The Union Budget, which was presented on February 28, National Science Day, unfortunately failed to bring a smile on the faces of Indian scientists. It is indeed ironic that it was on the same day, before the Budget was presented, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to Indian scientists as “India’s pride.” But young research scholars, the foot soldiers of research and development who form the backbone of all innovation, marked that Saturday as a “black day.” Many of them are now sitting on a fast in New Delhi seeking a hike in scholarship amounts.
In the Budget which was supposed to announce “big bang” reforms, no new big ticket initiatives were announced in Science and Technology, possibly a reflection of Science Minister Harsh Vardhan’s preoccupation with the Delhi elections.
Last fiscal, there was a drastic and unprecedented 30 per cent cut in the field of science. A science secretary had a simple solution to this: “This year we will ensure that the money allocated for sanctioned programmes is spent by December,” he said. At least then, he added, the work force can be kept fully occupied with cutting-edge programmes.
Mr. Modi in his message on National Science day said, “It is an occasion to remember the dedication, determination and untiring efforts of our scientists. Science and technology will determine India’s future, just as it has played a crucial role in bringing our nation to where we are today.” But Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, a couple of hours later after this message by Mr. Modi, failed to increase the allocations for Science and Technology. Even in places where there have been increase in allocations, they don’t meet inflation. Further on the flip side, the Ministry of Earth Sciences has had its plan budget cut by seven per cent and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the nodal agency handling India’s future food security, has seen its allocation actually drop by a massive Rs.24 crore.
As a consequence, Prime Minister Modi’s science day message that “the government is fully committed to encouraging research, innovation and excellence in science, particularly among our young minds” seems hollow. If his new and much-needed thrust of ‘Make in India’ has to truly translate into reality, Indian Science and Technology has to be bolstered much more.
Despite Mr. Modi’s much celebrated visits to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), where he rightfully applauded the scientists on the success of Mangalyaan, this year’s Budget for the Department of Space has remained flat at Rs.6,000 crore. Mr. Modi had earlier said at ISRO that the organisation must develop a SAARC satellite which can be dedicated as a “gift” to the neighbours. In view of this, for the first time Rs.2 crore was allocated to make this satellite. The satellite will be placed over the subcontinent and will be a geostationary communications one helping in voice, data and television services. The complex task of getting the SAARC countries on board has been left to the Ministry of External Affairs, which will also ensure coordination between the countries. Perhaps, Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar’s ‘SAARC Yatra’ will yield a better understanding of the SAARC satellite.
Modest allocations have been made for India’s second mission to the moon Chandrayaan-2. For the human space flight programme, Rs.21 crore has been allocated; the ISRO had sought over Rs.12,500 crore for this. The fourth satellite of India’s ambitious indigenous navigation systems, which will be launched in a few weeks, has been allocated Rs.120 crore. With this launch, India’s global positioning system (GPS) will be partly in place giving our strategic forces the much-needed edge required.
A collaborative effort with the U.S. called the ‘NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar Mission’ (NISAR), which is likely to be launched by 2021, got a leg up with Mr. Jaitley allocating Rs.50 crore for this. Kiran Kumar, the new chairman of ISRO says, “this is a high-end satellite that will help in earth observation and monitoring climate change.”
The Indo-U.S. bonhomie on the “breakthrough understanding” on the nuclear deal is more about positive atmospherics than reality. Foreign-made reactors are still a distant reality — if all goes as per plans, the earliest any American or French-made reactor can deliver electricity is not before 2024. The Budget shows that the Modi government has not abandoned the country’s ambitious three-stage nuclear programme with the Department of Atomic Energy getting a 12.6 per cent increase in its budget and the plan outlay reaching Rs.15,108 crore.
On expected lines, India’s ultra-modern 500 MW prototype fast breeder reactor, which is powered in part by plutonium, and is being made at Kalpakkam has got an increased allocation of over Rs.1,600 crore as it is likely to become operational very soon. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited that is constructing at least four indigenously made 700 MW domestic reactors has seen its allocation zoom up to Rs.9,095 crore. The Finance Minister also announced that the much-delayed second 1,000 MW unit of the Russian- made Kudankulam nuclear power plant will become operational in this fiscal year.
The Department of Science and Technology, the hub for a lot of civilian basic science research, has to live with a measly 4.1 per cent increase in its budget. But one highlight is an allocation of Rs.84 crore for a super computing facility with an almost fivefold increase from the last fiscal. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research has seen its budget increase to Rs.1,855 crore.
In what could be bad news for research fellows, the amount allocated for disbursal of fellowships has been increased only by Rs.18 crore this year. The outlay needed to meet the demands of the 71,000 research fellows linked to the Ministry of Science and Technology should have seen this amount zoom by at least Rs.750 crore.
The Department of Biotechnology has to contend with an increased allocation of a mere Rs.107 crore. Secretary of the Department K. VijayRaghavan admits “some flab will have to be trimmed,” but he hopes to partner with States to try and see how the new model of “cooperative federalism” can be leveraged to get more bang for the buck. He feels embedding Research and Development in the new AIIMS and IITs could be another way to get India ahead.
Some scientists are rejoicing the fact that at least the allocation has not been axed. This is interesting especially in the light of the ambitious Ganga cleaning project’s fund. Despite the hype, the plan budget for the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation has been slashed by over 50 per cent this fiscal. The government must have realised that cleaning the river cannot be merely accomplished by pouring in money.
Supporting Indian science
In his science day message, Mr. Modi said, “We salute the brilliance and long-lasting contribution of Sir C.V. Raman to the field of science.” Raman’s discovery should ideally be a lesson that the ‘Make in India’ programme should internalise fully. The scientific discovery of the Raman Effect was undoubtedly made in India but the commercial benefits of Raman spectroscopy were garnered by companies in the West. Today almost all explosive detection devices seen at airports run on signatures generated because of the landmark discovery by Raman, but not a single paise flows to India. Thus a ‘discovered in India’ scientific breakthrough became a ‘Made in America.’
If Mr. Modi’s ‘Make in India’ plea has to truly succeed in generating plenty of jobs in the defence manufacturing sector alone, then supporting Indian science has to move away from mere lip service to reality. Achhe din still seem to elude Indian scientists today.
(Pallava Bagla is Science Editor, New Delhi Television Limited. The views expressed are personal. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )
The discovery of the Raman Effect was made in India but the commercial benefits of Raman spectroscopy were garnered in the West