August 21, 2022

Science and Development after 75 Years of the Indian Republic

Prabir Purkayastha

A SCIENTIFIC vision—not in the narrow sense of natural sciences—but a larger vision encompassing the social and the natural sciences was very much a part of the national movement. India's struggle for independence was not simply to free itself from British rule. It was also to build a nation that would deliver development to its people. Independence would be bitter indeed if it did not lift people out of the abject poverty into which two centuries of colonial rule had sunk them. For this to happen, different sections of the independence movement – from the left leaders to Nehru, Ambedkar and Bose – were united. We needed advances in science and technology to develop the country's productive forces. 

The independence movement leaders knew that science could not be borrowed or bought. They knew that without the development of science and technology capabilities in the country, neither industry nor agriculture could develop. Our freedom fighters also understood that the development of a newly independent nation required the adoption of a scientific outlook on both nature and society. This would help people shed the shackles of superstition – beliefs that looked back rather than ahead. Looking back to a mythical golden age – when India had mastered flight through the Pushpak Rath, developed nuclear weapons with the Brahmastra, or pioneered genetic engineering – is an impediment to creating a new India. 

Scientific temper, or a scientific outlook towards nature and society, is how we develop productive knowledge for a new future. Accepting our past instead of falsifying it would also allow us to understand our real achievements in the past, whether in mathematics, astronomy, medicine or metallurgy. Not the mythical ones from Dinanath Batra's school of false history.


The leaders of the national movement took on two complementary tasks: planning an India for all its people and planning a State that would develop all its resources, including its human resources. The Planning Commission, and its precursor, the Congress Planning Committee, embodied this vision of India's development. Bose, as the Congress President, set up the Planning Committee in 1938, which he asked Nehru to head. Both drew inspiration from the Soviet experiments with planned development after the 1917 October Revolution.

After independence, the Planning Commission carried forward the vision of the Planning Committee to overcome the double burden of poverty and inequality left by the British. The leaders of the national movement viewed planning and building a public sector as a necessity, not just for the industrial and agricultural regeneration of India but also to re-distribute the benefits of development to all sections of its people. They wanted to develop the nation's productive forces based on scientific knowledge and looked upon education in developing its people's scientific capability as the biggest resource for a nation. 

Developing scientific and technological capabilities, therefore, was a priority for the Indian state. It built the Central Scientific and Industrial Research laboratories, the five Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Statistical Institute and a host of scientific institutions. The University Grants Commission was greatly expanded to cover all universities in the First Five Year Plan. The Bombay Plan was formulated by the Indian capital by a group of industrialists and technocrats, including J R D Tata and G D Birla shared the view of the Congress leadership that India's development needed infrastructure, and only the Indian State had the capacity to develop infrastructure on the scale required. This is what was embodied in the successive Five-Year plans. 

Development is not just the development of factories and machines but also of the knowledge that is embedded in the machines. To develop technology, independent India set for itself the goal of self-reliance, or 'Made in India'. The goal of self-reliance in technology was backed by a set of policies that insisted, in any foreign partnership, on the transfer of all technology to the Indian entity. In this policy of self-reliance, transferring knowledge was as important as importing plants and machinery. The universities and other scientific institutions were central in India's plan for indigenous science and technology development.

The colonial powers might transfer political power to newly independent countries but did not want to share technology or scientific knowledge. They believed that countries like India—a part of the periphery—should confine themselves to agriculture and raw material production, leaving industrial goods to be produced only in the "metropolitan" centre. The transfer of technologies for steel manufacture, steam turbines, boilers and pharmaceuticals, oil exploration, etc., was denied by Western nations/manufacturers as a part of this policy. It was only when India successfully negotiated with the Soviet Union and other East European countries for technology and manufacturing plants that Western companies reluctantly agreed to participate in India's industrial development. 

The Indian electricity sector, its oil and natural gas industry, steel and coal industry, Atomic Energy and Space all came out of this vision. India's success in pharmaceuticals, in which it has become the world's largest supplier of generic drugs, is again the result of CSIR laboratories and changes to the Patents Act. Ambani and even Mittals (Lakshmi Mittal's international steel empire) owe their origin to ONGC, Indian Oil, and Steel Authority of India Ltd. 

India could also have become a major player in supplying the world market with power plants. But unfortunately, India opening its market – both to western and Chinese players -- under the Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh government – meant aborting such a policy. BHEL, its leading power plant supplier, has become a far weaker international player than leading Chinese and South Korean companies. 

Aligning with imperialist capitalist powers and not supporting national liberation movements was also the post-independence foreign policy view of the RSS. The RSS viewed non-alignment and planning as two sides of the same evil, socialist coin. Instead, they argued for a 'holy' alliance of Christians – read ex-colonial powers and the US – Jews (read Zionist Israel) and Hindus on one side, against unholy communists and Muslims. 


In stark contrast to what we had built after independence, the Modi government has wound up the Planning Commission replacing it with a NitiAyog that has no powers and only an advisory role. More and more, it has handed over higher education to private and even foreign universities and appointed people who have no understanding of science or technology to run advanced institutions. It has handed over major public sector enterprises to private hands or invited foreign capital in without any need to transfer technology. 

The difference between AtmaNirbhar Bharat and self-reliance lies in their views on the economy. For the Modi government, all that matters is that production takes place in India. Self-reliance meant not only that the final production takes place locally, but both the knowledge and the equipment required for production are also indigenised. The Modi government does not recognise that people and knowledge are key in technology development today. 

Today, among the top six companies in the world market capitalisation, five are digital monopolies. Take Apple Inc., the biggest company in the world in terms of market cap. Yet, it does not own a single factory. How does it do this? It owns the designs, software and brand of Apple. Apple gets about $300 for each iPhone it sells, while Foxconn, the company that manufactures the phone gets only about $7. This is the nature of the knowledge economy. It is not where you produce but what knowledge you have that determines winners and losers today in the global economy. Inviting Foxconn to set shop in India adds much less to the Indian economy. Developing its people is the key to the future development of a country. That is why any nationalism that defines itself through land and not its people belong to the past.

Not surprisingly, in spite of Modi's hype of Make in India, India's year-on-year GDP growth has been slowing down significantly. Even with the end of the second wave of Covid-19, India's estimated GDP in 2022 is only 1.5 per cent above the 2019 figure, making a mockery of its claims of soon becoming a five-trillion dollar economy.


For the BJP-RSS, having the 'right' ideology is much more important than the development of knowledge. It might appear that the BJP's contempt for knowledge is dangerous only to the social sciences. The way the BJP has destroyed the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) may be the most visible instance of its destructive approach. But the BJP government and its plants in the universities have not limited their attacks to just the social sciences. Or to JNU. Their attack is on knowledge itself. In institution after institution, people with no vision and little learning have been given powerful positions. The belief seems to be that knowledge is secondary; what matters is that universities indoctrinate their students with the BJP-RSS ideology. 

In contrast to the decades following independence, we are now witnessing a continuous assault on institutions of education and research and on reason and science; myths and madness masquerade as science and history – flying chariots and interplanetary travel, genetics in the Mahabharata; evolution as false or, if true, superseded by the 'much superior' theory of dasaavatar as described by Andhra University Vice-Chancellor G Nageshwar Rao in Indian Science Congress (2019). For them, the objective is a 'nationalist' India based on religious identity. That is why they need to demolish reason and history. It wants a majoritarian India, in which minorities would have very few rights; an India where reason has to be surrendered to myths old and new; where wealth and caste mean merit. 

The RSS was bitterly opposed to planned development and the public sector and regarded them as unholy 'socialism'. They wanted India to be completely left to market forces, along with an unfettered entry for global capital. The only role the state should play is to help Indian capital negotiate with foreign capital; in other words, the crony capitalism we see in action today. It is an invitation to global capital to exploit India's cheap labour, along with various tax breaks and subsidies, including virtually free land. That is why Modi has replaced the Planning Commission with a toothless think tank called the NitiAyog. It is why he is dismantling the public sector, selling it to friendly capitalists, and inviting foreign capital under the slogan of Make in India. It is a journey of betrayal – from self-reliance to just Reliance!

In Hindutva's exclusionary view of nationalism, it is the land that is the nation; it is the land that is pure: Savarkar's Punya-bhumiand pitra-bhumi. That is why Modi – quoting Deendayal Upadhyaya on his birth centenary (September 2016) said that Muslims have to be 'purified'(parishkar)to be fully Indian. So presumably global capital becomes fully Indian just by coming to India!

The current attack against minorities and certain castes and communities is not an aberration. It is fundamental to how the RSS, the BJP and their various front organisations think. These attacks today are on the fundamental values enshrined in our Constitution, including economic democracy. The attacks are taking place when India has again become as unequal as it was under the British. Or as the French economist Piketty called it: from British Raj to Billionaire Raj; where 40 new billionaires were added during the pandemic, while the income of 84 per cent of households fell. Where India now has two billionaires, Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani, among the top ten richest men in the world, while also seeing the largest increase in global poverty anywhere in the world in the same period.