The end of Vigyan Prasar is the death of another Nehruvian idea

As Vigyan Prasar has veered away from its original mandate of promoting scientific temper, it matters little even if it survives in any other form

May 02, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 12:00 pm IST

 Nakul Parashar, director, Vigyan Prasar, Department of Science and Technology, addressing PhD scholars during the training workshop on popular science writing under the AWSAR Programme in Madurai.

Nakul Parashar, director, Vigyan Prasar, Department of Science and Technology, addressing PhD scholars during the training workshop on popular science writing under the AWSAR Programme in Madurai. | Photo Credit: G. MOORTHY

Just a few days before National Science Day (February 28) this year, an official press release of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) cryptically announced the death of Vigyan Prasar, an autonomous body under its purview. It did not offer any explanation for the decision to shut the agency, which is tasked with promoting scientific temper and enhancing public understanding of science through communication.

It has now emerged that the agency will cease to exist from July-end this year. Officials have tried to explain that the move was a part of an exercise initiated by the NITI Aayog to rationalise the functioning of autonomous societies functioning under various wings of the Union government.

The fact that Vigyan Prasar is not alone in this exercise is no consolation. The whole affair has been cloaked in secrecy, without public consultation at any level. Since it began as an exercise to target autonomous bodies, it implies that the government wants all its agencies to be centrally run, with no room for any functional, institutional, and intellectual autonomy.

The origins of Vigyan Prasar

While Vigyan Prasar started functioning in 1989, it was a Nehruvian idea of science communication and scientific awareness tracing itself to the early days of independence. It has been a part of an unbroken chain of government institutions and policies concerning scientific temper – a key foundational idea of modern India – since 1947.

For Jawaharlal Nehru, science and technology were essential inputs in the nation-building project, and this was reflected in the creation of national laboratories, higher education institutions, large dams, and so on. To fight irrationality and obscurantism, Nehru supported a scheme to open ‘Vigyan Mandirs’ all over India in the first Five-Year Plan. These science centres sought to popularise scientific ideas in rural populations and were equipped with basic scientific appliances, books, film slides, etc. In the 1960s, science communication through All India Radio and ‘Krishi Vigyan Kendras’ played a pivotal role in the adoption of new, high-yielding crop varieties that powered the Green Revolution.

As new societal challenges like pollution, energy crisis, and superstitious beliefs emerged, the DST decided to form an agency to promote public debate on science and technology and eradicate irrational attitudes. Thus was born the National Council for Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC) in 1982. It supported a large number of voluntary groups and grassroots science movements. One of its major contributions was a mass movement called ‘Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha’ (BJVJ), which, after its culmination, gave birth to a network of voluntary organisations. This network took the shape of the All India People’s Science Network (AIPSN), and it survives to date.

From NCSTC’s work and the momentum generated by BJVJ flowed the idea of a national institute of science and technology communication. This was Vigyan Prasar. Both NCSTC and Vigyan Prasar had a common driving force: Narender K. Sehgal.

Vigyan Prasar prepared content on scientific temper and disseminated it widely via radio and television in the 1990s. This includes ‘Vigyan Vidhi’ (13-part radio series on the method of science in 16 languages), ‘Bharat Ki Chaap’ (13-part television series on the history of science in India), ‘Maanav Ka Vikas’ (144-part radio series on human evolution in 18 languages), ‘Kyon Aur Kaise’ (television series on critical thinking), and ‘A Question of Science’ (television show on scientific questions).

In addition, the agency commissioned filmmakers to produce documentaries about the lives of leading scientists, the history of science, etc. One major and notable outreach project was ECLIPSE-95, a year-long programme to generate awareness and create safe viewing opportunities of the total solar eclipse of October 1995. Since then, popular astronomy as a vehicle for spreading scientific literacy and awareness became a key component of Vigyan Prasar’s activities.

From from its original mandate

In more recent times, however, Vigyan Prasar has veered away from its original mandate to promote scientific temper, science literacy, and public understanding of science. New projects were launched without adequate preparation and coordination. For instance, the agency started ‘DD Science’ in collaboration with Doordarshan as a one-hour daily programme for science, but it started rehashing documentaries telecast earlier and couldn’t offer new or original content to fill the slot. This was followed by an OTT channel called ‘’.

While implementing these projects, Vigyan Prasar’s leadership fell into the trap of equating science communication with government publicity. The OTT science channel degenerated into a blatant propaganda platform, covering routine events such as the Prime Minister’s Republic Day speech and ‘Pariksha Pe Charcha’. The ‘science channel’ dutifully highlighted even minor events in the constituency of Science and Technology Minister Jitendra Singh. More seriously, the channel left no stone unturned to glorify ancient texts and the “scientific benefits” of yoga, interviewing Swami Ramdev and even a Chief Controller of Accounts in DST on “science in the Vedas”.

In addition, the Vigyan Prasar management also opened a revolving door between Vigyan Prasar and ‘Vigyan Bharti’ aka VIBHA, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Senior Vigyan Prasar officials held posts in VIBHA and the two agencies organised joint events that were funded by Vigyan Prasar. Financial assistance of an estimated ₹1.5 crore a year was given to VIBHA to organise an online science talent test called ‘Vigyan Vidyarthi Manthan’; it included a module on “ancient science” and entailed a fee of ₹200 per student. For VIBHA’s annual event, funded by scientific departments, Vigyan Prasar acted as the secretariat and paid the salaries of VIBHA consultants. VIBHA events are frequently featured in Vigyan Prasar’s Dream 2047 magazine, and its office bearers are interviewed on the science channel. It is strange that the rise of VIBHA has coincided with the decline of Vigyan Prasar in the past five years.

The Indian government has not disclosed its motives to close Vigyan Prasar or any alternative arrangement it may be considering. In any case, the idea of Vigyan Prasar as an agency to promote scientific temper and critical thinking is already dead. It does not matter if the entity is allowed to survive in any other form.

Dinesh C. Sharma is a columnist and author based in New Delhi. He was associated with Vigyan Prasar as the founding Managing Editor of India Science Wire (ISW) from 2017 to 2019.

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