Essays by Prabir Purkayastha: Defending reason with passion

Author explores the relationship between science, technology, the knowledge commons, and the challenge of building a nation with a scientific vision.

Published : Mar 21, 2024 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

A student checks her Foldscope, an easy-to-make optical microscope, at a workshop organised by the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad in Kochi in July 2019.

A student checks her Foldscope, an easy-to-make optical microscope, at a workshop organised by the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad in Kochi in July 2019. | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

Prabir Purkayastha is an outstanding engineer with a strong commitment to science and technology. A dedicated activist of the People’s Science Movement, he has been at the forefront of the struggle to promote scientific temper, economic and technological self-reliance, and inclusive development in India. It says something about the nature of India’s present dispensation that such a remarkable intellectual, instead of being recognised as such, is currently in prison awaiting trial under the highly repressive Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, a fate that has befallen several progressive intellectuals and activists under the present Union government.

Knowledge as Commons: Towards Inclusive Science and Technology
By Prabir Purkayastha
LeftWord Books
Pages: 258

The book under review is a collection of 11 substantive essays by Purkayastha, along with a brief introduction. The opening lines of the introduction highlight both his commitment to reason and his passion for India’s progressive social transformation: “How do we look at science and technology? What role do they play in society and, equally important, what is society’s role in developing science and technology? These are questions that have engaged me as a social/political activist; but also, and perhaps primarily, because of my love for science and technology. It is this love that led me to be part of the people’s science movement and the free software movement.”

Objectives of science and technology

The introduction briefly explores the relationship between science and technology, a theme to which Purkayastha returns in several essays in the book. He makes the point that the objective of science is to know nature while that of technology is to build an artefact. Technology is inherently empirical and changes nature in the very act of building an artefact. But it should be noted that the process of building an artefact can also lead to advance of science itself.

As Purkayastha puts it: “…technology can sometimes restate the fundamental relationships of nature, restatements that proceed into and impact science as well.” Recognising the indispensable roles of both science and technology in the development of productive forces critical to economic and social development, he also correctly stresses that they are distinct from each other though increasingly interdependent. In the introduction, he raises an important set of questions relating to the ownership of knowledge, and these are explored in several of the essays in the book.

The 11 essays are grouped thematically into four sections. The first section, consisting of three essays, deals with the theme of how, under capitalism in general and its neoliberal version in particular, knowledge has been turned into a monopoly that serves the greed of big capital, disabling society and preventing it from benefiting fully from advances in science and technology. It points out how a system that monopolises knowledge to guarantee corporate profits also limits the growth of knowledge itself and thus ill serves society and humanity. It makes a convincing argument for treating knowledge and technology as part of the commons, belonging to all and serving society as a whole.

Debunking neoliberal myths

Purkayastha effectively debunks, with concrete examples, the neoliberal myth that providing “strong” protection to intellectual property via patents, copyrights, trademarks, and so on, incentivises knowledge production. In the first essay in this section, he points to the need to democratise both the production of knowledge and its appropriation in the interests of all, and discusses the roles of both scientists and the public in this endeavour.

He writes: “Today, the need for organizing scientists to struggle for a more democratic scientific decision-making process must go hand in hand with a strong movement to bring science to the people…. We need to fight, so the products of science and technology serve the common interest and are accessible to all, and we need to involve the people in this struggle. This is the challenge before us today.”

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The second essay in the first section deals with the nature of the knowledge commons. It discusses in a nuanced manner the different aspects of the challenge of private enclosure of the knowledge commons that occurs especially rapidly under neoliberalism. It demonstrates the pernicious consequences of the Bayh-Dole amendment in the US, which makes available all the benefits of publicly funded research for the maximisation of private profit. It concludes on an optimistic note that “…the commons approach has emerged not as a marginal view but as a rapidly emerging alternative to the current patent-ridden approach to science”.

The third essay in the first section provides a devastating critique of the role played by Big Pharma and its backers, the developed capitalist countries of Europe, North America, and Japan, during the COVID pandemic. This critique needs to be widely shared. The essay concludes that only a caring world can deal with pandemics and public health emergencies, and this is precisely what big monopoly capital and its imperialist backers dread.

““We need to fight so the products of science and technology serve the common interest and are accessible to all, and we need to involve the people in this struggle.””Prabir PurkayasthaScience activist

The second section of the book, consisting of three essays, deals with the theme of paradigm shifts in technology. Noting that the rapid growth of science and technology and their growing interaction and interpenetration in the 20th century have tended to blur the distinction between the two, the first essay rejects the treatment of technology as merely “applied science”. It argues that “science and technology must be seen as sub-systems of a larger system—the society within which they interact”. The second essay makes a convincing case for the restoration of conceptual independence to technology. The third essay analyses the vision of self-reliance set out in the policies pursued by the Indian government in the first two decades after Independence.

Drawing on rich empirical material relating to India’s power, fertilizer, telecommunication, and pharmaceutical sectors, Purkayastha discusses technical issues within the framework of the larger political economy of a world dominated by the advanced countries withholding easy access to technology to the newly independent countries seeking to develop in relative autonomy from them. The willingness, in dramatic contrast, of socialist countries to share technology with developing countries is worth noting.

Prism of social history

Three essays in the third section of the book focus on mapping public-interest science and technology. The first of these deals with science and its evolution from the prism of social history and makes the point that the progressive movements must stand with science, rejecting obscurantism of all kinds, modern or otherwise. The second provides a much-needed and fascinating discussion of the important role of the Left movement in India in science, both before Independence and after. The third essay is a review of the book Technology Acquisition in Pakistan by Ghulam Kibriya, a practising technologist from Pakistan. The review reflects on issues of technology development in a postcolonial setting.

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The fourth and final section of the book deals with the theme of “Planning a Republic of Reason” through two insightful essays. The first of these provides a scathing exposure of the attacks on science and reason by the RSS-BJP dispensation, while duly recognising India’s contributions to the evolution of global scientific knowledge through history. The second addresses, with considerable insight, the challenge of building a nation with a scientific vision.

When you have read the lucidly written book, you feel sad, though not surprised, that India’s present rulers label such a fine and versatile thinker as a threat to the nation. The more accurate statement would be that Prabir Purkayastha defends reason with passion, which naturally makes him a threat to those who wish to replace reason with both blind faith and hate. 

Venkatesh Athreya is an economist deeply interested in issues of science, technology, and the political economy of development.

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