Exciting times lie ahead for India

Saturday, 18 January 2014 - 12:40pm IST Updated: Saturday, 18 January 2014 - 12:41pm IST | Agency: DNA
Dr Mayank Vahia looks at the rapidly changing times and how India's young generation can contribute to and benefit from its progress
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There is a Chinese saying, the best blessing you can give anyone is, “May you live in exciting times”. Today, I am jealous of the new generation since they truly live in exciting times, more of which lie ahead. Wherever you look, exciting things are happening, and it is good to take a broader look at the times ahead.

Science is reaching new heights. Space science, of course, has been the toast of recent times. With the Chandrayaan a feather in its cap and the Mangalyaan well on its way, Indian space scientists have achieved some truly spectacular feats.  At the same time, just as India realised it needed highly trained engineers fifty years ago, which led to the establishment of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), it now realises the need to have a generation well trained in the pure sciences. As a result, a whole series of new educational institutes, like the Indian Institute(s) of Science Education and Research (IISERs), the National Institute of Science Education and Research (NISER), and the Centre for Excellence in Basic Sciences (CBS) have been set up. The reason for separating these institutions from the IITs – from entrance exams to training – is a subtle but important one. While engineering is about solving real life problems under real life conditions, science is a way of thinking that is inquisitive and detailed. While engineering builds, science breaks up to see what is inside!

Engineers in the Stone Age, for instance, would have simply designed better ways of delivering stones to each other’s heads. It needed science to think of the bow and arrow. The Stone Age did not come to an end because they ran out of stones! Clearly, the people needed to work on engineering problems need to have different mindsets and training from those working on scientific problems. Soon, India will boast of highly trained manpower in both these fields. Without a doubt, exciting times are in store for this new generation of well-trained scientists.

Even in this education scenario, new technologies will have as much impact as new laws. With increasing emphasis on universal education and improved higher education, parts of Indian society that have so far remained outside of the purview of education, and hence not been able to contribute to India’s growth, will now begin to participate. This will bring new thinking, new emphasis and new perspective to Indian science and technology, just as the Indian way of thinking has altered the world of science.

Another interesting feature is that we are practically skipping the difficulties scientists studying physics in the 18th century Europe faced, and are ready to plunge into the nano-sciences that we conventionally called biology, chemistry and atomic physics. As these three fields merge, strange new ideas and technologies are beginning to emerge, and India is well poised to make most of this revolution. It is staggering to know how much we don’t know about nature, and the scientists of tomorrow can only look forward to more exciting understanding of nature. Only the foundation of such work has been laid out so far, the super structure is yet to be built.

Similarly, the most exciting times in the field of technology are yet to come. Work in technologies of high precision and high reliability are already merging computers, televisions, telephones, cameras and video and integrating them into one gigantic web called the Internet. With increasingly efficient technology, new information is continuously created and handled. This has completely altered our concept of space and time.

Today, kitchens in American eateries are being run from India, and information that has to be sent to a neighbouring room is routed through America more than 10,000 km away. Already, we are processing volumes of information and images that previous generations could not have imagined.

Yet, there are some ideas that have eluded us. Holography and transistors were invented in the same year and yet, we have not been able to transmit 3-dimensional images. The current method does not use holography and is instead a painfully direct method of measuring the entire image and transferring this information bit by bit.

Travel is another area that has seen dramatic change. Every form of travel, from mass transport to leisure, has become more comfortable even as computers and the internet are making business travel increasingly less essential. However, it is interesting to note that we still prefer to see people than just listen to their voices. Telephones could not make travel redundant the way video conferences have done.Likewise, a revolution in computer technology has provided us with new capabilities. Simulation and virtual reality have allowed us to see, fathom and experiment with objects that exist only as bits of binary digits inside a computer. You can now walk through and get the feel of a house well before it is physically constructed. New materials are also transforming our ability to create things that would be beyond the imagination of even the best of scientists a generation ago.

Major changes are expected in other areas as well. In politics, for instance, we will soon have to decide whether we want a slow soft-spoken government that is preoccupied with consensus-building, or an aggressive government driven by a strong faith in our past, or an idealistic government with simplistic view of life and governance where everything is black and white. Moreover, the Right to Information (RTI) Act now allows people to investigate the dark depths of the working of our governments with unprecedented detail. The Lokpal Bill will add a new dimension to this supervision on the working of our rulers.

Our obsession of who we are and how we are seen by the world is also beginning to take centre stage. As we project ourselves as a soft power – a nation that prides itself in its gentle but well thought out, if somewhat soft-spoken, approach to world problems in contrast to some nations that wish to bully the world – we confront situations where demonstration of force appears essential. The power may not be actual military power, it may be economic, or simply the force of a well-argued case, or a novel solution to an old problem, or conquests in intellectual competitions – power can be demonstrated in many ways. At the same time, we are not averse to building military muscle that will allow us to physically control events in a wide range of theatres, especially in and around the Indian Ocean. This increased ability of our “blue-water navy” and a capable and battle-hardened army that is experienced in classical warfare as well as in fighting insurgency has been a source of envy and the resultant silly instigations from some of our biggest neighbours.

Yet, internally, we are as confused as ever.

When we gained independence, it was clear India was not a homogenous nation. Defining the concept of India’s nationhood itself was difficult. The best we could do was to call for Unity in Diversity – a large group of diverse people, forming and running a nation state, whose common features are impossible to define. The question of how to preserve this diversity has bogged down our nation throughout its history. Jawaharlal Nehru thought language would be good unifying force – allowing the preservation of diversity by preserving local cultures and thinking even as the nation was united by common goals. So the country was divided into linguistic states. But recent complaints make it clear commonality of language is not enough for people to identify with each other, as in the case of Telangana.Further divisions driven by geography are being called upon. The Indian landscape is so varied that any division along geographical and geological lines will be impossibly complex. Clearly, we need leaders who keep the interests of the nation in mind beyond the next elections.

So old challenges remain and new ones arise.

Then there are the problems of democracy. Elections are expensive and dependent on donations. Donors regard this as an investment and desire hefty returns on their donations, which makes the system endemically corrupt. To make matters worse, the government handles so much money that there is always a temptation amongst mortals to keep some for themselves. Anonymous donations through public charity cannot raise the kind of resources needed over a sustained period of time. This is major flaw of democracy, and while many countries have confronted this problem, there is really no satisfactory solution. Another problem of democracy is that it is majoritarian: the voice of the majority decides the policies. This can make minorities, whether they are gender-based, linguistic, religious, cultural, etc., mistrustful and afraid, and can often result in instabilities. Again, we really have no good solution to this, except to hope and pray that the people who rule us are wise rather than shrewd. The cacophony of news channels and the continuous glare of the media are also not conducive to thoughtful working of the government. When a politician’s sound bites attract more attention and publicity than a well thought out policy initiative, we are in trouble and are more likely to be rushed into bad decisions than good.

There are, of course, other old fashioned challenges. Pollution, environmental degradation, limits of resources, overcrowding and tendency of some towards extremism arising from a sense of alienation to their roots are some issues that need to be addressed, and urgently.

However, whatever one’s personal perspective, there is no denying that we live in exciting times, where the challenges to the nation, in governance, in meeting the increasing aspirations of the people and in intellectual creativity to take the nation ahead are exciting, and the book of life does not have answers at the back of the book – these are unsolved problems that need to be solved.
Most importantly, we need at least a large fraction of population that can think for itself. There is too much cacophony around, and separating noise from information is increasingly more difficult. Talking nonsense is no longer a fringe activity; many people we would call “mainstream” are not averse to talking nonsense, or worse, being ‘economical with the truth’. So we need eternal vigilance.

But, to be vigilant we need the capacity for independent thinking. We can no longer afford to blindly agree to anything or with any group on faith. We need to have thought about the subject before we define our opinion and once we define our position, defend it when defendable and change it when new information comes. This dynamism needs to be a common feature of our life.

Next, we need to learn to adapt, and not panic and give in to the fear of end of life or end of civilisation as we know it. Too many people have provided themselves with a good life by scaring others – even if it is retribution after death.

To achieve this, we need to read. Words can be spoken carelessly but are rarely written carelessly. Hence, written material is generally well articulated – or at least the garbage is easier to identify and discard. We also need to have our opinion validated and confirmed, so discussions help – arguments don’t but discussions do. To achieve this, never identify yourself with your ideas. Ideas can be wrong, and one should be willing to accept this. Remember, anything is easier to get into than out of.

The bottom line is that we need to be better educated, and not just better informed. As Einstein pointed out, education is what remains when all that is learnt is forgotten.

I believe that as we move forward in these exciting times, we need to ask ourselves the following questions:
* Who is an Indian?
* What are the problems that technology can’t solve?
* How do people with no access to a particular technology live?
* How does the technology we use really work?
* How much of what we use is essential, and how much is luxury?

So let us get attentive and enjoy the exciting times that are all around us.


Dr Mayank Vahia is a scientist working at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research since 1979. His main fields of interest are high-energy astrophysics, mainly Cosmic Rays, X-rays and Gamma Rays. He is currently looking at the area of archeo-astronomy and learning about the way our ancestors saw the stars, and thereby developed intellectually. He has, in particular, been working on the Indus Valley Civilisation and taking a deeper look at their script.

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