Latha Jishnu (Dec 13, 2008)

In the 1950s and 1960s, D. D. Kosambi, the brilliant mathematician, historian and eclectic thinker, put forward the most compelling arguments that the country has heard in favour of developing solar energy. This was at a time when the scientific establishment was pushing for nuclear power. Kosambi’s view that solar energy was the most appropriate for India was based on a commonsense approach: there was surfeit of sunshine in India whereas nuclear energy would come at a fantastic cost with India’s limited reserves of low-grade uranium.

“On an average day, every hundred square metres (1100 square feet) of area will receive about 600-kilowatt hours of heat. This comes to over 160 pounds of high-grade coal, or more than 16 gallons of petrol, in energy equivalent. It seems to me that research on the utilisation of solar radiation, where the fuel costs nothing at all, would be of immense benefit to India, whether or not atomic energy is used.”

It didn’t help that Kosambi fell out with Homi Bhabha, who had the backing of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, when both were working at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Bombay. Kosambi had to leave TIFR and although he was made scientist emeritus by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), neither the scientific community nor the politician were enamoured of solar power which they believed would keep India in the bullock cart age! The interesting point in this debate was India opted for the easier technological solution because the setting up of atomic power stations had been quite easy then, and the US, the then Soviet Union and Canada among others were ready to build reactors for India — and did so at a cost.

Not without having been warned about the consequences. Kosambi had pointed out that there was no investment value in atomic energy. “The whole affair is fantastically costly. Those who say that atomic energy can compete with thermal or hydro-power, carefully omit to mention the fact that the preliminary costs have always been written off to someone else’s account, usually that of some government.”

The choices India made half a century ago are having an impact on the broad direction of scientific research in India. In the case of atomic energy, not only is the country dependent on western suppliers for uranium, unable to fuel even the promised 10,000 Mw of nuclear power from our own resources, but also for new generation nuclear reactors that have outstripped the country’s reactors in terms of size, efficiency and safety. All that the signing of the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with the US has done is to lift the embargo on fuel and technology trade; as before France, the US and Russia are rushing to offer us expensive deals.

This is a sad commentary of India’s scientific prowess since the Department of Atomic Energy gets as much as 40 per cent of the total expenditure on the scientific departments. In 2006-07, it got as much Rs 8,058 crore of the total of Rs 20,278 crore which was a 24 per cent hike in allocations over the previous year.

Along the way, India has also learned to its cost that the rest of the world is light years ahead in development of solar energy, too. Among the many breakthroughs, researchers in the US have discovered a way to make efficient silicon-based solar cells that are flexible enough to be rolled around a pencil and so transparent that they can be used to tint windows. What is the state of play in India? Pathetic, is the answer. Take the performance of Solar Energy Centre (SEC), a dedicated unit of Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. The SEC is an illuminating example because it serves as the interface between the government, institutions, industry and consumers for the development and widespread use of solar energy in the country. The latest CAG report on the performance of the scientific departments of the government comes down heavily on SEC. It notes that the SEC surrendered 44 to 76 per cent of the funds allocated to it during 2002-07 because there was little work of project implementation. SEC did not take up any in-house or collaborative research with other institutions, consultancy, much less bilateral and multilateral projects with other institutions/industry. It also did not develop any new technology or have research papers published in reputed Indian or foreign journals. The testing facilities established at SEC’s sprawling campus in Gurgaon remained under-utilised.

The SEC is not alone in this. Of the total allocations of Rs 20,278 crore for scientific departments, close to 15 per cent remained unspent as projects did not start, were delayed or were poorly designed. The primary reason for this, according to SEC, was the lack of suitable manpower. This is the problem afflicting research as a whole, a peculiar irony in a country which is said to have the largest pool of scientific and technical manpower in the world — India is said to produce less than 4,000 PhDs annually compared with around 10,000 for Brazil and 16,000 for China.

C N Rao, chairman of the Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, admits that the lack of ‘minds’ and not funds is one of the major problems of Indian science today. In a recent article, he noted that in the early decades after Independence, India had great difficulty in obtaining chemicals and equipment because of the acute shortage of foreign currency and yet “outstanding research came out of our universities, the percentage contribution of the universities to research publications in the country being well over 50 per cent in the ’60s and ’70s. Although the development of science was somewhat uneven, with some areas such as medical and health research receiving less attention, the general feeling by the 1980s was that we were catching up with the advanced countries.”

Now, the general view is that things have deteriorated very sharply primarily because universities are no longer able to produce as much research as in the past, specially in crucial areas.

Rao thinks the future is bleak unless there is a collective vision for making up for the deficiencies in the system. The most important step, say most experts, is to improve the standard research output. This would entail first of all raising the quality of India’s scientific journals and also making scientists aware new H-index that is used to quantify the impact of the contributions of individual scientists. The number of Indian scientists with a high H-index is microscopic and unless this number doesn’t increase significantly Indian science would be doomed.

As Kosambi noted research is not about the “the writing of a few papers, sending favoured delegates to international conferences and pocketing of considerable research grants by those who can persuade complaisant politicians to sanction crores of the taxpayers’ money. Our research has to be translated into use.” India has yet to do that.