Monday, March 27, 2023
HomeOpinionStartups to innovations—Nehru's scientific temper is growing in BJP's India, not crashing

Startups to innovations—Nehru’s scientific temper is growing in BJP’s India, not crashing

Unfounded pronouncements on India’s scientific achievements have had the Indian scientific community squirming in their seats. But they don't represent the current government.

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Dear Dr Hoodbhoy,

I am an avid reader of your articles and an admirer of your lucid thinking and clear writing. Your unrelenting advocacy for countries to develop a scientific temper is of great importance, not only for Pakistan, but for all developing countries seeking to raise the prosperity of their citizens.

I read your recent article on the BJP’s ‘double-engine sarkar.’ And I would like to respectfully point out that your characterisation of the current BJP government’s attitude to science and technology is an oversimplification.

First of all, I wholeheartedly agree with you that Jawaharlal Nehru played a crucial role in instilling post-Independence India with scientific temper. Many of India’s world-class educational and research institutions were founded during his prime ministership.

However, I take issue with your implication that India acquired scientific thinking for the first time with the arrival of the British and their desire to spread Western education and values. Vedic mathematics, which you have mentioned rather dismissively in your article, actually made fundamental contributions that Western scientists are beginning to acknowledge today. For instance, Prof Kim Plofker, who wrote the book Mathematics in India. Plofker received her PhD from Brown University and spent four years at your alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

If not the entire book, I suggest reading its review by Prof David Mumford, winner of the 1974 Fields Medal. I quote from the review: “Her book fills a huge gap: a detailed, eminently readable, scholarly survey of the full scope of Indian mathematics and astronomy (the two were inseparable in India) from their Vedic beginnings to roughly 1800.” Another Fields medalist Prof Manjul Bhargava has spoken more recently about ancient India’s contributions to mathematics. One would think that a government committed to spreading the greatness of Hindu civilisation would have ensured that these achievements were part of every school and college curriculum. Yet, this is not the case. Not even Mathematics undergraduate and graduate students in India are taught about their country’s contributions to their chosen field of study.

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India did not need English or Western education and values to make scientific progress. What is undeniable, though, is that only Europe experienced the Enlightenment, also referred to as “the Age of Reason,” which was fundamentally responsible for the Industrial Revolution and for the scientific, technological and economic leadership of the West for the next two centuries. There is no doubt that modern science, as we know it today, is an artefact of the West.

Second, let us turn to the BJP’s attitude towards science and technology. Once again, you are right that there have been alarming and totally unfounded pronouncements made by BJP leaders and ministers about India’s scientific achievements in the distant past. These statements have had the Indian scientific community squirming in their seats. However, it would be a mistake to take these views as being representative of the current government as a whole. Let me share a few data points to illustrate this:

  1. The annual budget of the Department of Space has increased from 0.33 per cent of total expenditure in 2013-14 to 0.48 per cent in 2019-20 and from 0.5 per cent to 0.6 per cent of GDP. In monetary terms, the budget has nearly doubled from Rs 7,464 crore in 2013-14 to Rs 13,760 crore in 2019-20 (compound annual growth rate of 10.7 per cent). In every interaction with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Prime Minister Narendra Modi has conveyed his support and admiration for the work the scientists and engineers have been doing.
  2. Since 2014, six new Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campuses have been opened and one (Indian School of Mines) has been upgraded to the status of an IIT. Fifteen new All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) have been sanctioned and many of them are already functioning. Seven Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) were opened in 2015 and 2016. As expected, these new institutes face many challenges, from attracting faculty and students to building linkages with industry. However, the intent of the government to replicate high-quality institutions and make that level of education available to a much larger cross-section of the population is undeniable. One criticism against the BJP is that the appointments into leadership positions of these institutes have to pass the ideology filter, but which government, Indian or foreign, has made appointments purely on merit?
  3. The National Education Policy, unveiled in 2020, is a breath of fresh air. It emphasises multidisciplinary education, well-rounded citizens, ethics and inclusiveness, and creativity and entrepreneurship.
  4. India’s performance in the Global Innovation Index in the past seven years has been encouraging. In the 2022 edition, India at 40th rank is the highest ranked lower-middle income country. It is a steady improvement from 81st rank in 2015. In terms of innovation, China’s progress has been nothing short of spectacular. It ranked 11th in 2022, becoming the highest ranked upper-middle income country, up from 29th rank in 2015. The key difference between the two countries is that for every dollar that India spends on research and development, China spends 20. India’s research and development expenditures as a percentage of GDP have actually been declining in the past few years. Output measures, such as number of domestic and triadic patents filed and number of science and engineering articles published in international peer-reviewed journals, continue to show a gradual upward trajectory. It would be erroneous to attribute India’s improvement solely to the BJP government’s policies, but we can safely say that at least its policies have not proved detrimental.
  5. The Startup India Initiative, launched in 2016, has enthused the nation and made its entrepreneurial ecosystem the third most dynamic in the world. There were approximately 50,000 startups in India in 2018, of which roughly 9,000 were tech startups. Many of the 107 Indian unicorns are struggling currently, just as their international counterparts are. Boom and bust cycles are par for the course in every entrepreneurial ecosystem but the momentum that has been created in the last few years is undeniable. In areas such as Artificial Intelligence, India is doing well, as evidenced by the results of’s Decision Intelligence Maturity Index.

I could provide many more examples. In summary, while the unscientific statements made by some BJP leaders are a cause for worry, there is no danger of India’s progress in science and technology being derailed under the current government. India definitely punches above its weight when it comes to education, research and innovation. Through many initiatives and actions, this government has shown its support for modern science and education. We are confident that the excellent start given by Jawaharlal Nehru will be sustained irrespective of the party in power.

The author is Professor and Dean, School of Management, Mahindra University. He was previously Chengwei Capital Professor of Entrepreneurship at the China Europe International Business School (Shanghai). 

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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