In conversation with RAM – Parimal Chaudhari

The towering scientist stands tall – literally and figuratively- whose dedication to Science is legendary; the person who gave India the new Panchsheel (Child –centered education; Woman-centered family; Human-centered development; Knowledge-centered society and Innovation centered India) declares unequivocally -“Science per se is the quest of truth. And it embraces all the truth it sees”

Does that mean all Science is value-neutral? “Pretty much” quips Dr. Raghunath. A. Mashelkar (making his name abbreviate as RAM) and declares that the ways of creating Science are above board, rational and open to be whetted or tested by anyone. The Padmashri, Padmabhushan and Padmavibhushan recipient believes that the problem of ethics and morality, however, lies with the people who practice it, he adds, by chaffing away the ‘doings’ from the ‘doer’

And perhaps for the very same reasons, he refrains from making any blanket judgments about India in totality, especially on the topic of ethics. India, he declares, is a land of mixed blessings holding in its fold islands of excellence as well as cesspools. “On just about every parameter of corporate life, one can find enough data to praise it or condemn it – and the topic of ethics is no exception”

Mashelkar, who has graced his presence in the past and continues to do so, on the Boards of various top ranking corporate companies in India, finds the vicissitudes in the issue relating to governance in Indian corporate world reflecting the people they represent. Diversity and complexity being the hallmark in Indians in every way, the issue of Business Ethics is no different. “We have a long way to go in Business Ethic or even personal ethics for that matter” he contends.

The probable causes of this he purports are numerous. “Partly it is based on the way we are brought up” he says, “The idea of loyalty itself has various shades and meaning to an average Indian. It pans from family, to village, town, city, state and so on. And at every position, a person’s loyalty is subjected to a test to a point where a person is likely to lose his orientation of what exactly he stands for!” Adding further to this societal expectation, is the obeisance expected to the dictum Father knowest the best. One cannot question the given in the rigidity of hierarchical structures around it, which all contribute to stall individual pace of personal growth. The legacy of such a process comes in the way of overall progress since the society survives and sustains on shared meaning of these values. In Mashelkar’s opinion these dual expectations have made it difficult for an individual to survive merely off the strength of one’s own value system.

“But all that is changing” he says with robust optimism that pervades Mashelkar’s persona making him very hopeful for a better India at a rapid pace from 2020 onwards. And the reasons for the optimism are the several observations he makes about the Indian society over the past two decades. Thirty years ago, he contends, the impact could not have been as profound or stirring. “Thanks to the Media”, says Mashelkar, “that has made the bottoms-up deluge of all facts and aspects of public life accessible to the electorate. A common man can watch the everyday drama in the social life each evening in his own home.” Each moment of public life is thereby become accountable to the common man.

Mashelkar joins the contemporary visionaries in resting his sanguinity in the youth of India. He cites several instances from his interaction with the young, the able, the aspiring, the dreaming young men and women that form the 55% of our populous land. Of these interactions, what etches out as being the most significant one was the time he spent with slum children on his 70th birthday. What amazed him most was how conscious and articulate these little children were about the two major concerns that are undoubtedly the bane of Indian public life: degrading ecological environment and corruption. The degree of self-reliance they expressed to cure themselves of these evils was heartening to Mashelkar. “This readiness was unusual and I am certain that a modern India will be much different from its preceding years” he adds with justifiable confidence.

However, when one turns to the issues of governing the country, here too, Mashelkar finds the good and the worse work in tandem. Among the issues that hearten him the most of crossing the major milestone in public accountability by passing the Act of Right to Information. This, in his opinion, has made voluntary or involuntary ‘accountability’ a right of citizens especially when outcomes of any actions undertaken affect them. The other commendable phenomenon occurring along with it is Corporate Governance which has become like an all-pervasive movement in modern India.

Being the Director of almost 40 science establishments in India and having created India’s first ever Polymer Science and Engineering Department at NCL, Pune, Mashelkar has indubitably led Science in India. He unequivocally has an upfront and close view of the workings of these institutes. “Science and Truth always go together, for, Science is in the quest of Truth” asserts Mashelkar, “though, the ones who practice Science do not automatically become truthful”, he adds cautiously.

Mashelkar nevertheless accentuates unconditionally that by and large the institutes of Science in India are a cut above the rest in matters of governance and their standards are comparable to the best in the world. Though there have been instances of deviation at times, he claims, these are exceptions and certainly not a rule; irrespective of the fact that these are Research or Defense or Science or Space research Organizations.

Better still, Mashelkar contends, is the private corporate sector in India that has set a bench mark for Corporate Governance to a Nation that increasingly continues to become a nation of entrepreneurs. Those of whom who win Mashelkar’s indubitable admiration are Ratan Tata, whose company Board Mashelkar graces; and Narayan and Sudha Murthy – although these sets of people belong to a completely different genre of wealth creators, “who practice more of it rather than preach in matters of business ethics” says Mashelkar.

It is the Indian Government and its governance, or rather, the lack of it, which drives a wedge in Mashelkar’s optimism for a better India. “I worry less about budget deficit than the Trust deficit that has been ushered by the successive governments.” says Mashelkar, “This trust deficit is palpable between society and government; between industry and government and this entire deficit is affecting Science in India” laments Mashelkar. “People are losing faith at all levels since who you know has become more important than what you know” he adds.

Where next?

Mashelkar points out to the trajectory of history of businesses and the transits that have occurred thus far. The first wave banked upon the Physical-capital (land, money, building); the second wave banked on Knowledge-capital (information and technology and the skill sets) and the present one will bank on Ethical-capital adding on to earlier two. The trend of ranking of global corporates carried out by the likes of The Ethisphere Institute that ranks businesses not by their capital worth but by their ethical worth is writing on the wall for aspiring entrepreneurs anywhere in the world. Ethical capital, in Mashelkar’s opinion, will be the conscience-keeper of the businesses the world over.

In order that such capital thrives in India, Mashelkar categorically underlines his favorite penchant: education in Innovation and innovation in Education. Ethics, for him, is not just about good behavior towards people alone; it is the regard for planet, people, prosperity to all (not just a few).

Mashelkar, himself a recipient of honorary doctorates bestowed by a whopping thirty four universities, is a dedicated professor who finds a huge following at the courses he offers each summer at various universities abroad. He believes that the Academia can contribute greatly in imparting education on the subject. He believes, along with engineering and technology content, if the subjects like Logic, Ethics, Social philosophy and Economics were to be bought center-stage (having being banished from the engineering and technological courses in universities in the 70s), the young minds can be shaped to keep aware of these concerns that affect so many. In the race for specialization the awareness for these subjects has been the worst casualty, he contends.

The actual imparting of these subjects is of course, another matter. Mashelkar contends that the methodology ought to include real case studies, carry contemporary relevance , replete with examples and application on issues of ethics and be woven seamlessly into the grid of what engineering, science and technology can do and ought to do. He observes, ‘extra-ordinary stories of ordinary people coming from neighboring environment’ make greatest impact on young minds and have the potential for emulation.

Once a student trained in this environment moves into the real working space of Science, Mashelkar, who has been the President of Indian National Science Academy and been the Director General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research for over a decade, believes, Science Institutions can help better ethical environment for Science in India.

Institutes like Indian National Science Academy (which he has presided on ); Indian Academy of Science, National Academy of Engineering, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (which he has presided for eleven years) and others such can choose to lay thrust and create pressure on ethical matter in Science through their own activities. When he compares the efforts taken by the UK based Royal Academy of Engineering (of which he is a Fellow); Royal Society of London (of which he is a Fellow) or the US based US National Academy of Science (of which he is a Foreign Associate) and US National Academy of Engineering (of which he is a Foreign Associate), efforts in Indian Institutions pale into insignificance.

Though at NCL (National Chemical Laboratories) Pune, there is no formal training, mentoring or counseling program undertaken for these subjects, Mashelkar informs that this is done more on informal lines by discussing and scrutinizing methodologies of practicing Science: the process of experimentation, publishing and sharing of these experiments, at each stage ensuring that facts and truth is not overlooked or sacrificed. “The very fact that NCL has provided the best of leadership for several science institutes in India is a testimony to how NCL has been a crucible to create ethical leadership in world of Science in India” informs Mashelkar.

Government and Judiciary

Mashelkar thinks that greater momentum for greater ethical environment in democracy can be fostered well by its famed four pillars: Executive (Government), Legislature (Parliament & State Assemblies, etc); Judiciary (Supreme Court, High Court & Other Judicial centers) and Media (Newspaper, Internet, Blogs & whatever which expresses people’s aspirations). Amongst these,he asserts, media needs to focus more on becoming a ‘responsible’ media,, while accomplishing its own job.

Through Mashelkar’s experience of chairing twelve high powered committees in India established to examine a variety of issues including higher education, national fuel policy, the drug regulatory system, and the agriculture research system, he is of the firm opinion that India does not need more rules to govern Science. All it needs is better rules. The better rules can only be arrived at by processing the existing rules through the filter of review, renewal and sunset. “When rules get out of context, relevance and is clearly outdated, we forget to send these into the sunset” quips Mashelkar.

And as for serving justice, Mashelkar says, “Only if the Judiciary ensures that justice is swift, severe and sure, the administration will regain the Trust deficit it presently faces”

Mashelkar strongly argues in the favor of creating an environment of responsible science and technology. He believes that if India wishes to be the flag-bearer of producing more from less for more people, and not just for more profit (another of his penchants), technology is the best help one can have. But every new Technology is bound to throw up new challenges when it comes to ethics. This is intensified even more when any of Recombinant DNA technologies happen to be at the core of the debate. And in India, he adds, we have two extreme responses to it: preventive (too scared to apply) or permissive (mindless application of it). Mashelkar is of the opinion that our approach should be that of being promotional (active fostering for technology because without which, humanity cannot address its own increasing needs) and precautionary (scientific validation of all things that can go wrong with the technology and making sure that these are prevented at all costs).

It is at this very juncture that the practitioners of Science of tomorrow, sums up Mashelkar, who will have to don new hats with new set of responsibilities. The scientists of tomorrow that India needs ought to have a global perspective, be careful of what unintended impacts their scientific contribution are likely to make, be a truthful practitioners of their craft and be humane leader of their flock.