effectively, once the War was over. With all appearances of continuity, European universities, or American universities changed completely almost every generation or so, because till recently these countries went to war every 15-20 years; that took care of a lot of deadwood in them. In the West, this culture to "kill" is strong but this is absent in India. Therefore, the only way is, we must be careful before something is created or "born" because we do not undo things easily.

One way of getting scientists around to the Indian viewpoint would be reorientation: why can't we offer orientation courses for scientists who join government institutions, say CSIR? The scientists, on joining, may have to be told what they are joining, why they are offered certain facilities, and at what expense to the nation. I don't think even many senior scientists have comprehension of things such as these. This has various other dimensions. For example, no one knows how decisions are made concerning allocation of funds in science. Scientists in charge of departments come up with their demands in the Planning Commission meetings but seldom are the demands discussed. We are here talking of something of the order of a few thousand crores of rupees. Worse still, sometimes the demands are agreed to even when the scientists from the concerned department did not bother to show up. There is never any discussion, at any level, to decide on what is the priority in these demands. There was just no way to find out how these decisions are made. That is why I even contested the last Lok Sabha elections (from South Madras), in the hope that at least a Member of Parliament would be able to know these details!

Our scientists can be oriented to take interest in our problems. For example, take the question of education. There is any number of committees charged with the task of coming out with new, newer or super new education policies. But the question of meeting the paper requirements of such policy has not been discussed at all. The demand for paper would strain our forests and foreign exchange beyond normal limits, 'yet this has not been assessed. We could of course decide to have a system where young children would not have to use paper in learning, but we have made no such decision. To me, consideration of all these issues would be important. May be this can be dismissed as a low-level problem, nothing to do with science.

So should be our attitude towards the population problem. This is a problem that will have to be tackled head-on and I have no qualms in saying so. The Westerners see the need for controlling the population growth here; their attitude is, all your defects stem from this problem. But that cannot be our attitude. I would say, citing an example, that all our efforts at a forestation would be fruitless if we cannot handle this problem. That is how population growth is connected to scientific/technological effort.

Given the originality and significance of your work, what would be your assessment of the impact that it has had on the scientific community?

I have (had) great reluctance in talking about myself. It is my belief that doing science is always self-aggrandizement. In practicing science, one needs to push oneself, publish, and be read and so on - all this is in the nature of science. In that sense, there is an internal contradiction, of being an Indian and practicing modern science. One needs to put his name on a paper because one must be known; the paper is not there just to communicate a result, an idea. I have often argued that no scientist who is funded by government should put his name on a papar. After all, the work reported is always a group effort and must be viewed as such. Only then will the paper be a genuine communication of a result. This position is, of course, very badly accepted.

It is my (belief that science in India looks different to the practitioners and to those who view it from (the point of view of) the needs of the country. This is how I perceive the contradiction; many others may perceive it differently.

I have not pushed many of the ideas (presented) here. I prefer to avoid this conflict, and have not pushed them towards acceptance. This is the reason why I have not been concerned with knowing the reaction of other scientists to my statements or the impact of these on the scientific community. Partly it is due to my natural inclination to plough a lonely furrow; partly it is due to my belief! that ideas sometimes do get accepted automatically.


("M" stands for Monographs on the Engineering of Photosynthetic systems, Murugappa Chettiar Research Centre (MCRC), Madras 600 113).

1. CV.Seshadri (1977) A total energy and total materials system using algal cultures Ml - is a description of a process designed to utilize carbon dioxide from combustion of coal (to produce food-grade algae; an example of use of a waste in food production.

2. CV-Seshadri, G.Venkataramani and V.Vasanth (1978) Energy plantations - a case study for the Coromandel littoral M2 - is a proposal for setting up of decentralised power generation systems using captive tree plantations.

3. Detailed surveys of energy use in villages, tribal settlements, island communities, Himalayan nomadic communities and a whole district have been carried out under the direction of CV.Seshadri. They form an integral part of his bunderstanding of the science of thermodynamics. These surveys are:

(i). Self-reliant Developments report (1981)
(ii). ARIES - a study of an island community in A.P. (1984)
(iii). Case Study to investigate energy-use patterns and requirements of Nomadic communities in Kumaon Himalayas M.22 (1986)
(iv). Energy studies of island communities (Lakshadweep) with emphasis on time/energy availability for women's needs. (1990)
(v). Kurinchi: Energy profile of the Nilgiris District,TJSl. (1990)

4. Following papers/article develop in detail the conceptual arguments on the need for a new quality marker" for energy in India:

(i). Energy in the Indian Context (1979) M7
(ii). The sugar-food-alcohol nexus" Int.Symp. on Food-Energy Nexus, New Delhi, 1986.
(iii). Development and thermodynamics (1982) M11

5. These two papers take up critiques (and present alternatives) to the concepts of time and gender in science:

(i)."Time, calendar time, and peasant concepts of time" Proc.Indian National Science Academy A 54, 1-11, 1988
(ii)."Conjectures on the origin of the 'male' and the 'female'" Proc Indian National Science Academy, A 54,894-916,1988

6. Some ideas on I he practice of innovative technology in India are found in "Twenty years of algal mass culture" Second Generation in Bioprocess Engineering (ed) T.K.Ghose (Ellis Horwood, London), 1989.

7. Analysis of the macro-parameters of energy use in India and in T.N. are presented in:

(a). "A flow-chart of energy use in India: 1982/83" (1989)
(b). "Energy in Indian agriculture" The Hindu Review of Agriculture (1989)
(c). "A synoptic overview of energy use in India with special reference to T.N." (1990).

8. A summary review of the work done in MCRC various areas including fabrication and diffusion of devices, such as windmills, solar energy devices, algal mass culture, afforestation, fisheries etc., is to be found in MCRC+ll years (1988).

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