The Science and Technology Ministry is crucial to a major knowledge economy, yet it has been ranked low by the government and has suffered under reluctant Ministers. Indifferent to begin with, Kapil Sibal developed a degree of interest in this “unimportant” assignment, and that made all the difference

Every time the Union Cabinet is reshuffled, the outlook of the Science and Technology portfolio gets diminished in public perception. In a reversal of the trend assiduously established by the political leadership of an earlier era, the S&T sector is losing its sheen, that too under a government led by a Cambridge-educated economist.

The media have been taking their cue from the government in assessing the ranking of the S&T Minister in the political pecking order. The comments on the latest Cabinet reshuffle give the impression that the S&T Ministry is almost a punishment posting: it was said that S. Jaipal Reddy was “shunted to a politically insignificant ministry” and that his being sent to “a relatively obscure ministry is a seen as a demotion”. There was speculation about his resignation in protest. At his very first meeting with the media, his unhappiness instead of his vision for the S&T sector turned out to be the main topic. The media saw him “unable to hide his displeasure over his being shunted out from Petroleum”. This popular way of seeing things has an impact on the functioning of a Minister in the political-bureaucratic jungle that is New Delhi.

In a major knowledge economy, the S&T Minister should not rank below the Finance Minister. And yet in the recent past, the S&T Ministry has been cursed with reluctant Ministers. It mutates a political medium-weight into a political lightweight. There have been S&T Ministers who were clueless or obsessed with their State’s politics to the near exclusion of their administrative responsibility in New Delhi. Some were burdened with additional portfolios that gave them political power and glory. As a result, the files related to S&T kept piling up in the ‘IN’ tray.

Kapil Sibal was an interesting change. When he was given charge of the S&T Ministry, sources close to him made it known that he was expecting something bigger and better. However, as he got going, his indifference to this “unimportant” assignment gave way to a degree of interest that helped the sector. But then he was gone.

Commitment needed

The Prime Minister keeps signalling that anyone can look after S&T Ministry. Funding is important but scientists, like teachers, care for prestige as much as for perks. The high level of political commitment to S&T enthused the scientific community even when the budgetary allocations used to be much lower. It made migrating abroad less attractive. Jawaharlal Nehru sought to inculcate the scientific temper and used science and technology for tackling developmental problems and enhancing India’s core competence in different areas for promoting self-reliance. Successive Prime Ministers followed his footsteps.

One would have expected this trend to become more prominent since the term “knowledge economy” has become fashionable and the word “innovation” has crept into every business plan. There is a new appreciation of the economic and commercial implications of S&T capabilities. India’s competence in science and technology has given it an immense leverage in the conduct of its foreign policy. But for it, India would have been a toothless tiger in the arena of international relations, pathetically dependent on critical imports and technology exporters’ goodwill.

India is reaping the benefit of the major initiatives in the field of S&T that were taken in the distant past. Ten years from now, will there be a couple of mega projects whose origins could be traced to the prime ministership of Dr. Manmohan Singh? The Decade of Innovation has been declared but it has to be backed by a plan-of-action based on a clear understanding of what innovation means.

Why does the S&T Minister have to be a political heavyweight? Because the nation’s innovative strengths depend on decisions made in many Ministries and decisions made by the S&T Minister have great relevance to other sectors. For example, most of the issues on which international negotiations are going on have a scientific dimension. The S&T Minister has to play a larger role and should be influential enough to get the Prime Minister’s help in securing inter-ministerial cooperation.

The new S&T Minister has to tackle critical issues related to scientific manpower, the culture of research in universities and IITs, public-private partnership in research and development. He has to envision some blue-sky research projects that are hard to sell.

What an S&T Minister does today will have implications for India’s economic and industrial growth as well as social development and, of course, for its very survival. It is for Mr. Reddy to disprove the political analysts who see him resenting the loss of the Petroleum portfolio and showing less enthusiasm for the new responsibility.

(L.K. Sharma is a journalist and editor of three volumes on the innovative strengths of India.)

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