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India misses its Sputnik moment

Monday, 9 January 2012 - 10:30am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

We now know the familiar story that the launch of Sputnik, the unmanned satellite into orbit, by the then Soviet Union in 1957 made the United States get into what became the space race.

We now know the familiar story that the launch of Sputnik, the unmanned satellite into orbit, by the then Soviet Union in 1957 made the United States get into what became the space race.

It began with the setting up of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and ended with American astronaut Neil Armstrong stepping out on the moon in July 1969. The decade had begun with Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man to be out there in space. In retrospect, the space race to the moon may appear to be a waste of many billions of dollars because the moon landing did not open up a new frontier as was expected. It turned out to be a blind alley. The International Space Station, which followed as a collaboration of rivals-turned-friends between the US and Russia has not excited the imagination of the people.

The competition, whatever may be the ulterior motives that were at work in the Kremlin and White House, can be said to have been a great incentive to much good science, without discounting the undeniable waste of energy and money that was also part of the story of Cold War rivalry.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurating the 99th Indian Science Congress at Bhubaneshwar on January 3 said China was doing better than India in science. This should have let loose a stream of arguments either supporting or opposing the motion.

It made it to the headlines the next day but did not cause any ripples. It should have and it would have done so in any other country. Though many Indian experts have expressed vague anxieties about China’s increasing economic and military clout in Asia, it has not occurred to many that if India or China are to wrest the global leadership from a declining US, then either of them may have to become thought leaders as well, and especially leaders in the sciences and technologies. The Chinese seem to understand the need to take a global lead in science and are quietly working towards it. The Chinese space programme is moving forward steadily. They have put a man in space and are on the way to putting a man on the moon. India’s manned space mission is lagging behind.

An India-China rivalry in science development and breakthroughs would be a blessing for the world as such. In many ways, the India-China rivalry would parallel that of the US and Soviet Union.

Americans took to science in an American way — open, extravagant, erratic and successful. The Soviets went about it in a grim fashion, programmatic and secretive, much in the mould of the Tsars and commissars. The Indians should be following the American model, as the Chinese are imitating the Soviet model in terms of secretiveness and thoroughness. Indians are not following the American pattern despite the existence of a vibrant political democracy. India is not in the American open society mould. The Indian space programme too is based on the Soviet model of thoroughness and secretiveness, though India-US science cooperation is supposed to have taken a quantum jump after the India-US civil nuclear deal.

Science bureaucrats, efficient, sincere and honest, rule the roost at the Indian Space Research Organisation. What they lack is imagination and daring. The old mentality nurtured through years of technology denial of the nuclear apartheid era which started with India’s first peaceful nuclear test in 1974 and was reinforced with the second test in 1998 was that of imitating technologies at a lower cost than what it would be in the West, showing greater ingenuity rather than boldness that will lead to fresh breakthroughs. Indian space scientists have been cautious and timid, and they are not to be blamed for it. There have been strong cultural and political reasons for it, which did not encourage individual initiative.

Singh gave further encouragement to the old Indian bureaucratic and Soviet way of doing science when he told the delegates at the Bhubaneshwar Congress to find ‘frugal solutions’ to India’s economic needs. In the Indian context, frugality extends to imagination and thinking as well. It is true that science and technology, two very different things which are taken to be the same by Indian politicians and intellectuals, do usher in economic and social revolutions. But science cannot be the handmaid of government policy prescription if it has to achieve its true potential.

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