None of the parties seems to have science, technology, environment, agriculture and medicine (STEAM) in its agenda

The above title of this column is the tersest summary with which one can describe the election manifestos of every one of the political parties for the forthcoming national and state elections of India. The pity is that none, repeat not one, of the parties, nor even the candidates, seems to have science, technology, environment, agriculture and medicine (STEAM) in their agenda for the development of the nation or the state. That this neglect cuts across party or ideology lines is a great cause for worry. It is by now a “no-brainer” that it is investment in STEAM that provides opportunities for employment and large number of jobs. Yet, one party promises ten crores of jobs once it gets elected. Another party promises “Singapore type” development, but does not spell out how. But most parties promise reservation and affirmative action for one community or another.

Catapulted India

And this is all the more saddening when we look back six decades or 15 parliamentary elections ago. When free India was born, the founding fathers “made friends with science” as a national policy and used the tools of STEAM to catapult India into the path of development and growth. It was the science of agriculture that ushered in the green revolution, of medicine that rid us of smallpox (and now polio), of technology that made us an atomic and nuclear power.

Put this in context; at about the same time, over 70 other countries across the African and Asian continents became free, and yet India has been the lone nation that has effectively use STEAM for national growth. We are now considered as an emerging economy (warts and all), thanks to this foresight of free India’s founding fathers. Should we not be strengthening this ever-enhancing tryst with science? With the much-touted demographic divided that we enjoy, the often self-declared status of India having become the new intellectual engine or knowledge society of the world, should the parties and politicians standing for office not commit themselves to this realizable dream?

Some of this spirit of the founding fathers has lingered on, albeit with lukewarm commitment and support from the national governments over the years. But it has been in fits and starts and has occurred largely due to the foresight of scientists and professionals who have been advising the central governments through advisory councils. Thanks to these groups, we have had successful space missions (Chandrayan, Mangalyan, PSLV…), high quality institutions in science educations and research (IISERs), biotechnology products such as vaccines, generic and biosimilar drugs, the National Knowledge Network using sophisticated IT networking, to name a few. But these have been largely due to the prodding and persistence of individuals and committed professional groups. Indeed, the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister had given a vision documents on the advancement and application of STEAM almost two years ago. So has the Planning Commission. Sadly, these do no find a place in any of the manifestos.

It is not as if scientists, technologists, and scholars are not standing for election. There are at least two IT czars, several medical experts, a few educators and scholars in humanities and social sciences. None of them have come out, at least in the public domain, on issues of STEAM for national growth. Interestingly, at least one political party (committed for transparency, rationalism and against corruption) came out with the statement that GM research should be promoted and continued. Right away, another like-minded party (with the same goals and commitments) decided not to support the first one, because of its GM-stand! At least, one may say, GM figures in the debate, among the “small” players. The “biggies” are noted for their deafening silence on this and other issues.

Meaningless refrain

Each year in early January, the current Prime Minster (regardless of what party he is form) inaugurates the All India Science Congress and commits to improve science, increase national level funding and so forth. This has, alas, remained a pleasant, meaningless refrain, and the pity is no one (not even the government he represents) takes it seriously. In this, the state government are at least more candid. Several states run their own annual science congresses and related events, and the chief minister neither promises any money nor any new programmes. Indeed over 95 per cent of the money for S&T comes from the central government, the state governments (30 of them) spend but five per cent.

Nothing exposes the mockery of the situation than the current scenario. Let me quote two instances. The central finance ministry, with one stroke of a pen, has cut the operating budget of all science departments by almost 30 per cent of the originally sanctioned amounts. As a result, the science ministries and departments have defaulted in their grant payments and in some instances even salaries. Many young research students are yet to be paid their monthly fellowship money.

The other is the right-off-the cuff promises made by the government, as Andhra Pradesh is being divided into Telangana and Seemandhra. As a sop to the “aggrieved” states, more IITs, IIMs, and central universities are promised. Are these not empty promises? What autonomy will they have in choosing faculty, directors, budgetary freedom?

D. BALASUBRAMANIAN

dbala@lvpei.org

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