State of labs in India

Published : March 25, 2020 07:00 IST
The book gives an insight into the state of laboratories in India and scientific research and innovation done in them.

The reference in Economic Survey 2020 to the integration of “Assemble in India for the World” with the now-forgotten “Make in India” slogan is a good starting point to review this work on the state of scientific research, innovation and laboratories in India. Pankaj Sekhsaria’s seminal research work, published as Instrumental Lives, is an opportunity to understand what is happening in Indian laboratories. Going beyond the government’s rhetoric and policy statements is key to knowing the state of scientific research in the country.

“Make in India”, unveiled in September 2014, has been almost laughed out of circulation by international economists, who, in an era of international production networks, found the slogan strange. Now, in 2020, we have “Assemble in India for the World”. Against the background of China’s achievements as a factory of the world, is it one more slogan by the Narendra Modi government to mask the sequential failures in this area?

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in her recent Budget speech, identified “two cross-cutting developments”: “a) proliferation of technologies and b) India having the world’s highest number of people in the productive ages, 15-65”, adding that “this combination is special to contemporary India”. It was embellished with the following statement: “The efforts we have made in the last five years and the energy, enthusiasm and the innovation of our youth are the ignition required to push forward.”

What would be the basic requirements to acquire the skills and augment the human capital that can reap the benefits of “Assemble in India for the World”? Also, can public policy be divorced from education, skilling and research in educational institutions and laboratories? This has to be viewed in the context of the reduction in allocation for education in the Budget and the opening of the sector to foreign direct investment.

When every policy step is in the direction of dismantling public education, questions do arise, especially about the relationship between the state and the market. The author does address these questions in his research. It is a unique work on a laboratory that is now defunct.

Interestingly, from a public policy perspective, the research for this book started in 2010 and traversed the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy of 2013, the “Make in India” slogan and the “Technology Vision 2035 (TV 2035)” document released in 2016.


We know from the subtitle that the book relates to a laboratory, basically two laboratories, one working on scanning tunnelling microscopes (STMs) and the other on scanning force microscopy (SFM), at the physics department of Savitribai Phule University, Pune. These were, possibly, “the indigenous and in-house creation of among the earliest, if not the first STMs and atomic force microscopes (AFMs) in India”.

The book is the outcome of a study by the author on one of the laboratories as part of his six-year doctoral research spanning five nanoscience laboratories; except for one in the footnote, there is no mention of the other four laboratories.

In the second chapter, titled “1986-2014: Making of the STM”, Sekhsaria makes a brief historical account of Dr C.V. Dharmadhikari’s foray into constructing an STM and foregrounding the global context that includes the award of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986 for the successful development of the STM (which was invented in 1981). It is the development of such instruments that spawned the now-expanding field of nanoscience. By an extraordinary coincidence, it was also in 1986 that Dharmadhikari’s STM journey began, not because of the Nobel Prize but because of the coming together of “probe microscopists”, whom Sekhsaria refers to as an “Instrumental Community”, using a term developed by Cyrus Mody, a historian of science and technology (S&T) at Maastricht University.

Dharmadhikari’s recruitment to the community was “integral but not central”: “Integral, because this was the community that became his primary reference; not central, because he did not seem to have had any significant influence on the community or its development and also because he remained on the geographical margins of the community that was located primarily in Europe and North America.”

Although Dharmadhikari’s contribution was acknowledged only marginally in the scientific community in India, what he accomplished was significant in the annals of science in India, given that he was successful in making an instrument at the frontiers of global science and in such quick time.

‘Technological jugaad’

The full and actual story of the laboratory is examined in Chapter 5 under the heading “Dharmadhikari’s microscopes and technological jugaad”. I am of the view that this business of “jugaad” is a distraction in the book. The author defines “technological jugaad” as: “The element of reconfigured materiality that is implicated very centrally in the processes involved—in materials to uses not imagined initially, giving fresh meaning and purpose and creating new worth and value”. This could be motivating for scientists, technologists and researchers engaged in similar exercises and in understanding the “success of Dharmadhikari in his laboratory in creating the first indigenous STM and SFMs”.

The preceding chapter focusses on “Jugaad and its many avatars”. The author has chosen “jugaad” as the prism through which to view the work of Dharmadhikari’s laboratory, and this, in my view, seriously restricts the scope of his work. At the same time, one must acknowledge that the author does present all the critical views on “jugaad”, including trenchant critiques of the concept by scholars such as Thomas Birchnell.

Jugaad aside, one must emphasise that there is right through the work an innate intellectual honesty and authenticity. For example, in the chapter on science and technology in modern India, he concludes the section on “Contextualising the methodology” with a quote from Amit Prasad, who says there is “a surfeit of academic analyses of science as well as government policy documents on scientific research in India, but these provide little insight into how particular techno-scientific researches are conducted in India”.

In the latter context, Sekhsaria makes his own conclusion: “There are very few ethnographic studies in the Indian context of life and work within the laboratory, of the intersections of the many worlds within science and technology or indeed of society’s complex interfaces with this science and technology. The specific details of work done by and in laboratories—the nuts and bolts of what happens there—is missing because there has been a serious deficit in the efforts at entering the black boxes of science and technology.”

Similar to what Amit Prasad says, it follows that in works such as that of Sekhsaria it is difficult to avoid the bad intellectual legacy of our so-called critical S&T policy researchers and their muddled views regarding the market and the state. These views arise from a combination of reasons.

One is the mixed-up notions of non-market, including socialist, solutions as alternatives; two, trying to integrate “Gandhian” views as “alternatives” and ending up as intellectual fashion statements; and, finally, intellectual dishonesty on the part of the researchers. The latter is mainly because they work in state institutions of apex science bodies but do little to make their own institutions more publicly accountable. As an alibi, they engage in mega critiques of the S&T policy that are of little or no consequence.

In areas such as agriculture and S&T policy, these researchers get foreign funding for their so-called agricultural policy research and make visits to rural areas to publish, and climb the academic ladder. After they have secured their personal and academic fortunes in state-funded public institutions, post-retirement they are individually more likely to move to well-funded private universities. This after great pronouncements about the market and the state. It may be legitimate to ask what is their knowledge contribution to rural societies? Have they triggered any chain of creative change or innovation?

Semi-academic efforts to strike out new paths, for instance through well-meaning manifestos such as “Knowledge Swaraj” cited in the book and similar attempts to chart out citizens science manifestos, do not really succeed in what they set out to do. They also remain within exclusive elite circles and closed networks (largely non-governmental organisations acting as “civil society”), often patronised by Western scholars, which are lionised as contributors to “alternative thinking” on the one hand, and to vehement anti-Western attitudes in the name of “patriotic peoples’ science” on the other.

There is little or no effort to look at other developing countries, rid of the Gandhian cloak, especially in Asia because subconsciously there is an attitude of superiority as Indians to other societies, be it in Asia or Africa. They are like what the American jurist and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes called “Boston Brahmins”, referring to the New England elite in early America. The Indian version of “Boston Brahmins” abounds in S&T policy discussions.

Striking new paths

New, creative work can come only if young scholars strike completely new paths in working on an S&T policy in India. Fortunately, this is happening from emerging young scientists, and Sekhsaria’s work is definitely in that direction. His work, hopefully, will inspire more work in this direction as he himself keeps emphasising at different points in his book. From that perspective one can see the excitement and passion with which Sekhsaria was attracted to the work of Dharmadhikari and his co-workers and their achievements in the laboratory. Truly inspiring, but in a country like India where such dedication does not find recognition, the instruments he made came to be finally junked. They did not even reach a museum or a teaching institution to inspire others.

As in many other domains in India, one senses a kind of “apartheid” at work. I see it often when I visit a science college in a tier-II city, smaller town or a university which chooses to locate itself in a rural area and does such extraordinary work in not only making higher education accessible to rural children but embarks on new paths of research and technology creation in areas critical to society and the economy, such as energy and waste.

These rural universities are not eligible for Department of Science and Technology funds or other Central funding because the “Boston Brahmins” in our S&T establishment have their own networks for funding and are reluctant to support good work of younger scholars mostly working in smaller institutions on the periphery. How then will the grandiose pronouncements such as those in the Budget translate into real outcomes on the ground?

Sekhsaria is able to make explicit the subconscious “apartheid” perspectives that influence institutional policy and that of the high priests of S&T working in these policy-making institutions. Referring to the TV 2035 document produced by TIFAC (Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council), he points out how “in spite of invoking complexity and diversity as the key constituents of an India of the present and future” it reduces Indians of 2035 to “six specifically articulated categories”.

These six non-exclusive segments are as follows: a) Rooted and Remote; b) Globalised and Diaspora; c) Left out or Left behind; d) Alternative Lifestyles and World Views; e) Creative, Innovative and Imaginative; and f) Beehives and Production Lines. Sekhsaria makes a salient point about the TIFAC policy document by saying: “There are many things to be underscored in the subtext of the language and visual representations offered.”

He points out that “the man representing the Rooted and Remote in TV 2035 wears a kurta and has a turban for headgear; the representative of the Globalised and Diaspora is a man of his youth in suit and tie; while the woman who represents the Left Out or Left Behind Indian is dark, has long plaited hair and prominent rings hanging from her ear lobes”. He raises a number of fundamental questions about the meanings of such classifications and their implications.

Talking of the future of India’s food and agriculture in the TIFAC policy document, he points to the absence of the farmer in the highly technology-oriented statement and asks: “If a majority stakeholder like a farmer is missing so prominently in the fine print, can one really expect that more marginalised sections that might include tribals, Dalits, fisherfolk and industrial labour have been included?”

Sekhsaria’s book and his work as a younger scholar in this depressing scenario has to, however, provide hope for research on S&T policy. This is in spite of the fact that his book ends on the depressing note of Dharmadhikari’s instrument being junked. It is rather touchingly captured in a conversation Sekhsaria has with one of Dharmadhikari’s doctoral students, Sumati Patil, in the presence of the eminent scientist A.K. Raychaudhury who found that the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, junked the instruments he made once he left the institution.

Ultimately, what is the value of “making” and “creating” even in a laboratory in India amidst its great plans captured in slogans of “Make in India” and “Assemble in India for the World”. It made me reflect on the larger questions of “making” and “creating”, of actual labour with the hand, of crafting and designing. The controversy created over T.M. Krishna’s book on mridangam makers readily came to mind. Distancing oneself from the “materiality”, the cow’s skin in the making of the mridangam, and the material made the book the centre of an unnecessary controversy. The creators and makers and the materiality they fashion to make music possible, in this case the mridangam makers, are asked to be invisible. The creative act and labour that produces the instrument that elevates the music were not to be spoken about.

In the melancholy of my reflections spurred by Sekhsaria’s work on Dharmadhikari’s instruments and their being junked, I was reminded of Subramanya Bharathi’s song “Nallathor veenai seithe”: “After making a good veena,/ does anyone let it gather dust and throw it away?/ Tell me goddess Sivasakthi/You have created us with the power of knowledge and wisdom,/ to make this country live with a purpose/Give us power and strength so our region can be of value.”

The Finance Minister freely quoted Indian poets in her Budget speech, but the reality is that we are unable to translate their thoughts to shape and influence reality. What we have in the end are words and slogans and the empty rhetoric of public policy statements, be this in S&T or aesthetic pursuits such as music.

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