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getting the de facto leader of the country to address a congress of scientists is a good way to familiarise the latter with political priorities. But Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's speech at the 90th Indian Science Congress was a disappointment, even by his high poetic standards.
It had two thrust areas. The first was to make s&t play a key role in taking the gdp growth rate to 8 per cent (and improve the rural economy, clearly a politically correct afterthought). The pm's speechwriters badly mixed up 'science' (a system of knowledge) with 'technology' (applying that system). Vajpayee presented a new National Science Policy. Its centrepiece is a stress on using modern tools to develop traditional knowledge and make it competitive in the era of globalisation.
Noble words indeed, tailored for the audience of India's technology capital. For, why has the government shelved the national programme on improved chulhas (it has no place in the 10th Plan; see: Up in smoke)? Why has India registered a drop of an estimated 20 per cent in the number of research papers published during the past two decades? Why has the country slipped from the eight to the fifteenth rank in terms of knowledge/publication output in scientific journals from 1973 to 2000? These questions should have been raised.
Instead, the pm issued a clarion call to non-resident Indians to return (the second thrust area), clearly meant to tie up neatly with the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas. He blustered about brain drain and the fact that a career in science is very unattractive in India. An nri expert on laser technology, invited recently by a public sector company for consultancy, explained why it doesn't make sense for him to come back: "They would make me a science officer in a company." In short, a part of the furniture, installed to prop a lost cause. The need of the day is to encourage scientific aptitude across the board and mould technology to rural needs. This does not require an annual award of Rs 25 lakh for an (non-existing) outstanding scientist.
Then came the paper presented by ex-scientist A P J Abdul Kalam, the de jure leader of the country: a completely hyperbolic homily on the role of space science in removing poverty, illiteracy and unemployment and bringing about a "prosperous, happy and secure planet earth". The pm, too, said scientists should "aim higher and achieve big things". India's scientific priorities should be smaller. Its more valuable innovations should be survival-driven. Improving the life of the Last Indian should be its real purpose.