An Earth sciences ministry

On January 15, Harsh Vardhan, the Union science and technology minister, mulled renaming India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) as “Bharat Mata Mantralaya”. (In Hindi, the ministry is currently called the ‘Prithvi Vigyan Mantralaya’.)

Vardhan was speaking at a function to mark the 144th foundation of the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD). He continued there would be no harm in calling the ministry the ‘Bharat mata mantralaya’ (BMM). Vardhan also oversees the MoES, under which the IMD functions.

He argued that the ministry and its scientists work for “the protection of the earth”, which is “indeed Bharat mata for all of us”. He continued to refer to the ministry as “Bharat mata mantralaya” during the rest of his speech.

But contrary to the minister’s beliefs, there will be some harm in calling it the BMM – especially since there’s a lot of Earth left beyond the insular borders of Bharat.

The MoES’s self-proclaimed mission (rephrased) is:

To conduct scientific and technical activities related to Earth system science to improve weather forecasting, monsoon, climate and hazards, explore polar regions, seas around India and develop technology for exploration and exploitation of ocean resources (living and non-living), and ensure their sustainable utilisation.

A lot of this would fail if the MoES was about ‘Bharat mata’ alone.

Of course, there will be those arguments that the author is reading too much into the minister’s words, and that they simply signify certain sentiments. But labels preserve meaning and intent, and it is important to retain them to keep the ministry’s purpose from being corrupted by sentiments that many of us disagree with.

Vardhan’s own government has slowly but surely bent the arc of research towards application-oriented pursuits, particularly prioritising matters of “national interest”. As such, calling it the BMM will risk trapping the MoES’s image between nationalist blinders and keep its own gaze turned inward, confined within borders that science isn’t supposed to recognise.

It could also signal to its employees that their service is to the government’s material vision of ‘Bharat mata’, not to the Earth sciences. This is antipodal to the MoES’s goals. One can’t help but be somewhat wary that the move will also excise ‘sciences’ from the name.

Finally, there’s the trailing suspicion that Vardhan was simply engaging in another gimmick, and that the MoES won’t actually be renamed. However, given the issues involved – and the issues he could be discussing – it’s worth pointing out that his words are unbecoming of his office.

Instead of tinkering with names, the minister could better serve the MoES better simply by supporting what research it already conducts – research that helps keep India afloat and going in a world shaped by unprecedented forces.