Herald View: Chandrayaan-3 and the Modi government's lip service to ISRO’s achievements

It took a vision and political will for a poor country like India to invest in space mission and atomic energy programme soon after Independence. Does the current leadership have that vision?

The then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with Vikram Sarabhai (extreme right), circa 1954
The then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with Vikram Sarabhai (extreme right), circa 1954

Herald View

Even at the risk of sounding like a ‘compulsive contrarian’—a term of endearment for critics of the government, made famous by one of the deceased eminences of the BJP—it must be said that ISRO’s success with the south pole landing of Chandrayaan-3 bears no relationship to Vedic science or our considerable achievements in plastic surgery before the world woke up to it.

So, advocates of those dodgy-science disciplines should ideally stop crowing about it. But it’s not rocket science to guess they won’t, because there is political mileage in puffing up with nationalist pride.

When you zoom in from those moon shots to focus on the grainier reality of this planet in general, and our country in particular, you’ll see craters of nativist/ communal prejudice and worse.

But let’s take a moment to focus on ISRO’s achievements, indeed a tale of enviable self-reliance even though the space science that powers those achievements are a shared legacy and inheritance of all humankind (read: A View from Outer Space on page 2).

A big reason Chandrayaan-3 has drawn the world’s attention is the innovations ISRO made to put Vikram, the rover, on the moon, reportedly at half the cost of launching the Hollywood film Interstellar. It is the frugality of India’s moon mission, not so much its audacity, that has made the world sit up and take notice.

Most countries have happily or unhappily survived without an ambitious space programme or an ambitious atomic energy programme. But it took a vision and political will for a poor and newly independent country like India to invest in both soon after Independence.

The government of India under its first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru published its ‘Scientific Policy Resolution’ in 1958, which started by noting the ‘intense cultivation of science on a large scale, and its application to meet [the] country’s requirements’.

When fundamental duties were added to the Indian Constitution in 1976, one of these duties enjoined every citizen of India to develop a ‘scientific temper’, a term that appeared in Nehru’s Discovery of India, published in 1946.

That ambition aside, our meagre scientific achievements owe less to a consistent commitment of national resources to the enterprise than to the individual brilliance of a few scientists or outliers in government like our first prime minister.

The project to inculcate a ‘scientific temper’ has clearly not been a roaring success, given the persistence of superstitious beliefs, of illiteracy that makes space for those beliefs, and of the political unwillingness to commit national resources at scale to lift people out of illiteracy.

If anything, we have regressed to a point where illiteracy finds affirmation and validation from the very top—and the ‘good word’, dispensed by someone with a degree in ‘Entire Political Science’, is put out with great purpose and vigour by a propaganda machinery that really should be the envy of any despot.

Said machinery is truly the most outstanding achievement of the current government, and in that scheme of things, a ‘scientific temper’ is a bloody nuisance—who wants people to think and doubt and question when they can be mindless devotees eating out of the hands of self-styled godmen? Or when they can be convinced that cow urine cures cancer? Are you still wondering why we are not over the moon celebrating ISRO’s moment in the sun, so to speak?

About the time Chandrayaan-3 was on its way to the moon, the director general of police in Uttar Pradesh issued a circular that said police should be on high alert around amavasya (the new moon night) because the panchang (Hindu astrological almanac) indicates that incidents of crime will surge around amavasya. We are making these scientific discoveries on a near-daily basis in Amrit Kaal, so don’t get carried away, please.

It doesn’t cost us either to make these discoveries, as another dipstick test of our commitment to science reveals. R&D accounts for 0.7 per cent of our GDP, and most of that budget is devoted to tinkering with existing technologies in pharma, computing and telecom, not fundamental research.

The ministry of science and technology accounts for 0.36 per cent of the government’s budgeted expenditure of Rs 45 lakh crore in the Union budget of 2023–24. So there: our government is not just paying lip service to ISRO’s achievements, it’s also putting its money where its mouth is.

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