Published: Thursday 31 January 2002

Ailing science

Apropos your article 'Sans science' (Down To Earth, Vol 10, No 11, October 31, 2001) Comptroller and Auditor General (cag) report has just endorsed what has been evident for years. The Indian research today is characterized by imitation rather than innovation. Primarily, it is the reverse engineering that is mostly undertaken by the Indian scientists in order to bolster their personal portfolio of published papers (that too in obscure research journals of the country) for the sake of career. But the research fraternity is not the only culprit. Research can be fostered only if its practical benefits in terms of patents are awarded. The benchmark for the quality is exemplified in the number of patents that are filed by the scientific fraternity of any country. A small case would prove the point. While China files more than 2000 patents every year, the Indian effort is pegged at a mere 10-15, Moreover, the former has more than 500 institutes that teach about patent filing and patent protection. On the other hand, India does not have a single institute of this kind. This is one aspect that has to be looked into seriously by cag . The other is concerning the grants. The lavish grants that were bestowed by the government till the opening of the economy instilled a complacent attitude amongst the scientists and they rarely tried to approach other agencies for grants. As a result, even the mediocre projects were getting approvals. On the other side is the time gap between sanction and release of the grants by the concerned research institutions, be it the university or the allied research institutions. A research scholar has to spend a major part of his time running around for the release of these grants. In such a scenario what kind of a research can be expected?

It is disheartening to know the current state of Indian science. The cag report is an eye opener for both the government and the scientific insititutions. Someone has very aptly said that we in India don't need science but a scientific attitude. It is precisely the lack of this attitude which is marring the overall performance of Indian science insititutions. With the exception of a few scientists, most are today engaged in aquiring a profitable project for personal promotion. They are engaged in research without any care for the proper commercialisation of the technology developed. It is sad to note that the research laboratories are not able to meet the target number of projects set. On the other hand, many developed technologies are yet to be implemented. We have some of the top brains in the world and our labs are equipped with state-of-art equipments. Also there is a huge budget earmarked for research. Yet many scientists are going abroad and developed countries are making full use of this manpower. Even the number of students opting for science is declining considerably, which indicates a shortage of manpower in the near future. We know this, our government knows this. But still the bureaucratic system is eroding the scientific edifice. With the scientific community and government constantly blaming each other for this sorry state of affairs, one wonders who will take care of the ailing system?
Panipat, Haryana ...

Water vigilante

Your article 'The water guardians' (Down To Earth, Vol 10, No 11, October 31, 2001) on the movement to check the water pollution level through grassroot effort made an interesting read. Society of Pollution and Environmental Conservation Scientists (specs) has done a commendable job in collaboration with Amar Ujala by giving the common people an opportunity to analyse the water quality they are using. Although the kit is meant for testing only two important parameters, it may improve the quality of water to a great extent. It is a marvellous attempt on the part of these groups to empower citizens with the intiative to check water purity. With the support of the state government, this novel campaign will definitely become more successful. This attempt should serve as an inspiration for all of us. It is time people belonging to different places came forward and encouraged others in undertaking such ventures....

Flawed figures

Apropos 'Arsenic food' (Down To Earth, Vol 10, No 9, September 30, 2001), I have been misquoted in my response to United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (unido) summary report on arsenic groundwater contamination in West Bengal. According to your article, I support this report. I would like to clarify that though unido has touched most of the issues, it has totally underestimated the problem. For example, unido estimates that there are on an average 160,000 affected tube wells in the 68 affected blocks in West Bengal whereas our estimates put the figure close to one million. While unido suggests that on an average 200mg of arsenic enters the soil from the tube wells when water is pumped out of it for a continuous period of eight hours, studies from Public Health Engineering Directorate (phed), Government of West Bengal (Ref National Drinking Water Mission Submission Project on "Arsenic Pollution in Groundwater in West Bengal", Final Report, complied by Steering Committee, "Arsenic investigation project, phed, Government of West Bengal, June 1991, page 33) showed that as much as 30,000-80,000 mg comes out of each bore well after eight hours of pumping. Even the basic facts in the unido report are fudged. The report further suggests that arsenic concentration is more only where iron concentration is also high whereas we have found some tube wells with high arsenic, but low iron and many tube-wells with high iron but low arsenic concentration. British Geology Survey also found the same findings in their Bangladesh study. I would like to emphasize that the report has taken a 'childish' approach to the whole issue....

Climate catastrophe

The comprehensive report 'Deep impact -- shallow response' (Down To Earth, Vol 10, No 11, October 31, 2001) is very relevant in the context of a developing country like India. Since a large part of the population is concentrated around the fertile coastal tracts, there are serious ecological and economic implications associated with climate changes. These coastal lowlands are most vulnerable to storm surge, flash flood, salt water intrusion, loss of biodiversity as well as cultivable land. Coastal states of Orissa, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh are prime examples of the large-scale destruction and ecological degradation that has occurred in the last decade due to these changes. In the current century, India could pay heavily in terms of loss of land productivity which could be 5-20 per cent. With this catastrophic picture in mind, the policy makers should take necessary actions and encourage the scientists to come up with some solutions. This in turn will require an integrated approach and harmonic effort within the various government bodies on one hand and global cooperation and mass consciousness on the other.
Kolkata, West Bengal

Your statement:'Indian scientists say the government does not encourage research on the impacts of climate change' is most unfortunate. The journalists must understand that there is a vast difference between practical science and survival science and it is the latter which they are talking about. According to them, climate change is the change in climate introduced by man's actions. When we talk at national and regional level there is another part of climate change, the natural cyclic variations (traditionally this is termed as climate change) which is referred to. Up to around the 1980s, the scientists were working on the natural part of climate change, known as cyclic pattern as the contribution of man's involvement was negligible. The meteorological data in both southern hemisphere and nothern hemisphere presents systematic cyclic variations. The width of this cycle increased from 52 years to 66 years as we moved with increasing latitude. Several scientists from Indian meteorological department and Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology have systematically analysed the Indian rainfall data. The annual rainfall data at all-India level presents a 60-year cycle. The present 30-year above average rainfall pattern will continue up to around 2020. Prior to 1990 the 30-year below average pattern existed and there is high possibility that the part of increase in annual temperature by about 0.4 degree celcius may be associated with this low rainfall pattern. The scientists have reported that the temperature in the last years has not shown any increasing tendency. In urban areas the temperatures have gone up with the increase in vehicular traffic and associated growth of multistoryed buildings. When we take the average, it may contribute for higher average temperature at regional level. Unless all these factors are taken into account, the studies made from the hypothetical statements will serve academic interest alone without contributing to the application side.
Secunderabad, Andhra Pradesh

Your articles on the effects of climate change and health have made me realise how pollution is affecting our health and habitat. I just want the Centre for Science and Environment (cse) to know that Shillong, which at one time could boast of clean and healthy surrounds, is now threatened by pollution, health hazards and water shortage. Meghalaya is a beautiful state, but the people here are quite ignorant of the fact that its beauty can be destroyed by pollution. The streams and rivers in Shillong are in fact already very polluted. There's black water flowing, with garbage being dumped in the rivers. Some people don't even have proper sanitation. It is disgusting to see pipes from their toilets leading directly to the r.

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