Failing Sarabhai

We are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.

Normally this kind of comment would be a platitude. In fact, it still is except for the fact that there’s quite a bit here that can be interpreted differently according to the changing times. This comment, rather quote, was tweeted by ISRO on August 10 and attributed to its founding scientist, Vikram Sarabhai. (The text looks like it was copied and pasted from a PDF – or maybe it was intended as a poem.)

The following terms are subjective: “meaningful role”, “advanced technologies” and “real problems”. From ISRO’s POV, they likely stand for the commitment of space technologies towards resolving day-to-day issues faced by terrestrial enterprises. More specifically, to use space-borne assets to assist safety and rescue, mapping resources, tracking animals as well as land-use, forecasting the weather, etc. Moreover, the terms are also somewhat dangerous because Sarabhai doesn’t specify who decides what they mean. 😉

For example, the BJP government at the Centre believes “real problems” are technological problems, not scientific ones, and has in fact discouraged small-scale exploratory efforts. M.S. Santhanam penned an article in The Hindu when this year’s Economic Survey was released discussing this issue. I do not think the article received as much attention as it deserved, and is worth bookmarking.

Given that Sarabhai’s words seem to lend themselves to various other, and broader, contexts, it would seem disingenuous of ISRO to expect to be judged on its existing efforts and not for ones that it is failing at. For one, I choose to interpret the tweet as an admission of failure on ISRO’s part to play a “meaningful role” in communicating its research and dispelling the attendant fake news, a “real problem” by any yardstick, using “advanced technologies” like Twitter and Facebook, which allow scientists to take charge of the narrative from their desks, lab benches or wherever.

To this end, Sarabhai’s quote well illustrates a battle – joined in the realms of language and memory – that few pay attention to. For a government bent on normalising majoritarian authority, we need to fight and reclaim what “real problems” and “meaningful roles” mean, or can mean, wrenching them away from the justification of “what most people think” and towards “what is justified by reason”, and not abandon the latter just because it is harder to do.