D.ear dr hoodbhoy,
I am an avid reader of your articles and an admirer of your lucid thinking and clear writing. His tireless advocacy for countries to develop a scientific temperament is of great importance, not only for Pakistan, but for all developing countries seeking to increase the prosperity of their citizens.
I read your recent article on the ‘twin-engine sarkar.’ And I would like to respectfully point out that your characterization of the current BJP government’s attitude towards science and technology is an oversimplification.
First of all, I fully agree with you that Jawaharlal Nehru played a crucial role in instilling a scientific temperament in post-independence India. Many of India’s world-class research and educational institutions were founded during his tenure as Prime Minister.
However, I disagree with your suggestion that India first acquired scientific thinking with the arrival of the British and their desire to spread Western education and values. Vedic mathematics, which you mentioned rather dismissively in your article, actually made fundamental contributions that Western scientists are beginning to recognize today. For example, Professor Kim Plofker, who wrote the book Mathematics in India. Plofker earned his Ph.D. from Brown University and spent four years at his alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
If it’s not the whole book, I suggest reading your revision by Prof. David Mumford, winner of the 1974 Fields Medal. I quote from the review: “Your book fills a great gap: a detailed, eminently readable scholarly survey of the full scope of Indian mathematics and astronomy (both were inseparable in India) from its Vedic beginnings to about 1800”. Another Fields Medalist, Professor Manjul Bhargava, has spoken more recently about ancient India. contributions to mathematics One would think that a government committed to spreading the greatness of Hindu civilization would have ensured that these achievements were part of the curriculum of all schools and universities. However, this is not the case. Even undergraduate and graduate students of Mathematics in India are not taught about their country’s contributions to their chosen field of study.
India did not need English or Western education and values to make scientific progress. However, what is undeniable is that only Europe experienced the Lightning, also known as “the Age of Reason”, which was fundamentally responsible for the Industrial Revolution and the scientific, technological and economic leadership of the West for the next two centuries. There is no doubt that modern science, as we know it today, is an artifact of the West.
Second, let’s go back to the BJP’s attitude towards science and technology. Once again, you are right that BJP leaders and ministers have made alarming and totally unfounded pronouncements about India’s scientific achievements in the distant past. These statements have had the Indian scientific community squirming in their seats. However, it would be a mistake to take these views as representative of the current government as a whole. Let me share some data points to illustrate this:
- The annual budget of the Department of Space has increased from 0.33% of the total expenditure on 2013-14 to 0.48% in 2019-20 and from 0.5 to 0.6% of GDP. In monetary terms, the budget has almost doubled from Rs 7,464 crore in 2013-14 to Rs 13,760 crore in 2019-20 (10.7 percent compound annual growth rate). In every interaction with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), Prime Minister Narendra Modi has conveyed his support and admiration for the work that scientists and engineers have been doing.
- Since 2014, six new Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campuses have opened and one (Indian School of Mines) has been upgraded to IIT status. Fifteen new All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) have been sanctioned and many of them are already operational. Seven Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) were opened in 2015 and 2016. Unsurprisingly, these new institutes face many challenges, from attracting faculty and students to establishing links with industry. However, the government’s intention to replicate high-quality institutions and make that level of education available to a much larger cross-section of the population is undeniable. One criticism against the BJP is that appointments to leadership positions in these institutes have to pass the ideological filter, but what government, Indian or foreign, has made appointments solely on merit?
- The National Education Policy, presented in 2020, is a breath of fresh air. It emphasizes multidisciplinary education, well-rounded citizens, ethics and inclusion, and creativity and entrepreneurship.
- India’s performance in the Global Innovation Index in the last seven years has been encouraging. In the 2022 edition, India, at 40th, is the highest-ranked lower-middle-income country. That’s a steady improvement from 81st in 2015. In terms of innovation, China’s progress has been spectacular. It ranked 11th in 2022, making it the highest-ranked upper-middle-income country, up from 29th in 2015. The key difference between the two countries is that for every dollar India spends on research and development, China spends 20. The India’s research and development development spending as a percentage of GDP has actually been declining In the last years. Output measures, such as the number of national and triadic patents filed and the number of science and engineering articles published in international peer-reviewed journals, continue to show a gradual upward trajectory. It would be wrong to attribute India’s improvement solely to the policies of the BJP government, but we can safely say that at least its policies have not been harmful.
- The India Startup Initiative, launched in 2016, has excited the nation and made its entrepreneurial ecosystem the third most dynamic in the world. There were approximately 50,000 startups in India in 2018, of which approximately 9,000 were technology startups. Many of the 107 Indian Unicorns are currently fighting, just like their international counterparts. Boom and bust cycles are normal in all business ecosystems, but the momentum that has been built in recent years is undeniable. In areas like Artificial Intelligence, India is doing well, as evidenced by the results of Peak.ai Decision Intelligence Maturity Index.
I could give many more examples. In short, while the unscientific statements made by some BJP leaders are cause for concern, there is no danger that India’s progress in science and technology will be derailed under the current government. India definitely punches its weight when it comes to education, research and innovation. Through many initiatives and actions, this government has shown its support for modern science and education. We are sure that the excellent start given by Jawaharlal Nehru will continue regardless of the party in power.
The author is Professor and Dean of the School of Management at Mahindra University. He was previously the Chengwei Capital Professor of Entrepreneurship at the China Europe International Business School (Shanghai).
(Edited by Ratan Priya)