Comment

An award for a physicist

Modern India has little place for real on-ground work

Mention the names Ravi Kuchimanchi, the Association for India’s Development or Andrei Sakharov and it’s likely that not many beyond a small circle would have heard of them, even less their connection. Throw in the Shah Rukh Khan starrer Swades into the mix, and it might be an entirely different story. But that is something for the end.

In October, earlier this year, the 118-year-old American Physical Society (APS), one of the world’s largest organisations of physicists, announced the winners of its 2018 Andrei Sakharov Prize that recognises “outstanding leadership and/or achievements of scientists in upholding human rights”. The award was constituted in 2006 in memory of the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize winning Russian nuclear physicist who faced state persecution for his advocacy of civil liberties and reforms in the Soviet Union.

The Sakharov prize is notable for awarding scientists not for their professional and academic pursuits, but for going beyond the ‘scientific’ remit. One of the two winners of the 2018 award, following this line, is the 45-year-old Iranian physicist, engineer, and human rights defender, Narges Mohammadi, who is currently serving a 16-year sentence in a prison in Tehran. The other is Ravi Kuchimanchi, a physicist who as PhD student in physics at the University of Maryland, U.S., helped found the Association for India’s Development more than two and half decades ago.

It is a remarkable organisation that mobilises nearly a thousand volunteers and raises $2 million annually to support human rights and social justice issues in India. This notwithstanding, it is striking that little note has otherwise been taken of this award and its recipients. What is also relatively less known is that Kuchimanchi continues his work as a physicist, making his profile quite exceptional if not entirely unique.

The situation throws up some interesting questions on the nature of science, on the identity of a scientist, on the science-society-development interface and its larger socio-cultural-political underpinnings. It is an engagement that is fraught with a whole set of ambiguities that run along multiple fault lines.

And there is still the Shah Rukh Khan and the Swades connection that needs to be sketched out. The hugely successful movie is inspired indeed by Kuchimanchi’s personal journey when he returned from the U.S. and helped light up the remote, off-the-grid village of Bilgaon in Maharashtra. It’s a story and a film that achieved cult status but with a twist in the tale that is still not very well known. The Bilgaon project that was hailed as an outstanding example of grassroots and sustainable development was washed away in 2006 due to the backwater effect of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Modern India appears to have little place for real on-ground work even as the rhetoric around it keeps escalating.

Pankaj Sekhsaria researches issues at the intersection of science, environment, society and technology

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Printable version | May 18, 2020 5:25:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/an-award-for-a-physicist/article22086920.ece

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