'Sab kuch chalta hai!'

When 4,000 scientists gather for their annual session, there's more than serious academic review that takes place. RUSTAM VANIA records his impressions of the recently held 81st session of the Indian Science Congress.

Published: Tuesday 15 February 1994

-- WHOEVER said scientists were boring obviously hasn't attended the annual session of the Indian Science Congress Association. The 81st session, held in Jaipur recently, dispelled any doubts that when 4,000 scientists decide to congregate, they are far from dull, never mind that much of the fun took place outside conference halls and seminar rooms. Biochemists wolfed down samosas by the dozen at the "Food Village", psychologists tried to analyse the rare sight of a strapping Rajasthani whipping up delicious dosas in seconds and mathematicians scratched their heads as they calculated the cost of an organised city sight-seeing tour. If a sombre and serious mood prevailed in the rooms of Rajasthan University-- the venue of the important task of taking stock of the state of Indian science--. the atmosphere outside was marked by colour and gaiety, At one illustrated talk on the latest technologies, the projectors malfunctioned and had to be shaken before they worked.

EXCELLENT ACCOUNTABILITY: What initially seemed a sight of erudite concentration -- knitted eyebrows and pursed lips -- soon revealed a rather frustrated and disgruntled face of the scientific community. The organisers had stirred a slumbering giant when the chose the theme, "Science in India: Excellence and Accountability", which led to a lot of mud-slinging and finger-pointing among the delegates. As one peeved laboratory technician from Calcutta put it, "What excellence! What accountability! I am asked to submit annual reports of my work, for which I have not got any equipment sanctioned for the past 10 years!"

GATT ERA: Among the bitter delegates, there were those who did not complain. Some enterprising academics took to heart Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao's advice to "gear up for the post-GATT era" and went on an apparent marketing offensive, thrusting leaflets and flyers of their latest books and ideas at all and sundry.

NO DIRECTION: If new directions were what Indian scientists were looking for, then they had enough to choose from in the first two days itself. After a long trudge, botanists ended up at a meeting of computer scientists. A harassed archaeologist asked his way into a room full of mathematicians. But then, isn't this precisely the aim of such events: to attain an inter-disciplinary exchange of ideas?

GOOD EXCUSE: We Indians never expect efficiency or organisational skills from ourselves, and much less so from scientists. Presumably, some US-returned delegates used this as an excuse to leave Indian shores. As one such scientific export with a Californian accent said, "I think we should change our motto from Satyamev Jayate (truth shall prevail) to Sab kuch chalta hai (anything goes)."

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