A great discussion on the history of India’s tech.

On February 27, the Bangalore International Centre and Carnegie India hosted a panel discussion around Midnight Machines, the new book by Arun Mohan Sukumar that traces the interplay of technology and politics in independent India (read The Wire Science‘s review here). The panelists were Arun (my friend and former colleague at The Hindu), space entrepreneur Susmita Mohanty, Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Gowda, historian of science Jahnavi Phalkey, and Anu Singh of Carnegie India.

The whole discussion was about 90 minutes long, and picked up steam after the first 15 minutes or so. If you’re at all interested in the history of science and technology in India, I recommend you watch the whole thing on YouTube. If not, I’d like to draw your attention to two a few interesting (to me) passages of discussion and which I’ve also transcribed below. The parts where Arun and Phalkey directly debated each other, Arun emerged with only minor bruises, which I shouldn’t have to tell you is a considerable feat and may not have been the case in a full-on, two-person debate!

Jahnavi Phalkey, 32:00 – The political ambition of a state is now technological ambition. That’s why the technological story of the latter half of the 20th century is a political one, and is therefore also political in India. The other aspect of this is centralisation. While we in India have argued that the Indian state centralised research funding through the CSIR, DAE, the space programme, etc. with all money going into a few facilities, look at Europe. The European answer was CERN, with countries coming together to build facilities. Apart from the UN, there was no economy then that could conduct scientific research at the scale the tone for which was set during the Second World War.

Therefore, the centralisation solution adopted (also) in India was no different from what was happening globally. So what was happening in India was not anomalous. It’s a part of the larger story. To add a footnote to the Nehru story: Nehru spoke science, he said “scientific temper”, but look at the institutions he established: the IITs (when it was 60 years before India setup the IISERs) and the CSIR (he didn’t go for the Max Planck Institutes model, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes model or the Harnack principle but focused on industrial research); the IISc came 50 years before independence. So the accusation that Nehru spoke science, did science but didn’t do technology is not held out.

[At one point, Arun also talks about how India needed a Nehru to navigate the Non-Aligned Movement to still secure favours form different governments without upsetting the precarious balance of powers (so to speak) to help set up some of India’s preeminent IITs. I skimmed through the video twice but couldn’t find the exact timestamp.]

Arun Mohan Sukumar, 43:50 – A CSIR scientist said the failure of the solar cooker project basically ensured that all the scientists [who worked on it] retreated into the comfort of their labs and put them off “applied science”.

Here’s a project commenced almost immediately after independence meant to create technology by Indians for Indians, and after it failed for various reasons, the political spotlight that had been put on the project was counterproductive. Nehru himself investing this kind of capital exposed him and the scientific establishment to criticism that they were perhaps not used to. These were venerated men in their respective fields and they were perhaps unused to being accountable in this visceral way. India offered a prototype of the solar cooker to Egypt and, I believe, Rhodesia or South Africa, and the joke goes that the order was never repeated. D.D. Kosambi says in an opinion piece at the time that the only person who made any profit out of the solar cooker affair is the contractor who sold it for scraps.

This is the kind of criticism confronted by the scientific establishment and it is a consequence of politics. I agree with Prof Phalkey when she says it was a consequence of the political establishment not insulating the scientific establishment from the sort of criticism which may or may not informed but you know how the press is. That led to a gradual breaking of ranks between the CSIR and the political vision for India where you’d have these mass technologies that [Phalkey] mentioned, and you can see the best evidence for that is Nehru’s pursuit of massive industrialisation in the second Five Year Plan, from 1956 to 1961.

This isn’t to say that Nehru was surrounded by advisers who all believed in the same thing; there was of course [P.C.] Mahalanobis who believed in a more aggressive form of industrialisation. But at various points of time one constituency was trumping another, within even the establishment. But it needs to be said that the PM was not in favour of introducing tractors in agriculture… Again, this is all criticism with the wisdom of hindsight.

Jahnavi Phalkey, 53:16 – In the 1970s, look at the number of democratic regimes that fell due to hot wars fought during the Cold War in the rest of the world. You’ll start to see why the need for control was felt.

Arun Mohan Sukumar [following after Rajeev Gowda’s comments], 55:05 – Another dimension is the presence of universities in the US, which incubated the military-industrial complex. Harvard and MIT in Boston and Stanford in the Silicon Valley were the nuclei for research. In India, some of these are truly unfortunate circumstances that the government has no control over. When the first batch of graduates passed out of IIT Kanpur in 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Immigration and Naturalisation Act giving Indians, and people of other nationalities, an automatic path to citizenship. So the best minds of our country were prompted by the fact that there aren’t enough jobs or enough well-paying jobs in India [to enter] a feeder line created between India and the US, from which it is very difficult to come back. Those circumstances too must be acknowledged.

Susmita Mohanty, 56:20 – Even brain drain is hugely exaggerated. I’ve lived in four different countries. The talent pool we have in India today is as big or bigger. There are people leaving the country but not everyone is the best coder in town.

Arun Mohan Sukumar, 57:24 – The appropriate technology movement that started in the late 1960s and early 1970s was this philosophy that grew out of Western Europe and the US which called for lesser consumption of natural resources and labour-intensive jobs with a view to conserving resources for the planet, a lot of which was precipitated by a report called ‘Limits to Growth’, which essentially predicted this catastrophe that would befall humanity by 2000.

And then economist [E.F.] Schumacher writes this book called ‘Small is Beautiful’ [in 1973] and creates a revolution incidentally not just in advanced societies but also in developing countries, where leaders like Indira Gandhi coopted the movement to say to the people that you should consume less, conserve your natural resources and deploy labour-intensive technologies that will essentially be beneficial to you and your way of life. Seminar after seminar was organised by top institutes of the time to talk about how you can create fuel out of biogas, how you can mechanise bullock carts – technologies that are not scalable but nevertheless are quick-fixes, and this is where ‘jugaad’ has its historical origin: in the valorisation of frugal innovation.

[Phalkey shakes her head in disagreement.]

This would’ve been acceptable had it not been for the fact that investments in the space and nuclear programmes continued unabated. … So on the one hand the state was promoting big science and it wasn’t as if they had an ideological or political compulsion against Big Machine and big technologies. There was just factors such as financial considerations and the government’s own inability to develop technology at home which, I argue, led Indira Gandhi to co-opt the appropriate technology movement. … In India, perhaps it’s harsh to say that we moved backwards, but the objective was not to redefine technology but to shun it altogether. [Phalkey is quite in disagreement at this point.] That unfortunately is I feel a byproduct of the legacy of the 1970s.

Jahnavi Phalkey, 1:01:14 – I have to disagree because there’s been only one science plan in the country in its history, and that was done in the 1970s under Mrs Gandhi’s regime. Eighteen-hundred people from user ministries, the Planning Commission, scientific institutions and industry sat together over 18-24 months and came up with a comprehensive plan as to how to take research happening in the institutions and in the CSIR through Planning Commission allocation of money to the user ministries. We haven’t seen anything on this scale before or since.

Problem was as soon as Mrs Gandhi implemented the plan, she also implemented the Emergency. When the Emergency was pulled back, the Morarji Desai regime decided that India did not need [the science plan]. So the argument you’re making [addressing Arun] of scaling back on technology or technology as a solution to the social, political and other problems that India had was more due to the Janata regime and not Mrs Gandhi’s. One needs to make this small distinction because this was simply not true at the time.

Arun Mohan Sukumar, 1:06:09 – What was remarkable to me while writing this book was this factoid that comes from this book on the history of computing in India by C.R. Subramanian: he says the import of computers to India tripled during the years of the Emergency. For my life, I can’t imagine why! But it goes to show that despite the anti-automation protests of the 1970s and 1970s, and remember that 1978 is the year when IBM quit India for whatever reasons, there was beginning to be this gradual embrace of technology and which really takes off from the 1980s. And from the moment of liberalisation in 1991, it’s a different story altogether.

Some of these legacies continue to haunt us, whether it is popular protests against nuclear plants, which really came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, not just in India but also in other parts of the world. Some of that really bore on India as well, and I believe continued into the debate on genetically modified crops. If you ask a person who really has a strong opinion on these subjects, I wonder whether he or she would have a clear idea of what the technology is. But they evoke such strong views, and perhaps some of it is due to the constant politicisation of the virtues and vices of the technology.

Arun Mohan Sukumar, 1:09:04 – One of the reasons why the Indian opposition to the Human Genome Project was so pronounced in the early 1990s, when the hand of invitation was extended to the Indian government, was because the Vaccine Action programme signed by Rajiv Gandhi and Ronald Reagan just a few years ago ran into a great deal of controversy within and without government; defence ministry officials said here is an effort to take DNA materials from Indians to be turned against India as an agent of biological warfare, and all sorts of rubbish.

[How history repeats itself!]

Adding to this, some private institutes in the US were involved in smuggling anti-rabies vaccines into developing countries. All of this spooked the scientific establishment and which, the book argues, led to us staying away from the Human Genome Project.

… And we missed the bus. Today we say we are able to map the genome of some man from Jharkhand at a fraction of the cost – it is at a fraction of the cost because most of the work has already been done. There is some historical legacy there that unfortunately continues to haunt us.

[Susmita Mohanty mentions ISRO’s famous reluctance to share information about components of its civilian space programme.]

Jahnavi Phalkey, 1:12:26 – There’s also a little bit of politics to it. The information that NASA and ESA share is backed by a very, very, very strong politics of sharing. What can and cannot be shared are clearly divided.

Jahnavi Phalkey, 1:13:57 – If you begin with Robert Clive, we have a history of about 300 years of building suspicion. And to dismantle that kind of suspicion is going to take lots of work. I’m not saying to not have participated in the Human Genome Project but that it’s not a good thing to share or that we embark on certain projects. I think we might be erring on the side of caution.

Arun Mohan Sukumar, 1:17:58 – There are different kinds of technocracies, and the three people surveyed in the book [who represented those kinds] are M. Visvesvaraya, Vikram Sarabhai and Nandan Nilekani. They forged three different organisational structures within government (of course Visvesvaraya did so before independence), and they had different views of technology. I wouldn’t say there were all political animals but they certainly had a good appreciation of politics which was crucial to their success.

For example, Visvesvaraya was a very astute navigator of colonial-era politics but then resigned as the diwan of Mysore over what he perceived as anti-Brahmin protests in the Madras presidency and the threat of that spilling over into Mysore. Finally, after independence, his views were totally marginalised by the establishment of the time.

Sarabhai was in currency throughout but also in many respects was able to tell the leadership what it wanted to hear and at the same time insulate his own team from politics to the extent that ISRO today has a separate recruitment process. Some degree of autonomy was built-in.

Nilekani’s work on Aadhaar goes the exact opposite way: he is very clear that he does not want scientists or technologists running the programme beyond the infancy… He was very sure at the beginning that an IAS officer should be running UIDAI. We can debate the merits of the decision but the fact is, in his view and the view of the team, the technocracy could only survive if it was built from within government. Whereas when Sarabhai died, Satish Dhawan was brought from Caltech to run ISRO. It was very clear for the folks behind Aadhaar that that model would not have survived.


Featured image: The panelists (L-R): Arun Mohan Sukumar, Susmita Mohanty, Rajeev Gowda, Jahnavi Phalkey and Anu Singh.

Chandrayaan 2 and the Left

An arrow pointing to the left on a surface painted red on the left side. Credit: Samuel Zeller/Unsplash

Since after September 7, when the Vikram lander of the Chandrayaan 2 mission failed to touchdown on the lunar surface, many writers and thinkers on the political left have been adopting a stance of the mission I find hard to stomach. Their arguments can be summed up thus: that CY-2’s mission is half-assed and should have been decided through a better process (did you know Gaganyaan also makes this mistake but in a bigger way?), that it meant much to those disenfranchised in Kashmir and Assam, that is yet another sign of journalism’s kowtowing to the powers that be that journalists aren’t about asking the financial implications of Vikram’s failure, and that the public rhetoric surrounding the mission was intent on wrapping it up as a gift to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Points 1 and 2 are completely agreeable: there is no doubt that while a lot of people are celebrating CY-2’s overall partial success as an achievement of ISRO and its frugal engineering philosophy, they are also overlooking that it doesn’t present any major scientific achievements, lacks a clear vision about the mission’s purpose, and – as Swami Agnivesh discussed – their own ignorance of these two factors. Second, I have no doubt that the mission meant much to those suffering due to the communications blockade in Kashmir and the consequences of the NRC in Assam.

However, through all their arguments, it is also evident that the left is not interested in retrieving the Indian space programme out of the shroud of patriotism around it and press it once more into serving the needs of people and society. It is true that Modi’s politics has transformed endeavours that once used to be relatively more transparent and well-meaning into things worthy of skepticism and derision, but to extend this to dismissing the space programme itself would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Further, to claim if the money spent on CY-2 could be better used to address food security or healthcare, as The Wire’s public editor did in her piece, may have been a legitimate argument until the late 1990s but today, when the Centre has a budgeted outlay of Rs 27 lakh crore, it is entirely ass-backwards. If the government is not spending more on healthcare, it is not for want of Rs 978 crore spread out over eight years.

The last thing I want to do is make excuses for the government, but when you wonder if sending rockets to the Moon stung those without food or electricity – I have no doubt that it did, and I am sure such exercises render these affected people more cynical about what the state is prepared to do for them. But if the suggestion here is that the state should not have launched rockets and instead concentrated its efforts on ensuring food security, that would be an instance of excusing a government that is clearly equipped to do many things at once but won’t.

Discovering Vikram Sarabhai

Vikram A. Sarabhai (left), chairman of ISRO, and NASA administrator Thomas Paine sign an agreement in September 1969. Photo: NASA

I just read through a collection of Vikram Sarabhai’s important speeches and papers compiled by members of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad, to pick a suitable portion to excerpt on the occasion of Sarabhai’s birth centenary tomorrow. There was one portion I would have loved to publish but it belonged to a larger text that had originally been printed by an American NGO, and another the rights for which now belonged – of all companies – Elsevier. So I went with an eminently safe option: an enlightening convocation address Sarabhai delivered on August 1, 1965, at IIT Madras.

The purpose of this excerpt is twofold: to recall Sarabhai’s sharp mind and to remind India of Sarabhai’s views on certain matters the country is presently occupied with. The collection didn’t have only three instances of both these conditions being met; that was just the shortlist. The longlist contained multiple choices that intrigued me. In fact, taken all together, the collection painted an image of Sarabhai somewhat different from the one I had constructed based on what I had read in the news. For example, no doubt Sarabhai was smart but that smartness was devoted almost exclusively to industrial development. Most of his speeches, even including one on “the role science is currently playing in promoting national goals”, involve attempts to characterise a problem or ambition at hand in terms of utilitarian concepts and definitions, following which he analyses their pros and cons, or performs a comparative analysis, and sifts out a proper course of action.

It could certainly be, among other possibilities, that the PRL collected only those papers and speeches discussing quantitative measures in its collection, but it is still remarkable that in these presentations from 1959 to 1971, Sarabhai was seldom a story-teller and almost always a problem-solver guided by (what he recognised to be) the needs of the country. Without saying anything about whether this may have been a virtue in the India of 1960s, there is little to no evidence (within the collection) that Sarabhai was motivated to pursue any of his grand ambitions – whether spaceflight or nuclear power generation – for anything other than to transform India from being ‘underdeveloped’ to ‘developed’, together with Homi J. Bhabha and Jawaharlal Nehru.

In fact, the sole exception to Sarabhai’s tendency to appear to be in control in the collection is the IIT Madras convocation address, riddled with rhetorical questions and groping for answers for sociopolitical problems within the principles of nuclear physics. This I hope you will enjoy reading tomorrow.

An award that isn’t

Were you looking for the full picture? Credit: ISRO + Snorpey

ISRO just put out a call for a one-time space journalism award, named for Vikram Sarabhai, with a cash prize of Rs 5 lakh. Here’s the doc with all the details. Pay attention to (4), where it says submissions will be judged on the basis of “articles/success stories”:

In other words (and especially in the absence of organised information about ISRO’s missions to work with), this is a call for articles that make ISRO look good, even if it hasn’t been good in many ways in the last 18-24 months. For example, ISRO’s official Twitter handle recently wished Akshay Kumar, Bollywood actor and unabashed Hindutva supporter, for the release of his upcoming film ‘Mission Mangal’. Its trailer has already been lampooned for its unabashed absurdity. For another, since early 2018, there has been a marked decline in the level of access journalists have had to ISRO insiders, and the spokesperson has also been becoming more unresponsive; others have also complained about ISRO’s newsletters being suspended without any notice.

Now, ISRO has invited applicants for what is really the Vikram Sarabhai Obsequious Space Journalism Award.

Two things further get my goat via-à-vis the award.

First: India’s media landscape is really fragmented right now, and many parts of it are either brazenly sucking up to the government or are deferring to the government’s might and publishing only decidedly optimistic stories (even to the point of contrivance). As a result, a media boycott – which in other circumstances would have been compelling – is out of the question. ISRO will have no shortage of applications for its award, and some journalists who are really stenographers of government-issue press releases are going to walk away with Rs 6 lakh.

Second: the name of ‘Vikram Sarabhai’ has always been earmarked for use by the Department of Space. But by attaching it to an award that doesn’t celebrate the goodness of good journalism but its antithesis, it feels like ISRO has acted against what the name has stood for: integrity. Sarabhai’s legacy is not ISRO as much as ISRO’s famous working culture; to use the words of a former employee, the org. has always doled out “promotions … based on performance instead of seniority and/or vacancy”. But on this occasion, the award – at least according to the phrasing in the doc – is set to promote not performance but servility.

A useful book to have around

14oeb_Space_jpg_1719808fIndia’s Rise as a Space Power is a book by Prof. Udupi Ramachandra Rao, former Chairman, ISRO (1988-1994), that provides some useful historical context of the space research organization from a scientist’s perspective, not an administrator’s.

Through it, Prof. Rao talks about how our space program was carefully crafted with a series of satellites and launch vehicles, and how each one of them has contributed to where the organization, as such, is today: an immutable symbol of power in the Third World and India’s pride. He starts with the foundation of ISRO, goes on to the visions of Vikram Sarabhai and Satish Dhawan, then introduces the story of Aryabhata, our first satellite, followed by Bhaskara I and II, the IRS series, the INSAT program, the ASLV, PSLV and GSLV, and finally, the contributions of all these instruments to the Indian economy. The period in which Prof. Rao served as Chairman coincided with an acceleration of innovations at ISRO – when he assumed the helm, the IRS was being developed; when he left, development of the cryogenic engine was underway.

However, India’s Rise… leaves out that aspect of his work that he was most well-positioned to discuss all along: politics. The Indian polity is heavily invested in ISRO, and constantly looks to it for solutions to a diverse array of problems, from telecommunications to meteorology. While ISRO may never have struggled to receive government funding, its run-ins with the 11 governments in its 45-year tenure will have made for a telling story on the Indian government’s association with on of its most successful scientific/technological bodies. Where Prof. Rao makes comments, it is usually on one of two things: either to say discuss why scientists are better leaders of organizations like ISRO than administrators, or how foreign governments floated or sank technology-transfer deals with India.

… Mr. T.N. Seshan, who was the Additional Secretary in the Department of Space, a senior member of the negotiation team deputed under my leadership, made this trip [to Glavkosmos, a Soviet company that was to equip and provide the launcher for the first-generation Indian Remote Sensing satellites] unpleasant by throwing up tantrums just because he was not the leader of the Indian delegation. Subsequently, Prof. Dhawan had to tell him in no uncertain terms that any high-level delegation such as the above would only be led by a scientist and not an administrator, a healthy practice followed in [the Dept. of Space] form the very beginning. (pp. 124)

This aspect notwithstanding, India’s Rise… is a useful book to have around now, when ISRO seems poised to enter its next era: that of the successful use of its cryogenic engines to lift heavier payloads into higher orbits. It contains a lot of interesting information about different programs and the attention to detail is distributed evenly, if sometimes unnecessarily. There is also an accompanying collection of possibly rare photographs; my favorite shows a rocket’s nose-cone being transported by bicycle to the launchpad. Overall, the book makes for excellent reference, and thanks to Prof. Rao’s scientific background, there is a sound representation of technical concepts devoid of misrepresentation. Here’s my review of it for The Hindu.