Everything else being equal

By Amit Mitra
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015 | 03:16:47 AM

EQUITY IS GOOD SCIENCE by C V Seshadri Publisher: Shri AMM Murugappa Chettiar Research Centre, Madras Price: Rs 150

-- The title would cause non-scientists to groan, "Not another harangue on equity..." Scientists might dismiss it as a bit of hackery -- how could anyone be preposterous enough to say that equity is good science?

But C V Seshadri is no hack writer or blinded boffin. Despite his Carnegie Mellon and Massachusetts Institute of Technology background, he is an active figure in India's alternative science movement and his contributions to rural development as the Director of Madras' AMM Murugappa Research Centre have got him laurels like the Jamnalal Bajaj Award for Science and Technology.

Is his then a late revelation about the inegalitarianism of science and technology? Perhaps yes. What he attempts, with all the cold precision of a "scientist", is examine some of the so-called truths of science and technology. Is science and technology a universally applicable body of truth or of exploitative knowledge? Can resources be shared equitably with the use of science or are its very foundations questionable?

This collection of 3 essays derive from the perspective of a concerned, if sometimes confused, developmentalist. But this doesn't stop him from destroying some of the very foundations of science.

He, of course calls the developmentalist paradigms Western and contrived, paradigms which have led to colossal human and environmental destruction. Take energy, for instance, which is crucial in India where 50 per cent of it is used for domestic purposes. Bulk for bulk, coal has thrice the energy as paddy, but coal can't be eaten nor paddy burnt. Yet the common measure for energy is identical for both.

Would scientists be able to answer how a cultivator chooses the crop for a reasonably fertile plot of land? HE might grow cash crops and rely on imports for food, and is dependent on the government for his food, fodder and fuel. But the cash returns are maximised.

Or he grows cereals. The food for the distribution system and the hope that the state will compensate for this personal communitarism is maximised. Or, finally, the state strictly stipulates a mix of food, fuel and fodder crops to be grown.

Which is the best choice? In the landowner's perspective, the first is the most attractive, the second maximises the supply of human metabolic energy, and the third, from the systems viewpoint, could maximise total energy. But the 3 scenarios require money to be compared against food against total energy.

Seshadri proposes a way of assessing energy quality that enables distinguishing between various energy sources, through a concept he calls "shakthi", which is a general function of mass, energy and information content, that has the dimensions of energy and is evolutionary.

As such, shakthi represents the science counterpart of the integrated supply function to handle the tradeoffs between food, energy, fodder and other materials that economists talk about. It seeks to replace many parameters with one, a parameter that incorporates the holistic cultural values of a society and enables comparisons of the utility of various sources of mass-energy. They lead Seshadri to examine the notion of time, and whether its behaviour leads to entropy or its reverse.

Perceptions have shifted over the last century, when the assumption that time was linear led to the notion that entropy should be based on time; today, time's behaviour is explained by its very existence. Seshadri argues that this reversal of cause and effect leads to labelling the logic of Indian villagers muddled. This logic is not fallacious -- the linear concept of time itself is untenable.

If these 2 essays are lucidly brilliant, the third leaves the lay reader wondering what its argument is. The very end reveals Seshadri questioning whether gender inequality is a historical accident or a cultural implant peculiar to some peoples.

This naturally leads to an excavation of epistemology and power, and Seshadri postulates that gender inequality is a powerseeking cultural invention.

But did Seshadri, caught between his "deconstructions and reconstructions", really have to use such complicated language? Lay readers and science pundits belong to 2 separate "hyperkingdoms" which he seeks to unify, but his efforts get marred when the language is so jargonised.

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