(India Today Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Garv se kaho hum sab luddite hain ; We Indians love technology, don't understand science. That's why we love the bomb, but find GM crops evil, says Shekhar Gupta.
The title of this week's National Interest is a bit strong. It is also a little malapropic, but only just. Because Luddites were British workmen who, generally between 1811 and '16, burnt and destroyed textile machinery, believing that these took away their jobs. What we are dealing with in India is the challenge of mostly sincere people, on every side of our divided politics, who oppose science even more than machinery.
Or ignore science, but love technology. Prof CNR Rao explained the difference to me: "Today's science is tomorrow's technology." He elaborated to say that a successful nuclear test, a rocket, even the GSLV going up, is not science. It is, in a way, technology, which we love. I am persuaded to visit this theme this week by the cover story by Ravish Tiwari and Kaushik Deka, which tells you how ultra- nationalist warriors have stopped, among other things, simple, ongoing scientific research in some genetically modified (GM) food crops.
Here is the larger contradiction: every successful rocket launch by ISRO, or a new missile variant tested by DRDO, is celebrated as a great scientific achievement. If Parliament is in session, a thumping of desks is guaranteed.
The truth is, science behind these rockets is at least three decades old, and if these were determinants of scientific achievement, Pakistan and North Korea are ahead of us, and even Iran is somewhere there. In space, our achievements are many, but mostly in engineering, design and some remarkably cheap fabrication. But cutting-edge science? Not quite. You want to understand Indian confusion over technology/engineering versus science, look at the stardom of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam in comparison with Prof Rao, both Bharat Ratnas. Much before he became a widely loved president, Kalam was a national hero for the design of Prithvi and Agni missiles despite global technology denial. It was an achievement but as far as scientific inquiry went, he did not even have a real PhD (his doctorate is honoris causa). Rao, on the other hand, has created hundreds of PhDs and has, at any point of time, scores of doctoral scholars working with him.
So deep and so widespread is this belief that even Atal Bihari Vajpayee gave India the slogan 'Jai Vigyan' when the Pokhran-II tests were successfully conducted in 1998. And, equally, so dangerous is our understanding of science that many young Sangh Parivar stormtroopers announced a programme to pick up "holy" dust from Pokhran and take it around the country so all Bharatiya Nagriks could feel justifiably proud, and probably also get glowingly irradiated. Alarmed, Vajpayee stopped it. A junior, former superstar minister of the then NDA government even startled guests at a dinner (this columnist included) in Mumbai when he said our scientists had built a bomb better than any with the Americans, most of whose nuclear research was in any case done by Indians. "This bomb is not for Pakistan, it is too good to be even wasted on them," he said. "It is for the Americans, they should know if they act funny, we will put one in Manhattan." It was only deference to his status as one of the hosts and caution because of his high spiritual level that I avoided the temptation of asking how he intended to get it there.
By DHL? Since Air India might be unreliable. I elaborate this contradiction because the same political class wraps engineering and technology in the Tricolour-and it is not confined to nuclear and space programmes, from Bhakra and Bandra-Worli Sea Link to the ongoing rail link to Kashmir, everything is hailed as a great national achievement. But when Venkatraman Ramakrishnan wins a Nobel in chemistry (for studying the structure and function of the ribosome), it's a one-day story. If he had patented, even reverse- engineered (as our pharma companies do), a familiar polymer, or a material like Kevlar (popular for protective coverings, from flak jackets to rocket exhausts), he'd be hailed as a much greater pioneer and, indeed, wrapped in the Tiranga. On the one hand, most people-including an accidental science graduate like me-find it tough to comprehend science. On the other hand, what works, particularly if it goes up or explodes, or both, is much simpler. But real science is intricate and boring and even if it is really brilliant, unlikely to yield anything tangible-a machine, a wonder drug or an app of some sort rightaway. But if a nation does not respect science and the free spirit of peer-reviewed inquiry, it cannot even be a technological power. That's precisely what Prof Rao meant when he said that today's science is tomorrow's technology.
There is a peculiar knot in the Indian mind where technology is associated with national pride and science isn't. Our political class is not alone in believing this. Even janata at large is willing to hail as a "scientific" achievement only that which "creates" something. The rise of Infosys, TCS, Wipro and many others is wonderful, but it is hailed as a great example of Indian scientific and technological prowess. The fact is, to call them information technology companies is a bit of a misnomer. Most of their revenues come from outsourcing and not from writing cutting- edge software. Their record in original research and development is comparable to India's much hailed generic pharma companies.
Both have almost no branded or patented products and very little peer-reviewed research. Yet, the achievements of both are seen in patriotic terms. Leaders of India's generics are given the status of national icons and we never bother them with questions like whether they have actually discovered a molecule of their own, ever. A qualification: one exception to this may soon be Piramal. The group is in advanced testing for a molecule for early diagnosis of Alzheimer's. It is in a Bonn-based lab that the Piramals bought, mostly staffed by Germans. But at least they did go that route.
Just as our "bomb" is supposed to sober even the Americans, our rockets are the envy of the world, our IT industry is apparently beating the West by stealing their own, mostly medium-tech jobs, and our generics are giving hell to the evil MNCs Pfizer, Merck, Sanofi- Aventis, Novartis and so on. That is why it is simple to give these a patriotic colour. These are achievements we can understand, see, feel and count, and flaunt to the world. This simplistic politicisation of the ideas of technology and science also results in policy distortions. That is why so much of our state funds flow to IITs, engineering colleges and, at a higher level, to nuclear and space programmes while smaller labs, where cutting-edge research should take place, languish. Another consequence of this distortion is that while nuclear and space people become national icons, research scientists have no real lobby. That's why our hearts should go out to the small, but brave and talented body of Indian agricultural scientists, all in government-run labs, who have been working on India's own GM seeds, but only when allowed to. They have had an impossible decade under the UPA, fighting two well-educated environment ministers, one a lawyer and the other, what else, an engineer with degrees from the finest Indian and American institutions. What chance would you give them now against saffron warriors, who believe GM is evil, poisonous and makes you sterile? They will quite happily join hands with the Congress and the left- liberal activists to chant 'Garv se kaho hum Luddite hain'.
Unless you can convince them that the leaf of spinach that Draupadi offered Lord Krishna in the Mahabharata, a compliment he returned by feeding thousands of sadhus who landed hungry at her door while she lived in exile, was GM. They need no further convincing that anything that mankind is now trying to research had been discovered in Vedic times.
On a different note: Since this is the season of reading stories from Natwar Singh, here is one of mine. My first editorial responsibility at INDIA TODAY in 1988 was the books section and Natwar started writing a column called Among Books. He summoned me one afternoon at his official residence. (He was MoS, External Affairs, then.) His complaint was about the mugshot that we used with the column.
"Just change it, young man, it is so bad, it makes me feel like puking," he said. "My wife also thinks so."
"But it is yours sir," I said.
"So is this one. Use this, my wife says this is the best," he commanded, and handed me a portrait of a very young Natwar, probably from his Cambridge days.
"It doesn't look like you, sir," I said. "Doesn't matter," he insisted. "It is mine, and it looks good."
Of course we did change the picture ultimately, but to another, maybe a decade younger. But in that short, firsttime meeting also, he was impatient with Rajiv Gandhi's ways and his interference.
"But didn't Mrs Gandhi also mostly run the MEA directly?" I asked.
"She did, young man, but she didn't use my joint secretary behind my back," he said, unsettled by the rise of Mani Shankar Aiyar.
While I got my lecture from him, his black spaniel sat on the floor, looking a granite Buddha on a pedestal in the eye, barking, whining, beseeching the wise one to talk. It is the only time I have seen such a conversation ever, even if one-way.
Follow the writer on Twitter @ShekharGupta
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