Tag Archives: economic nationalism

Indian science policy in the globalization era

Rajesh Kochhar
(Lecture delivered at Centre for Public Policy, Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, 29 August 2007)

The term science policy does not command immediate recognition the way foreign policy and economic policy do. This is because the public perception of science in India has been fashioned by the Nehruvian era of innocence and idealism. In the years immediately following independence, science ( along with technology and education) was seen as the primary tool of nation building, which in turn was recognized as the chief goal of the state. In foreign and economic affairs there were conflicting ideologies at work and a considered decision had to be taken on the nation’s line of action. But science was taken to be benign in all its peace-time manifestations, and the course of science action obvious.

The days of uni-dimensionality of science are over. Globalization has been made possible by recent advances in information and communication technology. Science has become an important factor in economics, trade and diplomacy. There are no localized events any more. One country’s misfortune or mis-step can be another country’s opportunity (tsunami, SARS, bird-flu). Divisions can have far-reaching political and economic consequences, and yet they must be taken quickly, calling for a high level of preparedness. Demise of internationalism , and abdication of responsibility by the state in the name of globalization accompanied by the rise of the lobbyist increase the risk of wrong action, over-reaction or, more often, plain inaction.

Ironically , while the role of science in the world as a whole has increased, science and science education have lost ground in India. About 60% of Indian GDP now comes from the service sector which is science-less. The much-flaunted IT sector grossly under-employs people creating man-power shortage in all other sectors. Service economy is essentially a servile economy. The country has prematurely got into celebrating what is no more than the wage state in the international work-place, feeding apprehensions that it may never reach the royalty stage.

Be it the predictability of an earthquake; chances of return of tsunami; grounding of an air-bus, probability of bird-flu mutating into human flu; export of heavy-metal rich Ayurvedic preparations; human resource needs of sun-rise sectors ( IT, auto-component , pharmaceutical ),education and the state science; ecological ,environmental and employment issues; or the impact of globalization on Indian agriculture, there is need to formulate a science-related public policy so that firm and quick decisions can be taken which will stand the test of time.

Whenever the term economic policy or foreign policy is mentioned, it is greeted with instant recognition. But the term science policy more often than not draws a blank. The reason probably is this. In foreign and economic affairs, conflicting ideologies are known to be at work. Therefore it is recognized that different options be weighed and a considered decision reached on the actual line of action.

The public perception of science in India has been fashioned by the Nehruvian era of innocence and idealism. Science (along with technology and education) was seen as the primary tool for nation-building which in turn was recognized as the chief goal of the state. In the years immediately after independence it was implicitly believed that all peace-time manifestations of science must necessarily be benevolent. Science itself was the policy; there was no need for a science policy!

The age of romance with science is long over. Science is no longer uni-dimensional. When I was in NISTADS, I was often asked at semi-social gatherings what my Institute did. “We are researching into science policy” was invariably countered with “ What’s science policy?”. Mind you, the question came not from a fashionable socialite, but a professional or an informed layperson. By trial and error I hit upon a short satisfactory answer , mentioning some of the problems we were interested in. Pesticides in cold drinks; pollution in rivers; falling water table, etc. This seemed to satisfy the questioner, So quite obviously, environmental degradation caused by excessive use of technology has become part of common consciousness. This is a rather obvious and global science aspect of policy. There are others which are less obvious and far more complex, because they are related to nation’s economy and trade.

Some years ago, Chinese deputy science minister visited our Institute for discussions. A few days previously, Business Standard had published an essay where the author argued that just as China had emerged as the manufacturing hub, India should become the services hub. I wrote a short rejoinder disputing this prescription. I argued that China is the hub for low-skill requiring manufacture. India should become the centre for high-skilled upper-end manufacture. I gave a copy of this letter to the Chinese minister who read it , frowned and took my permission to keep it. Then he made a significant remark. China knows that it cannot compete with the West on technologies of today. Therefore it is making money from techs of yesterday and investing in the high techs of the future. China is capable of planning for a hundred years or even longer. In the same spirit during an official visit to China, I was asked to spend some time with a researcher who had been deputed to make projections for the Chinese traditional medicine exports, which are currently worth about its 12 billion dollars. ( China will lose this market overnight if US decides to classify traditional medicine as medicine instead of food supplement.) In contrast, India as a nation is incapable of afraid of keeping a long-term focus, and is scared of decision making or advance planning for fear of failure.

There is a basic difference in the approach of India and of China towards the West. China seems to be telling the West : “ This is a beautiful house you are occupying. Get out because I want to live here. India seems to be saying : “ This is a lovely house you are living in. Please permit me to stay in the out-house.

In most countries, public policy is expected to be arrived at following wide-spread and thorough discussions and consultations. Once formulated it is strictly adhered to, like an architect’s approved plan is while constructing a house. The term policy or policy document carries tremendous sanctity. It took me quite some time to put across the point ( in Japan and South Korea) that an Indian policy document should not be read with a legal eye. It always remains fluid, permitting lobbying, negotiations, improvements, improvisations, and retreat. Even when a policy has been enunciated ,it can only indicate the broad direction in which developments are expected to take place. One should look up an Indian policy document for intention rather than promise, supplement it with insights and information from other sources, and test it against the actual happenings.

The context was a report issued by the National Manufacturing Competitiveness Council (NMCC) .It was too general to be of any use, except for the statistical figures it quoted. It is a well-known fact that auto components and pharma are the top priority areas in Indian manufacturing today, except that you will not learn this from this particular official document.

We must of course distinguish between industrial policy and science policy. More specifically , what IS science policy?

Science policy

Science policy can be understood to cover two areas : Policy as related to the pursuit of science itself (covering issues such as funding of basic research, education policy); and public policy issues with a scientific aspect ( climate change, environment, bio-fuels, GM foods, bio-ethics, disaster management, skill development). These two areas are not mutually exclusive. State support for education and scientific research itself is part of public policy. But it is often convenient to distinguish between (i) science policy where science is the output and (ii) science policy where science is an input.

The subject of science policy is very vast. After some general remarks, I would like to dwell on those aspects which are largely ungoogleable, being based on first-hand experience (e.g. economic nationalism by the side door; perceptions of long-range Chinese policy; software triumphalism).

Globalization has been made possible by recent rapid developments in information and communication technology (ICT). Thanks to globalization, markets have become globally competitive; entirely new businesses have opened up; and , most importantly, time scales of change have become extremely short. Countries can no longer conduct their politics, economics and trade in isolation. There are no local events any more. One country’s mis-step or misfortune can be another country’s opportunity.

When tsunami hit Indonesia, tourists shifted to the Indian west coast. Similarly, bird flu in east Asia pushed up Indian poultry exports. For similar reasons, China initially tried to suppress reports of SARS incidence. The world may or may not have become a global village, but it certainly has become a global hospital.

Economic nationalism by the side door

An important aspect of globalization does not seem to have received much attention. Globalization may be thriving, but economic nationalism is not dead. It is in hiding and waiting to sneak in through the side door marked environmental and health considerations. ( This is not to say that these considerations are not valid.) Countries are ready to ban import of poultry , beef or other food items on the slightest suspicion. Growing concern about China’s booming exports is being accompanied by stricter examination of Chinese toys, textiles, tooth-pastes for toxicity. Backlash is developing in the western markets against Chinese goods. China is facing up to the challenge. But, can India profit from the situation while the going is good?

Current high economic growth in India has been made possible by technological developments elsewhere. It is a worrisome irony that while science and technology are today playing a far greater role in trade, economics, diplomacy and international relations than ever before, science and science education have sharply declined in India. This is because globalization has transformed the character of Indian economy. About 60% of Indian GDP now comes from the service sector which is intrinsically science-less. Since Indian economy does not seem to require science any more, science is in decline. This is dangerous. Coping with new developments ( bird flue, GM) is not easy even for better equipped countries .It will be impossible for a scientifically semi-literate country.

A few years ago when there was an accident involving an airbus, India, in a knee-jerk reaction, grounded all its airbuses for a long time , suffering huge losses in the process. This happened because India did not have the confidence to undertake evaluation of even a standard technology. But today there are developments on the scientific and technological frontiers, whichare intrinsically difficult to assess.

Bird flu

Bird flu is a case in point. As is known, domestic poultry can be infected with bird flu virus, which gets transferred to human beings who come into very close contact with poultry as in Vietnam , China , etc.. So far , the virus has not mutated to be able to transfer from humans to humans. At the same time, wild fowl are known to receive infection from domestic fowl and die. How do you respond to news of infection in poultry or the death of a wild turkey? Most countries play safe by over-reacting , although it is not possible to say at what stage the reaction crosses the threshold. Many people would argue that the dangers of bird flu are being exaggerated because vaccines have been prepared. The demise of altruistic international agencies has made the task of technology assessment very difficult and uncertain.

GM crops

Genetic modification of crops is probably the most significant development in agriculture since the domestication of wheat and barley 9000 years ago. The response it has elicited the world over is diverse indeed. It has been a rather easy matter for Europe to take a stand against GM foods because agriculture is not an important part of its economy. US always the boldest is going ahead with it. Australia, which is a big exporter of food grains, is cautiously making a distinction between commercial crops, like Bt cotton (permitted) and GM foods (taboo).China alone is capable of experimenting unmindful of consequences.

India seems to be caught in the cross fire within the country. When green revolution was ushered in , international and national agencies were involved in a big way. Mexican wheat and Manila rice were developed by world bodies. The new varieties were adapted to local conditions by the state agricultural universities, and as the next step in the chain the government acted as a bridge between agricultural scientists and the farmers.

But in the case of genetically modified crops, international agencies are totally absent and the state has far lesser role and credibility as regulator, advisor or facilitator. GM technologies are being developed by multi-national companies with low credibility. There is nobody to adapt these technologies to suit local conditions; educate the farmers on their use; and closely monitor the developments. There are hardly any reliable monitoring agencies. The space vacated by the retreat of the state has been occupied by NGOs which often overstate their case. On top of this there is a tussle between the GM and pesticide lobbies.

An executive decision , or in case of India a decision by the higher judiciary, can be meaningful only if it is backed by a broad agreement among experts. If the expert opinions show a 180 degree spread, the executive decision can go in any direction. Only if the available expertise defines a narrow cone , can one expect the ensuing policy to be broadly in the right direction. State universities , which have the necessary freedom and disinterestedness , must examine the issues rigorously and publish their findings so that policies can be based on firm inputs.

Notwithstanding high growth rates in new economy, India’s political stability and well-being still depend on the health of agricultural sector .The most worrisome part of Indian economy is that agricultural growth has been stagnant for a long period. Although agriculture’s share in GDP has drastically come down , to 20%, as much as 60% of work force still depends on it. As is well-known, agriculture affects other sectors as well. Over-use of agrochemicals and overdrawal of water have posed serious environmental and economic problems. Even without GM, there is scope for increased food production. There is need to revive investment and research in agriculture.

Basic science still needed

Bhuj earthquake

Grounding in fundamentals of science is essential for responding to natural disasters and the public perception thereof. After the Bhuj earthquake, there was a claim by an individual that he had predicted it and conveyed his prediction to the government.. Since the claim was placed before the parliament , the government was asked to explain. I was informally consulted by the then science state minister whose responsibility it was to answer science questions. My reasoning was simple. Even if an individual makes a prediction , the government cannot act on it , because it is only after the event that its truthfulness or otherwise can be ascertained. Government can act only if scientists as a body make a prediction. Science at its current levels is unable to predict earthquakes.

Tsunami

The recent tsunami also raised many questions. There was a phone call from a TV channel reporter . As you know the media gives you the minimum information from its side and wants you to say something. Can another tsunami come? I gave him a class room lecture explaining that an earth quake is always followed by others with increasingly less intensity, and therefore a tsunami cannot be followed by another equally devastating one. It is only then that he revealed that the people had been officially asked to move away because of the incoming ( second ) tsunami. Whenever there is an earthquake, the media adds to the panic by highlighting the news of the ones that follow as if they are as unexpected as the first one was.

There was much discussion on how to deal with tsunamis. A particular stupid and greedy suggestion was to build a wall along the cost. Incidentally , the definition of earthquake according to Geological Survey of India, continuing from the colonial times, recognizes only earthquakes that occur on the mainland , but not on the sea floor. It is noteworthy that there is no term for tsunami in any Indian language. This tells us that tsunamis were so infrequent that they never became a part of living memory. The next tsunami to hit the Indian east coast may not appear for two centuries. Also, we already have a nature-given warning system . The nearest tsunami can originate on the east coast is at the distance of Andaman – Nicobar, from where the waves will need about two hours to reach the shore. Unlike the cyclone, the tsunami waves remain tied to the ocean. By keeping the coast clear will minimize the damage.

Electricity from Himalayan rivers

My purpose here has been to drive home the point that a basic understanding of natural phenomena is very essential. Another example deals with engineering exercises that can lead to man-made disasters. Himalayan rivers are eminently suitable for hydro-power generation. Yet at Nathpa-Jhakri on Satluj in Himachal and Baglihar on Chenab in Kashmir , there have been serious technical problems leading to shut-downs and great financial loss. As is well-known, the Himalayas are kutcha mountains and its rivers carry lot of silt. It appears that while designing the power station, the silt carried by the river has been grossly under-estimated. More generally , when we talk of such grandiose plans as linking of rivers, we tend to view them as water pipes and not dynamic though fragile eco-systems.

Skill requirements in service sector and its impact on others

When the West criticizes India’s nuclear or missile programme , we feel happy. Similarly when the West praises India’s so-called IT prowess , why don’t we become suspicious that there must be a catch somewhere? As a substitute for hard-core long-term thinking, we indulge in tokenism and triumphalism. India’s share in the world IT market is about 2%.It is too small to make India a hub. In contrast, India’s share in dismantling electronic waste and in breaking ships is about 30% each. Properly speaking India is a hub for dealing with obsolete computers than the current ones.

Indian software and BPO sector is expected to earn $41 bn in 2007-08.This figure may appear to be large , but is not when placed in context. In the same period India expects to receive $30 bn as private remittances from Indians living/working abroad ( about two thirds of this comes from the Gulf and USA).In 2005 China earned from US about $60bn from export of low-tech sports goods, toys and the like. Indian IT sector ( with more I than T)is characterized by gross under-employment. It is acting as a brain sink, causing severe problems for all other sectors including manufacturing and government science.

Even within software-driven sector, there is an acute shortage of skilled labour, restricting growth , pushing up costs and preventing move up the value ladder. Software companies seem to be more interested in collaborating with the government in acquiring real estate than in training people.

Difference in perception: GE in US and in India/China

I have downloaded a paper by an American academic, entitled “Globalization and its impact on science , technology and education: A macro analysis”. It lauds “reformation, restructuring and re-definition of existing technological networks” brought about by globalization. “GE’s worldwide R&D system best personifies this new alignment-along with its major global R&D center in Niskayuna, New York (near Albany), GE now has active R&D centers in Shanghai, Bangalore, Munich, and St. Petersburg, Russia.”

This may well be true. It however needs to be driven home that in Indian R&D centres of foreign companies, there is more D than R. Also , all the patents are owned by the parent company , even if the authors of the patents are Indians. If these centres were in the West, the Indians employed would be getting much higher salaries, and bringing home most of the savings. You do not become rich from wages; you become rich from royalties. Of course, training under foreign auspices is a necessary prerequisite, but if we start celebrating the wage-stage, we will never reach the royalty stage.

Let us return to the business model of GE. Its medical division operates at three levels. US centre produces top-end instrumentation for medical research institutions. Japan produces high-end machines for hospitals. GE’s India and China production centres mass-produce simple machines for determining the sex of unborn babies. It is no exaggeration to say that GE’s economy in India and China is driven by the abortion market.

When economies were isolated, it was easy to define national interest and devise ways to protect and advance it. National interest is still important under globalization, although it is easy to lose focus. S & T issues are more important than ever before and require clearer and sharper thinking as a prelude to quick and decisive action.//

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. //