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Mortuaries of Science

October 21, 2003 12:13 IST

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) examines the fallout of China's space achievement on Indian science and technology.

Part I: Chinaman in space: Wake up call for India

At the very basic level, Indian civilisational ethos is anti-technology. The Sanskrit saying Yato Dharma, Tato Jaya (If we are righteous, then victory will be ours) best sums up the Indian thought process. This basic notion needs to be revised to say Yato Dharma Evam Tantradynan, Tato Jaya (recipe for victory is righteousness supported by technological prowess).

The other basic issue that needs to be tackled is that of meritocracy. Today under the slogan of social justice, merit has become a dirty word; quotas and reservations are the order of the day. There can be no dispute about the issue of equality of opportunity, but the very concept of reservation is against it for it denies opportunity to the meritorious and favours some on the basis of their birth. A sort of Brahmanism turned upside down. 

If reservations are really needed then they must be implemented at the school level; at the most till graduation. Beyond that when reservations are perpetuated at all levels -- including even for teaching jobs -- it not only does violence to the concept of equality of opportunity but also does grave injustice to the inborn abilities of communities that are today given the crutches of reservations or quotas.

I wish to ask all those supporting indiscriminate reservations a question: Would they get operated by a 'reservation' doctor on their heart or brain or for that matter fly in an aircraft piloted by a 'reservation' pilot! This hypocrisy of the political elite and dumb masses has cost the country dear. Nearly all the post-Independence Nobel Prize winners have been Indians who have emigrated, be it Hargobind Khurana, S Chandrashekhar or even Amartya Sen.

It was often said about Communist East Germany that people voted against it with their feet by fleeing to the West. By that same token talented Indians have also voted with their feet against the prevalent Indian bias against merit. Reservations are often justified on the grounds of difficulties in giving equality of opportunity. But this is akin to running away even before a battle is joined. What began as a measure to usher social justice has now come to be a sort of proportional representation. As a long-term measure, if India is to progress then we have to stop taking this short cut to ushering in social justice, a shortcut that also leads to political power and national ruination.

Reservations have become such an emotion-charged issue in India that an easy and early solution is obviously not in sight. While the reform of the social system proceeds after due debate several interim measures can be implemented to prepare us for running the technology race.

Thomas S Kuhn, the American philosopher of science in his work on scientific revolution, emphasises decentralised structures. In India we copied the Soviet model and created vast scientific bureaucracies with hierarchical institutions. It is time research activity is diffused and decentralised to universities and other learning institutes. Only at the level of operationalizing and production process is centralisation needed.

Most scientists get just one big idea in their career. Innovators like Thomas Alva Edison are exceptions. When we recruit people for permanent jobs we are in effect carrying on the burden of unproductive individuals for decades. Not just that the individual is unproductive, s/he also blocks the way for new talent, blocks new ideas. Little wonder the permanent staff at our research establishments has turned national and defence laboratories into mortuaries of science.

Research organisations need to be built around project-based contract employees with a bare skeleton permanent staff. Generous funding, constant movement between teaching and research and tax breaks can cater to the financial security of scientists. There is no substitute to enforcing accountability.

Finally, a word on rewards for work. In India we have made it a habit creating icons out of science managers rather than genuine scientists. Awards and rewards given under the general term of 'contribution to progress' -- a most unscientific and vague term -- are a norm. Thus, one finds the science mafia perpetuating itself under the guise of 'eminent scientists.' We must have a clear-cut criterion of quantifiable and identifiable achievement before any award is given.

An energetic national debate is needed to rescue Indian science from the depths of mediocrity. In that lies the hope for a future. The Chinese feat in space ought to serve as a wake-up call just like the 1962 Chinese invasion did 41 years ago.

Image: Uday Kuckian

Colonel Anil Athale (retd)