Meghnad Saha (1893-1956) was arguably the biggest giant of Indian science of the last century. But more important than Saha’s contribution to science was his desire to address society’s problems.

There is in every village a torch — the teacher; and an extinguisher — the priest. — Victor Hugo.

Scientists in India are often accused of living in their “ivory towers” and doing research that has no immediate relevance to the needs of society. This is quite true, mainly because a scientist is rewarded (or promoted) for publishing papers only in high-impact international journals, where the published research may have relevance to an advanced industrialised country, but not to the needs of a developing country like India. One cannot blame the scientists for being successful when the system itself is designed to recognise only such “irrelevant” research.

Despite this, India has produced world-class scientists, who were also socially conscious.

The foremost name is Meghnad Saha (1893-1956). He was arguably the biggest giant of Indian science of the last century — a truly “stellar” scientist. His theory of thermal ionisation, captured in the Saha equation, was used to explain the long-standing puzzle of what was happening in the atmospheres of stars. It is considered one of the 10 most important contributions to astrophysics of all time. No wonder, Saha was accorded the rare honour of being elected an FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society) at the young age of 34.

More important than his contribution to science was Saha’s desire to address the problems of our society. He realised very early that the widespread poverty and unemployment in India would not be solved unless scientists took an active part in tackling them.

Being a man of action rather than mere words, he was actively involved in national planning, river water control, and calendar reform. He earned the wrath of the Congress party by advocating large-scale industrialisation to solve poverty, and was against the Gandhian model of going back to the charkha and the old mode of village life, which he felt was anachronistic and retrograde.

He thought the best way to serve the people was as a Member of Parliament, to which he was duly elected as an independent non-Congress candidate from Calcutta in 1952. He served as an MP till his sudden death in 1956. I am sure our country and democracy will be well served if more people like him enter politics.

Socially relevant research is more important today than ever. It is sad that 65 years after independence, the majority of our population lives in abject poverty, with no proper access to sanitation or health care. We live in a dichotomous country, where 25 per cent of our population is economically advanced with access to the latest technology, while the remainder wallows in inhuman conditions. Both of us live in the 21st century, but one in the 21st century AD and other in the 21st century BC!

Some people will argue that the development of Western Europe occurred because it had colonies that it could exploit economically. India does not have any and hence our poverty. This is patently bogus, as the recent successes of South-East Asian countries like Malaysia and South Korea show. Seoul hosted the Olympics 25 years ago, and showcased to the world its social and economic development. We hosted the much smaller scale Commonwealth Games a couple of years ago, and showcased to the world our rampant corruption and inability to get many venues ready in time.

Others wish for a miracle cure, with such “urban myths” going around that some untold wealth (in the form of gold and jewels) is lying hidden in an old temple vault, and encashing it will help erase India’s poverty in one fell swoop.

Well, wish on. I am reminded of an old Chinese saying: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Giving alms to the poor may feed them for a day, but if you want long-term development, the only way is to set up modern factories and work hard — get your hands dirty, as the Americans would say. There is no substitute for the kind of low-wage manufacturing jobs that Malaysia and South Korea went through earlier, or that China is going through now.

It is easy to blame others, especially the British, for our problems. But this is belied by the fact that, after decades of self-rule, we are worse off today on most human development indices than when our colonial masters left the country.

Let me close with one example. The river Cooum in Chennai was an idyllic river in British times, and was used for romantic boatrides a century ago. Today, that is almost impossible to believe because the unbearable stench that emanates from the river will wake you from the deepest slumber as your train pulls into the nearby Basin Bridge junction, just a short distance before it reaches Chennai Central. Everyone knows that the sickening smell is caused by untreated industrial effluents being pumped into the river along with sewage and sullage. And this has been happening not for one or two years, but half a century.

Slum dwellers have been forced to live on its unhealthy banks for several generations now. Its inky black waters can support only the hardiest germs and disease-carrying mosquitos. But we know that the problem can be solved through concerted efforts of a few scientists and engineers (and more important political will). It will make the river beautiful again.

But are scientists and engineers up to this social challenge as Saha would have been? Can we dream of boatrides in the Cooum once again?

(The writer belongs to the Department of Physics, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Email: vasant@physics.iisc.ernet.in)

More In: Open Page | Opinion