Tag Archives: Nehru

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.//

Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar: Life and times

R. Kochhar (2004) S.S. Bhatnagar: Life and Times. (Review essay) In New edition, Life & Work of Sir S.S. Bhatnagar (by Norah Richards). (Delhi: NISTADS) first published 1948

 

Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (1894-1955) was, in a way, a bridge between two cultures and two eras. He came at a time when science was greeted with a sense of mission, but literature was still valued. Encouragement and recognition were sought from the colonial empire, not as an end in itself, but as a prelude to nation building.  An internationally acclaimed chemist, Bhatnagar wrote Urdu poetry under the aptly chosen pen-name of Seemab (meaning mercury) and went on to compose, in Sanskrit, the ceremonial hymn for Benaras Hindu University. Notwithstanding his knighthood and the official position of Director (since renamed Director-General) of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Bhatnagar had the courage to publicly touch the feet of the Congress president on the latter’s release from jail. If the chemical industry, along with its derivative the pharmaceutical, is an important part of Indian economy today, it is in no small measure due to the scientific and managerial efforts of Bhatnagar who half in jest claimed intellectual lineage from the pioneering Indian modern chemist P.C. Ray, Bhatnagar’s teacher having been Ray’s early student.  Chemistry was rather a laboured link with Bengal; what exercised great influence on the course of Bhatnagar’s life was the Bengal-born Brahmo Samaj movement.

(xiii)

Shanti’s father, Parameshwari Sahai, became a Brahmo, preferring the idealist vocation of a teacher to the family’s favourite practice of taking well-paying, middling jobs in revenue and judiciary. Leaving college half-way through on his father’s death and estranged from his uncles because of his religious beliefs, Sahai became second master at Anglo-Sanskrit High School, Bhera, district Shahpur, Punjab, from where, in 1893, he went to Lahore to serve as a volunteer at the Indian National Congress. In 1894, on 21 February, Shanti was born; in March Sahai privately sat for his B.A. examination, which he passed with distinction in history and English. Sahai however died when Shanti was barely eight months old. Cut off from the husband’s side and without any means of her own, Sahai’s young widow and her three children (one yet unborn) were received by her father, Munshi Pyare Lal, one of the earliest products of Roorkee engineering college who had now “retired with ample means” to his ancestral house in Sikandarabad, district Bulandshahar, UP. The old house was the repository of a rare collection of Persian books and manuscripts by an ancestor, Mirza Ghalib’s junior contemporary and friend, Munshi Har Gopal Tufta, himself a well-known poet. The collection came down to Bhatnagar who, in 1919, passed it on to the

university library, Lahore. One of the rarities was “a

Persian version of the Mahabharata for which Shanti

Swarup received a small sum from the library

authorities.”

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SCHOOL EDUCATION

In the comfortable, albeit sheltered and secluded,

atmosphere of his grandfather’s house, Shanti spent his

first thirteen years. Henceforth he would pay for his

education himself, by winning scholarships and giving

private coaching. In 1908, Rai Sahib Lala Raghu Nath

Sahai, Parameshwari Sahai’s childhood friend and soulmate

and Shanti’s future father-in-law, took the young

lad under his wings. How this happened is an

interesting story. Raghu Nath Sahai accompanied by his

son Bishwa Nath Sahai travelled from Lahore to

Panipat to attend a wedding. “Those were the days

when young children from the groom’s side and from

the bride’s side used to participate just before the

marriage, in a competitive spirit, in a function called

Ghazal-Khwani [Ghazal recital competition]. Young

Shanti Swarup was found quite outstanding in this

competition. Mr Bishwa Nath Sahai, who was a

graduate in psychology, gave an IQ test to young Shanti

Swarup and found him much above average. He

brought this to the notice of [his own father] R.S.

Raghu Nath Sahai, who immediately made enquiries

regarding the boy and found to his great joy and

surprise that Shanti Swarup was the son of his very dear

lamented friend Parmeshari Sahai. Soon R.S. Raghu

Nath Sahai made up his mind to take Shanti Swarup to

Lahore for proper care and better schooling.”1 Here

Shanti joined Dyal Singh High School of which Raghu

Nath was the headmaster. (Dyal Singh was a prominent

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landowner and a leading light of the Brahmo movement

in Punjab. He also founded the influential English paper

The Tribune.)

At school, Shanti developed an absorbing interest in

science, “delighting in scientific experiment”.

“Whenever boys in senior classes failed to answer

questions in science, he was sent for and invariably

gave the correct answers. As a reward, he was asked to

box the ears of senior boys.”2 He “contrived for

himself a crude laboratory in one of the galleries of the

School Hall and had stocked it with old tubes, broken

flasks, batteries and any useful thing that by hook or by

crook could be got hold of.” “Then, it is said he gave

some chemical preparation as hair tonic to his

mathematics teacher, Mr. Ram Narain Gupta. To the

latter’s shock his hair turned white prematurely. Shanti

Swarup was given a few cane strokes as punishment.

Later on, Mr. Gupta used to proudly say that his cane

can work miracles and can send a student abroad.”3 The

teachers often complained to the headmaster that Shanti

“was a great trouble to them, perpetually plying them

with questions; that he was restless in the class room

and always too ready to retort when admonished.” In

1911, the schoolboy Shanti published a letter to the

editor in The Leader (Allahabad) on how to make a

substitute for carbon electrodes in a battery, by using

molasses and carbonaceous matter under pressure and

heat (Attempts to trace the letter have so far been

unsuccessful). Significantly, 31 years later, Bhatnagar

returned to the problem in his laboratory when material

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for making electrodes could not be imported because of

the second world war.

On matriculation in 1911, he moved on to the newly

opened Dyal Singh College on a university scholarship.

A lasting influence on him here was the theatre

personality, Irish-born Norah Richards (1876-1971),

whose husband Philip Ernest Richards came from the

Unitarian Ministry in England as the Professor of

English literature and whose duties included “freethinking

religious discourse.” Having been a successful

stage artiste herself, under her maiden name Norah

Mary Hutman, she encouraged students not only to

perform the plays that were “prescribed for academic

study” but also to write original ones. In the spring of

1912, the Irish play “Spreading the News” by Lady

Gregory “of Abbey Theatre, Dublin fame” was

performed at Dyal Singh College, in which “the deaf

apple-woman was played by S.S. Bhatnagar with much

drollery” (as Norah Richards recalled later). The same

year, Norah Richards initiated an intra-college one-act

play competition in which Bhatngar’s Urdu play

Karamat (pronounced karaamaat, “miracle”) won the

first prize. The play “satirized the clash between

scientific and superstitious methods of healing”. Norah

Richards declared it to be “pure Bhatnagar!” “The play

was however banned by an over-cautious principal lest

it offended local sentiments”. In 1915, Norah Richards

founded an inter-collegiate Saraswati Stage Society

with herself as the president and Sir Rabindra Nath

Tagore as one of the associates. Bhatnagar by then in

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Forman Christian College was among the honorary

members. Karamat was enacted by the Saraswati

Society.

Bhatnagar was greatly inspired by his professor,

N.N. Godbole, whose enthusiasm for indigenous

industrial products he imbibed. Bhatnagar in fact

contributed an article on “Fermentation phenomena of

pomegranate juice,” in a magazine aptly called

Raushani (light) brought out by the Society for

Promoting Scientific Knowledge launched by Lahore

Medical College students.

(Bhatnagar remained in touch with Norah Richards

through out his life. She left for Europe in 1920 on the

death of her husband only to return in 1924 for good.

Eventually she settled on a 15-acre property in a small

village Andretta near Palampur in the Kangra valley

(now in Himachal Pradesh), where she remained till her

death. Norah Richards wrote Bhatnagar’s biography

during January and February 1944 while staying in his

house in Delhi. “Originally a commission from a

Biographical Research Society in America, it missed

the last date for sending in… Two abortive attempts at

publication were then made, one with an English firm

in India and one in Britain.” A Lahore publisher

showed interest, but nothing came out of it. Finally the

biography with some additional material was published

from New Delhi in 1948. This affectionate and leisurely

biography written with full cooperation from Bhatnagar

remains our primary source of information on his

personal and family life.)

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HIGHER EDUCATION

In 1913, after finishing his intermediate examination in

first division, Bhatnagar joined Forman Christian

College, “where he did not allow any distractions from

his studies in Science”. His unexceptional quest for

knowledge produced rather unexpected results. When

he sat for his B.Sc. examination in 1915, he flunked in

the subject his name is now associated with: chemistry.

One of the questions dealt with the nature of X-rays,

discovered ten years previously. Bhatnagar, on the

authority of the books he had read, wrote that X-rays

could be reflected, refracted and polarized just as

ordinary light. This however went against what was

written in the textbook, the examiner’s touchstone. (Did

the examiner know that Bhatnagar was right but felt

that he himself was duty bound to go by the textbook?

Or did he genuinely believe that the textbook was

right?). Bhatnagar eventually got his degree next year,

with honours in physics.

In retrospect, the incident of Bhatnagar’s flunking

the B.Sc. examination looks mildly amusing. But in its

time it increased his difficulties. The more so, because

he got married, in May 1915, to Raghu Nath Sahai’s

daughter, Lajwanti, who had received her early

education in Dyal Singh High School, “which was

purely a boys’ school” and where her father was the

headmaster. “Kumari Lajwanti would go dressed as a

tomboy with a Salma Sitara [decorated] cap.”

Throughout his college days, Shanti remained in

straitened circumstances. As an undergraduate he had

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earned his examination fees by making an inventory of

the contents of the Forman Chemical Laboratories.

During this period, financially and professionally

rewarding was the consultancy work he did for a

leading Lahore stationer who could not import gelatin

duplicating pads from Germany because of the war.

The problem was referred to Bhatnagar by his

chemistry professor and the solution fetched him the

welcome sum of Rs.150.

After completing his B.Sc. in 1916, Bhatnagar took

up a job as demonstrator in physics and chemistry in

Forman Christian College, moving on to Dyal Singh

College as a senior demonstrator in chemistry. Youth

and love saw the couple through difficult times. They

lived in a hired two roomed first floor tenement within

the school campus. He took up private coaching to

augment his meager income as a Senior Demonstrator

at Dyal Singh college. “After college duty he would

rush to the hostel of Chief’s College, to tutor his ward.

He had to do nearly 20 miles up and down on bicycle

and would be quite late for his dinner with his newly

married wife. Her pleadings with him to return home

not so late did not cut much ice with him. One night to

his great surprise he found the staircase bolted from

inside. After knocking for some minutes, he could sense

the purpose of his young wife. Nobody could however

outdo this clever young husband. Adjacent to his house

there was a peepŭl [ficus religiosa] tree with a high

platform around it. Shanti Swarup just climbed it and

jumped from its branch over hanging the back yard of

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his house and very lovingly woke up Lajwanti who had

dozed off.”4 In 1917, he studied for his M.Sc. as a

private student. Then for the next two years he worked

from the Forman College, receiving instruction from

professors of the Government College under the

scheme of inter-collegiate post-graduate teaching. He

obtained his M.Sc. degree in 1919, taking three years as

he had done for the B.Sc. As part of his degree

requirements, he studied the surface tension of water.

The next two years, 1919-1921, Bhatnagar spent at

the University of London earning his D.Sc. degree on

surface tension of oils, under the supervision of Prof.

F.G. Donnan, FRS. This was made possible by the

award of a scholarship by Dyal Singh Trust, thanks to

the efforts of Prof. Ruchi Ram Sahni, a science

professor at the Government College and a member of

the Trust. (Sahni was the father of the well-known

botanist, Birbal Sahni.) “It was during Bhatnagar’s first

years in London that H.R.H the Prince of Wales visited

University College and was shown over the Ramsay

Laboratories by the Director. The Indian students five

in number were at the time busy cooking their mid-day

meal…. H.R.H. looked closely at the preparations and

asked if he might have a taste. The students, thereupon,

invited him and Professor Donnan to share their meal

which they did.”

A travel grant from the British department of

scientific and industrial research enabled Bhatnagar to

visit France and Germany. He was in the group of

fourteen research students from London University that

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went to meet Prof. Walther Hermann Nernst (1864-

1941, Chemistry Nobel prize 1920) in his laboratory in

Berlin with a letter of introduction from Donnan, each

name accompanied by nationality and research topic.

Nernst himself came out to say no; he “would not like

any Britishers to go round.” Later on a note came

addressed to Megh Nad Saha saying that Nernst would

allow the Indian students to see the laboratories because

“the last blow to the British empire would come from

India” (Ironically, the same Nernst took shelter in

England in 1935 after fleeing Nazi Germany).

EMPLOYMENT

Bhatnagar returned to India in 1921 to take up a

professorship at Benaras Hindu University on the

invitation of the founder Pt. Madan Mohan Malaviya.

Bhatnagar took over from one Prof. Mane, an

undistinguished elderly person of about 55, who broke

down while handing over the keys to the new man,

because he had already held them for 15 years.

Magnanimously, Bhatnagar permitted him to remain

the head. “At the close of the meeting [of the Council]

the professors, pleased at Bhatnagar’s action, gathered

around him while Pt. Malaviya hugged him.” (What

the Council thought of Prof. Mane’s attachment to the

keys does not seem to be on record.) In Benaras

Bhatnagar focused on pure research which stood him in

good stead in his later industrial research. Interestingly,

when he learnt about a fellow professor’s plagiarism,

(xxii)

Bhatnagar “leapt on him and gave him a good

drubbing.” (The plagiarist later resigned.) While

bidding farewell to Bhatnagar, Pandit Madan Mohan

Malviya remarked that “whoever leaves Benaras has a

seat reserved for him in heaven.” Bhatnagar retorted

good-humouredly : “I agree with Malviyaji in the sense

that Benaras town being so dirty that whoever leaves

Benaras feels that he is going to a heavenly place.”

In 1924, 30-year old Bhatnagar took over as the

director of the newly opened University Chemical

Laboratories, Lahore, having been chosen in preference

to his rather ineffectual European competitor who had

been Bhatnagar’s teacher. Bhatnagar remained here till

1940. The laboratories addressed problems in industrial

and applied chemistry brought in by agriculturists and

industrialists, such as Sir Ganga Ram, an engineerturned

neo-agriculturist; Lala Shri Ram of Delhi; J K

Mills Kanpur; and Tata Oil Mills. The most celebrated

consultancy, of course, was the solution of the mud

problem brought in by Messers Steel Brothers & Co.,

London. The company, prospecting for oil in Punjab,

used mud to lubricate its drilling jigs. However as soon

as the mud came into contact with the underground salt

deposits, it coagulated, bringing the operations to a halt.

The other experts from the university, consulted by the

company, suggested several “chemical” and

“mechanical” methods which were all impractical. But

“the theoretical chemist – Dr. Bhatnagar – insisted from

the beginning that it was a simple problem in Colloid

Chemistry”. He added an Indian gum to the mud so that

(xxiii)

it would not harden on contact with salt. The company

was so pleased with the result that it offered Bhatnagar

the substantial sum of Rs.1, 50,000. Consistent with the

spirit of the times and his own idealism, Bhatnagar

converted this personal offer “largely to the benefit of

the University and research”, in the form of six research

scholarships for five years. (Synergy with research has

been the strength of Indian chemical industry ever

since.)

CSIR

The first world war had given a chance to Bhatnagar to

do a bit of consultancy on his own for a Lahore

stationer. The second world war (1939-1945) provided

him with an opportunity to build scientific

infrastructure for the country. So far, India’s industrial

backwardness had been Indians’ concern; war made it

Britain’s handicap. Export of raw material from and

import of finished goods into India stopped. At the

same time, India was called upon to take up the

responsibility of “supplying the technical equipment of

a modern army”. The government decided to tackle the

problem of “shortages and substitutes and war

requirements” in two ways: conducting research under

its own auspices; and more importantly funding

scientific and industrial research in centres outside the

government system. It was a foregone conclusion that

the British would leave India after the war. Indians

were already in important positions in government as

(xxiv)

well as in industry and science. Though still working

under British auspices, the Indians sought to dovetail

their country’s post-independence interests into the

British exigencies of war.

In December 1939 Dewan Bahadur Sir Arcot

Ramaswami Mudaliar, commerce member in the

Viceroy’s executive committee, visited Bhatnagar’s

laboratory in Lahore, was impressed by what he saw,

and advised the Viceroy that Bhatnagar be appointed to

head the government’s war-time science effort.

Bhatnagar stipulated that he should have at his disposal

a laboratory for research and that in addition his

Lahore-based research students, funded by Messers

Steel Brothers, be permitted to come along. This was

accepted and in August 1940 Bhatnagar took over as

Director, Scientific and Industrial Research. He was

based in Alipore, Kolkata, where a pre-existing

laboratory was refurbished for his use. (The laboratory

was shifted to Delhi University campus in December

1942, in view of the threat of Japanese invasion.)

In the meantime, on 1 April 1940, a purely advisory

body; Board of Scientific and Industrial Research

(BSIR), was set up with Mudaliar as ex-officio

chairman and a civil servant as the secretary. The Board

would receive research proposals from research

institutions, universities, industries and trades, and

advise the government “whether these proposals were

approved and if so what funds should be provided for

carrying them out.” A year later, on 14 November 1941,

the government agreed to sanction an annual amount of

(xxv)

Rs. 10 lakhs for five years towards establishing an

Industrial Research Fund for “fostering industrial

development in the country.” What was now needed

was a mechanism for utilizing this fund. Accordingly,

on 12 March 1942 a legal entity called a registered

society was set up in Delhi under the name Council of

Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) with

Mudaliar as the ex-officio founder-president. On 26

September 1942, the government transferred the control

of the fund to the Council, at the same time making the

Board an advisory body to it. (26 September is now

celebrated as the CSIR foundation day.) In December

1943, the post of vice-president was created. Sir M.S.

Akbar Hydari, ICS, served as the vice-president till

1946. The first vice-president after independence was

Dr Syama Prasad Mukherjee who held office 1947-

1950.

By virtue of his position in the government,

Bhatnagar was the key figure in the Board and the

Council. It is noteworthy that in the early years,

formation of CSIR hardly made any impact. The setting

up of BSIR was seen as a landmark, because it was the

first time official funding was systematically

forthcoming for research being carried out by

individuals and organizations outside the government

system. CSIR was seen merely as a clearing house. It is

only much later when national laboratories were

established that CSIR came to acquire its distinctive

identity. (Interestingly, Norah Richards’ detailed and

authorized 1948 biography of Bhatnagar does not seem

(xxvi)

to make any mention of CSIR.) From the point of view

of later developments, an important date in the history

of CSIR is 29 February 1944, when the government

declared that “Rs. 1 crore will be forthcoming towards

capital expenditure on a chain of research institutions.”

The chain comprised five laboratories. Their foundation

stone was laid between December 1945 and April 1947:

Central Glass and Ceramics Research Institute, Kolkata

(CGCRI), 24 December 1945; Central Fuel Research

Institute, Dhanbad (CFRI), 17 November 1946;

National Metallurgical Laboratory, Jamshedpur (NML),

21 November 1946; National Physical Laboratory,

Delhi (NPL), 4 January 1947; and National Chemical

Laboratory, Pune (NCL), 6 April 1947. Significantly

for four of these, support was forthcoming from

industry and trade. The house of Tatas gave a grant of

Rs 8.3 lakhs for NCL, with the reasonable condition

that it be located in Pune, within the Mumbai industrial

zone. (The Tata suggestion that the laboratory be

named after them did not find acceptance.) For NML,

the Tatas donated 30 acres of land in their steel city

Jamshedpur, backing the offer with a grant of Rs 11.7

lakhs. For CFRI located in the central Indian coal-belt,

Raja of Jharia, Babu Shiva Prasad Singha, donated

about 100 acres of land, which lay near the colliery of

the Tatas as well as the Model Town being built by

them. CGCRI received Rs 10,000 each from the Bengal

and the UP glass manufacturers’ associations. CGCRI

was headed by Dr Atma Ram, who began his career in

1936 as a chemical assistant at the much-maligned

(xxvii)

Industrial Research Bureau, and later (1966-1971) rose

to head the CSIR itself. For the futuristic NPL, Delhi

was chosen in preference to Kolkata partly on the

extraneous ground that this would enable the laboratory

“to keep in touch with the government.”

Interestingly the Punjab government was keen to

recall Bhatnagar after the war and make him the vicechancellor

of Punjab University, but the proposal fell

through because of the disinclination of the Union

government to relieve him. CSIR was transformed after

independence by Jawaharlal Nehru, who made the

Prime Minister ex-officio president of CSIR. (In this

respect, CSIR is unique in the country.) The five

laboratories sanctioned in 1944 were all opened

between January and November 1950, led by NCL,

Pune, which was inaugurated by Nehru on 3 January

1950, the occasion being provided by the holding of

Indian Science Congress. Significantly the first

laboratory planned after independence dealt with food,

and, equally significantly, was housed in a palace.

Thanks to the royal gift from government of what is

now Karnataka, Central Food Technological Research

Institute, Mysore (into which was merged the already

existing Indian Institute of Fruit Technology) was

ceremonially opened on 21 October 1950. During

Bhatnagar’s tenure as the Director-General (as the post

was later renamed), more specifically in the fiveyear

span 1950-1954, as many as 14 laboratories

were opened, acquired or had their foundation

stone laid. (These include the five sanctioned before

(xxviii)

independence.) Being the solitary scientific

organization of its time, CSIR nurtured many

initiatives. Thus, as early as 1946, it set up an Atomic

Research Committee under the chairmanship of Dr

Homi Bhabha, a step that culminated in the

establishment of Atomic Energy Commission. It funded

research on “biological aspects of atomic research”, and

extended financial support to “the Research Institute of

the Indian Academy of Sciences”, directed by Sir C.V.

Raman. The building of Physical Research Laboratory,

Ahmedabad, was designed by the Council architects.

As a sidelight it may be noted that the 1000 – capacity

auditorium of the National Physical Laboratory, Delhi,

was a major addition to the capital’s culture life. It was

opened in time (14 February 1952) for a violin concert

by Yehudi Menuhin, visiting India on Nehru’s

invitation. The auditorium also had the distinction of

hosting Indrani Rahman’s first dance performance in

Delhi.

Bhatnagar concurrently held a number of posts in

the Government. In 1948 and 1949 he worked as

Secretary to the ministry of education, and educational

adviser to the Government of India. He was chosen to

become the first secretary to the ministry of natural

resources and scientific research, which was set up in

1951. He was also Secretary of Atomic Energy

Commission and later became the Chairman of the

University Grants Commission. He received a number

of honours. In 1936, the British Government conferred

on him the Order of the British Empire. A disappointed

(xxix)

Bhatnagar was consoled by his friends that in his case

OBE stood for Oil Borer of the Empire. A bigger

honour came his way in 1941, when he was made the

Knight Bachelor. From a scientific point of view, great

recognition of his work came with the 1943 election as

a fellow of the Royal Society of London. Independent

India honoured him with a Padma Vibhushan in 1954.

THE END

A casualty of his hectic life was his health. While still

in Lahore, he “accidentally exposed his eyes to some

harmful radiation. As a result he was in great pain due

to damage to his eye balls… In later year he had to use

refined glycerine and rose water as prophylactic

measure.” Heart was a bigger problem than the eyes.

“Climbing up a stretch of hill, for attending the function

at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute of Tenzing

Norgay, made him gasp for breath. Dr. B.C. Roy, who

was already there, examined him and cautioned him not

to be so indiscreet with his over-strained heart.”

Bhatnagar died on 1 January 1955 after a massive heart

attack. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, whose feet

Bhatnagar had touched in 1942 when the former was

the Congress president and who now was Bhatnagar’s

minister, remarked: “I often felt that the effect of such

hard work might fell upon his health. Inspite of my

repeated requests, he would not, however, refrain from

his hard work. Last year, we sent him out in connection

with the work of scientific research. I extended his

(xxx)

deputation by two weeks and asked him to take

complete rest for a fortnight in Switzerland. I have no

doubt that this passion for work reduced the duration of

his life. Action was the breath of his life and he could

not live without work.”5

Mahendra Nath Sahai, Bhatnagar’s nephew by

marriage (see note 1) recalled on the occasion of

Bhatnagar’s birth centenary, in 1994: “In his personal

library, at his residence he had a large number of books

from leading scientists from all over the world. There

were a few books on other subjects such as psychology,

English literature, Urdu poetry etc. There was a book

on happy married life by Mary Stopes. Also books on

palmistry by Cheiro and Benhem. I used to avail of this

facility quite often. After acquiring some working

knowledge of palmistry, one day I asked him to show

me the palm of his right hand… The only strange thing

about the palm was that his heart and head lines were

completely merged forming a straight line right across

his palm. Sensing that I was a little puzzled, he asked

what was my interpretation? I quickly replied that this

shows that he will put his head and heart together in

whatever field of activity he undertook. He nodded to

agree. Now it was his turn to have a look at my hand.

He at once remarked that I had a girdle of Venus, and

that the goddess of love will influence my life and

advised that I should read Marie Stopes’ book in his

library.”6

“He regarded palmistry and jyotish as empirical

sciences and their followers as pseudo-scientist. I had

(xxxi)

heard from some old and well read persons that “Bhrigu

sanghyata” [should be samhita] written by Bhrighu

Rishi was the last word in jyotish. Though he seemed to

be sceptical about it, his curiosity was certainly

aroused. He mentioned this to his cousin, Mr Keshav

Sarup, who had a good knowledge of the Vedas. “Soon

after, he was put in touch with a Bhrigu Sanghyata

Pandit, who was furnished with the time and date of

Bhatnagar’s birth. The Pandit unrolled a long long [sic]

continuous paper strip. Finding the right text matching

Doctor Bhatnagar’s particulars, he read out that within

the next few months he [Bhatnagar] would be receiving

some big honour from government. Doctor Bhatnagar

told that the only big honour he could expect was a

Knighthood but that would be after a few years rather

than a few months. Keshav Sarup told me after several

years that Dr Bhatnagar had his greatest surprise in the

following month. Lord Linlithgow, on the advice of

Lord Wavell the then commander-in-chief, had

recommended Doctor Bhatnagar’s name for a

Knighthood.”7

Bhatnagar was a romantic at heart. He nursed the

hope that after retirement he and his wife would settle

in a village where he would take to farming and she to

gardening. He imagined he would be working in the

fields when his wife brought his lunch, carrying a pot of

butter milk on her head. Time left over from farming

would be devoted to chemistry and “service of Urdu”.

If chemistry was his passion, poetry was his retreat.

From his childhood, thanks to the literary atmosphere in

(xxxii)

his grandfather’s house, he had enjoyed listening to

poetry in “my own language” Urdu and took to writing

it himself. While travelling on holiday he would

compose verses on scraps of paper and pocket them.

His wife shared his poetic interest. Often on Sundays,

the Bhatnagars played host to poets, inviting them to

recite their poems and actively participating in the

proceedings. On her insistence he prepared his own

anthology for publication, but tragic-comically it was

mistaken for a money wallet and stolen by a petty thief

from the person of poet Faiz Jhanjhaanvi.

On his wife’s death in 1946, Bhatnagar was moved to discover that she had collected many of his poems and carefully preserved them. As a homage to her he got the anthology published, naming it Lajwanti after her, and giving his own name simply as Shanti (She had once expressed the poetic wish that if she were a book she would always remain in his sight). The anthology went into second edition in which some new poems were included (Nothing seems to be known about the original edition.)8 “On the whole, his verses are topical, humorous and reflective. Those written after the loss of his wife bear a tender wistfulness and the stamp of loneliness.”

Notes

Much of the information in this essay is taken from Norah Richards’ biography of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, reprinted

(xxxiii)

in the following. Official documents have been consulted on his CSIR days. This essay is an expanded version of Ref. 2

1. Narrated by Mahendra Nath Sahai, son of Bishwa Nath Sahai, whose sister Lajwanti was married to Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar. See Ref. 1, pp 12-13.

2. Ref. 1, p.13

3. Ref. 1, p.13

4. Ref. 1, pp. 14–15

5. Ref. 1, p.24

6. Ref. 1, pp 21–22

7. Ref. 1, pp 21–22

8. The above information is taken from the preface of Lajwanti;

See Ref. 3.

References

1. Kayastha Bhatnagar Sadar Sabha Hind. Dr. Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Centenary Year Celebrations (A-1, Ring Road, South Extension I, New Delhi 110049)

2. Kochhar, Rajesh (2002) Resonance 7, 82-89

3. Shanti (1946?) Lajwanti (in Urdu), 2nd edition (Lucknow: Naval Kishor Press) (No publication date is given, but forewords to the book are dated 1946)