Indian Science Congress : Killing the Dreams of the Young

The annual mela that is the Indian Science Congress took a turn for the worse this year. Vajpayee’s inauguration of the Congress on 3rd January was coupled with celebration of the militarisation of science. The trinity centre-staged in the Science Congress were Chidabaram, Kalam and Kasturirangan, those who are closely related to the development of nuclear weapons and missiles. Thus, the endeavour of science is no longer the betterment of human conditions, but its ability to provide destructive weapons including weapons of mass destruction to the military. That developing nuclear weapons, which provided the major hoopla, was hardly a major scientific achievement, was completely forgotten. The other casualty was the science exhibition, which was privatised this year leading to completely squeezing out of the school children from the Science Congress.

The Science Congress, founded within the nationalist tradition, has been transformed over the years to a body dominated by bureaucrats in the Science and Technology establishment, who run it for their personal interest. Instead of looking at the developments in science and their relevance to the country as originally intended, it has gradually become a platform that the scientific and technical establishment has used to cosy up to the political bosses. This naturally involves certain quid pro quo. The distinctive phase this year, was converting the science of the bomb and the missiles as “The Science”; the rest including frontier technologies of information technology and biotechnology were relegated to relative backwaters.

Kalam was not satisfied with this. He went on to talk grandiloquently about India competing with the US in a Star Wars program. The utter revulsion with which the Star Wars program has been held world over by the scientific community, was forgotten in this heady rush to celebrate our new found “muscle”. The cost of the Star Wars program has been enormous even by US standards. That this was bad science and technology and nothing but a way to feed the Military Industrial Complex with taxpayers money, has been pointed out many observes in the US. Obviously, the former DRDO Chief is not fazed by such observations. In his scheme of things too, as in BJP’s, scarce scientific and capital resources of the country, are better spent on military vainglory than the welfare of the people.

The Indian Science Congress was set up in 1914 by leading Indian scientists to exchange information as well as building self-reliance in science and technology for societal development. However, it was never a parochial body and leading international figures such as Rutherford, Bohr and Haldane had participated in the past congresses. The other aim of the science congress was to bring together a large body of teachers and students and familiarise them with the latest developments in science.

With the development of science into increasingly more specialised disciplines, Science Congresses as a means of exchanging scientific information is no longer so relevant. The specialised societies are gradually taking over this role. The Indian Science Congress should have changed its role to provide scientists a platform to define what kind of science we want in the country and fight against the obstacles to the development of science itself.

The clearest indicator of the decline of science in the country has been the systematic starving of the universities of funds and infrastructure, while continuing to pour money into “centres of excellence.” By this, the larger scientific structure has ossified, producing essentially semi-skilled science workers, while an elite segment is given facilities to integrate with the global elite. Thus, we maintain the rhetoric of world class science and scientists, while the University Departments cease to attract good scientific minds or students.

This dual structure of science into a few centres of excellence in the midst of decline of the much larger structure of science, has been the hallmark of the last three decades. The scientific and technical establishment figures have been instrumental in this process, as they have turned themselves into “academic entrepreneurs” setting up these “centres”. A C.N.R. Rao or a Tandon, are examples of such scientific figures turning themselves into institute builders and academic entrepreneurs. The Science Congress as a body has never fulfilled its role as the spokesperson of the professional scientist. It has allowed the hijacking of the agenda of science (and here I mean the agenda of science for societal good) by such vested private interests.

The other aspect of the Science Congress was its ability to provide a platform for popularising science. This was done through exhibitions and popular lectures. One of the important components of the Science Congresses earlier was an exhibition, in which a large number of schools participated. There were also books-stalls for publishers so that the delegates could see the latest books in their discipline. Here, the other agenda of the Indian state — privatisation — killed both school participation and bookstalls. This time, the entire exhibition was privatised and even the smallest of stalls cost reportedly Rs.45,000 and more. This effectively made all school participation impossible. The booksellers were similarly relegated to a small corner on open tables as only a few could afford the cost of the stalls.

This brings us back to the central issue. If the task of the Science Congress is to communicate the excitement of science to the people including children, exhibitions, books, popular lectures should be the lifeblood of the congress. Instead we had Vajpayee speaking of science and a Kalam expounding vaingloriously on Star Wars and converting science congress to another Sarkari mela.

Interestingly, the exhibition put up by the Defence reveals, though unintentionally, the dichotomy of Indian science. The pride of place was occupied not only by indigenously produced Prithvi and Nag, but also the Swedish Bofors gun and the Russian T-72 tank! In what way Bofors and T-72 are related to an Indian Science Congress is difficult to fathom. Or is Kalam proposing to buy his Star Wars equipment from abroad too?

In all this din of the Science Congress, the school children have been totally lost. In 1996, the Science Congress in Calcutta had an astounding exhibition, mounted virtually entirely by the schools. The huge crowds that had thronged the exhibition shows the hunger for knowledge that the Indian people still have. This time, the children were cut off brutally with the huge fees asked for the stalls. It seems that we have money enough for Kalam’s Star Wars, but not for fostering the dreams of the young. That this passed without any protest in the Congress is more telling than anything else that happened there.