THE 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!
It 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.
With 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.
DREAMS AND VISIONS
This 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.
Dr 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.
What 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.
SYSTEMIC PROBLEMS, TECHNICAL SOLUTIONS
In 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.
The 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 Swaminathan.
It 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.
In 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.
It 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.
None 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.
One 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 facie feasibility which no amount of technical tinkering can overcome.
The 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.
For 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?
Dr 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?
Indeed, 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.
Dr 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.
Another 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.
With 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.
Clearly, 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).
All 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.