Vol. XLIII No. 20 May 19, 2019
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Extraordinary Assault on Science and Reason: The Imperative for Policy Reversal

Nilotpal Basu

SINCE the Narendra Modi government has assumed office, reason and science have come under continuous threat -- beginning with the prime minster himself suggesting that the elephant-headed Lord Ganesha could be a proof for the existence of plastic surgery during the Puranic ages. Similarly, Home Minister Rajnath Singh had observed that roadside tarot card readers with a caged parrot were far more superior than trained astronomers in anticipating future events. Recently, we had Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath speculating on the possible caste origin of Lord Hanuman.

These instances of random and obviously atrocious ‘insights’ were unceremoniously lampooned and dismissed as outrageous. But the trouble is that little attention was accorded to the need for reasserting the constitutional idea of scientific temper, which the first Prime Minster of the country, Jawaharlal Nehru, so eloquently articulated. For a post-colonial independent republic which was aspiring to create a modern and forward-looking society, this was an indispensable imperative. Without a systematic nurturing of the scientific spirit and temper, India could hardly carve out a place for itself in the comity of nations.

ASSAULT IS ATROCIOUS

What is far more disturbing is the institutionalisation of pseudo-science with official patronage. The large number of such projects that have been initiated by science and technology-related departments of the government are truly mind-boggling. Many of these relate to the so-called vedic sciences. Often, they have been premised on theories and practices without any material basis of historical and textual references. One could refer to the research programmes on bovine excreta. The new science and technology minister, Harsh Vardhan, has spearheaded these obnoxious efforts. At a time when basic science and technology research is starving for funds, the scarce resources are being frittered away for the pursuit of such questionable objectives.  

But, perhaps, the most obnoxious was stored for the 106th session of the Indian Science Congress. As is well-known, the science congress is an annual event to celebrate Indian science. Eminent scientists from India and all over the world have graced different sessions of the science congress. Science congress is also an event where young scientists and researchers are recognised and awarded for their notable contributions. That is why, even though the event is organised by the Indian Science Congress Association which enjoys some degree of autonomy, the government provides some funds. However, of late, the agenda of the science congress has been overshadowed by some of the rank pseudo-scientific and outright obscurantist beliefs which tend to hark us back to the medieval and Puranic ages, replacing science and history with mythology.

Two ‘scientists’ have set the scientific academia on fire with their outrageous theories. The first of them, Kannan Jegathala Krishnan, an Australian citizen, promised to make India proud through his work and wanted to relocate here for further research. Krishnan was introduced in the congress manual as ‘senior research scientist and coordinator’ at World Community Service Centre at Aliyar in Tamil Nadu. He is touted to be researching on ‘origin of the universe’ at the Tamil Nadu centre in the ashram of Maharishi Vethathri. His guide is ‘Yogin’ Sathyamurthy, a lab technician, teaching yoga. He does not have a physics degree but supposedly a PhD in renewable energy system from department of electrical engineering in Victoria University, Melbourne. His assertion is that there is no need for a degree for knowledge.

Krishnan shocked the academia as the main speaker of the Children’s Science Congress by rejecting Newton’s theory of gravity, Einstein’s theory of relativity and Stephen Hawking’s theories of black holes. His claim was that when the theory of gravitation is replaced by his theory, he would term it as ‘Modi Wave’!

The other gentleman who was no less atrocious was Andhra University Vice-Chancellor G Nageswara Rao. A bio technologist, Rao claimed that hundred Kauravas were born due to stem cell and test-tube technologies. Rao also claimed that Dashavatar which talks about ten avatars of Lord Vishnu in the Bhagvat Gita is a more developed theory of evolution than the one proposed by 17th century English scientist Charles Darwin. During his presentation, Rao said while Darwin’s theories spoke about the evolution of life from a marine animal to a man, Dashavatar went a step further by showing a transformation from ‘Ram’ to ‘a politically-nuanced Krishna’.

In the face of stinging criticism from the academia and the scientific community, the general president of the science congress session, Manoj Chakraborty, admitted that the panel to finalise the papers were not aware of the content of these papers. The mystery perhaps lies elsewhere. Krishnan is known to be a close adviser of the science and technology minister who himself faced a lot of flak for some of his thoroughly obnoxious ideas that had been instrumental in having these pseudo-scientists to adorn the exalted precincts of the science congress. To sum up, pseudo-science is no longer limited to RSS-related bodies and individuals but receiving generous official patronage.

SANE ADVICE

There has been no dearth of sane advice. Venkatesh Ramakrishnan, a British structural biologist, based in Briton and currently the president of the Royale Science Society, a 2009 Nobel laureate in Chemistry who has several times expressed his frustration over the archaic and bureaucratic management of Indian science and more importantly, a strident critic of the current direction of promoting pseudo-science and obscurantism, has been categorically suggesting the nurturing of indigenous scientific talent.

Another Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has ventured into a broader context. He has recently pointed out the comparison of paradigms in India and China. He has observed that China’s emphasis on developing human capabilities as a course for the country’s overall development needs to be noted.

FUNDING, AUTONOMY AND MYTHICAL PSEUDO-SCIENCE

India’s science budget was hovering around 0.8 percent of the GDP for a decade. The expectations that it will improve were belied under the Modi government. Indian science suffered because of the sharp budget cut in 2014. Notwithstanding marginal increase thereafter, the adverse effect could not be offset. The money for research gets disbursed through central agencies such as the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and ICMR. Apart from this, the University Grants Commission also disburses some fellowships. But the situation is horrendous. The CSIR, starved of funds in fact, had to go for a financial emergency and aggressively pursued research funding to be organised from other sources. The DST’s flagship programme ‘innovation in science pursued for inspired research’ to attract young talents to science to support students of IISER till 2015 have been halved.

Young scientists took to the streets to protest growing underfunding and spread of superstitious beliefs first in August 2017. They organised a ‘March for Science’ amidst an atmosphere of terror from the authorities.

Indian scientists joined the second global ‘march for science’ on April 14, 2018. The second march was far bigger demanding 3 percent of GDP for S&T research and hiking allocation for education to 6 per cent. A statement from the Breakthrough Science Society which coordinated Indian marches in 2017 and 2018 stated “because there is an apprehension that science and scientific temper are being undermined, governmental support for education and for scientific research are being reduced, and governments are taking decisions without caring about scientific evidence of the scientific community.” This new section of ‘inspirational Indians’ came out in strength with 2,000 signatures to the government and 14,000 participants.

The last economic survey had pointed out “in 2015 there was a sizable decline in R&D spending even as GDP per capita continued to rise. At its current rate, India would just barely reach GERD (Gross Domestic Expenditure of Research and Development) of 1% of GDP by the time it was as rich as the US”.

In 2017-18, the CAG found that Rs 83,497 crore was collected as secondary and higher education cess which has not been utilised. In the budget, the government had transferred a mere Rs 7,690 crore for Madhyamik and Uchhatara Shiksha course which is less than 10 percent of the total cess. Creating a new Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) to mobilise funds from the capital market, the government has actually starved the RUSA with the result that if one removes the capital investment under HEFA (Rs 2,750 crore from Rs 250 crore earlier), the government has effectively decreased the budget for higher education from Rs 34,612.46 crore to Rs 32,252.9 crore.

ONSLAUGHT CONTINUES

With such sharp reductions, non-NET fellowship introduced by the UGC in 2006 to financially help students who do not avail any other fellowships like UGC and CSIR, JRF/SRF has also not been updated in keeping with the requirements. What is happening is actually a conscious attempt to destroy public-funded universities and shift towards private education space.

Therefore, increase in non-NET fellowships, price-indexed hike in JRF and parity in amounts towards awarding scholarships across higher education institutes have been reverberating across campuses of higher education. In December, unprecedented disquiet and activism have taken place in premier institutions that do not even have traditions of organised student movement.

THE FUTURE IS CUT OUT

This onslaught is breaking the backbone of the country. Modern and young people-driven demography is the backbone of the country. This has to be preserved. Given the abysmal record of the Modi government, the change of the government has become an imperative. This should be the pre-requisite for a protracted battle for reversing these atrocious policies.