A caste system operates where the technical assistants do a lot of the boring dirty work essential for the progress of the project

Professor Khadg Singh Valdiya is a well known geoscientist working at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre in Bangalore. His recent article in the 25 February 2012 of Current Science is a lament on how the on-the-field geologists are not recognized by the “mainstream” academic geological community.

In the pecking order that is manifest here, they are in the lower rungs of the ladder. Valdiya laments that these are the true discoverers of the mineral and water wealth of the country, yet they go “unwept, unhonoured and unsung”, and that is the tragedy of being an on-the-field geologist. Expectedly, his article has generated a heated response from fellow geologists and other scientists.

Indeed, what he writes is true in other disciplines of science, and perhaps in several other areas as well. Typically in a group of researchers, there is the head, his associates, students and technical assistants. It is the last group that does a lot of the boring ‘dirty work' essential for the progress of the project.

Yet they are paid less, generally not given authorship in research papers, nor honoured with awards, Fellowships in scholarly academies and such. An unsaid but practised caste system operates here.

Examples

Valdiya quotes many instances of the remarkable contributions of such field worker scientists. Even as experts dismissed many potential areas in the country as barren, it was these on-site earth scientists (specialising in structural geology, sedimentology, palaeontology and other related areas) who made as many as 339 discoveries in off-shore and 217 on-shore areas rich in oil and natural gas of magnitude over 650 billion metric tons.

More recently, just in the region of Palakollu-Pasarlapudi in the Krishna–Godavari basin, a similar field analysis has revealed the potential of 3.4 billion tons of oil and gas. Not just there but in the Jaisalmer basin in Rajasthan as well.

The same is true in the case of uranium deposits, which were discovered most recently by the Atomic Minerals Directorate of India.

Yet these scientists/engineers of the Geological Survey of India, Oil and Natural Gas Commission or Atomic Mineral Directorate have not been recognised, honoured, awarded and rewarded as those working in laboratories and institutes, and publishing papers.

To quote Valdiya: “They work for months on end, away from the comforts of homes and laboratories, in harsh or even perilous terrains…..but their finds are treated in the same vein as if unskilled laborers picked up valuables, which were already there”.

He further points to a further “magnificent irony” where the Geological Survey of India is sternly guided by not an area-expert but an IAS officer.

So is the Chairman of the Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development. He asks “I wonder how mainstream scientists would react if IAS officers are made chiefs of CSIR, ICMR, ICAR or DBT”.

Valdiya's article is yet another wakeup call for not only the scientific community but to policy planners as well. Due recognition should be given to the on-field discovered by the community. They cannot be treated simply as ‘Sherpas' while the bosses take all the glory.

Dr Rick O'Donnell, who analysed the education policy of the University of Texas, classifies academic researchers into five categories: Dodgers, Coasters, Sherpas, Pioneers and Stars. He says: “Sherpas are the ones who do much of the teaching on a gruelling time table, and are the ones who have helped to build the reputation of many climbers, famed for their conquest in the Himalayas.” (For an excellent analysis of the Sherpas and Stars of Academia, read Prof. Balaram's editorial in the 25/8/2011 issue of Current Science, as also Valdiya's article in its 25/2/2012 issue, both downloadable free on the net).

To add to this irony is the tragedy of the result of recent policy shifts by the government, thanks to which private parties are given access to mining, oil exploratory and water resources.

Valdia points out that prior to this, autonomous government undertakings such as National Mineral development Corporation, National Coal Development Corporation and Indian Copper Corporation played important role in providing resources, strictly adhering to national (and rational) mineral policy, following rules of scientifically appropriate mining and protecting the environment.

With this policy shift, what we see is “the unchecked plunder of the earth's precious resources, shameless loot of the nation's wealth, and denial of benefits for the people displaced and adversely affected”.

I believe Dr Valdia used the phrase “unwept, unhonoured and unsung” somewhat differently than Sir Walter Scott who did it in his poem “Lay of the Last Minstrel”. Scott wrote: “Breathes there a man with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said, this is my own, my native land ……… the wretch, concentred all in self, living, shall forfeit fair renown, and, doubly dying, shall go down to the vile dust, from whence he sprung, unwept, unhonoured, unsung.” This applies more to the exploiter than the explorer.

dbala@lvpei.org

More In: Science | Sci-Tech