Indian Perspectives

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India (along with China and Egypt) is home to one of the oldest and perhaps the most continuous cultural tradition on the earth. Although it occupies only 2.4 percent of the global land area, it is home to fifteen percent of the population, and by 2050 is projected to be the most populous country in the world. India spends approximately six billion dollars every year on science and technology; science and technology have been central to the country's development since its independence in 1947, while themselves being subject to distinctive assessments and adaptations.

Historical and Cultural Context

Knowledge enjoys sacred stature in Indian culture and civilization. Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, occupies a place of pride in the Hindu pantheon, while India's much-reviled caste system accorded the highest social status to Brahmins, whose profession was to create and disseminate knowledge. Ancient India's sometimes contested scientific contributions—including theories of gravity, the age of the universe, modern numerals, trigonometry, and the conception of zero—were often first described in religious scriptures. Utilitarian and empirical observations about agriculture and medicine that survived generations were often couched in idioms and expressions with religious connotations. Even during Mughal rule (1526–1707), respect for Indian mathematics was instrumental in its spread to places as far as Central Asia, Spain, and North Africa (Teresi 2002).

Respect for knowledge workers—scientists and doctors—turned to awe during British rule, when science as practiced in Europe took hold through the Geological, Botanical, and Trigonometric Surveys established through the efforts of the Asiatic Society (founded 1784). Although the first voices of dissent—notably of the philosopher Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy (1877–1947), poet and literature Nobel laureate Sir Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), and the father of India's freedom struggle, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948)—against this surrender to Western science were voiced as early as 1905, they had to wait till the 1970s and 1980s to gain traction through democratic people's movements.

When India became independent after two hundred years of British rule, Gandhi anointed Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964) the country's first prime minister. While Nehru was popular in his own right and received three overwhelming electoral mandates following his appointment in 1947, his elevation to the highest office—although a foregone conclusion—was a curious one.

It was curious because Nehru's and Gandhi's visions of independent India could not have been more different. Nehru's vision of India was that of a highly industrialized and progressive economy where dams, laboratories, industrial facilities, and mechanization would be revered as "temples of modern India" (Nehru 1958, p. 3). Gandhi's vision, conscious of India's predominantly rural base, focused on the rural village as the central element of development and opposed all products of science and technology that displaced human labor. Few, however, shared Gandhi's economic views in the Congress party, and a desire to undertake rapid (state-sponsored) industrialization was articulated as early as 1931 (Chandra, Mukherjee, and Mukherjee 1999).

To Nehru's credit, then, goes the rapid growth of India's industrial infrastructure, the creation of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the world's largest chain of publicly-funded research laboratories, the founding of the Indian Institutes of Technology, the country's nuclear and space research programs, and most importantly, the faith that "science alone … could solve … problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people" (Gopal 1972, p. 807).

Nehru's investment in science and technology produced the Green Revolution, which is arguably the first significant achievement of mainstream Indian science. India's Green Revolution refers to the enormous improvement in agricultural productivity the nation achieved starting mid-1960s. Thanks to Green Revolution's introduction of a high-yield variety of seeds, fertilizers, and scientific agricultural practices, India's production of food grains increased by thirty-five percent between 1967 and 1970. India, which imported 10.3 million tons of food grains in 1966, had food grain reserves of 128.8 million tons in 1984 and exported 4.8 million tons of food grains in 2001 (Chandra et al. 1999).

While its ecological legacy is sometimes disparaged, the Green Revolution vindicated Nehru's "temples of modern India" and established their legitimacy as effective instruments of development. These institutions have since notched several accomplishments, including super-computers in response to technology denial from the United States; the production, launch, and utilization of satellite technology; processes to produce raw materials for fuels and textile fibers; and a cheap but effective telecommunication network (Parthasarathi 2003).

Yet academics complain that scientific work accomplished entirely in India is yet to win a Nobel Prize, and the number of peer-reviewed papers decreased by almost twenty percent between 1980 and 2000, even as the number of universities and research institutions almost doubled and funding grew seventeen times (Balaram 2002). Further, corporate innovation and science-based entrepreneurship, notwithstanding several promising efforts, has been limited in scope and success (Turaga 2000). At the same time, China, South Korea, Brazil, and Israel have registered impressive growth, leaving critics to suggest that mainstream Indian science is of a mediocre quality.

Technocracy versus People's Science

Even so, the rapid advent of globalization has dulled dissent and absolute devotion to the technocrat was witnessed as late as 2002, when the renowned missile scientist A. P. J. Abdul Kalam (b. 1931) became independent India's eleventh president. Although elected indirectly, Kalam's nomination received a landslide vote, nationwide support, and near fanatical endorsement from India's educated middle class.

Kalam's disheveled long hair, soft-spoken demeanor, and spartan lifestyle (a bachelor, he lived in a one-bedroom government apartment until he became president) reinforced stereotypes of scholarship and suggested integrity uncommon to recent Indian public life. Kalam became a national icon and household name following India's May 1998 nuclear tests, of which he was the widely recognized scientific architect. What fired the imagination of the nation's educated, however, were Kalam's dreams of a developed India constructed through the apolitical pursuit of science and technology as an entirely objective and value-free activity (Kalam 2002).

In sharp contrast to Kalam is the articulate activist Sunita Narain, chairperson of the New Delhi-based radical environmental advocacy group Centre for Science and Environment. Narain has marshaled scientific research, data, and opinion to create immensely popular media campaigns for clean air, water, and food that have eventually influenced public policy. Narain commands enough influence for India Today, a leading Indian news-magazine, to list her as one of India's fifty most powerful and influential citizens in 2004. However, "development is not a road" for Narain, who is severely critical of India's scientific, political, and social establishment (Narain 2003).

The lopsided battle being fought at the crossroads of these conflicting definitions of development constitutes a central theme in the emerging interdisciplinary field of Science, Technology, and Society (STS) studies in India. The stronger side in this battle is the statist version of science promoted by the likes of Kalam, whose vision of development is sanitized, crystalline, and sees power plants, dams, roads, factories, and software firms as both instruments and milestones in the quest for India's development. The rapidly growing ranks of the country's educated middle class see in Kalam an unprecedented opportunity to achieve this vision.

Cast against this powerful technocracy is a motley crowd of academics, environmentalists, and social critics with diverse but strong intellectual views. These are people who agitate against dams because of their inhumane consequences on marginalized tribal groups, picket government offices to protest power plants in protected forests, and advocate indigenous, small-scale technologies to harvest water and energy. Not half as focused or strong resource-wise as the statist agenda, these constituents of civil society have covered ground using imaginative ideas, rich rhetoric, moral leadership, articulate spokespersons, and successful grassroots political action.

Critics also question why a developing country like India should invest in supercomputers, satellites, and atomic energy, especially when more Indians sleep hungry than elsewhere in the world, one in three is illiterate and subsists on less than a dollar a day, infant mortality is at sixty-eight per one thousand births, nearly half of all Indian children are malnourished, access to affordable drugs is heterogeneous and available to every other Indian in the best of communities, and only twenty-eight percent of India's population has access to improved sanitation (United Nations 2003, pp. 237–339). That the Indian discourse of ethics in science and technology should raise these questions indicates that Nehru's "temples of modern India" have not been successful enough.

According to critics, the Nehruvian model was never suited to address these problems in the first place and instead has aggravated them. The Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy, for example, estimates that the 3,600 dams India has built have "displaced maybe up to 56 million people" from their farms and livelihoods to the growing ranks of the urban poor (Roy 2001, p. 10). Things would have been different in Gandhi's village-based economy, they argue. Gandhi, however, was not alone critiquing the application of science and technology in the Indian context.

The Swadeshi Movement

The role and effects of modern science on Indian traditions, people, and society was intensively debated as early as 1905, during the Swadeshi (local, native, indigenous) Movement, when "the boycott of foreign goods
… met with the greatest visible success at the practical and popular level" (Chandra, Mukherjee, Mukherjee, et al. 1989, p. 129). Although Swadeshi was a political movement belonging to the larger freedom struggle, "it was accompanied by an efflorescence of cultural debates
… around the civilizational question of science and state" (Visvanathan 1987, p. 15).

Coomaraswamy was a leading figure in this debate; he was concerned that, lacking concerted effort, India's great craft traditions and art cultures would be lost to modern science. Intermediate technologists such as the British civil servant and founder of the Indian National Congress, Allan Octavian Hume (1829–1912), appreciated, if reluctantly, the rationality of traditional technologies but questioned their viability against the "onslaught of modernity, capitalism, and imperialism" (Visvanathan 1987, p. 17). If intermediate technologists exhorted blending both medieval and modern technological traditions to facilitate meaningful industrialization, Tagore was convinced that the two cultures could converse only after the differences between them were first recognized. It was to facilitate such studies that Tagore created Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan in eastern India in 1925.

Most of these Swadeshi arguments, however, have gone unaddressed and modern India would disappoint Coomaraswamy, Hume, and Tagore. India's current and future economic growth rests on exporting software services, rendered by engineers educated at institutions (for example, the Indian Institutes of Technology) built with the support of Western universities. Curricula at such universities rarely include STS studies or the traditional technologies that Coomaraswamy wanted to preserve. Globalization and liberalization have relentlessly destroyed Indian communities practicing traditional agriculture and medicine, art, and handicrafts. Although governmental and voluntary initiatives seek to preserve the few remaining bastions of India's cultural traditions, they are a far cry from the "gene pools of an alternative imagination which had to be sustained and eventually made available to the West" (Visvanathan 1987, p. 16).

Future Prospects

Not all is lost, however, and there is cause for optimism in contemporary India. One heartening illustration is the pioneering work of Sulabh International, which has worked with local governments, communities, and vendors to develop a low-cost, environmentally sustainable, and socially acceptable sanitation system for both rural and urban communities. In the past thirty-five years, Sulabh has created fifty thousand jobs through its one million latrine units that have served over ten million people. Similar efforts by several voluntary outfits, people's science movements, and public-spirited initiatives have helped achieve social equity, improved literacy, and better and affordable public health care (United Nations 2003, p. 105).

Even the mainstream scientific establishment is better engaging traditional and indigenous knowledge systems. In the mid-1990s, CSIR successfully contested and overturned a U.S. patent on the use of turmeric powder to heal wounds. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office upheld CSIR's claims that turmeric has been used in India for centuries and its medical properties are well ingrained in Indian folklore.

Indian scientific agencies have since aggressively espoused the intellectual property rights of India's indigenous communities and encourage research, development, and commercialization of traditional knowledge. Fundamentally, however, India has made a decisive shift towards the Western scientific and technological traditions to derive the same economic and human development benefits realized by developed nations. Thus, when CSIR succeeded in overturning the turmeric patent, it chose to project the victory as the best possible evidence of the integrity, transparency, and objectivity of the international patenting regime, which India began conforming to completely starting 2005.

India is, however, yet to embrace STS concepts such as risk assessment, informed consent, engineering ethics, right to information, and transparency to the extent they are ingrained in the practice of science in the developed West. This will change with economic and technological development, which is occurring rapidly, as well as grassroots people's movements. A greater impetus, however, might come from Western collaborators, who are increasingly using India's modern infrastructure, engineering talent, and large population to cheaply develop products, design cars and factories, and conduct clinical research (Turaga 2003). Illustrating this growing trend is a 2001 controversy involving Johns Hopkins University and a cancer hospital in southern India, where some patients participating in a clinical trial were not informed of the new drug's consequences (Bidwai 2001).

The foremost of Indian polity and society's concerns for the future relate to advancing the quality of its people's economic status, health care, and education. Science and technology are now widely accepted as important to such development. This unquestioning acceptance has been tempered to some extent with grassroots activism and people's movements, which have their origin in India's successful practice of and absolute commitment to democracy. Further, India's globalization will enable the quick assimilation in its public policy of Western principles shaping scientific and technological progress. Thus, the relationship between India—one of the world's most profound civilizations—and science, technology, and ethics will be shaped by two important trends that differ in size and methods, but have goals that share some philosophical similarity.


SEE ALSO Buddhist Perspectives; Hindu Perspectives.


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