The Sciences

S&T in the BJP's Election Manifesto Is No S and All T

The manifesto doesn't allay apprehensions about the future for fundamental, 'application-less' research in India, whose prospects the BJP has already hampered since 2014.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) manifesto for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections doesn’t have a separate chapter on science and technology but makes a few points under a chapter called ‘Good Governance’. It is useful to observe how an author organises their ideas because where an idea is located in a book and how many words it encompasses say a lot about its importance. And if the book in question is this manifesto, then science must be worried. While the attention to science and technology is welcome, it is also decidedly populist and myopic. Overall, the party’s promises are focused on using science and technology for the benefit of society, but most – if not all – of the ideas discussed are oriented towards higher education and technology, not science. The former two are important things to invest in but it should not happen at the cost of basic research or the development of knowledge that can benefit the country beyond five-year roadmaps. Specifically, the manifesto promises the party will focus on artificial intelligence and “robotic research”, a “genome mission” to bring “diagnosis and treatment to our entire population” and supercomputing and “quantum” missions. These promises lack substantiation – which they should have in the quantum case at least because the Department of Science and Technology led the first mission meeting in January. But without details, they are just buzzwords soldered onto non sequitur claims like “frugal innovation” (which one scientist joked could be the Centre’s way of saying “no more money”), “cutting edge technologies”, etc. Point #17 even goes:
We will explore the diversity of our oceans, have a human crewed submersible going to the deepest oceans that will facilitate sustainable use of resources. With a thrust on non-fossil fuels, our research mission in this area will reduce imports and make India a leader in new technologies.
There are three other points that hold some hope, but they are smaller pieces in a larger puzzle and if the party doesn’t intend to work on all of it, they will be for naught. They are: * Language Translation Mission (related to a topic that K. VijayRaghavan, principal scientific advisor to the Government of India, discussed at some length in 2017) – aims to translate scientific knowledge available in English to various Indian languages. However, there’s nothing on how this will be checked for quality and disseminated, at what level (high school, undergraduate, etc.) it will be undertaken and whether students will also be able to take classes and exams in their languages of choice. * Higher investment in state universities and institutions – Most government schemes and big ticket announcements are usually reserved for central universities, but their state counterparts bear 95% of the teaching burden at the higher-education level. But to take full advantage of this, state governments will also have to up their contribution to the R&D budget from the current 7.4%. * National Program for Rapid Research in Socially Contextual Technologies – “to create research paths in desirable technologies and to manage financing of such projects in coordination with the private sector”. Bringing research from labs to the market is very important because many Indian institutions, especially the IITs, have developed solutions to increase quality of life but face multiple translational barriers. However, this program’s success lies entirely in its implementation, and success isn’t guaranteed. Indeed, the manifesto skirts the principal demand scientists and science students around the country have been making: to increase spending on R&D to 1% of GDP. In 2014-2015, India spent 0.69% of its GDP on R&D, 45% of which was borne by the government and 38% by the private sector (source). That the BJP doesn’t seem to be interested in this discussion doesn’t bode well, but these apprehensions are allayed to some extent by its promise to increase expenditure on education and increase private sector participation in R&D. However, none of these points allay apprehensions about the future for fundamental, ‘application-less’ research in the country, whose prospects the BJP has already hampered since 2014. Given the extensive focus on orienting research towards missions that could help the BJP fulfil its political goals, it also seems likely that the party intends to continue hijacking existing infrastructure and resources to that end. It doesn’t matter if it is the CSIR, the Central Universities or ISRO. There are of course the customary lines about space, but they don’t inspire much hope. For one, the portion begins by calling Mission Shakti an “unprecedented success”. However, it was conducted by India’s premier defence organisation and wasn’t at all a scientific mission. Second, the party declares that it will see Gaganyaan successfully pulled off as a technology demonstrator (TD). There is again nothing about space science missions or, say, increasing or enhancing integration between India’s research labs and spaceflight resources. Yes, Gaganyaan will foster a lot of research, but does that mean we need to wait for giant TD missions once every five years to conduct any space research at all? Finally, while the manifesto does treat ‘science and technology’ and ‘forest and environment’ under separate heads, there is little difference in their treatment. For one, the forest section begins with this demonstrably false claim:
… we have added around 9,000 sq. km to the forest cover of the country.
As multiple news reports and scholarly analyses have shown, forest cover did not increase under the BJP government. The extra cover the party claims to have overseen the addition of pertains to plantations, which are recorded as green cover in forest surveys. However, India needs more forests, not more plantations disguised as forests. India also needs more forest cover in certain places; a tree cut down in a sanctuary can’t be offset by planting one in a city. The manifesto’s assurances about having promoted the interests of tribal communities are similarly flawed (e.g. see here, here and here). Finally, and lest the BJP believes it has slipped one through: a suggestion (in point #20) that increasing the pace at which environmental clearances are granted increases forest cover betrays a leap of logic that would help explain why the party seems blind to the importance of science, or even just logic. It is easy to react with cynicism to such a text but it is also hard to hope.