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National Science Day 2022: Vigyan needs to be ‘cultured’ and ‘cultivated’, not worshipped

National Science Day 2022 marks discovery of Raman Effect by CV Raman. Here's how scientific temperament in India changed over years

By Deepak Kumar
New Update


Today, once again we are celebrating National Science Day to mark the discovery of the Raman effect by Sir C.V Raman for which he was awarded the nobel prize in physics in 1930.

Since that discovery, India has witnessed different phases, types and cycles of scientific temperaments. The last decade of the Raj saw some flickers of ‘constructive imperialism’, but these came too late. By then, nationalism had gathered strength, and thanks to its demand for total indigenization, the British government could conveniently leave the core sector of agriculture, health, and education in Indian hands.

Mahatma Gandhi had charted a blueprint long ago (Hind Swaraj, 1907). He wrote against the machine and industrial civilization, but he seldom mentioned science and technology. While talking to students at a college in Alwaye in 1927, he asked:

“How will you infect the people of the villages with your scientific knowledge? Are you then learning science in terms of the villages and will you be so handy and so practical that the knowledge that you derive in a college so magnificently put — and I believe equally magnificently equipped—you will also be able to use for the benefit of the villagers?”

There was and still is no easy answer to this question. The system prepared the students to serve urban and industrial India or for a slot abroad. But by asking this question Gandhi had definitely introduced the notion of social responsibility which our scientists working in different ivory towers of science need to keep in mind.

He was opposed to the greed behind machines, not machines per se. He always wore a watch, a symbol of modern technology and values. But Gandhi knew that modern technology allied with capitalist greed would create new hierarchies in an already caste-ridden society and would further marginalise the poor. So he rejected technicism, not technology. He rejected scientism as well. He denied science a monopoly of knowledge and scientists a monopoly of science. But it is a matter of conjecture whether he would have written about the scientists in the same way as he did about lawyers or doctors.

Gandhi would not have called for the destruction of our large laboratories. But he would have definitely asked for moral responsibility and social accountability. P.C. Ray, the great chemist, appreciated Gandhi more sympathetically than the other scientists of the day. Ray had Western education. Later, he established the first great chemical industry in the country and yet in full consciousness of the relevance of modern machinery, he also adopted and pleaded for charkha (spinning wheel).

Meghnad Saha, a pioneer astrophysicist, well known for his deep social commitments, wanted India to choose ‘the cold logic of technology’ and not the vague utopia of Gandhian economy. In the very first issue of his celebrated journal Science and Culture, while appreciating Gandhi’s ‘genuine sympathy with the victims of an aggressive and selfish industrialism’, he firmly refuted the claim that ‘better and happier conditions of life can be created by discarding modern scientific technique and reverting back to the spinning wheel, the loin cloth, and bullock cart’.

In the Nehruvian era, Nehru was fond of scientific knowledge and put a premium on scientific temper. Socialism fascinated him, and the Russian Revolution fired his optimism. Despite fundamental differences, Nehru defended Gandhi, and on science he goes almost lyrical in his message to the Science and Culture (journal founded by M.N. Saha in 1935):

“Science is the very basis and texture of life today and without it we perish, or what is even worse, slide back to barbarism. Science does not mean the thousand and one applications of it that we see today, but even more so the scientific and rational approach to all problems of life. Science has made great progress in the West and raised the standard of living in some countries to unprecedented heights. And yet that very science has failed to solve the major problems of the age and we see war with all its horrors ravaging the world. Thus science destroys itself if it is not extended to the political, economic and other fields of human life and endeavour. It would appear that science today is in a position to solve all these problems, or most of them, and to create conditions of well-being and progress for all humanity. Yet though we swear by science and accept it advantageously for many purposes, still the habit of unscientific approach remains. Vested interests, superstitions and out-of-date customs prevent the full application of the scientific and the rational method”.

Nehru kept his doors always open to those scientists who wanted to build institutions, such as S.S. Bhatnagar (Director General, CSIR) and Homi J. Bhabha (Director, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research ). The chain of laboratories established under CSIR during 1947–54 was known as the result of ‘Nehru–Bhatnagar Effect’. Nehru fondly called Bhatnagar ‘a live-wire’. This close alliance between Nehru and scientists in industrial research and atomic energy probably had a negative influence on other sectors. For example, agriculture and agriculture scientists were not given that prominence.

Agriculture may have advanced a great deal had Nehru evinced the same interest in Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) as he did with the CSIR and Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). Similarly, the university sector also suffered relative neglect. Many good scientific workers moved out of the universities to the mission-oriented government laboratories and institutes. Universities worldwide are the basic source of scientific talent. Thanks to the ‘Nehru–Bhatnagar Effect’, they suffered silently a bleak prospect. Nehru’s period was also significant, for it not only ended the dualism and vacillation of earlier periods but also laid down specific policies and established new institutions (like IITs) as instruments of implementation.

After Nehru, his daughter, Indira Gandhi, was expected to continue her father’s policies. For the first time, in 1971 (despite Indo-Pak war over Bangladesh and the economic strain caused by refugee influx) India’s national expenditure on R&D in agriculture was at par with that on atomic energy. Under the Fifth Five Year Plan, it rose higher than expenditure on defence and atomic energy. Experiments were made for introducing fertiliser, irrigation techniques, hybrid seeds, and plant and soil development. Under the remarkable and selfless leadership of C. Subramanian, India was soon to reap the benefits of the Green Revolution. But rural India needed (and still needs) something more than agricultural experiments.

As the years rolled on and Mrs Gandhi rose in strength, she did try to put emphasis on cutting-edge knowledge. Addressing the American Association for Advancement of Sciences, she outlined how apart from agriculture and rural crafts, Indian science covers a wide spectrum, encompassing work in some frontier areas of atomic energy, and fundamental research in mathematics, particle physics, molecular biology and so on’.

The West was not favourably disposed to India’s nuclear energy and space programmes. But pioneers like Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai remained steady and resolute, and the nation stood behind them. The cultivation of nuclear science or space research was not for the sake of glamour or exclusive knowledge. As Bhabha quipped, ‘There is no power so costly as no power.’ Probably this meant both industrial and military power. The objective was independence from foreign sources of nuclear power technologies and also satellite launch.

Nuclear and space programmes, whether intended or not, provided the country with nuclear weapons and strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. The rationale was provided by the future combination of energy, telecommunications, and other development requirements in the civilian sector and strategic necessities in the defence sector. After Bhabha’s sad demise in an air crash, Sarabhai virtually ran both the departments of atomic energy and space research. In 1970 he presented ‘a 10 year profile’ on both departments. Its objectives were far too ambitious. In the space area, for example, the profile involved going from Rohini rockets to the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles (GSLVs) in 10 years! This, nevertheless, reflected the optimism and confidence of the Indira Gandhi years. The result was the Pokhran atomic experiment in 1974 and the launch of Aryabhatta in 1975. GSLVs, of course, had to wait for almost four more decades.

Another distinctive feature of Mrs Gandhi’s period is the total integration of science and technology into the Fifth Five Year Development Plan. At the discussions on the approach to the fifth plan, Mrs Gandhi made it very clear that ‘science and technology should not be looked upon as a separate subject or sector, but as powerful tools which permeate all aspects of our thinking and action’. It was this approach which finally culminated in the Technology Policy Statement in 1983 which aimed at ‘the development of indigenous technology and effi- cient absorption and adaptation of imported technology appropriate to national priorities and resources’.

During the early 1980s one may see a gradual, but sure, shift towards neo-liberal policies. Focus was to be more on wealth creation than on distribution. The critics pointed to the increasing disparities between the urban rich and rural poor as a result of the science and technology–based developments and policy preferences.

Even Green Revolution which had definitely lifted the country from droughts and virtual begging for food also came under scanner. The ‘top-down’ approach or ‘trickle-down’ theories, which the country had witnessed since Macaulay’s time, again showed its limitations, if not total failure. In the midst of protecting the forests, the tiger, and the Silent Valley, the government failed to protect the neighbourhood and its environ- ment from the polluting industries. Bhopal gas tragedy was just waiting to happen. No worse were the happenings in Punjab which finally consumed one of the determined daughters India had produced.

The country was in crisis again. The baton passed to the young and techno-savvy Rajiv Gandhi. He was probably the first to talk about the twenty-first century and India’s place in it. Though he won the 1985 election riding the sympathy wave, he did fire the imagination of the nation. In his first broadcast to the country on 12 November 1984, he said:

“As we build today, so will tomorrow. Together we build for an India of the 21st century ... How are we going to prepare the nation to meet the challenges of the next century, to meet the challenges of the latest technology, as it comes? Development has to mean absorption of the most modern techniques at the most basic levels in our society.”

In 1986 the young Gandhi introduced a National Education Policy. He ushered in a computer revolution and a paradigm shift in telecommunications. Technology missions were given top priority, and they boosted the economy as nothing else had done in the previous eras. Success of companies like Reliance, Infosys, and so on, was scripted in the 1980s.

Nehru talked of scientific temper. Now the discourse was on knowledge economy and knowledge society. Stage was set for the forthcoming debates and initiatives on liberalisation, privatisation, and so forth. Sectors like oil, mining, infrastructure, and so on, were to get quantum leaps, while moral values nosedived. The consequences are too close for us to judge.

Post-independence India had little option but to undertake modernization along scientific lines. There is no doubt that science is at the centre of the modern state’s all major undertakings, be it military, industrial, or agricultural. In the 1950s scientific institutions mushroomed. Many believed, ‘Science could do almost anything.’ This was
the phase of infrastructure building; later came the phase of ‘import substitution’ and ‘indigenization’. Thus started a complex and messy interplay of ‘state science’, technology missions, innovation, finance capital and speculation, and so on.

Science was no longer a philosophical venture; it had virtually become a market player. C.V. Raman, for example, could not have imagined how his research on optics would turn into a Raman spectra industry by the end of the twentieth century, thanks to the industrial applications of the laser. This was happening all around the world, and India could not have remained insulated.

For a tropical country like ours, two areas are extremely crucial: health and agriculture. Till independence the average age of an Indian was hardly 27 and the mortality rate was so high. Famines, epidemics, and pestilence were regular visitors. Yet the medical fraternity was beaming with new confidence, thanks to vaccines, penicillin, surgical tools and techniques, and so on. The age of biology was about to dawn.

Contemporary India is still struggling with the pains and pangs of an ever-growing agrarian unrest and farmers’ suicide. The solution lies in a judicious mix of technology, ecology, and welfare economics. All this is easier said than achieved, but we have to keep trying.

In the realm of health and medical sciences, the less said the better. Time has come when we need to agitate and work for a right to health.

India has always been a huge pathological reservoir; you name a disease and it is there! Since the establishment of the Calcutta Medical College in 1835, thousands and thousands of practitioners in modern medicine must have been produced. They did help fight epidemics, control leprosy, cure blindness, eradicate small pox, and have now made the country polio free. These are no mean achievements. But if one is asked to name five Indian medical scientists who contributed fundamentally to our knowledge of the body and its diseases, it would be difficult to answer. This is because our doctors have always been happy minting money through private practice or running nursing homes. A physician-scientist or surgeon-scientist is a rare species in our country. And we supposedly live in an age of biology!

Western medicine till date continues to be expensive for the vast majority of the population, whose survival depends largely on the fortunes of the agrarian economy. This tradition of medicine also has an urban orientation, and this is primarily the reason the health institutions built along Western lines are considered to be remote by the rural population.

In independent India and in many developing countries tech- nology unfortunately masquerades as science. In sharp contrast to the early twentieth century when scientists like J.C. Bose, Satyendranath Bose, C.V. Raman, or M.N. Saha were eulogised for their fundamental contributions, today nuclear or missile engineers are hailed as scientists.

In political circles, the respect for science is so low that if a minister is transferred from the petroleum or health ministry to the ministry of science and technology, it is considered a demotion. In popular perception also the scientists do not rank high. Even the current doyen among Indian scientists with every conceivable award (except the Nobel) has fallen prey to accusations of plagiarism. Earlier the economy used to drive technology; now technology drives economy. In this mega metamorphosis, curiosity-oriented research has been pushed to the background. In its place now we have big heavy-budget mission-oriented programmes (e.g., space, nuclear, or defence missions). ‘Little yet ambitious laboratories’ spread all over the country will be no less useful than the large establishments.

The country needs scientific temper and intellectual curiosity more than the technological gadgets that originate elsewhere and are promptly imported or assimilated. It is true that science and technology create problems, but the cure for science may be more science, not less; and the fast-emerging technologies may need to be softened with ethical wisdom.

National Science Day 2022

Deepak Kumar is a retired professor of History of Science and Education at JNU, Delhi. Kumar has lectured at numerous universities, within India and abroad, and has held visiting fellowships at the Universities of Cambridge, London, Keiden, Smithsonian amongst others. He is the author of “The Trishanku Nation” and “Science and the Raj: A study of British India”.