Indian science must stop merely aping West

Cynicism is perhaps the natural fallout of a long career within the government machinery. But when Yash Pal, one of the country's leading scientists, accuses Indian science of lacking a definition of its own and emphasises the need for a cultural revolution to remove deadwood, he is treading on sensitive ground. As chairperson of the Bharatiya Gyan Vigyan Jatha -- a movement aimed at encouraging scientific understanding -- Yash Pal challenges the popular perception that Indian progress is creditable in high-technology as opposed to poor performance in indigenous technology. While talking to Down To Earth, the scientist who says he is a conformist but has Maoist leanings, is apprehensive that India has failed in both.

Published: Saturday 15 May 1993

What has gone wrong with Indian science? Does it lack a personality of its own or does it lack confidence in its personality?
You ask what is wrong with Indian science. May I ask what is wrong with Indian society, our management, our priorities and what have you? Why just science?

Yes, it may sound harsh, but Indian science lacks confidence in its personality. Partly because it has been dependent on a borrowed technology, on things that have had a track record abroad and partly because the scientific community has ignored our own capabilities. In the process, we have forfeited the right to use our own models of growth. The fancy for procuring blueprints has eaten into the core of our scientific community, particularly our industry, to the extent that we are even shy of designing techniques and technologies that suit our society.

Despite government assurances that rural development would not be neglected in pursuing growth in high-tech areas, how do you account for disproportionate development in areas such as space research vis-a-vis those dubbed low-tech but able to ensure rural development?
The problem isn't that of a mismatch between a fantastic growth in high-tech areas of research vis-a-vis poor rate of growth in indigenous technology. Our progress, in no uncertain terms, has been fantastic in any area of scientific research. It's totally related to the kind of borrowed image that we have tried to build for ourselves.

Assuming you are right, aren't there other intelligent people around equally aware of this copycat syndrome? Is this trend likely to continue?
I am sure there are those who feel concerned, but with all this hue and cry about globalisation, the trend will only persist and intensify. The question is how long will we continue to let the West dictate our priorities? It's not just our scientists but our politicians and our planners who are equally guilty of accepting finished blueprints of solutions, instead of suggestions. There is a feeling of discomfort in certain quarters that occasionally lapses into an anti-Nehruvian diatribe, a campaign against high-technology.

Are you, therefore, suggesting that we haven't done enough in either area of technology?
Precisely. We should have tried to arrest some of our most pertinent problems, such as poverty and population growth, with high-technology. We haven't done enough of that. Yes, we can produce nuclear energy, we can send rockets into space, we can do remote sensing, we can make missiles and tanks. Isn't all this high technology? Yes and no. This is just trying to do or make what others are doing, rather than taking the unit elements of these techniques and turning it around to other aspects of our needs. When I talk of high-science and high-technology I am referring to the utilisation of high-technology for a definite social purpose and not as an end in itself.

The problem is that our scientists have decoupled themselves from our society and coupled instead in a way that they are effective when they work abroad. Our IIT engineers do well for themselves in USA. IIT engineers are not terrible engineers per se, but from day one their dreams are tied to a Westernised, technological, industrialised superstructure.

Small wonder our society has a mere 20 per cent coupled with the world at large and a vast majority outside the purview of international efforts. All our major efforts, therefore, take place in the framework of international well-being. Local and regional considerations are of little consequence.

Are you suggesting that globalisation will only suppress our concerns for the rural sector? How comfortable are you with the concept of a globalised village?
With globalisation, the process of decoupling will be accelerated for sure, but I am not against liberalisation per se. I like liberalisation to the extent that it makes the world a better place to live in. But our educational set-up is such that our dreams are defined in terms of this 20 per cent talking to the world. We somehow feel that if only we were more clever, more relevant to the priorities of the West, we could have done better. To gain from the benefits of a globalised village, you also need a major upsurge, a cultural revolution with its basis in science and technology, where we start recognising our roles in terms of our needs and define the basis of a good life. More than anything we need a period of very intense coupling with society.

What exactly do you mean? Is such coupling possible at this stage of human civilisation? It sounds very promising, but isn't it too philosophical?
When I talk of coupling, I mean one has to get away from a certified expertise and mingle and try to do things that need to be done. I am talking about an object-related involvement with society rather than an expertise-related one. Our objective would be redefined once we mingle with society. What can bring about such a change is mass-action for national regeneration. I am hoping the Bharatiya Gyan Vigyan Jatha will be a mobilising factor for a mass action programme. Let's go to 50,000 villages with all the expertise we have, see for ourselves areas where we are lacking, and set for ourselves time-bound targets. It's not a question of giving emphasis to low-technology or high-technology. Perhaps we need technology of the highest order. The point is what management do we need, what configuration, what software?

And let me remind you, there is nothing philosophical about this. Without such considerations, a developing nation like India will get further marginalised under the impact of liberalisation. It's not that you can't work in a sophisticated laboratory, or that you need to ride a bullock cart to appreciate rural problems. In the era of liberalisation, we require astute persons with a mission-oriented approach. I firmly believe all this can be done even at this stage of human civilisation.

So, are you entirely against the kind of research that goes on in our laboratories? Isn't this surprising because though you subscribe to such a view, you were a beneficiary of those very same research laboratories that you contend produce decoupled scientists?
Thirty years ago, when scientists were given specified goals that were insulated from social considerations, they did very well. This is why we have done reasonably well in space technology, atomic energy and telecommunications. But in the process, we haven't allowed science and technology to grow in our schools and colleges the way they should have. I have grown up in the Indian laboratory system and I believe it needs a critical look. I firmly believe all our science and technology should be shifted from laboratories to universities and colleges.

With a system of education that is entirely pedagogic can this be useful? You have been chairperson of the University Grants Commission (UGC). Following UGC's decision to slash funds, don't you think such a move towards pedagogy would be too far-fetched?
In a regenerated university or college, you would have a locale in which the best of science is being done and which has a social scientist and an historian on hand. Some kind of fruitful interface is established and this in turn gives meaning and a sense of direction to research. Schools and colleges are always coupled with society. And there is a constant movement of people, especially of youngsters from all sections of society. The trouble is there is a tendency to convert even the good departments into laboratories. We hardly fund scientific research in our colleges and universities, particularly the medical colleges.

Earlier, you talked of a cultural revolution. Is Mao at the back of your mind?
Mao's cultural revolution was directed from the top. It went wrong and I am not quite talking of that, but, in a way, the kind of thing Mao wanted. I think Mao rightly realised that people were being fossilised. In China I have met people who did something because they were forced to do it. Notwithstanding the consequences, we do need to have a cultural revolution but without the horrors of a Maoist one. No amount of direction is effective, unless people play a participatory role.

You have held top-of-the-line government positions in India, and today, after retirement, you talk of radical changes and cultural revolutions. Had you not been pro-establishment then, could you be a radical today?
I am not anti-establishment. I was pro-establishment then and I am pro-establishment now. While the mediocre aims at exactitude, the intelligent person works with andaz (style). The Bharatiya Gyan Vigyan Jatha is supposed to usher in or at least pave the way for a cultural change. It was never a programme aimed at upsetting the basic pattern of development within the country. Being outside a system always helps in making one's own plans for progress. And that's precisely what I am doing now.

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