Sunday, January 18, 2015

Scientists without a scientific temper / Pushpa M. Bhargava

Jawaharlal Nehru coined the term ‘scientific temper’ in his book The Discovery of India , which was published in 1946. He was also the President of the Association of Scientific Workers of India (ASWI), which was registered as a Trade Union, and with which I was closely associated with in the 1940s and the early 1950s. (This may be the only example of a Prime Minister of a democracy being the President of a Trade Union.) One of the objectives of ASWI was to propagate scientific temper. It was very active in the beginning, but fizzled out by the 1960s as the bulk of scientists in the country, including many who were occupying high positions, were themselves not committed to scientific temper which calls for rationality, reason and lack of belief in any dogma, superstition or manifest falsehood.
The conclusion that our very own scientists — who would be expected to be leaders in the development of scientific temper — did not possess scientific temper themselves and were just as superstitious as any other group was supported by another incident in 1964. Following a statement by Satish Dhawan (who later became Secretary, Department of Space), Abdur Rahman (a distinguished historian of science) and I, set up an organisation called The Society for Scientific Temper, in January 1964, the founding members of which included distinguished scientists like Francis Crick, a Nobel Prize winner. For membership to the society, the following statement had to be signed: “ I believe that knowledge can be acquired only through human endeavour and not through revelation, and that all problems can and must be faced in terms of man’s moral and intellectual resources without invoking supernatural powers .”
We were disillusioned when we approached scientist after scientist and all of them refused to sign the statement. Clearly they were devoid of scientific temper. Following this disillusionment, I persuaded Professor Nurul Hasan, then Education Minister, to have the following clause included in Article 51A in the 42nd Amendment of the Constitution in 1976: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of Indian “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of enquiry and reform.”
This should have woken up our scientists and reminded them of their duty vis-à-vis scientific temper, but I do not believe that the situation in this respect is any better, even today, than what it was 50-60 years ago. Let me cite three examples.
Little improvement
During the previous Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, then Human Resources Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi asked the University Grants Commission to issue a circular to all universities stating that they should start a degree course in astrology. For this, he said, a special grant would be given. My colleague Chandana Chakrabarti and I filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court challenging this dispensation. Our lawyer was Prashant Bhushan. The petition was admitted but was eventually dismissed (as could be expected), for belief in astrology — which is totally unscientific and irrational and has been repeatedly shown to be a myth — is widespread, with those who dispense justice also not being immune to it. Not one scientist came forward in support of us; nor did any of the six national science academies we have, on which a substantial amount of public funds are spent every year. Our supporters, who even sent us unsolicited funds to fight the case, were all non-scientists. In fact, recognising the above inadequacies of our science academies and their insensitivity to science-related social problems in general, I resigned from the fellowship of three of our science academies in 1993.
The second example would be the silence of our scientists and the six science academies when, last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing a group of scientists in Mumbai, claimed that organ transplantation was known in ancient India — he gave Ganesha with his elephant head and human torso as an example.
The third example would be the much publicised symposium on “Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit” at the 102nd Indian Science Congress in Mumbai, which was held earlier this month. At this meeting, it was said that India had jumbo aircraft (60 x 60 feet; in some cases 200 feet long) that flew between continents and planets 9,000 years ago (some 4,500 years before Harappa and Mohenjo-daro). Not only that, it was also claimed that we had a radar system better than the present one, based on the principle that every animate or inanimate object emits energy all the time. And in the 21st century, “fusion of science and spirituality will happen because of the law of inter-penetration,” it was said. I doubt if any serious academic would have heard of this law which would not make any sense. These and many other absurd claims made at the symposium were an insult to the several real scientific accomplishments of ancient and medieval India.
Winding up academies
None of our so-called scientists of note and scientific academies has raised a voice against these claims. Surely, the distinguished scientists who organised the Science Congress knew what was likely to be said at the symposium, but, perhaps, they believed in it all or were pressurised politically. Therefore, there is a strong case for the annual Indian Science Congress to be banned (as I also argued in my article in The Hindu, “Why the Indian Science Congress meets should be stopped” (Open Page, September 30, 1997), or its name to be changed to Indian Anti-science Congress.
As regards the science academies, they can easily be wound up without any damage being caused to Indian science. India has not produced any Nobel Prize winner in science in the last 85 years – largely because of the lack of a scientific environment in the country, of which scientific temper would be an important component.

(Pushpa M. Bhargava is the founder-director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology at Hyderabad, and chairman of the Southern Regional Centre of Council for Social Development.)

raising the quarterly buffer stock and strategic reserve limits of Food Corporation of India

Recently the government approved raising the quarterly buffer stock and strategic reserve limits of Food Corporation of India (FCI) for both wheat and rice, for the first time since 2005. Examine the reasons and its implications.

India has over 30% of population under poverty line and 40% of children are malnourished, Government PDS and role of FCI ensures food security and play central role in Indian agro-economy. Our procurement policy has come under sharp criticism from both domestic and foreign economists. We are in dilemma of handling paradoxical situation of record production and persistent food inflation.
The cabinet approval of raising quarterly buffer stock is triggered by following reasons:
1) Our buffer stock is way higher then stipulated norms. As we can't export and sell in open market, FCI is said to be violating norms. To avoid violation, raising reserve limits will be a quick-fix to problem.
2) Because of deficient rainfall, rabi harvest is likely to be low. To avoid any shortage of food for PDS, government wanted to procure grains beforehand.
3) To implement National Food Security Act, 2013, we need a huge quantity of grains and cereals to feed 66% of population which is 80 crore people.
4) By diverting these stocks to open market, we can bring retail inflation (CPI) down which is key measure to our monetary policy.
However there are certain implications in holding huge reserves:
1) As FCI storage capacity is limited, there will be huge carrying costs. It might result in bad quality of grains and pilferage.
2) Hoarding by vested interests can be controlled.
3) We can align our domestic markets with international markets. When commodity prices are high in markets, we can export and bring prosperity to agrarian community.
We need to diversify our food production base, develop food processing industry and open our agriculture sector to markets to transform farmers lives. We can't tackle poverty, inflation, underdeveloped agri market with less-optimal tools like APMC, MSP, loan waivers.

Lifting Olympus / Justice Katju

The Russian threat runs out of fuel / Daniel Gros

For Europe, the defining event of 2014 was Russia's annexation of and military intervention in eastern Ukraine's region. The Kremlin's actions directly challenged key principles that have guided Europe for more than six decades, particularly the renunciation of the use of force to alter national borders. But is in no position to sustain its aggressive foreign policy.

It has often been argued that Russia was reacting to the perceived encroachment on its "near abroad" by the(EU) and the (Nato). But history suggests a simpler explanation: a decade of steadily rising oil prices had emboldened Russia, leaving it ready to seize any opportunity to deploy its military power.

Indeed the Soviet Union had a similar experience 40 years ago, when a protracted period of rising oil revenues fuelled an increasingly assertive foreign policy, which culminated in the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Oil prices quadrupled following the first oil embargo in 1973, and the discovery of large reserves in the 1970s underpinned a massive increase in Soviet output. As a result, from 1965 to 1980, the value of Soviet oil production soared by a factor of almost 20.

Burgeoning oil wealth bolstered the regime's credibility - not least by enabling a significant increase in military spending - and rising economic and military strength gave the Soviet Union's geriatric leadership a rejuvenated sense of invulnerability. The invasion of Afghanistan was not merely an improvised response to a local development (a putsch in Kabul); it was also a direct result of this trend.

Vladimir Putin's reaction to the Euromaidan demonstrations in followed a similar pattern. In both cases, a seemingly low-cost opportunity was viewed as yielding a large strategic gain - at least in the short run. Indeed while the devastating consequences of the Soviet Union's Afghan adventure are now well known, at the time the invasion was viewed as a major defeat for the West.

The Soviet army's retreat in 1988 is usually ascribed to the Afghan insurgency, led by Pakistan-trained mujahideen with support from the United States. But the decline in oil prices during the 1980s, which cut the value of Soviet output to one-third of its peak level, undoubtedly played a role. Indeed it led to a period of extreme economic weakness - a key factor in the Soviet Union's dissolution just three years after its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

During the 1990s, Russia was too preoccupied with its own post-Soviet political turmoil to object to EU or enlargement to the east. Nor did it have the wherewithal, as its own production and oil prices continued to decline, hitting a trough of $10 a barrel in 1999-2000.

Russia's stance changed gradually during the early 2000s, as world oil prices - and Russian output - recovered, reinvigorating the country's economic base at a time when its leadership was becoming increasingly autocratic. Only then did Russia start to claim that the United States and its European allies had offered some implicit pledge not to expand Nato eastward.

With oil prices steadily rising, the value of Russian oil production reached a new peak, roughly 10 times the 1999 level, in 2008; Russia invaded Georgia the same year. Though prices collapsed during the Great Recession of 2009, they quickly recovered, with the value of Russian output reaching another peak in 2012-2013 - precisely when Russia's position on the EU-Ukraine association agreement hardened. Given that the EU and Ukraine had already been negotiating the deal for more than two years, without much reaction from Russia, the EU was blindsided by the Kremlin's sudden sharp objections.

Clearly, Russia's attitude toward its near abroad is not quite as erratic as it may seem. When oil prices rise, Russia expresses its latent resentments more aggressively, often employing its military. Moreover, at higher prices, the oil industry crowds out other export sectors that support open markets and a less aggressive foreign policy.

The Soviet war in Afghanistan was followed by a long-term decline in oil prices. The recent price slide - to $50-60 a barrel, halving the value of Russia's oil production - suggests that history is about to repeat itself.

And oil prices are not Russia's only problem. Western sanctions, which seemed to constitute only a pinprick a few months ago, appear to have inflicted serious damage, with the rouble having lost nearly half its value against the dollar last year. Though financial markets will calm down when the rouble's exchange rate settles into its new equilibrium, Russia's economy will remain weak, forcing the country's leaders to make tough choices.

Against this background, a stalemate in the Donbas seems more likely than an outright offensive aimed at occupying the remainder of the region and establishing a land corridor to Crimea - the outcome that many in the West initially feared. President Putin's new Novorossya project simply cannot progress with oil prices at their current level.

To be sure, Russia will continue to challenge Europe. But no amount of posturing can offset the disintegration of the economy's material base caused by the new equilibrium in the oil market. In this sense, the United States has come to Europe's rescue in a different way: its production of shale oil and gas is likely to play a greater role in keeping Russia at bay than Nato troops on Europe's eastern borders.


The Naxal challenge to electoral process / Navin B. Chawla

India’s general election is the largest exercise of its kind in the democratic world. Since it fell on me to oversee four out of five phases of the election in 2009, it was also viewed by the country as being my responsibility. This task included every aspect of its planning, including visits to the naxal-affected States in the run-up to the election. With 716 million voters, almost 8,35,000 polling stations and several million officials in service, there was no dearth of problems, all of which had either to have been anticipated or attended to in the shortest period. Time was short. In this case, there were barely 76 days from the announcement of polls to the date of counting of votes.
I do not intend to go into the reasons that have caused the growth of armed insurgency, a protracted war of sorts, that has been waged against the state since the 1960s. Its history is complex and arguments, for and against, continue to be made. Underlying the Maoist philosophy has been its opposition to the very concept of the democratic state. The Maoist view (and which still remains) was that it was a people’s war against an unjust government. Hence, conducting elections was to be opposed by all means available, and which justified the use of extreme violence. Towards this end, anyone who opposed its call for a boycott was a potential target, and which included political parties and candidates, election staff and ordinary voters. My task was to ensure that the election would be conducted on schedule but by avoiding the risk of loss of life or limb using all means available.
Dangers in the Red Corridor
By 2009, naxal-related violence was estimated to have spread up to 180 administrative districts (out of a total of 610 districts in the country), spread over nine States — Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Odisha, Maharashtra, Karnataka, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. It was estimated that there were about 20,000 armed cadres.
The most significant challenge in all this was the open threat by Maoists to prevent or severely disrupt the holding of elections. It was well recognised that in the “Red Corridor” of deeply forested Central India, the Maoist threat was all too real. Much of the infrastructure that we needed, schools and other government buildings to set up poll stations, was badly damaged; several roads, bridges and mobile towers had been blown up. Therefore, the major issues that concerned us were movement, communication and safety.
But our problems were by no means confined to these remote areas; there were a number of urban pockets which provided the Maoists shelter and weapons, and where they were indistinguishable from the population at large. Hence, our canvas was very wide indeed.
From earlier elections, the Maoist’s modus operandi was well known. In order to prevent vehicular movement on arterial roads, they had planted explosive devices, often deep under road surfaces. Aimed against any and all security forces, these lethal elements were implanted sometimes at the time of road laying. Gelatin sticks and explosives, often stolen from sites of mining operations, were strategically hidden under bridges and culverts. Compounding our problems were the huge number of landmines the Maoists had buried under jungle footpaths as well. Further, to specifically deter voters, Maoists have been known to chop off the fingers of the first voter in queues at election booths. All of this made political activity, the very life blood of elections, as hard as possible for political parties. However, the security forces remained their special targets. By killing them, they could also loot their weaponry in order to stock their own requirements.
The early signs were ominous. On April 13, 10 policemen were killed when Maoists attacked a bauxite mine in Koraput district of Odisha, where they also seized explosives. Since I had already begun to undertake detailed reviews in the region, these attacks heralded the naxal warning of their own readiness to thwart the process.
Duty before life
The efforts that went into the setting up of polling stations in these troubled areas necessitated attention to detail. These were carried out in the main by district magistrates/collectors and superintendents of police under the general supervision of the Election Commission. It is not known to the public how difficult these duties are or were for our poll officials. Most often teachers and revenue officials, they had to walk long distances over dangerous terrain (with electronic voting machines) in order to set up their stations. Walking became necessary because transportation by road was infinitely more dangerous. In all these cases, these brave civilian officials put duty before life, and in my mind, remain the true heroes of the election.
Voter insecurity was another issue that had to be looked into, for if they did not feel confident enough to come out to vote, the Maoists would have achieved their aim. Equally important, candidates needed to move around for electioneering. The constantly fluid situation did not make for easy movement as the basic precautions they needed to take were being constantly spelt out to them by the district authorities. This was vital, as timely information and putting in place alternative plans very often helped save many lives. Witness the carnage in Bastar on May 25, 2013, when ignoring basic ground rules cost the lives of a number of Congress leaders and security personnel in Bastar, making it one of the most deadly attacks on the political establishment in recent years as far as Naxal-related violence in India is concerned. The prospect of even a single casualty worried me constantly. Therefore, no detail was too small, no travel too inconvenient and 24 hours not time enough to sort out problems. The Commission’s three indefatigable IAS officers, R. Balakrishnan, J.P. Prakash and Vinod Zutshi, were stretched to the extent possible.
We soon realised that a vital requirement was in having helicopters from the Indian Air Force, thereby reducing the need for long and dangerous jungle treks. Their use would also help send police officials where needed, or rescue electoral staff in case of danger. I also wanted two helicopters to be converted into air ambulances.
The initial response was not too encouraging, but when I explained to the authorities how the use of helicopters would play a key role in saving lives, providing deterrence, and ultimately help in strengthening the democratic process, I was able to get almost everything that I needed. The presence of the machines was a strong psychological reassurance. I also acknowledge the efforts of the brave flight crew as well.
Growing threat
Inspite of the many obstacles, including 17 deaths from Maoist attacks in two States, elections were held on time. There was 55 per cent polling in the first phase and 65 per cent in the second. This was quite a good turnout considering the circumstances, and the press commented on the triumph of ballot over bullet. Yet, there were violent incidents and loss of life. These continued immediately after the election process was over, when on May 21, 16 police personnel including five policewomen were gunned down in Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra.
In 2006, the Prime Minister described the naxal threat as the greatest internal security problem that India faced. Between 2006 and 2010, there were an estimated 9,000 incidents in Maoist-dominated States; in the election year of 2009, when there was also an Assembly election in Jharkhand, there were as many as 1,100 incidents.
This internal conflict has deeply affected India’s governance, security, economy and rule of law. In February 2009, the government initiated an Integrated Action Plan. This involves broad and more coordinated operations alongside grass-root economic development projects. However, our track record in understanding this very complex problem has been spasmodic at best. A much more comprehensive, holistic and sustained policy involving across-the-board views particularly within the severely affected States, is long overdue. From the singular point of the conduct of future elections, our reputation as a successful democratic beacon will henceforth depend on the ability of the government to find solutions to this growing problem within our polity.

(Navin B. Chawla, Chief Election Commissioner of India from April 16, 2009 to July 29, 2010, conducted the country’s general election to the 15th Lok Sabha.)