It gives us great pleasure for all of us here from the TALKING GREEN team to forward this special editorial issue as part of our new initiative this year to focus on specific subject of importance on science and the world and come up with a monthly editorial issue . We sincerely thank you for your response to our first editorial issue and with that this time also it will provide you some food for thought and share your views and observations to grow and move on better roads ……………….. When we talk and share dreams of a developed nation we fail to touch the basic reality and the ground issues of Indian science. Either we want to be on the comfort zone as for always or we do not want to be the bad guy to talk about it and PAGE 3 scientific attitude has developed during these years in our national scenario . Enjoy reading
Bane of Indian science -Need to free scientists from babudom
In his address to the 97th Indian Science Congress, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has admitted that bureaucracy was the bane of Indian science. Later Dr Madhavan Nair said that except in departments under the Prime Minister’s control, every other science section suffered from red tape. Clearly, there are many telling instances of how the bureaucracy had smothered the enquiring mind and innovation in India’s science labs.
Ironically, most of world’s greatest scientists like Dr Sivaramakrishna Chandrashekhar and Dr Subramaniam Chandrashekhar won laurels and recognition abroad and not in India.
A typical example of bureaucratic interference in India is regarding the technology of growing ultra pure silicon crystals to make solar and other silicon cells that convert light into electricity. Two Indian Institute of Science scientists had developed the technology. In the early 80s, Mettur Chemicals (MetChem) in Mettur near Salem tried to install a pilot plant to make pure crystalline silicon as a commercial venture using this indigenous technology. The cells were to be manufactured by bodies like the Bharat Heavy Electricals in Bangalore. The spirit of enquiry is still suppressed in most scientific establishments and in our universities by the heavy weight of seniority and turf battles
However, MetChem was made to rue the day they applied for an industrial licence for silicon manufacture using this technology. The reason: the government had already entered into a collaboration with an American MNC to import this silicon and make these cells in a Mohali-based public sector concern. A powerful Joint Secretary in the Department of Electronics, who had direct access to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had said “no” to the MetChem plan.
Similarly, the government aborted another project on liquid crystal devices of the Bharat Electronics with the technological support from Bangalore’s Raman Research Institute. Dr Sivramakrishna Chandrasekhar was to attend the World Congress on Liquid Crystals, but the babus in the Science and Technology and Electronics departments did not sanction his foreign trip, raising queries after queries.
The reason why he was being harassed was his support for the BEL’s attempt to manufacture devices from liquid crystals. The Joint Secretary referred to earlier had already negotiated with a Japanese company to make LCD devices. In those days of socialist mantra in planning, there was no place for competition though BEL with HMT collaboration on the front end and RRI collaboration at the back end was planning to make LCD-based watches for as low as Rs 200 a piece.
The series of newspaper articles exposing this bureaucratic hurdle to indigenous technology led to questions in Parliament and in the Prime Minister’s consultative committee on science and technology and electronics. This shook the establishment and rescued Dr Chandrasekhar as well as the two indigenous technologies. Still the government decided to form the Centre for Liquid Crystal Research only in 1991. By then, the worldwide authority on liquid crystals had stepped into the sunset years. And his basic discovery of discotic liquid crystals had become a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide – not in India.
There are several other instances of bureaucrats creating hurdles in the 70s and 80s. India missed the bus completely in electronics in the 70s. The black and white TV set was a curiosity in the 70s and in the early 80s, a committee of secretaries decreed that a colour TV set would cost over Rs 13,500 and thus will not have a demand in India. Even if these sets were made, how costly it would be to set up terrestrial colour TV transmission studios, the babus argued then.
P. K. Sandell, a technocrat, somehow succeeded in showing Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in her residence that using the Indian satellites colour TV could be transmitted across the country and all that was needed was to have low cost receiving stations to retransmit the signals that could reach up to 20 to 25 km radius. The attraction of Asian Games being shown across the country in colour finally settled the issue with the Prime Minister overruling all objections.
In mid-90s, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, with its 42 institutions, was set on a path of pursuing discovery in a commercial mode and tied up with local Indian industry. Till then, its huge complex was only tinkering with science and technology, its scientific staff caught in a game of oneupmanship, pushing their seniority rather than their creativity to reach the upper rungs of the ladder. In this environment, merit was the casualty. The environment changed after Dr R. A. Mashelkar took over as its director-general. He forced the labs to earn their bread, go to the industrial units around and introduced tenure system for directors of the labs.
Many senior scientists were themselves guilty of perpetuating the iceberg of seniority-based assessment of scientific work. The annual ISC sessions saw the same scientists on the dais year after year and the awards going round them like musical chairs. That the science congress sessions should relate to a burning problem was an idea that Dr M.S. Swaminathan introduced when he chaired the ISC in 1983. No doubt, awards for young scientists were introduced to meet the criticism that seniors were monopolizing the ISC. Liberalization came in the 90s with the economic reforms in the government in the 90s.
Dr Madhavan Nair has recently said that the departments like Atomic Energy, Space, Ocean Development and Electronics under the Prime Minister’s control were free from bureaucratic control. The first two were more or less independent as they were largely independent commissions where the scientists had the final say. It also helped that India was under a technology denial regime. So the first two had to find their own technologies. However, they did it with tremendous energy and imagination. By the 90s, in both areas, India was at the top despite delays in project completion.
After 20 years of liberalisation, the spirit of enquiry is still suppressed in most scientific establishments and in our universities by the heavy weight of seniority and turf battles. If one science department has an expensive equipment for research, other departments in the same institution cannot easily get to it unless they go through an elaborate procedure and feet-touching of the other senior scientists. Faculties are not known for openness; what is right or wrong is decided by who is saying it and not by empirical evidence. The questioning student is sure to be denied an entrance to the Ph.D research enclave.
If many Indian scientists have won accolades doing research in the US, it is simply because as one Indian scientist at Houston’s NASA centre told this writer there in the 80s: “Here if you have an idea and you find the director of the institute passing by, you can buttonhole him and tell him about this. Most likely he would call you for a discussion and let you get all that you need if he finds your idea has even a modicum of logic. That is not the case in India.”
Even in late 90s, the environment for science in India had not changed. This writer’s friend, who was doing doctorate in biotechnology in JNU and later shifted to Purdue University in the US, told me that if she wanted any equipment and if it was available with any other department in the university, she could easily obtain it without any hassle unlike in India.
Sam Pitroda with 51 patents behind him in the US took up the challenge in 1984 of developing India’s own digital telephone exchange in three years. No one believed him. We had extensive research in electronic telecommunications in Indian Telephone Industries (ITI) and in BEL. But no one had made any great advance in electronic exchanges.
Dr Pitke and Dr Mimamsi, who developed the first electronic analogue exchange, got into trouble with the Telecom department. They joined Sam Pitroda’s C-DoT where there was no bureaucracy and intra-institutional communication was free and critical. C-DoT did bring out India’s own digital switch in six years.