Ignored treasures

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

the Rajya Sabha chairperson's orders, that the House be kept informed of all developments in the water-to-petrol discovery by a 'country bumpkin', is a welcome but a hugely delayed response. Ramar Pillai, the innovator, who has meagre formal education, has been running from pillar to post for the last few months, and the mandarins of the Indian science establishment have been keeping their doors cynically half-open till two months ago, when the first major report in the national media on this discovery broke in Down To Earth (Vol 5, No 6) . Today, Pillai has some recognition, because a sudden media blitz has made him a celebrity. But it is amazing that something that would ignite the imagination of even a curious school student failed to goad Indian science managers to action.

Ramar's ordeals at their hands has exposed what happens to informal discoveries in the corridors of the Indian science bureaucracy. Ramar pulled through because of a committed friend in the department of science and technology ( dst ) with contacts in the Prime Minister's Office ( pmo ). Our investigations have revealed that the pmo and the dst regularly receive letters from common people claiming that they have made some discovery or innovation. But invariably, these either gather dust or the pmo is told that there is no strength behind the claims. Take the instance of the young factory worker from Kanpur who claims to run a pump with water; or that of Jagdish Chander, a workshop-owner from Delhi who has made several innovations in agricultural equipment which deserve recognition. Or take the case of Sandip Jaidka, a caterer who has procured a us patent for an electronic anti-pollution device he has invented. But in none of these cases, even organisations meant exclusively for looking into research and development like the National Research Development Council ( nrdc) , paid any attention to them.

This is the ossification of the science establishment. Critics inside the system themselves say that scientists in the dst or nrdc are no longer practising ones, and feel safe to push only what seems conventionally possible. Defendants of the rot say that they have so little funds that they are afraid of doing anything for which they might be accused of adventurism. Besides, there is the cultural resistance to anything informal entering the established system. Part of the resistance can be explained as the formal sector's fears of being proved less brilliant than an informal innovator.

But whichever way we look at it, it is clear that the science establishment has become moribund. No wonder, then, that when the us patents products of our traditional knowledge, all we can do is gripe. And those who decry the so-called technological imperialism of the West must realise that someone somewhere, with pots of money and imagination, will some day simply buy us out of home and hearth.

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