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What if India hadn’t made friends with science?

Dr. Verghese Kurien   | Photo Credit: V. Sudershan

Seventy-two years ago, colonial empires collapsed, and close to 80 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America became free nations. And each new nation had to plan for its future. Yet, among these 80, India was the lone nation that “made friends with science” as a policy for development. No other nation did so; it was unique and far-reaching!

Our first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru declared: “The future belongs to science and those who make friends with science.” For our growth and welfare as an independent, democratic nation, we chose science and technology as major instruments. A gallery of distinguished and patriotic scientists, technologists and thinkers were approached for advice, and their advice heeded. Within a decade of independence, our food production tripled; small pox was eradicated; harmonious sharing of the five Indus rivers with Pakistan was agreed upon; dams and waterways was built and five IITs, two agricultural universities and one AIIMS were set up. (Readers will surely add more). We reap the benefits of their advice to this day and have added more. What if we hadn’t?

Was India prepared for this daring initiative? As it turns out, modern (Baconian) science had already taken root in Colonial India since the mid 1700s. (In a forthcoming issue of the journal Indian Journal of History of Science, stories of about 35 successful Indian practitioners of ‘Western Science’ in colonial India will be highlighted). And many of its distinguished practitioners and their students were Indians in India. It was the meeting of minds of these scholars and the political leaders that made India modern.

It is now 70 years since Independence. How well has the practice of science transformed India? It is on this theme that the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) has come out with the book: “Indian Science: Transforming India — A look back on its 70-year journey; impact of science in independent India”. It has 11 stories, written in a lucid and non-jargonian fashion by Drs. Adita Joshi (biologist and educator), Dinesh Sharma (journalist and science writer), Kavita Tiwari (biotechnologist and writer) and Nissy Nevil (physicist and science policy consultant). These articles showcase how: (i) modern science is the key; (ii) large scale applications are possible which can transform the economy of a nation; (iii) community participation is vital for understanding, acceptance and practice, (iv) a sense of daring or challenging existing mores is important and (v) how a ready adaptation of ‘modern biology’, and its use for general welfare is appreciated even by rural populations.

Adita Joshi writes on how the indelible ink, used to identify voters, was first developed by Dr Salimuzzaman Siddiqui, way back in the 1940s for the CSIR in Calcutta. (On an aside, it is worth noting here that after he moved to Pakistan in 1951, he became the father of modern science and technology of that nation, establishing the Pakistan Academy of Sciences, Pakistan CSIR, Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission and others. He was thus Colonial India’s gift to Pakistan).

Dinesh Sharma gives an eminently readable chapter on how the information technology (IT) revolution came about. It comes as a revelation to read that Dr P. C. Mahalanobis (who started the Indian Statistical Institute, ISI) helped fabricate computing machines locally in 1943, and how one of the earliest (analog) computers was the joint baby of ISI and Jadavpur University. Sharma recalls the untiring efforts of Dr R. Narasimhan at TIFR Bombay in developing the TIFRAC digital computer, and salutes the legendary Dr V. Rajaraman, without whose timely books India would not have advanced so fast in IT. His books became the “Grey’s Anatomy” for IT students!

Kavita Tiwari describes how organic chemistry gave birth in India to generic drugs, and how Dr Yusuf Hamied of Cipla dared major multinational pharma companies and began making and selling anti-HIV drugs to needy patients in Africa for a dollar a day per patient — a Gandhian dare! A similar, though less dramatic, dare is the story of Shantha Biotechnics, who make and sell hepatitis vaccines for less than Rs 50 a shot.

Kavita also writes about India’s White Revolution, and how community partnership and ownership was brought about by Mr Verghese Kurien, making India the largest milk producer in the world. Community participation again becomes the major source of success in the Lab-to-Land story by Adita on the Samba Mahsuri rice (developed by Dr Ramesh Sonti), and the story of Kavita on the shrimp aquaculture by the Coastal Indian fishermen.

An unusual and not well known success story, narrated by Nissy Nevil, is that of two engineers Arvind Patel and Dhirajlal Kotadia, who along with the computer expert Rahul Gayvala, invented the technique of laser-assisted cutting of diamonds and quickly made Surat the capital of diamond processing technology of the world. It is also interesting to note that Patel and Kotadia engaged in the famous Indian practice of “reverse engineering”— open up a machine, study its parts, understand them well and then start making the machine yourself.

There are surely more such examples that transformed India, and we hope INSA will bring out these too. The pdf of the present book is available free at http://www.insaindia.res.in/scroll_news_pdf/ISTI.pdf and the hard copy from Dr. Seema Mandal at < sci-soc@insa.nic.in> for a price. Books of this kind are important since they give a perspective of what all a country dedicated to science can achieve. We need more science and even more science to make our country shine. Technology helps a country grow, but science is vital for technology to be born and to grow. It is for this reason that Prof. C. N. R. Rao persuaded the government to establish several Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER), similar to the IITs but with a focus on science. Many of them are already among the best centres of science.

There is one gripe that many of us have, and that is, while the Central government is the major, indeed lone, supporter of research in these areas, why do the states not pitch in? And why do private industrial houses and foundations not spend even a rupee to fund competitive research? The late Dr K. Anji Reddy was a refreshing exception. He said: “you do good science, and I will give you the money”. When will today’s industrialists ever learn?


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Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 9:56:37 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/what-if-india-hadnt-made-friends-with-science/article24000506.ece

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