New Delhi | Cheers, tears and fears are how one can summarise the first year in office of the Narendra Modi government with the promised ‘achche din’ (good days) still a distant dream for the scientific community. Mangalyaan brought cheers and the monsoon unfortunately could be playing truant for the second year in a row that could bring tears. However, a worrying factor is a certain fear among the scientific community instilled by the summary dismissals of top boffins like the head of defence research, Avinash Chander.
Raghavendra Gadagkar, president of the venerated Indian National Science Academy (INSA), New Delhi recently expressed his anguish saying Indian science suffers today more than ever from government apathy. In fact, the Modi government’s first full budget also failed to bring a smile on the faces of scientists as hikes were below expectations. Key legislations like the ones to set up a statutory regulatory mechanism for genetically modified organisms and make the nuclear energy regulator independent continue to languish.
India’s research and development establishment is also concerned that the high-pitched `Make in India’ campaign by Modi may actually back fire on the long standing ‘Made in India’ effort. Experts say unless India owns its own intellectual property and then manufactures in the country, it could well become a cheap sweatshop for multi nationals. ‘Make in India’ could become a sobriquet for ‘assembled in India’.
In a way the soft-spoken Cabinet minister for science Harsh Vardhan echoed that sentiment: ‘Make in India’ needs to be translated on the ground through collaborations between the private sector which owns more than 70 per cent of the manufacturing sector and the S&T laboratories, 85 per cent of which are in the government sector.
Despite these misgivings, there is no doubt that Modi himself is a man of science and a space buff to boot and comes across as someone who understands how innovation can be deployed for national development. Among the first six people Modi met as prime minister was CNR Rao, well-known chemist who was recently awarded Bharat Ratna. Surprisingly, since then Rao has been almost sidelined and the high profile ‘Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister’ he headed has not been reconstituted.
The Prime Minister showed up before dawn on September 24, 2014 in the control room of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in Bengaluru when the Mangalyaan was being steered into the Martian orbit. India made history by becoming the first nation in the world to reach the Red Planet in its maiden attempt, and at a cost less than the making of the Hollywood blockbuster movie `Gravity’. A feat not achieved even by space giants like Russia, USA.
The stacks were loaded heavily against India, and in his speech, Modi said he was advised not to go to the control room since the chances of failure were very high. In his inimitable style, he said if it fails it is my first responsibility to be amongst you. We have achieved the near impossible and (now) Mars has found its `MOM’! Incidentally, not known to many, as chief minister of Gujarat Modi visited the ISRO facilities in his home state dozens of times, using the satellites to monitor the development claims of his district staff.
Complacent civil servants need to be aware that the `big brother’ is now watching from the South Block as Modi is also the Minister for Space and helps steer the world’s largest constellation of civilian remote sensing satellites. Modi is truly a hands-on prime minister as within weeks of taking over he personally visited the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai on July 21, 2014 and along with his National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, he spent a whole afternoon being briefed on India’s nuclear capabilities.
He took a tour of the Indian made `Dhruva reactor’ which undoubtedly played a critical role in India becoming a nuclear weapons power. After his visit Modi said the success was especially creditable because it took place in the face of decades of international technology denial regime. By personally visiting India’s main nuclear weapons laboratory, it can be safely inferred that Modi did even better than former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who ordered the Pokharan nuclear tests as soon as he took power in New Delhi in 1998.
There was a growing feeling before the 2014 elections that the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) if it came to power it might renege on the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal as it had vehemently protested against it when it was in opposition. Nevertheless, when Modi met his friend Barack Obama in January 2015, he made a classic somersault terming it the centrepiece of strategic relations. Since then favourable atomic diplomacy has taken place in Canada, France and Australia.
On the space front there was more evidence of Indo-US bonhomie. Finance minister Arun Jaitley for the first time earmarked Rs 50 crore for the joint climate monitoring satellite to be made by NASA and ISRO called NISAR. It is a high-tech synthetic aperture radar imaging satellite to be launched around 2020 — an evidence of the great ‘Hanuman leap’ by the US, from trying to strangulate ISRO through sanctions to partnering it.
There is also evidence of some cross-talk in the Modi government. Science minister Harsh Vardhan continues to egg on the scientific community repeatedly asserting that India will launch its first astronaut in space by 2021. But Modi government is yet to approve the human space flight programme that would cost upwards of Rs 12,500 crore. Another key sector of defence research had its fair share of joys and sorrows, with the successful flights of the Agni-5 missile, Nirbahaya Missile and the induction of the Tejas being important milestones.
But the unprecedented termination of the contract of the highly-regarded missile scientist Avinash Chander as the head of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in the middle of his extended service, left a bad after taste. The termination could be correct in law, but the manner in which the announcement was handled left much to be desired. A ‘hurt’ Chander, who apparently came to know about the development from the media, said sacking is not the word one wants to hear after 41 years of service to the nation.
The summary and unprecedented rejection of the director selected for the prestigious Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, also raised eyebrows in the scientific community. Another issue is of vacancies in key posts. India’s best-known civilian research establishment the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has been without a full-time head for more than a year.
Its current stop-gap head M O Garg told Nature magazine that the national innovation system was being affected, because of these many vacancies. In fact, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) is also bereft of a full time leader. A certain leadership crisis has begun to set in, a section of scientific community feels. However, to its credit, the Modi government has made an effort to weed out the crony appointments system that pervaded the system operating through secretive handpicked ‘selection committees’.
Today more than ever posts are being advertised and a lot of that credit should flow possibly to Jitendra Singh who is minister in the Department of Personnel and Training and was for a short time the country’s science minister. Singh in his brief tenure also oversaw the big hike in monthly fellowships for Indian research students. On the eve of Diwali, he announced that the average monthly stipend would go up by about sixty per cent.
The biggest headache for the Modi government in the coming months could be the mercurial moods of the monsoon, which is predicted to be below normal’. Last year’s monsoon was a failure, resulting in a drought with a short fall of 12 per cent in rainfall and then the double whammy of unseasonal rains earlier this year led to an unforeseen agrarian crisis, so much so that the Modi government is being called anti-farmer by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and other opposition parties. A back-to-back failure of monsoon is rare but it could well jeopardise the promise of ‘achche din’. In such times, it is the scientific strength that helps overcome the odds.
Subscribe to our email newsletter.