17th All India Peoples Science Congress
THE normally bi-annual AIPSC, postponed by two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, was held in Bhopal on June 6-9, 2022. The delegate strength had also been reduced, as a measure of abundant caution with respect to the pandemic, from the usual 500-550 to around 350 delegates from all the 37 member organisations of the All India Peoples Science Network (AIPSN), apart from many observers and invited resource persons. Readers may remember that the AIPSN is a federation of like-minded independent state-level member organisations that came together in the late 1980s on a common agenda and understanding, with other organisations joining from time to time.
Given the current scenario in the country and the challenges faced by the scientific and academic community, civil society activists and social action practitioners, and the public at large, three overarching themes had been adopted for the Congress, namely self-reliance, scientific temper and the idea of India. These key themes were running threads through the technical sessions on the subjects of scientific temper, self-reliance, education, health, environment & climate change, agriculture, livelihoods, and gender & social justice. These subjects were addressed in two pairs of parallel sub-plenaries each day during two halves of the pre-lunch sessions on June 7 and 8, followed post-lunch by workshops on different topics under each subject. An inaugural session was held on June 6 afternoon, and a special session was held on the development of Madhya Pradesh & Chhattisgarh followed by the valedictory session of the Congress on June 9.
The inaugural and valedictory sessions were addressed by eminent scientists, intellectuals and activists addressing the key themes of the 17th AIPSC. In the inaugural, P Sainath, a well-known journalist and activist, highlighted the importance of the constitutional idea of India in the present context, and in particular highlighted the dangers of undermining social justice, the phenomenon of mass unemployment, and the dangers of political control over the media. Indumathi of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, spoke of the importance of the scientific approach, not just within science and classrooms, but also in society at large. Reputed litterateur, Rajesh Joshi from MP spoke of the diversity of India and its composite culture. Shailaja Teacher, former health minister of Kerala, who gained a worldwide appreciation for her scientific and caring approach to handling the pandemic, spoke of the importance of a democratic polity, participatory governance and public awareness for the decentralised public health system in Kerala which reaches every citizen of the state.
In the valedictory session, Professor Sonajharia Minz, Vice-Chancellor of the Sido Kanu Murmu University in Dumka, Jharkhand, emphasised the importance of a scientific approach to the understanding of social issues and appealed to scientists and other specialists to recognise the rational approach of the common people, notably in tribal areas, towards tackling subsistence, livelihoods and sustainable lifestyles. Faizan Mustafa, Vice-Chancellor, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, made an impassioned presentation of the foundation of the scientific temper in evidence-based reasoning and in the pluralism of thought as well as the freedom to express divergent views. This was the very reason, he argued, that the scientific temper was under attack.
He further argued that, even before the incorporation of scientific temper under the 42nd Amendment, these foundational principles formed cornerstones of the Constitution and the principles on which our Republic was founded. Professor Satyajit Rath of IISER, Pune, spoke of the importance of research and development, especially in the public sector for self-reliance. Ramanujam also of the Institute of Math Science, Chennai, emphasised the need to make higher education and research in India more relevant to the current context and to the needs of the people.
Speakers at the sub-plenary, particularly Indumathi, continued the discussion initiated in the inaugural session. She and Vivek Monteiro stressed the importance of inculcating the scientific attitude, not just scientific knowledge, through creative pedagogy in classrooms, while also encouraging a questioning and evidence-based approach in life including admission of ignorance. Speakers from the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education elaborated on scientific knowledge in ancient India of which people of the country could indeed be proud while disputing the fantastic claims made by Hindutva advocates based on mythology and fallacious suppositions. Gauhar Raza, formerly of CSIR, called for the promotion of scientific temper to be taken up as a political task in the present context. Kishore Chandra Wanghkhem, a journalist from Manipur who was wrongly jailed for publicly denying that cow urine and dung could cure Covid, demanded more action in defence of freedom of expression. Of the three workshops, one explored the utilisation of communication programmes centred on the universe for promoting scientific temper. Another exposed various pseudo-sciences, while the third focused on different techniques of science communication.
The sub-plenary and workshops saw several speakers emphasising the enormous damage being done to self-reliance in science and technology (S&T) under the neo-liberal paradigm in India, starting from the 1990s and being vigorously pursued by the current dispensation, in the overall context of imperialism. Dinesh Abrol and Satyaki Roy highlighted the massive resource drain from India due to the import-dependent path, agricultural exports, and domestic S&T work in IT, genome research etc., for foreign corporations. Raghunandan highlighted the danger of India losing out completely on the so-called 4th industrial revolution set to dominate the world economy over coming decades through technologies like artificial intelligence, the internet of things, autonomous vehicles on land and air, automation, renewable energies and related storage etc., due to lack of State support for R&D especially in the public sector and a lack of interest by the private sector content with foreign collaborations and subordinate status. With India having earlier missed opportunities in electronics, semi-conductors, and mass manufacture during the 1980s and ‘90s, India and its youth may well face a bleak future. Elangovan of the railways federation discussed the creeping privatisation of the railways and the government’s failure to upgrade it in the interests of the people, industry and energy efficiency.
Ashok Dhawale, president, All India Kisan Sabha, emphasised the critical importance of self-reliance for agriculture, with India being import-dependent on pulses and oilseeds, which should be part of the PDS system. He also called for unity in supporting the demands of Indian farmers with respect to unfair WTO rules.
Soma Marla presented an AIPSN booklet on 75 years of agriculture recounting the journey since independence and revealing the acute crisis in the sector, exacerbated by dwindling State support for R&D and extension services, further amplifying risks posed by climate change and impacts on local ecosystems. Other speakers focused on the challenges posed by WTO rules and the unwillingness of the government to intervene effectively, revealing the growing influence of corporates in the agricultural sector. Dinesh Abrol called for winding down India’s participation in the WTO in agriculture, especially with regard to domestic support, market access and export restrictions. The workshops saw reports of interesting field experiments and case studies on agroecology internships at Calcutta University, work with an FPO on natural jaggery, water conservation and innovative agricultural practices.
Raghunandan’s overview presentation highlighted the determined dilution or dismantling of environmental regulation by the present government in order to promote “ease of doing business,” pushing states into a “race to the bottom” in the competition for investment. He also discussed the huge impacts being caused by climate change, such as urban flooding and landslides, coastal erosion and sea-level rise threatening inundation of major coastal cities in coming years, and a drop in productivity and quality of major crops. The speaker exhorted the PSM(People’s Science Movement) to launch grassroots movements calling for action by the government. The problem of de-regulation, the many visible and hidden ways it is being done, and the substantial impacts it is having on different spheres of the environment and on people, were elaborated by Kanchi Kohli of the Centre for Policy Research. The next speaker presented the choices available in the Indian context to shift away from coal-based electricity generation to renewable energy (RE) sources while expanding per capita energy availability. Trade-offs and choices were discussed, such as grid stability given the variability in RE power generation, and energy storage options e.g. pumped storage and green hydrogen. A “just transition” from coal to RE power, especially as regards the workforce, is another factor to be addressed. O P Bhuraita’s detailed presentation showed how some recent disasters in the Himalayan region, although triggered by seemingly natural events such as heavy rainfall and landslides, were actually man-made due to bad planning, distorted models of development, harmful methods of construction of roads and other infrastructure including hydro-electric projects that are increasingly being opposed by people of the region, all exacerbated by human-induced climate change.
AIPSN has been deeply involved with education since its inception and has actively studied and campaigned strongly against the National Education Policy (NEP) including through national and state-level conventions involving other stakeholders. AIPSN has also published a book giving a detailed point-by-point critique of the NEP. At the AIPSC sub-plenary, several speakers discussed different aspects of NEP in detail Surojit Majumdar of JNU highlighted the politics behind the NEP, notably its push towards commercialisation and privatisation, and its centralising and socio-culturally homogenising thrust. Anita Rampal of Delhi University underlined the total withdrawal of the State even from school education by the closure of numerous schools, creating space for entry of private parties or “NGOs” pushing a saffronisation agenda, and enlarging the role of virtual or remote learning. Other speakers discussed how NEP has little space for the weaker sections or for social justice in general, with a built-in system for the elimination of poor and underprivileged students. NEP represents a total departure from earlier policies including the Right to Education Act which was moving towards a greater State role, protection of the interests of weaker sections, and strengthening of the quality of education. These aspects were discussed in greater detail in the workshops. Results of surveys conducted by AIPSN in several states and which have received wide press coverage were presented which showed, among other things, that an overwhelming majority of children had been totally deprived of education during the pandemic despite the much-vaunted online system pushed by the government. Case studies of the Community Learning Centres run by the movement showed that these CLCs were widely appreciated as providing a viable opportunity for offline education, peer learning and necessary socialisation.
AIPSN has been extremely active in different aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic, ranging from policies, government responses, use and misuse of science and technology, vaccination etc., and has brought out a booklet compiling 140 statements and position papers released by AIPSN. As may be imagined, the health sessions at the AIPSC focused largely on the pandemic and issues arising therefrom. At the sub-plenary, Satyajit Rath spoke on the challenges faced by India as regards self-reliance in health-related knowledge, information and research. He noted the weakness in data gathering by public institutions and how the lack of evidence-based decision-making by the government led to poor public health decisions to control the pandemic, and how the government’s resistance to scientific evidence and regulatory standards led to flawed decisions on vaccines with undesirable consequences for the reputation of Indian science and technology internationally. He called for major reforms in public health and research institutions, as well as decentralized capacity-building.
Samir Garg examined the situation in Chhattisgarh during the pandemic and highlighted how, despite all the weaknesses in this largely tribal state, the value and reputation of public health institutions had increased in public perception, and compared this with how private medical institutions in other states had compromised on equity and service delivery.
Indira Chakravarty discussed the financing of the health sector in broad terms and brought out how costs had been systematically passed on to the people. She emphasised the need for people’s movements to push for re-establishing health as a social good and an integral component of a welfare State. The workshops saw presentations on initiatives for the health of women, adolescents and children (by Richa Chintan, Delhi Science Forum), on the digital health mission (by Indranil, DSF) showing how peoples’ information and data are non-transparently used by government and private especially insurance agencies, on the lack of support systems for the ASHA programme (Arti, MP and Dahiya, Haryana) and the need to build their capacities, and on drug policy and pricing (V R Raman, DSF). Several activities conducted in states such as village-level studies in Tamil Nadu and health awareness programmes in Telangana were also presented.
GENDER AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
In the well-attended sub-plenary and workshop, speakers emphasised different aspects impinging on the rights and opportunities of women, minorities, dalits, tribals and other oppressed sections. Professor Minz underlined the low enrolment of all these sections in higher education, compounded by widespread poverty and stereotypical perceptions of their abilities. Maimoona Mollah of AIDWA spoke about religious obstacles to women’s participation in struggles, emphasising that social practices and religious rituals are the real obstacles rather than religious precepts themselves, and called for more joint AIDWA-AIPSN campaigns as in the past few years. Pramod Gauri from Haryana PSM spoke of how social justice is deeply embedded in various articles of the Constitution and is part of its core values. N Prabha of Karnataka discussed the ongoing violation of constitutional rights and called for AIPSN campaigns for greater gender equality and social justice. Prajval Shastri spoke in detail about the low participation of women in S&T research and higher education and called for more concerted action to rectify this imbalance.