Dreams And Reality At Indian Science Congress 2004

People’s Democracy

Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 04

January 25,

And Reality At Indian Science Congress 2004




annual ritual called the Indian Science Congress was held in Chandigarh in the
first week of January. The event came and went with little notice taken in the
media or by the wider public. Even the scientific community, it appears, has by
now become tired of the mostly ceremonial nature of the event, satisfied with
having their names recorded as having read out a paper even if to absentee
audiences. The Tribune of Chandigarh, closely following this prestigious event
being staged in the newspaper’s home city, reported empty seminar halls and low
delegate participation in substantive activities, with on average 200 delegates
attending sessions in halls with arrangements for 5000!


is indeed unfortunate that what should be the premier event in the calendar of
the scientific community in India, and an opportunity to showcase its vibrancy,
has been allowed to degenerate into a merely formal exercise. Leaders of the
Indian scientific community, and those who run scientific research and academic
institutions, need to do some serious introspection and examine the damage being
done to science in India by what is clearly an institutional and structural
failure. Creativity, bold investigative work, the expression of independent
opinion and fearless criticism seem to have become casualties in a climate of
cronyism and favouritism, factional cliques and palace intrigues. 
Another fundamental question thrown up is whether, even though there are
obviously brilliant individual scientists and some outstanding achievements, one
can really speak of a scientific community
in India. If the Indian Science Congress is taken as evidence, the answer must
surely be in the negative.


little importance being attached to the contributions of and discussions among
the delegate scientists, and far greater importance being given to various
persons’ status, the highlights of successive Science Congresses have inevitably
been on the presentations of VIP speakers both Indian and foreign. Whereas the
latter tend to be Nobel laureates, the former tend to be heads of various
institutions apart from the obligatory minister for Science & Technology and
the prime minister. Since the election of Dr A P J Abdul Kalam as president of
India, with his impressive career not only as a technologist with significant
contributions to India’s rocketry programme and having led India’s missile
development programme but also as a technocrat advising the government on
science and technology issues and guiding various technology management
programmes, his speeches to the Indian Science Congress have become high points
in themselves. 





article does not propose to discuss any further the admittedly sweeping
statements made at the outset, since the issues raised would require a far more
detailed examination than these columns permit. Rather, it is proposed to
discuss the speech at the 2004 Science Congress by Dr Kalam who is increasingly
being seen as a visionary, a person who can point the way to a bright future
India not only because of his professional scientific and technological
expertise but also because of the prestige attached to his views given his
exalted position as the president of the Republic.


Kalam has become famous for his dream of India becoming a developed nation by
2020 and for his many other dreams in the field of science and technology. At
every opportunity he gets, Dr Kalam exhorts various sections of society,
especially children, to devote themselves to actualising these dreams. No one
can fault Dr Kalam for such dreams for, as he rightly says, it is such ideals
that inspire people to achieve seemingly impossible goals. As he told school
children at the Science Congress at Chandigarh, such dreams are what technocrats
call “vision statements” and it is but a small step from visions to
missions, which are concretised and systematically planned programmes designed
to achieve the stated goals.


makes Dr Kalam’s speech at the Chandigarh Congress stand out amongst all such
exhortations is that here Dr Kalam was addressing the entire scientific
community of the country and exhorting them to achieve the goal of making India
a developed country by 2020. “The roadmap for achieving this objective has
already been prepared and released”, Dr Kalam said, in a reference to the
“Vision 2020” document prepared by the government’s Technology
Information Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC) under his Chairmanship
before he became president. “Now we have to get down to the task of
achieving it by the due date” he urged. Clearly, here Dr Kalam was going
beyond mere exhortation, or simply motivating his audience with inspirational
dreams and goals. Scientists and technologists, S&T institutions,
developmental agencies, technology managers, planners and administrators, and
indeed the nation as a whole, would and should attach considerable importance to
the president’s views, coming as they do from a professional rather than from
the pen of some anonymous speech-writer. As such, the specifics of Dr Kalam’s
visions and plans deserve closer attention.





his address to the Science Congress, Dr Kalam highlighted about a dozen major
programmes which he felt should be taken up on a priority basis by scientists
and technologists as steps towards India becoming a developed nation in less
than two decades.


first task identified was to provide food and nutritional security for India’s
population. Dr Kalam pointed out that whereas the first “green
revolution” took place in the 1960s, the time had come to start working on
the “second green revolution” so as to double the food production to
400 million tonnes by 2020. The challenge before the scientific community was to
develop foodgrain seeds, which yielded more in different types of soil as, had
been achieved, Dr Kalam said, under the visionary leadership of Dr M S


is worth noting here that, while the first “green revolution” had
indeed achieved a dramatic increase in foodgrain production particularly in
Punjab, Haryana and western UP, this was not without serious implications in
different social aspects. While some of these dangers had been indicated by
critics at the time the “green revolution” was being launched, many of
them have been vindicated by events as they unfolded and their ill-effects even
accepted by the programme’s proponents.


the main, the “green revolution” focused almost exclusively on
developing and promoting the adoption of a package of high-yielding varieties (HYV)
of (mostly wheat and later rice) seeds which required large quantities of
irrigation water, chemical fertilisers and pesticides in order to guarantee the
expected yields. The narrow focus of the HYV technology package led to
subsequent and quite severe problems such as depletion of soil fertility due to
overuse of inorganic fertilisers, water-logging and soil erosion, loss of more
hardy indigenous pest-resistant varieties due to the spread of monocultures and
a host of social problems engendered by the consequent development of capitalist
farming and mechanisation.


is indeed one of the great ironies of modern S&T management that the widely
acclaimed “father of the green revolution”, Professor M S Swaminathan
himself, acknowledging these adverse consequences, is today one of the leading
champions of organic farming and of minimising the use of chemical fertilisers. 


of this is to argue that therefore the HYV package or the “green
revolution” have no relevance at all or that they have not contributed to
development in India but to underscore the fact that a one-dimensional technical
“solution”, which does not take into account other technical aspects
and ignores societal factors altogether, is not an answer to developmental
problems. This critique is of prime importance and cannot be brushed aside by
claiming that only a “purely technical” aspect is being addressed. 


encounters the same problem with the second programmatic goal set by Dr Kalam
that of inter-linking river waters. Since this project has been discussed at
length in two separate previous articles in these columns, detailed comment is
not necessary here. It needs to be underlined, though, that every problem need
not have a single, unique and feasible technical solution or can be tackled by
purely technical means. Dr Kalam has previously too expressed his support for
the river inter-linking project despite the considered and serious objections
raised by leading hydrology, geology and power-generation experts and
specialists. At the Science Congress, although he admitted that some problems
may be encountered and some concerns have been voiced, he insisted that these
difficulties can and should be overcome within the framework of the river
inter-linking project. But surely, if there is simply not enough water to be
distributed from one river system to another, as several authoritative studies
have suggested in the case of many of the proposed inter-basin transfers, or if
more energy is required to transfer such waters than can be generated, then this
raises questions about the project’s prima
feasibility which no amount of technical tinkering can overcome.





concern is that the manner in which Dr Kalam has posed problems and solutions to
them will further boost an unfortunately already widely prevalent approach among
many scientists, engineers and technocrats, one which has plagued many a
developmental effort and research project. This approach is best described as a
“techno-fix” perspective in which all problems can be overcome by a
technical solution, the technology being considered somehow independent of
societal or structural dimensions.


instance, at the Science Congress, Dr Kalam spoke at length on one of his
favourite theses, which is also highlighted on the official website of the
president of India, namely PURA or Provision of Urban Facilities in Rural Areas.
Dr Kalam argues that once such facilities are available, teachers and doctors
who, it is believed, avoid working in rural areas because of lack of such
facilities, would change their attitude, education and health-care would become
available and, because the greater connectivity would also trigger more changes,
rural India would be transformed. Sounds simple, but are scientists the ones who
would or could tackle this job, and will the anticipated results follow so
directly or easily?


Kalam also emphasised the importance of biotechnology in transforming
agriculture and thus rural incomes, and urged scientists to work on vaccines to
combat HIV/AIDS, water-borne diseases and other endemic public health problems.
Noble tasks indeed, and Indian scientists will no doubt contribute considerably
to these goals in years to come. Yet will that solve India’s huge public
health problems and the massive gaps between the well off and the poor, between
urban and rural areas?


several of the invited speakers at the Congress, especially from abroad,
although perhaps not responding to Dr Kalam’s speech, raised similar
questions. Some speakers also expressed critical opinions regarding aspects of
some of the major scientific goals focused on in the Congress.




Krishna R Dronamraju, Adviser to the US secretary of Agriculture and president
of the Foundation for Genetic Research in the USA, for instance, warned against
the indiscriminate promotion of bio-technology in the South Asian region. He
believed that, despite enthusiastic support from policy makers and scientists,
as was the case in Chandigarh where it was one of the Congress’ focal themes;
biotechnology was not the only answer to problems in agriculture and health. In
an interview to the press, he said, ”If proper checks and balances are not
evolved to regulate developments in the bio-technology sector, it will lead to
more problems and complications resulting in the loss of our rich bio-diversity
and threatening public health.” He pointed out that top 10 firms controlled
more than 80 per cent of the pesticide market and 53 per cent market share in
the world pharmaceuticals market. In the food retail business, top 10 companies
controlled 57 per cent of the world’s market.


NRI scientist Dr Chakravarty pointed out that although vaccination programmes
have alleviated a great deal of suffering in India, every year millions of lives
are lost from vaccine-preventable diseases and about 30 million children do not
receive the basic six vaccines.


all the scientific and technological expertise in a nation boasting of the
world’s fourth largest pool of such manpower, even urban areas in India, leave
alone India’s villages, are yet to enjoy urban facilities! Taps even in the
major metros, leave alone other cities and smaller towns, do not carry truly
potable water, giving rise to a large and growing industry of water purification
devices and bottled water costing as much as milk! Large populations in cities,
including the metros, do not have access to proper sanitation, their dwellings
unconnected to sewer lines. In the national capital, official figures show that
more than one-third of the city’s sewage is released into the Yamuna river
untreated converting the river into a huge drain. Technical solutions to these
problems are well known, available, do not cost much, and yet go a-begging.


scientific or technological solutions to problems are neither unique (there can
be other solutions too) nor are they in fact complete solutions (since problems
are not uni-dimensional, they are more complex and are often of a structural or
systemic nature).


of us would do well to be inspired by Dr Kalam’s dreams and visions. Tempering
these with realism would do no harm either. And criticism and openness to it has
always served to advance science.