Deepmala 51 – Nutritional Security for India

Four years ago, I was giving a special evening lecture in Chennai. Bharat Ratna C. Subramaniam was presiding over the lecture and Dr. M.S. Swaminathan was the guest of honour. I talked about the future of India and the role the Indian mind will play in it. I argued that the twenty first century will be the century of knowledge and indeed the century of mind. I referred to ‘Green Revolution’ in agriculture, ‘Blue Revolution’ in our successful space programme, ‘While Revolution’ in milk production and then I said, now we require a ‘Grey Revolution’. I was referring to the Indian grey matter in the brain. I was saying that we need to have such a revolution to use our brainpower to give India a leading position in the comity of nations.

After my lecture, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan gave the closing remarks. While agreeing with the concept of ‘grey revolution’, he talked about the problems in making it happen in India. His reason was simple. Development of brain is crucially dependent upon the way the baby grows in the womb of the mother. If the nutritional requirements are not met, then the brain does not develop. Then he gave some striking statistics by saying that almost one third of the babies in India are born with inadequate development of the brain due to malnourishment. If this continued, then how could a ‘grey revolution’ take place, he asked.

The latest statistics has come out now. Dr. Swaminathan was right. Nearly one-third of the children born in India weigh less than 2.4 kg at birth when the desired weight is at least 3.2 kg for a healthy infant. It is obvious that such children need a special focus on nutrition in their early childhood to make up for this deficiency.

Protein energy malnutrition is an important nutrition problem among pre-school children. This leads to various degrees of growth retardation: when growth retardation is severe, poor intellectual development results. The problem is more pronounced among the rural poor, and especially so among the pregnant and nursing women, and growing children. According to a recent National Family Health Survey, 53 per cent of the children under the age of four are malnourished and underweight and 52 per cent of the children in this age group are stunted. How will we then to build the new India that will be able to compete in the new century of knowledge, especially with such a high population of inadequately prepared children?

How do we deal with the malnutrition of the young in a country which is as large and as poor as ours? The society and the government has a big role to play in this. This requires social innovation. And that is exactly what happened eighty years ago. In 1925, a midday meal programme was introduced for children belonging to poor socio-economic status in Madras Corporation area. In 1928, Keshav Academy of Calcutta introduced compulsory midday tiffin for schoolboys on payment basis at the rate of four annas per child per month. In 1941, in parts of Kerala, the school lunch programme was started. In 1942, Bombay started implementing a free midday meal scheme. A midday meal scheme was introduced in Bangalore city in 1946. In the 1950s, many states came to introduce midday meal progammes with the assistance of different international agencies.

The midday meal scheme is a path-breaking innovation aimed at correcting the nutritional imbalance among growing children. Though the imbalance occurs mostly among pre-school children, the midday meal programme can effectively correct the child to overcome the deficiencies early in life. This is indeed a laudable scheme which ensures a better health for our future citizens.

Here is something more that the midday meal scheme does. I have always lamented the fact that 50% children in India go to school, 30% of them go up to 10th standard and 40% of them pass. This means a large dropout from schools. It has been seen that the drop out rates reduce significantly in those schools, where there is a midday meal scheme. This is obvious, since the midday meal scheme provides a powerful incentive for the poor parents to send their children in school.

The Supreme Court, in a recent landmark judgement, had suggested that all state governments should implement this scheme, and provide cooked food to the students. The Supreme Court warned the states further. It said that it could ask the Centre to stop grants to those states who did not implement this scheme. This is a welcome step. However, I do believe that the whole society must rise to help this noble cause. I also believe that industry must adopt several schools and support such schemes. It is their duty also to see that they contribute to developing the Indian brain power of the future of which they will be the users.

We understand the importance of defense security, economic security, health security, environmental security and so on. We do not talk about nutritional security. But without nutritional security, other securities are of no value. Let us all work together to make India a nation that is nutritionally secure in the twenty first cent

Deepmala 50 – Access to Water : Crisis Ahead

What will be the challenges that the world will be facing in the year 2050? We need to prepare for them from now onwards. The goals for the year 2050 have been drawn up by a wide ranging consultation by a United Nations institution recently. These goals are 42 in number and they have been organized from top to bottom in terms of the order of importance attached to them. It is interesting to note that the goal that deals with ‘end water shortages and water pollution’ ranks the first. I tried to find out as to why this has been placed at the top. I discovered some shocking facts.

Today, water tables are falling on every continent. Agricultural land is becoming brackish worldwide, and groundwater aquifers are being polluted. Nearly 45 crore people in 29 countries live in water-short locations. More than 100 crore people lack safe drinking water. Nearly half the world lacks adequate sanitation, and 80% of all diseases in the developing world are water-related. Since 70% of freshwater withdrawal is for agriculture, water shortages are forcing urban versus rural prioritisation of usage. Half the world could face water shortages by 2032 if the current trends continue. Sustainable development, poverty, and disease cannot be addressed until the severe problems of water scarcity is solved. Not surprisingly, therefore, water crisis takes the to spot among the 42 priorities.

Someone has also predicated that the twenty first century wars will be fought on water. This also looked surprising at first, but on deeper reflection, the reasons were not hard to see. About 40% of humanity lives in river basins shared by more than two countries; hence the potential for conflict increases with population growth and water demand. Economic development of Sudan and Ethiopia will draw on the river Nile, making water conflicts in this region seem inevitable. Forget about two nations; even in a single nation also there can be a conflict between two states. We, in India, have already witnessed the conflict between Karnataka and Tamilnadu. Water systems are vulnerable to industrial catastrophe, agricultural pollution, and terrorist attract. Business-as-usual will lead to world water crises–causing mass migrations, disease, and wars.

The water situation in India is grim, but it is bad elsewhere too. With 22% of the world’s population, China has to survive on only 7% of the world’s total fresh-water resources. About 40% of Africans do not have access to safe water. In some African cities, such as Nairobi and Lagos, more than 60% of the population has no running water. Water distribution is difficult: one-third of Africa’s fresh water flows through just one river, the Congo. Tribal wars, sanitation, recurrent drought, desert encroachment, and high population growth play havoc with Africa’s water resource.

The water situation can be improved greatly through change of practices and polices as well as by using the new tools of technology. For example, we can make progress by changing agricultural practices to get more crop per drop of water, introducing water pricing, developing plants that are drought-resistant and more brackish-tolerant, investing in watershed management, securing treaties and cooperative agreements on water rights, and creating integrated water management plans. Investing in desalination will help nations. For example, Israel produces water through desalination. Japan converts seawater into drinking water by using the desalination technology.

We must move water as a major policy agenda both nationally and globally. It is understood that the issue is so serious that the United Nations is intending to hold a second World Conference on Water in 2005 to launch the second decade on water and sanitation. The first World Conference held in 1977 set the agenda for 1981-90. This was very successful: 100 crore people gained access to safe water and 70 crore got sanitation. But we should not wait for these movements to start globally. In India itself, we must start a movement ourselves. Water conservation must become an individual responsibility. My own CSIR, during this year, which is its Diamond Jubilee year, has decided to give the highest priority to S&T related to water prospecting, conservation and purification. Other institutions should join in this noble cause too.

Deepmala 49 – Democracy and Dictatorship

More people live in democracies than dictatorships in the world today. Democracies are not only desirable but they are essential. Democratic countries tend not to fight each other. Humanitarian crises are far more likely to occur within authoritarian regimes, which thrive on ethnicity and religious fundamentalism. The trend towards democracy would always lead to a more peaceful future. Unfortunately, the emergence of democracy is not a smooth process. Many recent democracies have not consolidated their democratic institutions and cultural changes. During the transition from an authoritarian region, many people who enjoyed an unfair advantage previously can now lose their income and social status. These people, therefore, will always resist the emergence of democracies. New democracies must address previous abuses of power to earn the loyalty of the citizens. This process has to be done with great care. This is because the pursuit of this justice can increase social discord and slow down the process of reconciliation.

Young democracies, emerging from authoritarian regimes, need long-term economic stability. They need some experience with pluralism. Dramatic changes like multiparty elections, a free press, written constitutions, legal reforms, and an independent judiciary do not simultaneously create a culture of democracy with citizen responsibilities. The increasing ability to manipulate information puts freedom of choice in jeopardy everywhere.

Many global development financing agencies make development assistance to the countries dependent on the progress made by these countries towards democracy. However, a genuine democracy is achieved when the people of a given nation succeed in having the government become accountable to them. Efforts to force democracy by outside interaction of nations, who bring in changes of political regimes cannot achieve the same result as the genuine desire and will of the people of a given nation to become a democratic nation. Different countries may require different political systems at different times. But all will be improved by increasing education, transparency, accountability, media assess, and initiatives that focus on elimination of corruption. Respect for human rights, free media, tolerance of political opposition, free elections, and an independent civil society will help to develop the culture of democracy.

The situation around some parts of the world is not a very happy one. Only 20 of the 53 African countries have electoral democracies. Dictators in Africa will not yield their power until they have secure retirement situations. An “African Council of Elders” composed of former heads of state has been proposed. It has been suggested that it should be headed by someone like the Nelson Mandela. Whether this happens nor not will have to be seen.

In Asia just 24 of the region’s 39 nations have electoral democracies. Much of Asia is characterised by strong autocratic governments, which are only nominally democratic. In Latin America, after 190 years of independent life, civil wars, dictators, and formal constitutions, democracy still has no deep roots in the region; fewer than 50% of citizens vote.

On this background, India as a nation should be proud of its democracy. We are the largest democracy in the world, which has survived inspite of so much of turbulence and crisis. We must understand and respect its value in the background of the situation elsewhere in the world. However, from a mere democracy, we must become an ‘enlightened democracy’ now. This can happen only when we have an ‘enlightened public’ and “believable political leadership”, which practices high moral and ethical values. Unfortunately, events in the recent years have shown that this is not the case. We all must work relentlessly towards this goal of making Indian ‘an enlightened model democracy’ that the rest of the world can emulate.

Deepmala 48 – Balancing the Population and Resources

People are living longer today. The world is becoming increasingly urban. Unfortunately, the population is growing fastest, where people do not even have the bare necessities of life. More than 100 crore people live in slums worldwide. About one out of every three children under five years of age in the developing world is malnourished. Of the net 8 crore people added to the world’s population last year, just 10 lakh live in the industrial world. Sufficient nutrition, shelter, water and sanitation will have to reach people in slums. If this does not happen, then increased migrations, conflicts, and disease seem inevitable.

The current global population of 620 crores is expected to grow to 930 crores by 2050, and 98% of this growth will be in the poorer countries. Some 37% of the world lives in either China or India, where the industrial growth is accelerating the use of resources and consequently having a serious impact on the environment.

By 2050 there will be more older people than children. The number of people who are 60 years of age or older is expected to increase by four fold. Thus out of population of 930 crore, over 200 crore will be older than 60. This will put stress on retirement and health care systems worldwide. The industrial world grew rich before it grew old. The success of birth control programs in many parts of the developing world will mean that the developing world will grow old before it grows rich. This will pose its own problems in this part of the world.

The life expectancy has increased by about 30 years over the last century. Further, medical and social advances will promote even increased longevity. As people live longer with fewer working people to support them, the economic burden on younger generations will increase. This will hurt the poorer nations the most.

If more mouths have be fed, then agricultural efficiencies also have to be improved with high-yield agriculture, micro-credit system, social safety nets, and resource conservation. In the next 30 years an additional 20 crore hectares will be needed to feed the growing populations in the tropics and subtropics. Yet only 9 crore hectares are available in these nations for farms to expand – and much of that land is forested and should be preserved.

In India, we have not given adequate attention to this problem. The problem is acute in some states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, etc. I am writing this column after giving the Nehru Memorial Lecture on 12 November in Allahabad. While traveling by road from Varanasi to Allahabad, I saw scenes that were worrysome. I saw lots of young children on the road, which were semi-clothed and were walking barefoot. They were on the streets, when they should have been in the schools. I saw a woman, with four young children surrounding her. The eldest must be six years old – the difference in ages between each of them could not have been more than one year. I see similar scenes as I drive from the Kolkata airport to my guesthouse, which is one hour away. Surely, there is a crisis looking ahead, which we must deal on a war footing.

In areas with higher birth rates, the factors that reduce population growth need to be reinforced urgently. These factors include increased income, improved literacy, diminished infant mortality, empowerment and education of women, improved and inexpensive contraceptives, family planning, and equal rights for women. This has to be in the top of our agenda.

Deepmala 47 – Making Indian Human Capital an Asset

As a nation, we should be disappointed with our poor record in education. Four out of ten children in India are illiterate. It is worse for girls and in the backward northern states, where teachers are often absent schools lack the basic facilities, children are not motivated and they drop out. But there is a hopeful sign: there is tremendous thirst and pressure for education from below. In the past six years, literacy has risen from 52 to 67 per sent. This is a huge improvement, and if this tread continues, universal literacy is nor far behind. In some states responsibility for education is beginning to shift to the local panchayats, and this has brought more accountability. Madhya Pradesh and Andhra are leading the charge. It there is one thing that could secure our future, it is vigorous attention to building human capabilities.

The historical experience of how country after country went from poverty to prosperity over the last two hundred years suggests that the transformation in each case was generally driven by one sector, which became the engine of the economy. In Britain it was textiles; in the United States the industrial revolution was led by the railways. Timber and timber products were responsible for Sweden’s take-off; milk and dairy products did the same for Denmark. In today’s language, the nation’s competitive advantage emanates from its leading sector. India must define this leading sector, which will give it the competitive edge. The answer to this can be found, if we look at where India has made a huge difference.

Let us look at the non-resident Indians. These are the ones that got away and built for themselves a better life, good careers and often, fabulous wealth. This diaspora spanning two centuries, but largely, a rush that began in the 1960s, total an estimated 2 crore people worldwide. Together all these people account for an economic output of about 20,00,000 crores, almost the same as the gross domestic product of India. This global community is a living tribute to the quality of Indian mind & its enterprise. This also gives the answer to the question I posed. What is our leading sector. It is the Indian human capital.

If nature gave to the Middle East the gift of oil, and to Japan the sense of national devotion, to India it has given immense human intelligence and enterprising quality. Harnessing our human capital is our first duty. In today’s global economy a country’s status is determined by the share of brands that it commands and the share of brains that it uses. The economic reforms are a partial answer to this. When the government liberated the Internet from the monopoly of VSNL, it harnessed millions of young Indians minds. If it would open the trade in agriculture, it would harness millions of farmhands. The most powerful way to harness human capital is through education. The US, the Eurpean Union, and East Asia are all embarked on massive plans to accelerate the development of their human capital. Let us harness this human capital for national growth & prosperity.

Deepmala 46 – Vedanta and Science

I have written in this column about the bridges between our traditional technological knowledge (including the ancient one) and also modern science. Let me address the issue of the relationship of ancient Indian philosophy with the modern world of science and technology. Science today collectively represents, in some ways, the high watermark of human quest. Science that has been developed now over the last 300 years, particularly post-Einsteinian science, is looking outward to the reality that is around us, and is trying to find out as to what is ultimately behind our material existence. Science is never satisfied with things just as they are. So science, in the broader sense, is an enquiry into the material world, which is outside us. Similarly, our Upanishads and Vedanta are an enquiry into the inner reality within us.

Who are we? What is the basic entity within us? What is it that motivates my consciousness? These basic questions have been addressed by Vedanta. If we search hard enough, a great deal that is common between science and the Vedanta can be found. Science asks ‘What is it’? Vedanta asks ‘who am I’? During the Newtonian-Cartesian-Marxist paradigm, the dualistic science that dominated human life for four centuries was at the very opposite pole to philosophy. Not so, any longer. Some scientists are now coming round to the Vedantic view that consciousness is in fact probably the primary entity, which is the basis of matter.

Conceptually, intellectually and philosophically, the quest embodied in science is not contradicted by Vedanta. When you could not travel more than 10 miles a day, the seers of the Upanishads had the vision of transcending time and space. This vision has been concretized in this age of supersonic jets and space travel, and now technologically, you can see the unity of the human existence. You can physically see the world from outer space. So not only have science and technology not negated Vedanta, but have in some ways confirmed the Vedantic view.

One of the basic Vedantic concepts is that there is a single force that pervades the entire Universe, whether at the atomic level, or in the billions upon billions of galaxies in the Universe. Now if you look, not as a scientist, but as a layman, the quest for the single unified field theory, for a single force, that is behind all manifested and objective phenomena, is also a part of science. So this concept of a single force pervading the entire universe in some ways also reinforces the Vedantic view of the all pervasive Brahman.

Why do we need philosophy? Philosophy is not only for philosophers. Philosophy is some thing, which every human being needs. A philosophy, which would bring about harmony and peaceful coexistence; a philosophy, which should work for the welfare of the many, the happiness of the many; a philosophy for welfare of the entire planet. Our prayers, for example, are not just for ourselves, or even for the human race. They include plants, rivers, fields, mountains and animals. Now all these modern environmental concerns, which are now coming up were already included in Vedanta. Environmental values have been built into the structure of our thought, both religious and philosophical.

As we can see, whether it is environmental values, whether it is inner faith values, whether it is peace and harmony among people – you can get all these values from Vedanta. We must interpret Vedanta creatively in the light of the present day living. We can then strengthen these life giving values and emerge as a more vibrant and stronger nation.

Deepmala 45 – The Indian Demographic Advantage

All Nations ask a common question now-a-days. How many of our people are old? How many of our people are young? In other words, what is our demography? In fact, demography impacts the availability of talent. Today, one fifth of the American population is above the age of 60. In 25 years time this number will increase to a quarter of the population. Germany is worse off. A quarter of Germans are now old and in 25 years a third of them will be old. The case with Japan is very similar to that of Germany. China is better off with a tenth of its population now and a fifth of its population in 25 years being old.

All these countries will see a decline in their work force and talent. USA is already facing a shortage of skilled professionals. This will further accentuate. Over the next 10 to 15 years professional workforce shortage in the USA will peak to 1.5 crores. Europe will see a shortfall of 10 lakh professionals in information technology alone. Germany is already facing a shortfall of about 2 lakh engineers. China is estimated to need upwards of 14 lakh management graduates. Japan, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and New Zealand are forecasting large shortages of professional talent. This shortage will last at least till the middle of this century.

Given this global scenario, we in India must consider ourselves very lucky. Demography is kind to our country. India has a young population. Just 7% of Indians are above the age of 60. In 25 years time, only 12% will be above sixty. India will continue to be young and will see a swelling work force. India has a large pool of scientific, technical and professional talent. The educational and professional infrastructure built in the past has served her well so far. India’s professional has proven creativity, adaptability and a spirit of initiative. India’s professional resource base in the fields of information technology, biology and chemistry are international known. Our management talent, whether in the form of products from world-class management institutions in India or global managers of Indian origin, is deep. If we target the rapidly growing talent market, we can change India’s economic and social landscape dramatically. As a country, we have a unique opportunity.

However, it is disappointing that the professional talent in India is limited to an elite group of 55 lakh people only. They constitute about one per cent of the 40 crore workforce. This small fraction garners most of the benefits of economic progress. The rest of the participants in the economy remain on the margins. This picture must change. But besides this, we can also add a great value, if we improve the quality of our workforce.

Let us look at our 55 lakh professionals, who include doctors, lawyers, architects, nurses, chartered accountants and others with a wide range of diverse skills. It is not difficult at all to train just 10 lakh of them with the highest level of domain knowledge. They can be easily deployed to work for 2,000 hours per year earning 20 US dollars an hour, which is about half the average US salary. They will thereby generate a sustainable income of 200,000 crores per year!

In turn, income generation on this scale will have a far-reaching multiplier effect. It will generate demand for better houses, improved roads, higher quality of life, etc. All this can catalyze employment for several lakhs of people in other sectors. We can then comfortably look a large growth in economic output each year purely on the strength of our professional talent. This single strategic move of harnessing India’s professional resources will unleash a self-sustaining economic revolution.

India’s young people are an enormous reservoir of talent. All of us have to equip them, train them, and provide them opportunities. This casts a huge responsibility on policy makers, educational institutions and business leaders. Then only can we harness the advantage of this human capital in the future.

Deepmala 44 – Self – help Movement

India is a developing country, where the population comprises 50% women. There are sharp gender inequalities. They get unequal pay for equal work. There is a discrimination in the labour market. These are grim realities. Harsh statistics stares us in the face. 70% of the Indian women are illiterate. 90% of family planning operations are tubectomies, which terminate the female child. 60% of primary school dropouts are girls.

The United Nations had adopted 1994 as the year of the family with an emphasis that the family is the smallest democracy at the heart of the society. But on the other hand the Human Development Report 1993 had said, “No country treats its women as well as its men”. Can the India of the next millennium afford to stand on only one of its legs? A woman has to be allowed the full expression of her potential and she has to be empowered to become a dynamic partner in the building of the new India of our dreams.

Several actions need to be taken, if this has to happen. For example, the state has brought forth several pieces of legislation to curb the oppression of women, Child Marriage Restraint Act, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, the Widow Remarriage Act, etc. However, these acts have not become acts of faith, and they cannot, until the mindset of our strongly patriarchal society changes fundamentally.

The question is what can we do to give support to those women, who are destitutes, who are illiterate? Can we do something, which will add value to their life? The answer is, yes, most certainly we can, provided we have new social innovation movements in India. I will like to describe two such movements, which are close to my heart, and which have made a difference.

The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is one such movement. It is now bigger than the wildest dreams of its founder from Ahmedabad, namely, Ela Bhat. She was a lawyer, who turned into a labour leader. SEWA was registered in 1975 to safeguard the interests of improverished self-employed women. They were slum-dwelling weavers, cigarette rollers, vendors, waste-paper pickers and construction workers. Today, it has over two lakh members covering Gujarat to Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala and Delhi.

Through their organization, SEWA members have successfully negotiated with the employers to get health, death and maternity benefits, set up 71 cooperatives of various trades to share expertise, develop new designs and techniques. Each cooperative has an average of 1000 members.

Most importantly, SEWA in 1974 established a micro-financing bank that now has 70,000 accounts. This has rescued thousands of women from money lenders and pawn-brokers, allowing them to accumulate land, assets and means of production. The repayment rate on its loan is an impressive 96 per cent. SEWA has shown that self help works.

There is another example that is also close to my heart. On a sultry, mid-March day in 1959, seven women from poor families gathered on the terrace of an old building in Mumbai’s Girgaum locality and held a little ceremony. It marked the production of packets of papads and a firm resolve to continue production-on a borrowed sum of Rs.80.

Today, the Bandra-based Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjit Papad is an operation with 60 centres countrywide involving 40,000 women and annual sales of over Rs. 300 crore. The cooperative has paved the way for margianalised women brutalized by poverty and domestic problems to built a life for themselves and their children with a simple motto : self-help.

It is said that God helps those, who help themselves. Self-help is the key, whether you are literate or illiterate, a man or a woman. Hundreds of movements like SEWA and Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjit Papad are required in India. All that it requires is a strong sense of compassion for the downtrodden and commitment to social innovation. Such movements will bring a joy and smile to those unfortunate. Indian women, who have been deprived of the bare necessities of life. We will then have a more equitable India.

Deepmala 43 – Environment is an Individual Responsibility

I would like to recall three incidents that I witnessed in Indonesia, China and India during the last 12 years, which have left a deep impression on my mind.

I remember being in Jakarta in Indonesia. I had gone there to help restructuring of the industrial research and development system on the invitation of the World Bank. It was a Saturday, and being a holiday I was relaxing with a book near a swimming pool. The big swimming pool also had an adjoining small swimming pool especially reserved for very young children. Many of them were Japanese children in the age group of 5-8 years. I saw something interesting. A dry leaf from a nearby tree came and fell in the pool. A small child of about 5 years of age saw that leaf. It didn’t like it because probably it must have felt that it was spoiling the cleanliness of the pool. It swam all the way towards that leaf that was floating on the surface of the water and tried to catch it. After some struggle, it managed to catch it. I thought the child will just come to the edge of the pool and throw it out. To my surprise, it didn’t do so. The child, with the help of his maid, got out of the pool. Then it went running to a dust bin which was located quite far off. It put that leaf in the dust bin. Feeling happy that it had finished an important task, it came back and jumped into the pool again. This was a lesson in environmental consciousness given to me by a small Japanese child.

When I was the Director of the National Chemical Laboratory, I remember we decided that we will compete globally and project NCL as a knowledge based consultancy organization. We bid for a consultancy contract in China. It was a global bid. I remember competing with three American companies. We finally won the consultancy bid. This was a proud moment for us. But in order to win that bid, along with my colleagues, I had to personally go to China to make a presentation of our bid. But we did not know Chinese. We took the help of an Indian friend, who knew Chinese. We were on our way to the office, where the presentation was going to be made. As we were driving along, our car stopped at a signal. My Indian friend was smoking a cigarette. At the signal, he just threw the butt of the cigarette out of the window. A little Chinese girl saw this act. She picked up the cigarette and came to my Indian friend. She said this was not allowed in Beijing and for this act, he would be fined. She took out a little receipt book and told him the amount that he should pay. My Indian friend paid it and took the receipt. Later on my friend told me that there was a campaign to clean Beijing and make it one of the most environmentally green and clean city. People’s participation in making this happen was a part of this campaign. I asked him as to what would the girl do with this money that she had collected. He said it would be deposited with the State. This was the second lesson for me, which showed to me not only environmental consciousness shown by a little girl, but how it was driven and managed by the State.

It was around three years ago that Shri Sharad Pawar invited me to visit Baramati. He was very proud of the institutions that he had built in Information Technology and he wanted me to have a look at these. I remember traveling with him from Pune to Baramati in the morning and having a fascinating discussion on what IT could do for the upliftment of the people. After we reached Baramati, he himself took me around many institutions including the library in which his personal collections of books were deposited. We then went to a modern building, which was going to part of a new institute. The building was spotlessly clean. But on the way, as we were moving around, he found that someone had thrown a crumbled piece of paper on the floor. He picked this up and held it in his hand. Later on we walked through various parts of the building for 20-25 minutes. He kept on holding that piece of paper in his hand. On our way out towards a place, where I was going to give a public address, he found a dust bin and put it in that dust bin. This was another lesson to me in environmental consciousness coming from one of India’s enlightened senior political leader.

What is common between these three individuals? I believe it is that this responsibility to keep a clean environment resides with an individual and not with the Government. Do we not have the right to dream of a clean and green India that will be the envy of other nations? We can create that India, but only if all of its 100 crore citizens were like these three individuals that I met in Indonesia, India and China.

Deepmala 42 – Risk taking in Scientific Research

In science, only those are remembered, who say either the first word in science or the last word in science. India has not done it often enough. Why? Because, among other things, we have not dared, risked, gambled or deliberately funded risky research. While I was the Director of National Chemical Laboratory, I decided to fund risky research by creating a ‘Kite Flying Fund’. I said, we will support ideas, which aim to attain some unattainable goals, meet some stretched targets, or follow novel strategies in problem solving, that have never been used before. Here the chance of success may be one in one thousand. This fund generated a lot of excitement. I remember a fierce competition among scientists, where many innovative ideas sprang up.

When I moved to CSIR, we used the ‘Kite Flying Fund’ concept at NCL to create a ‘New Idea Fund’. We invited the entire chain of laboratories to submit ideas, which had explosive creativity, and where the chance of success may again be even one in thousand. During the last 5 years we have received over 350 new ideas but we have funded only 15 of them; we are so tough on our criteria on what constitutes explosive creativity. This initiative has spurred our scientists to aim for increasingly higher level of innovation in CSIR and even individual laboratories are setting up such funds now.

Risk taking in science is very important. Therefore, auditing of scientific research has to be done difficulty. One must understand that manufacturing and S&T are two different endeavours, culturally and operationally. In manufacturing, we look for zero defects and no failures, whereas in science, there is a fundamental right to fail. An interesting analysis has been done by Stephen and Burley in 1997 for Industrial Research Institute, which lists out the significant odds facing would be innovators by analyzing consistent data from new product development, potential activity and venture capital experience. It has been shown that there is a universal curve, which illustrates the number of substantial new product ideas surviving between each stage of the new product development process. Indeed, out of 3000 raw ideas (hand written), 300 are submitted, which lead to around 125 small projects, further leading to 9 significant developments, 4 major developments, 1.7 launches and 1 success. In India, it is the other way around, since if they are abandoned at an intermediate stage, there is a risk of audit objections.

When we fund ‘futuristic research’, we are funding risks too. But many times, the view of the future is taken by extrapolating the present. This does not always work out. Indeed the ability to speculate on the future is more difficult now than ever before. Even when the pace of change was nowhere near what it is today, the forecasts made by some of the brightest minds went so wrong. Let me recall one such effort. In 1937, the National Academy of Science (USA) organized a study aimed at predicting breakthroughs of the future. Several wise statements about agriculture, synthetic rubber etc. were made. They were essentially based on an imaginative extrapolation of the present. But it missed all the things that happened. It was amusing that in their predication, there was no mention of nuclear energy, no antibiotic (although it was just 8 years after Fleming), no jet aircraft, no rocketry, nor any use of space! And these are precisely the technologies that have dominated our lives in the last few decades. I, therefore, feel that we must respect judgements of those, who are capable of exceptional flights of fancy, rather than only relying on those, who are experts in narrow areas of specialization.

On the issue of funding risky research in industry, my favourite is the company 3M. It has become a leading innovator of products, ranging from the mundane to the breathtakingly complex. This is because the company encourages risk. Take the example of the simple ‘Post-it’ notepad that is so ubiquitous nowadays. It started off as a failed experiment at making a better adhesive. If you are a company in the business of making adhesives then when you are faced with an adhesive that does not bond very well the immediate instinct would be to shelve the product as a bad ‘invention’. But not in 3M. A creative employee thought of a brilliant idea of using the poor adhesive to make easily removable note pads – the ‘Post-it’ notepad. Today the ‘Post-it’ notepad is such a wildly successful product.

We must also understand that the challenge is not only that of funding risky ideas, but also spotting and funding mavericks, who have the potential to create breakthroughs. Such unusual innovators refuse to preserve status quo. Whereas standard science management practices tend to avoid conflicts, such people create conflicts. They bring in unusual spontaneity and exceptionality to the table. Their incentives are personal and emotional. They are not institutional or financial. Such innovators are sometimes extremely intense. Great innovators like Carother, who developed world’s first synthetic fibre nylon, committed suicide. Diesel, who invented diesel engine, also committed suicide. Managing such intense and creative people requires a subtle understanding of the pain of creation that such people undergo day in and day out.

As Feynman has said, ‘whatever we are allowed to imagine in science has to be consistent with everything else that we know. The problem of creating something which is new, but which is consistent with everything which has been seen before, is one of extreme difficulty’. At the same time, the difficulty with science is often not with the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones. A certain amount of irreverence is essential for creative pursuit in science. I believe that if we promote that irreverence in Indian science, by change of personal attitudes, change of funding patterns, creating that extra space for risk taking, respecting the occasional mavericks and rewarding the risk takers, then not only will the fun & joy of doing science will increase, but also Indian science will make that difference, that “much awaited” difference.