Daily Archives: 08/12/2008

Pesticides in Cola(2006)

Pesticides in Cola:

From controversy to debate


 Rajesh Kochhar


The question of pesticides in Indian cola drinks has attracted worldwide attention. The cola companies themselves are worried about declining sales in India while there is the larger question of the effect of the controversy on the inward flow of foreign funds. The pesticide producers on their part are concerned about the bad name the controversy brings them. The International Herald Tribune has  carried an editorial- page  essay with the tell-tale title “A dishonest campaign against U.S. colas” , whereas The Financial Times has noticed the irony that health concerns over pesticides have not  stopped  thousands of people from “guzzling” sweet sea water in Mumbai  unmindful of the “sewerage that drains nearby” .


There is need to transform the controversy into a debate. Some time ago medical doctors in USA advised children not to sip cola but  instead to use a drinking straw, with a view to preventing damage to the teeth enamel. Quite obviously, there is a reluctant acceptance of the inevitability of the cola culture. In the 1960s and 1970s, many Indian young men sought to acquire smartness by smoking cigarettes in the Dev Anand style (The brand did not matter). Smoking has since been deglamourized. Hopefully, cola’s turn will come soon.


Traditionally people have drunk drinks made out of local water. With bottled drinks, water extracted from a single location is consumed over a large territory. Since a litre of cola making requires about  four litres of water , the water table under a cola manufacturing unit sinks very low in a wide and deep  cone. Cola plants are not good for plants in their     neighbourhood. 


The cola question at hand is technical rather than social or ecological and therefore easier to address. Cola companies pump out ground water, treat it for bacteria and suspended particles, and then apply their secret formula to produce the glamourous concoction. Of course , the deeper the ground water is extracted from  , the purer it will be. Some cola plants presumably use surface water, which must be chemically treated. What chemistry do the cola companies perform on the water before  it is made into cola? This is a question that awaits answer from them.


The chemical composition of the cola drink would vary from place to place and from season to season. Pesticides enter ground water as a result of agricultural activity. Thus ground water in agriculturally advanced states like Punjab and Andhra can be expected to be richer in pesticides than say in Rajasthan. Also, during summer , when the water table dips , pesticide concentration would increase , while rains would bring  dilution.


The first step should be to test these hypotheses and quantify the phenomenon through reliable, multiply-validated, scientific data.  Although the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment justifiably commands high prestige, government institutions should play a role. Towards this end, a filled bottle with recorded place and date of manufacture should be procured and its contents distributed among relevant national labs and technical universities (such as IITs and IISc) , who should announce their findings publicly and simultaneously. For comparison , plain ground / surface water  taken from the same location and  at the same time should also be examined. The experiment should be repeated by taking samples at different times and from different locations. The results from different centres should tally within experimental errors.


Nobody has ever suggested that cola companies are deliberately lacing their colas with pesticides. But at least in some cases they must be chemically treating the water. It is  also not clear what  effect the cola-making process has on the  concentration of toxics already present in the water or in adding new ones. The circumstance that many food items available in the market  have higher toxic content than the colas is not quite relevant. Suppose cola was produced in  some pristine environment in Uttaranchal or Himachal where the water is free of all chemicals. Will the companies then  be adding toxics to bring the contamination up  to the   national average?


  Many people naively believe that a bottled drink is purer than tap water. They are only partially right. Cola is purer than  tap water  biologically and physically, but not  chemically. Should the chemistry of ground water as it stands be the starting point for the manufacturers of bottled drinks, or should absolute standards be prescribed?   This  is a matter for public debate and legislative action.


In the meantime, the cola companies should clearly distinguish between the global and the local. What chemical processes are  Indian waters subjected to  before they are ready for the global secret formula? Does the cola making process enhance the concentration? Also , what is the chemical composition of ground water? Let us have on public record hard- core authentic scientific data from all sources. This will  raise the level of debate and help   reach a reasonable decision.






Impact of technology on society (2007)

Public lecture at Panjab University, Chandigarh, 2007


Impact of technology on society


Rajesh Kochhar

Professor NIPER, Mohali

Former Director NISTADS, New Delhi

[email protected]



“Impact of technology on society” is a rather one-sided term. It implies that technology exists independently of the society and exerts an influence on the latter from the outside. This is not true. Technology is a creation of the society, and therefore it is meaningful to talk of the interplay between the two. The rationale for still using the term is that it has already been given currency by many agencies such as University Grants Commission. We can deepen its meaning by a nuanced analysis.


Right from the taming of fire and chipping of stone tools to the Internet and genomics, human cultures at all times  have been fashioned by the nature and level  of technology accessible to them. The topic is so vast that one  can plan a one-semester course on its various aspects. We will  first make some general remarks , mostly of a  conceptual nature. We will then focus on some topics that admit of action-oriented inter-disciplinary research. Thus we will examine  the  over-use and abuse of technology in Punjab. Ongoing rapid developments in information and communication technology (ICT) have raised  fundamental questions about world order, economy, employment patterns,  global and intra-nation social inequity, privacy, legal frameworks and psychological effects. It is noteworthy that ICT has been particularly useful to  the terrorists, underworld, child-abusers, etc.  Similarly biotechnological developments are raising questions about bio-ethics ( source of funding in bio-research, falsification of data, “playing the god”) as also about intellectual property rights associated with molecularizaion of traditional health care. We would briefly touch on some of these aspects.


Thirty years ago, today’s topic would have failed to make any impact on the society. It was then naively believed that all peace-time manifestations of f science and technology must necessarily be benign. Alas, the age of innocence is lost for ever. Up to the second world war, modern technology was a preserve of the West. In the years immediately after the war , there were some attempts to harness technology in the larger interests of humankind, but in the globalization era  even the pretense to inclusive growth has been given up.


Modern technology   is based on the formalized principles of science and  is thus amenable to improvement/ modification. Technology invariably  bestows advantage on its developers .If this advantage is to be maintained, technology  must continually evolve. Over time the timescales associated with technological change have   become shorter and shorter, to the extent that today the tool has overwhelmed the workman.


 We often praise our ancestors living in harmony with nature. This is a trait worthy of emulation today. Yet the fact remains that they had no other option. The only source of energy available to them was the one provided by nature itself, namely, their own muscle power and that of their animals. Modern technology represents man’s quest-turned-fetish for power over nature. Of all the species, man is the only one which has the power to make itself extinct. Species like dinosaur or dodo that have vanished from the surface of the earth were victims of external agencies. But man has the technological wherewithal to destroy himself, other life forms and the environment. The scenario is theoretical but not far-fetched. Global warming due to  man-made activities is already  causing  serious concern.


World attitude towards modern technology has been fashioned by the circumstances of its  birth in  and use by Europe. Modern science and technology have grown hand in hand with  maritime trade, geographical exploration and colonial expansion, with dominance over other human beings and nature built in into the enterprise. In the early days of maritime activity when scurvy and longitude took their toll, nature was viewed as an enemy to be subdued. In the 15th century , when Portuguese ships sailed southwards to explore the Atlantic coast of Africa,  natives of the newly “discovered” lands were brought back as a trophy to be displayed and a commodity to be marketed. The spirit of the times is well captured in the writings of the English nobleman Francis Bacon (1561–1626) whose long-lasting influence as a philosopher of science has overshadowed the memories of his career as a disgraced politician and judge. As a prophet of science Bacon held that nature should be made “to serve the business and conveniences of man”. More brazenly he declared: “I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave”. The imagery employed here is significant. May be, by talking of nature and her children, Bacon was trying to keep the European explorers physically away from the native women they would encounter when they ventured out. But, clearly, when Bacon mentions the enslavement of nature and of human beings in the same breadth, he is using one to justify and support the other, in the name of advancement of science. Ironically when the intellectual and quality of life aspects of modern technology were being developed in the West, rest of the world was not aware of the exercise. But when the dominational aspects were being developed, the third world knew.   In fact it participated in the process by becoming its victim. Consequently it is this aspect of modern technology that holds the highest  global appeal.


Earlier, the whole world’s resources were at the disposal of a geographically restricted small   population, which thus could be maintained at very high standards of living. But the world has now  become more equal , at least politically, with greater control over its own resources. Also the upper classes in India and elsewhere  have denationalized themselves under globalization, demanding consumption levels prevalent in advanced economies. The strain has become too much. “There is enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” The quotation as it stands is due to Dr Frank Buchman , the founder of Moral Re-Armament. But it deserves a better author. The idea had been repeatedly emphasized by Mahatma Gandhi, and is more relevant today than it was in his own lifetime.


Recently a Dutch professor told me about a project report by a student on extracting usable  energy from  the temperature differential  between different layers of water in an  ocean! This  student like many others  is missing the point that  the key issue is not the availability of energy but the consequences of using it .In which areas technology should advance and where it should retreat is a decision not easy to take. But the future of humankind may well depend on it.


A measure of the level of man-made activity can be obtained from the following sidelight. If an astronomer in a far-off planetary system were to turn their telescope in our direction, they would spot the sun as a rather dull star. From a minute study of its motion , they would be able to infer the existence of Jupiter. Otherwise, the planets would go undetected. Except that they may locate the earth by virtue of its excessive man-made emission of radio waves.)



Technology: Over-use, misuse and abuse


From among the third world countries, India had a head start in modern science and education. Faced with a humiliating shortage of food in the 1960s, India, led by Punjab,  turned to modern science and technology for solution. The hybrid  Manila rice and Mexican wheat developed under UN auspices were adapted for Indian conditions, pesticides and fertilizers made available and tube wells dug. Indeed , tube well and tractor became new symbols of power in rural Punjab, overtaking the old reliable, the  gun. The optimism of the heyday of the green revolution is enshrined in the large number of new folk songs composed in celebration of the tube well. Water logging, lowered ground-water table, diminishing  fertility of soil , and pollution due to agrochemicals have  since spoilt the party.  I hope Punjab  would not have  to take  to  composing sad songs lamenting the presence of pesticides in mother’s milk.


There is a very perceptive observation by the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) :“A man is wise with the wisdom of his time only and ignorant with its ignorance”. Over-use of technology in the cause of food production was driven by need and was  consistent with the wisdom of the times. New wisdom is needed now.



I would like to recommend the concept of sick leave for agricultural land. A piece of land would require about 3-4 years of organic farming to  detoxify the soil and restore its fertility. During this period, the earning would be halved, say from Rs 20000 per acre to Rs 10000. A farmer should be compensated for loss of earning. Advanced countries  earn money from industry to subsidize agriculture. India’s economy, still largely dependent  on agriculture as it is, cannot possibly afford to do this. A couple of years ago , in my previous institute, we examined the possibility of taking up a pilot project on this , which would require participation of  about 6000 acres at one go , with European Union’s help. Incidentally , an influential member of EU’s Delegation for Relations with India, is the British MEP, Neena Gill , born in Ludhiana.

Water is a more important issue than soil. Reckless drawal of ground water that nature took ages to store is causing severe environmental problems. Ideally , we should use only that much of ground water which the yearly rains can replenish. But, we are indulging in greed-driven activities that cannot be justified. An example is the growing of  water-guzzling summer rice , Sathi ( sixty-dayer) ,so-called because it ripens in sixty days.


There is then the additional problem of pollution of surface and ground water  by industrial activity. Ironically , in India employment  opportunities and environmental degradation go together. The biggest pollutants are the unorganized small and medium industries (SMEs), which are also large employers.


 Cancer in Punjab cotton belt is an issue that needs closer scrutiny because it raises many questions on how we deal with important environmental health issues. The cotton-growing Malwa region of Punjab, comprising the southwestern districts of Bathinda, Muktsar, Faridkot and Mansa, has been reported to show a high incidence of various cancers. Since the region consumes three-fourths of all pesticides used by Punjab, cancer has been assumed to be caused by pesticides.


Significantly, if you go strictly by official figures, you would conclude that cancer is not a problem in  Malwa. In the last Assembly , the Giddarbaha MLA , Mr Manpreet  Singh Badal quoted a  death figure ,based on actual body count, which was way above the official estimates. There is obviously a grave mismatch between public perception of cancer incidence and deaths on the one hand and  the extant official records on the other. Furthermore , there is no systematic  study of effect of pesticides on human beings  in different crop-growing regions. Geologists tell us that Malwa   is geologically distinct from the  doabs of the Punjab. There are thus a large number of complex issues that need to be tackled.


It has become very important to objectively and quickly evaluate new technologies ( BT cotton). Who will do this?The government science machinery  is always on the  defensive, while NGOs often tend to overstate their case. The middle ground must be occupied by the  university ,  which though supported by the state, has the detachment, independence , inter-disciplinary expertise and credibility to take up projects dealing with the effects of technology on the  eco-system. More generally, a university should be able to build expertise to assess and evaluate new and expensive technologies that become commercially available .


Enthusiasm for technological solutions can make the problem worse, as is illustrated by the arsenic problem in Bangla Desh and northern parts of West Bengal. As is well known , Bangla Desh is literally overflowing with surface water which is often polluted , causing many diseases. UN experts who descended on Bangla Desh decided in their infinite wisdom that Bangla Deshis should not die of cholera or dysentery; they should instead die of cancer. Bangla Desh was advised to dig tube wells. As it turned out, for geological reasons the Bengal basin has arsenic in deep layers of ground water, with the result that cancer has become very common in  both the Bengals.


Just because a technological solution exists does not necessarily mean that it is the right solution. A government lab very cleverly came up with a ceramic filter that can separate arsenic from water. Common sense tells you that the problem  would remain. Nature has created arsenic which needs a repository. That repository is the bottom layers of a well. Once you pull that contaminated  water  up to the surface of the earth, you have created a problem. Even if arsenic is separated , it would remain on the ground. The best solution is the simplest. Leave arsenic at the bottom of the well. Recharge the well and drink upper layers.


In the years after independence , blame for all social ills was placed at the door of poverty and illiteracy. It has now turned out that technology can not only be an agent of social and economic transformation  for good or bad, but  can also be pressed into service for strengthening and legitimizing old prejudices and social evils. Modern technology  has permitted Punjab and others to graduate from female infanticide to female foeticide. Earlier, female infanticide was restricted to certain caste groups in some parts of India, but ultrasound-facilitated abortion of female foetus is now cutting across caste and geographical boundaries. In the past, there might have been some remorse or sense of guilt in murdering a baby after birth , but  technology-assisted murder before birth is seen as no more than a procedure  .  Technology can be as effective in killing conscience as in killing human beings.


So far attempts at curbing female foeticide revolve around legal and administrative measures. There is need to closely examine the option of regulating the technology itself. In 1990 the American General Electric  Medical Systems (GEMS) set up an ultrasound machine  production unit in Bangalore in collaboration with vegetable oil maker turned software giant WIPRO. A comment on the corporate strategy of GEMS may not be out of place here. Its units in US are meant to produce “leadership products” for advanced university hospitals, while Japan provides machines  for big and small hospitals  in Europe and Japan.  India  and China are  the hub for “low-cost segment, mainly aimed at the mega-markets in Asia.”


There can be no doubt that the ultrasound industry in India ( and China) is being driven by abortion economy. A high-powered commission comprising medical scientists and other experts should ascertain India’s need of ultrasound machinery for genuine purposes and suggest steps for regulating and even controlling   machinery’s technical specifications, manufacture and installation.  Sufficiently high minimum  academic and professional qualifications should be laid down for opening an ultrasound clinic. It can even be mandated that stand-alone clinics will not be permitted and that they must necessarily be part of a hospital  or  a poly-clinic. There is need to continually  assess the genuine need for and the economics of  ultrasound  and other medical technologies, especially because rapid technological developments can  quickly overtake even the best drafted  legal and administrative measures. [ See commentary by Rajesh Kochhat at the following URL. http://www.upiasiaonline.com/human_rights/2007/04/19/commentaryfemale_foeticide_has_become_a_business/]



ICT- driven globalization


It is a rather disconcerting feature of history of science and technology that in their development  war and baser instincts of man have been a major driving force. A child of fear that has stunningly outgrown circumstance of its birth is the Internet. Originating in 1969  in the heyday of cold war as a result of US defence efforts, Internet was fortified with World Wide Web in   1989 and commercialized in 1995.Globalization as we know it today has been made possible by advances in information and communication technology , permitting , processing , storage and transfer of information at high speed and low cost. A peculiar feature of globalization needs to be noted. Human being is an extremely inefficient machine. A globally competitive economy does not require very many persons.  Throughout the world, fewer and fewer people are using more and more of their intellect so that the remaining do not have to use theirs at all.


Globalization as practised by India  is distorting its economy and more importantly the mindset of its upper classes. In 1999, during the height of Y2K fever, I had written a paper pointing out that  IT is acting as a brain sink. There is a greater appreciation of the phenomenon than before. Recently the US-based magazine , Science, quoted me as saying this and pointing out that  highly qualified Indian engineers were doing stupid repetitive work. Some people have used the term techno-coolie, but my own preference is for techno-baboo. Coolie is a degrading term; the coolie may retaliate. The British in South Africa  called Mahatma Gandhi a coolie , and see what happened to the empire. A baboo on the other hand can revel in his baboodom and remain one for ever. If an engineer starts doing a diploma-holder’s work , there will not be any job left for a diploma holder. Underemployment in IT-driven services is a serious problem which unfortunately has not received much attention.[ See Rajesh Kochhar (1999) “The rise of the techno-baboo: IT is a brain sink”. Current Science, vol.76, no.12, 25 June 1999, pp.1531-1533]


Although India has been maintaining a high growth rate , of about 8%, ,its benefits are unevenly distributed. According to recent Reserve Bank figures, services sector now  accounts for 60% of India GDP. But it generates  only 25% of the employment. Agriculture’s share has come down to  20% but still 60% of employment depends on it. Manufacturing sector has been stagnating at about 15% (In China today  manufacturing accounts for 46% of the GDP , and services 41%) .


Service sector jobs require higher social and communication skills than manufacturing and agriculture. They are biased against first-generation learners. Many of my former school and college mates who are now well-respected engineers and researchers would not have been hired in their youth  as a receptionist even  by a two-star hotel. 


Service economy is servile economy. It dispenses with the very notion of nation building. Since service sector is essentially  science-less, there is an all-round decline of interest in science , and scholarship in general. If we continue the way we are going my worry is that leave aside researchers we will not even have qualified people to teach science at high school and plus two levels. It is ironical that while S&T issues  are becoming increasingly more important in world economy, politics and diplomacy (e.g. bird flu, GM crops, tsunami), our economy and education are becoming  more and more  science-less. Science as a  pure cultural activity cannot be sustained for long. If science is to  flourish in India, it must play a leading role in economy.


My own assessment is that globalization as it obtains today is not sustainable in the long run. Sooner than later, some form of economic nationalism will be introduced. Short-time economic growth and environmental protection are not natural allies . Nor are economic growth and employment. If the society is to find its way to high economic growth through social equity and environmental protection, it must closely  monitor and regulate the way technology impacts it. //





Education and Training in Basic Space Science and Technology(1999)

 Taken from : Space Benefits for Humanity in the Twenty First Century (Vienna: United Nations) p.245.

Education and Training in Basic Space Science and Technology

Rajesh Kochhar

Indian Institute of Astrophisics, Bangalore, India

Ever since human beings learnt to walk upright they have looked at the sky and wondered. The sky

has remained the same but human perception of it has changed. First a divinity to be feared and

appeased: then a phenomenon to be observed and utilized: and finally a physics laboratory: the outer

space over the millennia has acquired a depth, in keeping with tI1e changing patterns of humankind’s

relationship with its cosmic environment.

Basic space science today is at the cutting edge of intellectual enquiry, and, at its most

glamorous, a child of high technology. But it is more than a branch of modern science. It is a symbol

of the collectivity and continuity of humankind’s cultural heritage. This mixture of science and culture

is astronomy’s strength as well as dilemma. Strength, because support for astronomy transcends all

boundaries: dilemma, because this support transcends science also.

For promoting astronomy worldwide, especially in developing countries with memories of

past contributions to science, scientific astronomy and cultural astronomy would need to be placed in

a composite context. Even more importantly, modem (post-Copernican) astronomy, or modern science

in general, itself would need to be repositioned in a more extended evolutionary sequence.

Cultural Copernicanism

The past few decades have ushered in an age, which we may call the Age of Cultural Copernicanism.

In analogy with the cosmological principle (named in honour of Nicolaus Copernicus) that the

universe has no preferred location or direction, cultural Copernicanism would imply that no cultural or

geographical area, or ethnic or social group, can be deemed to constitute a superior entity or a

benchmark for judging or evaluating others.

In this framework, science (including astronomy) is perceived as a multi-stage civilization

cumulus where each stage builds on the knowledge gained in the previous stages and in turn leads to

the next. Modern science is then the latest stage in continuum which for historical reasons developed

in Europe.

This framework however is a recent development. The 19th century historiography advisedly

projected modern science as a characteristic product of the western civilization decoupled from and

superior to its antecedents, with the implication that all material and ideological benefits arising from

modern science were reserved for the West. As a reaction to this, the orientalized east has often tended

to view modern science as “their” science, distance itself from its intellectual aspects, and seek to

defend, protect and reinvent “our” science and the alleged (anti-science) eastern mode of thought. This

defensive mindset works against the propagation of modern astronomy in most of the non-western


In keeping with the principle of cultural Copernicanism, it would be desirable to construct a

history of world astronomy that is truly global and unselfconscious. A step towards this direction

would be to use scientifically descriptive tern1S like the Siddhantic and the Zij astronomy in place of

the denominational terms like the Hindu or the Muslim (or Arab) astronomy. Also the trajectory from

Greek astronomy to modern developments need to be charted out with greater respect for the

intervening period. One could emphasize the Babylonian roots of the Greek astronomy itself, and

highlight the contribution of the Zij astronomy towards modern astronomy (for example, Copernicus’

use of the al Tusi couple). Similarly contributions of the Mayans and the Incas should be integrated

into the mainstream. Equipped with this paradigmatic background, we can now address the question

of teaching and popularization of astronomy, targeting audience at three levels.

i. Lay-persons, including decision-makers and fund-givers, who hopefully will form a scientifically

sound impression about modem astronomical developments and astronomy-based cultural elements.

ii. School students, who would feel enthused about astronomy and retain appreciation for it in later


iii. College and university students who would study basic space science with some seriousness and

provide from among themselves researchers and teachers.

Much of the following is based on the Indian experience, although an attempt has been made to place

it in the wider context so that the analysis may have an extended validity.


A planetarium can be a powerful education aid. It liberates sky viewing from the constraints of

weather and seasons as well as earth’s rotation and sphericity. It can present cosmic objects and

phenomena realistically and dynamically. A sky show can create a visual impact beyond the reach of a

class-room lecture or the printed word. In addition, a planetarium can play the role of an astronomical

community and education centre and a news room.

The first planetarium to be opened in India (in 1954) was attached to a school. Now itself semidefunct,

it failed to set a trend. There are today about 15 planetariums in India catering to the general

public, mostly in bigger cities. The number of planetariums in India is very small when compared to

the number of potential visitors. The reasons are financial. The amount of money required to set up

and maintain a planetarium is outside the reach of most civic bodies or educational institutions.

Although planetariums attract audience with a diverse background, their programmes tend to

be single, omnibus in nature. A typical programme is a mix of modern astronomical information and

citations from scriptures and literature, mythology, rituals, social and religious celebrations and

folklore. This modern-ethno mix goes well with a section of the viewers but has certain inherent


Astronomical content of the socio-religious life is based on a physical model of the universe

that has since been discarded. The problem then is to devise a trajectory that would start from

astronomy-based cultural elements, decouple them from their defunct physical content and arrive at

tile modern worldview.

This is not an easy task. People who are familiar with modern science would perhaps find

ancient references amusing (more like modern cosmologists’ equation with Alice in Wonderland).

However a typical visitor to the planetarium, already overwhelmed by modern science which he may

even be inclined to view as foreign, may be tempted to view the modern-ethno mix as a modern

endorsement of the ethno part. Also relating modern scientific developments to local or sectarian

cultural elements rather than to cross- national developments may tend to encourage notions of

cultural exclusivity. It is noteworthy that there is hardly any exchange of programmes among the

planetariums. Also foreign-produced programmes do not seem to go well with the audience.

Ideally, a planetarium should produce different programmes for different types of audience.

One set of programmes should aim to acquaint informed laypersons about their cosmic environment,

while another can seek to place the world history of astronomy in a global civilizational context. Also,

there should be programmes meant for the students and related to their text books (see next section).

Public lectures

Planetariums and to a lesser degree other organizations, including research institutes and universities,

organize public lectures on astronomical topics. Some interesting insights can be obtained from the

feedback provided by the lecturers.

The audience seems to be keen to know about the latest on our immediate cosmic

neighborhood, the solar system. Description of results from space missions and discussion on the

chances of life elsewhere are popular topics, even though extraterrestrial life tends to mean different

things to the speaker and the audience. There is often an interest in the positional aspects, as expressed

in questions like: How far is comet Halley these days? or Sun is in Gemini now, isn’t it?

Lectures on the physics of the sun itself, stars and galaxies fail to animate the audience which

however comes alive when the origin of the universe is discussed. Here the listeners enjoy the feeling

of being on as firm a ground as the speaker is. They can freely express their personal opinion on the

closure or otherwise of the universe without feeling overwhelmed by the speaker. Of course, black

hole remains an all-time favourite of the audience.

Interestingly, very often no matter what the specific topic of lecture, the questions tend to

veer towards the scientific basis of astrology. It is not that the listeners want to be guided by the

expertise of the speaker in formulating their views. Rather they already have an opinion (mostly proastrology)

which they would like to see supported. Interestingly, in view of the strong support for

astrology among laypersons and publicmen, scientists often refrain from taking a public stand on the

issue. Even when they criticize astrology it is often done in such a subtle manner as to render it almost

harmless. There have been instances when planetarium directors have lent tacit support to astrological

practices or notions, partly out of their own convictions and partly with a view to playing to the


Popular books

A more permanent source of astronomical information, especially for young readers, is

science magazines, science pages of newspapers and popular books. Very often the periodicals reprint

articles taken from the international press. Since the background level of Indian readership is different,

such reprints are of limited value. A niche exists for popular books in Indian languages.

Unfortunately, very often these books are written by authors who do not have a deep understanding of

the subject and are content with a superficial photocopy-and-staple job.

Such books (and articles) often contain conceptual and factual errors which innocent young

readers are unlikely to be able to detect on their own. The remedy of course is that eminent research

scientists and university teachers should write books for young readers. With few exceptions, this does

not happen. The reason is that historically modern Indian governance, including the education system,

has not operated on the well recognized principle of growth from the grass-root level but on the

pretension that intellectual and material benefits given to the top layers will trickle down the


Of the 18 officially recognized Indian languages, two, Bengali and Marathi, seem to have the

strongest tradition of science writing. Significantly, a publishing house in Calcutta is working on an

ambitious plan to bring out 150 – 200 page books in Bengali on topics of current scientific interest,

written and edited by working scientists.

Most of the educational programmes focus on handing down information. There are very few

initiatives which seek to familiarize the target audience with the night sky through actual observations

or with the nitty gritty of making and using telescopes.


The Indian school system caters co an enormously large number of students. A small number

of schools offer education through the medium of English language, while the vast majority of poorly

equipped schools teach through the local language, very often the mother tongue. The system is

characterized by heavy centralization, obsession with examinations, severe paucity of funds, and

populism. Such a system does not have much of scope for hands-on training. The emphasis is on

teaching from textbooks written according to a centrally prescribed syllabus. The respect for and fear

of the text-book could still be converted into an asset if the books were accurate, attractive and user

friendly. This unfortunately is not the case.

Astronomy does figure in the school syllabus but suffers from over-kill. No attempt is made

to ascertain the absorption level of young minds. Even 10-12 year olds are inflicted with terms like

chromosphere and thermonuclear reactions. A 1989 text written for school drop-outs aspiring for a

bachelor’s degree through distance education covers the whole gamut of astronomical knowledge in a

span of 60 pages: from epicycles to cosmic microwave radiation; from continental drift to types of

clusters of galaxies; from the definition of optical astronomy to the design of Hale telescope.

To make matters worse, the bulky text books often dense, insensitive and not infrequently

wrong. A school book informs the child of Saturn’s rings adds that Saturn’s atmosphere consists of

poison gases, leading the child to the scary thought (expressed to friends, and sometimes parents, but

to the teachers) that if one looked at Saturn’s rings one would die. The distance education text referred

to above expands IRAS as International Radio Astronomical Satellite.

In the interest of the mental and physical health of the school goers and for the sake of

propagation of astronomical knowledge, it is important to answer the following two questions

beforehand: (i) What level of information is consistent with the comprehension level of the target

readership of the text? (ii) How is this information to be conveyed in a correct and lucid manner?

Colleges and universities

After spending 12 years in school. Indian students have a number of options open to them. They can

join a 4-5 year course in engineering or medicine. (This is the current preference of the brightest of the

students). They can go to a college for a 3-year course leading to a bachelor’s degree in science,

humanities, commerce or management. Courses leading to master’s degree in science are offered in

the universities which also offer bachelor-level honours courses in science. The higher education

system, like the school, is inflexible and examination oriented. It is also heavily weighted against

basic space science

The following are some of the features of the Indian higher education system, which may be

of all interest in a wider context.

i. At the B.Sc. level, basic space science is almost entirely absent from the prescribed syllabus.

ii. For the non-science students there is no provision for any astronomy teaching.

iii. Of the 150 odd universities in the country, perhaps no more than five or six have astronomy or

space science departments. (Chances of receiving grant-in-aid are higher if the moniker contains the

key words space science.). In the universities, there seems to be resistance from well-entrenched

branches of modern physics to the introduction of a new discipline like space physics.

iv. There are only two observatories attached to universities; both are dysfunctional. One, with a 1.2 m

reflector, due to lack of funds; the other, with a 0.5 m reflector, due to its location right in the middle

of a well-lit lively campus.

v. The actual number of students studying for a master’s degree in space science (including

astronomy) or offering space science as a special paper for M.Sc. in physics is very small.

vi. Most of the teaching tends to be bookish rather than practical, which in turn emphasizes “learning”

rather than problem solving. More generally, the social ambience that permeates the academic world

also glamorizes brahmanical type of studies as against dirty-hand experiments.

vii. There is almost total decoupling between fund-starved universities and rather well-endowed

research institutes. A student enrolling for Ph.D. in the latter has to spend two years acquiring the

necessary background knowledge. (Here also emphasis is on theory rather than experiments and

observations). This is not a very satisfactory practice. It is better to catch students young. If basic

space science were taught at B.Sc./M.Sc. level, many students may discover that they have an aptitute

for the subject which they may decide to pursue. A positive, though small, step is the conducting of

summer schools where college and university students are given lectures as well as, at times, practical

training with optical and radio telescopes.

The Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics established at Pune in 1988 seeks to

create an awareness about astronomical sciences among the university and college teachers and


viii. Ironically, as the pace of scientific developments in astronomically advanced countries has

quickened, the access of astronomically developing countries to current technical literature including

modern text-books has decreased drastically. The reasons are: increase in the list-price of astronomical

publications; devaluation of most currencies against hard currencies; and general increase in the

number of publication channels. During the last 20 years, the price of a typical text may have shot up

more than three times. During the same period Indian rupee has gone down from eight rupees a dollar

to 40, so that a library would need a 102 times enhanced budget to remain stacked at the two-decade

old level. Such money has not been forthcoming. Consequently, interested students often turn to

outdated texts. As for research journals, most libraries subscribe to only well known journals, whose

standardization itself works against cross-fertilization of ideas. Conference, proceedings, etc, which

convey a flavour of the ongoing debate among researchers are often considered too expensive to be


ix. It would seem that in the absence of a vibrant, demanding and alert student community, it is

difficult to produce an authoritative text. In this context, Indian and foreign reviews of a 1992 Indian

astrophysics text are instructive. An Indian review obligingly includes a four page corrigenda on

“typographical and other errors”, The foreign review is gaurded: “While they (students) will find much

valuable material therein, particularly in the more well-established parts of stellar

interiors/atmospheres, interstellar matter, and motion of stars in galaxies, I fear that they will also find

the book rather uninspiring, and short of excitement about the latest topics”. Interestingly, while an

Indian reviewer expresses his unhappiness at the “price which is unusually high for [Indian] students”,

the western reviewer concludes, “The fact that it is very cheap in ‘western’ countries must commend It

to impecunious students”….. “It would seem almost too good to be true to find a text book on

astrophysics for 6!”.

x. It is quite clear that a handful of purely-research institutes, decoupled from the B.Sc./M.Sc. level

students can only be of limited utility. If the culture of teaching of, and research in, basic space

science is to take roots and spread, the university system at large would need to be activated by

creating a core of inspiring teachers and by providing rather rugged, easily repairable small

observational facilities under university auspices at a number of spread-out places.


As has already been noted, many better performing students these days prefer to join institutions

offering engineering and other professional courses rather than enroll in pure sciences. Many such

institutions have good or excellent workshop facilities. They are in addition mostly residential, so that

the students are free of family loyalties and restraints.

This segment of the student community needs to be encouraged to take to astronomy. They

can set up astronomy clubs with the help of interested faculty members and even establish small

observatories to house 20-30 cm aperture telescopes. They can expect to receive free consultancy,

encouragement and technical help from research scientists on individual as well as institutional level.

In view of the limited human and material resources in astronomically developing countries,

there is need for cross national cooperation and exchange of notes so that mistakes are not duplicated

and benefit can be obtained from others’ experience. In training of manpower and preparation of

source material, countries at more or less same level of industrial development can coordinate their

efforts under the auspices of agencies like the United Nations, and take to studying and enriching

basic space science as an intellectually stimulating and culturally enhancing exercise.


I have benefited from conversations with a large number of colleagues and friends. I particularly thank

D.C.V. Mallik, J.V. Narlikar, B.S. Shylaja, P. Venkatakrishnan and C.V. Vishveswara.