When India became independent, the political leadership — like the people at large — had magnificent dreams. They wanted to build a prosperous, High & mighty: TOI front page announcing the 1975 launch of India’s first satellite Aryabhatta. modern India casting aside centuries of stagnation, poverty and backwardness. And one of the important facets of this vision was the harnessing of science and technology to deal with the huge economic and social challenges facing the country. In the early years the foundation for a gigantic, state-funded scientific establishment was laid. Scientific research in the non-strategic sphere was entrusted to the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) with its 37 laboratories and over 12,000 scientists. Similarly, the Indian Council for Agricultural Research took on the task of addressing problems of increasing agricultural output through its 97 institutes and 45 agricultural universities.
India was a poor country, ravaged and plundered by colonialism. Yet, precious resources were set aside for all this because there was a vision that science should be put to direct use of society. These investments made 60 years ago have since borne fruit. Unlike any other post-colonial country (barring China) India can boast of one of the world’s largest scientific establishments with personnel to match it. How have these capabilities been put to use? How has the science and technology establishment tackled the challenges?
The answers to these questions are not easy because it’s a mixed bag — there are some well-known crowning achievements, but there is also a growing sense of unease about some issues where problems are mounting.
Five areas can immediately be identified where Indian scientists have made significant strides. Their significance is not that they are fantastic discoveries that changed the world. They are remarkable because they were achieved against all odds, often in international isolation, and working with limited resources. Progress in all these areas has had a cascading effect on other sciences, and on the life of the nation.
Agriculture: 60 years ago, India was referred to as a country leading a ship to mouth existence — foreign foodgrain came by ships to feed millions. By 1966, food imports had reached 10 million tonnes. But by 1968, foodgrain production shot up by 8 million tonnes and by 1974 India became self-sufficient. Indian agricultural scientists first hybridized Japanese rice varieties with Indian varieties. Then, wheat, maize and various millet varieties were developed. “This is the power of synergy between technology and public policy,” explains M S Swaminathan, considered the father of this Green Revolution. Striking progress has also been achieved in the improvement of productivity of farm animals and fish. Today, we occupy the first position in the world in milk production.
Horticulture, which was a pleasantry before independence, has emerged as a core sector in agriculture, says H P Singh deputy director general for horticulture in the Indian Council for Agricultural Research. Research has resulted in conservation of 72,000 accessions and development of 1,500 high yielding cultivars, resulting in India emerging as the second largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world.
“More than 50% increase in production was recorded between 1991-92 and 1998-99,” Singh told TOI.
Progress has continued steadily, but during the last 15 years there has been relative stagnation in the improvement of both crop production and productivity due to ecological and economic reasons, says Swaminathan.
Conversion of scientific know-how into field level ‘do-how’ and a mismatch between public policy and the needs of technological diffusion are two major problems, he says. “Agricultural policy-making is largely in the hands of general administrators, many of whom have little knowledge of farming and farmers. This is a self-inflicted injury which is hampering progress,” he rues.
Nuclear Science: Just three years after Hiroshima, and just an year after Independence, Nehru set up the Atomic Energy Commission, headed by Homi Bhaba — a rare nuclear scientist of international repute from the third world. Under Bhaba, India’s nuclear programme blossomed into a formidable force — and on its own steam, for nuclear technologies were not revealed by the dominant powers. By the time he died in a plane crash on Mont Blanc in Europe in 1966, India already had research reactors and uranium was being mined and prepared for use as fuel. Other peaceful uses like use of isotopes for radiation had also been developed. India tested its first nuclear device in 1974, inviting a complete halt in cooperation from the world’s nuclear powers. The long process of developing a three-stage process for using thorium fuel, of which India has the world’s largest reserves, was initiated under these conditions and continues today. In fact, today, India has 17 atomic power stations while six more are under construction, and is acknowledged as a nuclear power in the world.
The one factor that contributed to this success story is the emphasis Dr Bhabha placed on human resource, says top nuclear scientist V S Ramamurthy, director, National Institute of Advanced Studies and former secretary of the department of science and technology. “In the coming decades, human resource is going to be the biggest challenge in this sector, not only for India but for the entire world, he told TOI.
Space: The department of space grew out of — strangely — the atomic energy department. It was led by Vikram Sarabhai, another of the ilk of Bhaba and encouraged by the political leadership. Within 6 years of the setting up of Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) in 1969, the first Indian satellite, Aryabhatta, was launched. Since then the Indian space programme has made rapid advances — India has the largest constellation of non-military satellites in the world, serving needs such as communications, broadcasting, tele-education, meteorological data, environmental monitoring, geology, agriculture, bio-diversity, land use, coastal zone management and ocean resources, urban management and disaster management. It has the capability of launching upto 10 satellites simultaneously and is well on its way to developing vehicles that can be reused after launch. Only recently, Chandrayaan 1 made history by reaching and observing the
Moon: According to K Kasturirangan, former head of Isro and a member of the Planning Commission, India’s space programme is unique “for its direct relevance to national development and, at the same time, being cost-effective”. Most of the technology is indigenous, developed in the face of denial regimes, inadequate industrial infrastructure and complex engineering issues. “Our own engineers took this as a challenge and developed many unique solutions through interesting innovations and creativity”, Kasturirangan told TOI.
Genomics: India has made spectacular progress in the field of sequencing genetic codes and its applications for disease control. Technological advances in the West made it possible to start full sequencing around the mid-1980’s. After initial hesitation, India joined the race to develop capabilities to do complete gene sequencing, largely due to the efforts of S K Brahmachari, who currently heads CSIR. He had worked with Charles Cantor the pioneering geneticist in the early days as a student, and persuaded the Indian government to start work here. “India has distinct advantages for this work — a large population with considerable variation in genetic composition, a fast developing IT capability and a large scientific infrastructure,” he told TOI. After setting up the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in 1998, Brahmachari led the scientists to pioneering studies on variations in Indian genetic composition. Recently the full genome of an Indian has been mapped, putting India in an exclusive club of eight nations in the world.
Information Technology: This is the most recent and perhaps the most well-known of success stories, with super-computing abilities, a huge pool of trained IT manpower and top scientists in the world’s most advanced IT companies. India has emerged as a hub for software services with the industry exporting over $5.7 billion in 2008 and expected to double by 2013. This achievement is different from others in the sense that it has largely been under private sector and largely export-oriented.
One of the biggest changes in global science that India missed out on is materials science and technology, according to C N R Rao, chairman of the scientific advisory committee to the prime minister.
“India did not contribute anything to the semi-conductor revolution and in fact, we hardly have laboratories working on microelectronics. We have very few foundries to make chips. India still depends on chips made elsewhere,” he candidly explained to TOI. Although now some attention is being paid to nanotechnology, India needs to invest much more in material sciences, he says. There are various other fields of science in which progress has been steady if not dramatic. A K Sahni, professor emeritus in geology at Panjab University borrows a metaphor from the science itself, to explain this: “The achievements are more like a rising mountain chain with only a few discernible peaks”. There have been sharp insights into earth processes, changes in water systems, the dynamics of earthquakes and tsunamis with a early warning system in place, polar studies and alternative energy resources such as coal bed methane and gas hydrates, he says.
The science of weather prediction holds great importance for India as more than half the country’s farming is dependent on the monsoon. While there has been rapid progress worldwide due to explosive growth in computing power, development of new observational platforms (satellites, radars, wind profilers, automatic weather stations, ocean buoys and many more), and enhanced understanding of underlying physical processes, progress in India has been slow according to A K Bohra, Head, National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (NCMRWF). “Till recently, the traditional method of forecasting weather, known as synoptic method was used while the world has moved on to Numerical Weather Prediction (NWP) which uses very complex numerical models,” he told TOI. Bohra rues the “lack of adequate computing power and skilled manpower in the country” but is enthusiastic of a recently launched modernization drive.
In the health sector, control of diseases and doubling of life expectancy are major achievements, according to V M Katoch, director general, Indian Council of Medical Research. “Several leads for designing the present regimens for tuberculosis, leprosy and other diseases came from India,” he told TOI. However, little of this output from medical research has been translated into products/process. This has been due to lack of synergy among different science departments and regulatory agencies, he said.
“The real challenge will be development of health system so that the technology reaches people,” he said.
A common problem across virtually all science disciplines is of dwindling human resources. From geology and climatology to nanotechnology and biotechnology, the enrollment of students at graduate and post-graduate levels is stagnating, or even falling. In research output, India produces less than 2% of the world’s scientific papers and has a low citation ranking. Investment in R&D has been languishing at about 1% of GDP for several years after rising from 0.16% in 1958.
Prof Ramamurthy points to two chief weaknesses — the translation of scientific knowledge base into technologies and marketable products and services, and the weak ecosystem for entrepreneurship and venture financing. But he is optimistic. ‘The Indian system is indeed waking up to these realities. The increasing investments in higher education, the increasing participation of industries in R&D point to this welcome development. If India can do it in sectors like space, atomic energy in spite of international embargos, it can do it in every other sector,” he says.