Taking science to the masses

Print edition : February 13, 2004

The Government of India designates 2004 as the Year of Scientific Awareness, citing the need to inculcate in the people the habit of putting their scientific awareness to practical use. But the larger aim is to make them participate in the scientific endeavour to build a modern India.

THE focal theme of the 91st Indian Science Congress, held in Chandigarh between January 3 and 7, was "Science and Society: Quest for Excellence". Prime Minister A.B. Vajapyee in his inaugural message to the congress echoed this sentiment by exhorting every scientific establishment to have pursuit of excellence as its motto. For this to be meaningful, the fruits of research should percolate down to the community level and benefit the people at large. This in turn would require enhanced public awareness of the importance of science and technology in everyday life. Recognising this, the Science and Technology Policy (STP) announced in 2003 had a specific component, which sought to ensure that the message of science reached every citizen of India. The idea is that scientific temper should be promoted so that we emerge as a progressive and enlightened society and the people participate fully in the development of S&T and its application to human welfare. In other words, the policy envisaged full integration of S&T with all spheres of national activity. It was against this backdrop that the Government of India (GoI) designated 2004 as the Year of Scientific Awareness (YSA-2004). The YSA-2004 project was launched at the Chandigarh Science Congress with the symbolic release of its logo and the pamphlet detailing the action plan.

President A.P. J. Abdul Kalam at the National Children's Science Congress held in Mysore in 2002.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

This is not the first time that an attempt is being made to promote scientific awareness. From time to time the GoI has been taking initiatives to take S&T to the masses in their pristine forms. In 1982 the Department of Science and Technology (DST) set up the National Council for Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC) to promote science communication and popularisation. There are several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) devoted to science communication. What is sought through the YSA-2004 project is a quantum leap in the level of activities, increased reach to new constituents and consolidation of the ongoing efforts. The DST will function as the nodal department to coordinate and monitor the activities during the year through the NCSTC.

The choice of the NCSTC is not surprising because it has gained rich experience over the past two decades in taking science to the people. The Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha in 1987 and the Bharat Jan Gyan Vigyan Jatha in 1992, executed by it through a network of organisations, have been acclaimed as successful campaigns with visible impact on the science communication scene in the country. The former was solely a science communication campaign while the latter combined science awareness with literacy campaign. From all accounts, the jatha approach, which involved groups of science communicators moving from village to village and interacting with the common people in their respective languages, had paid rich dividends. The visible improvement in literacy levels in recent years is attributed to the Vigyan Jatha of 1992. The insights and experience gained during these two large projects would be brought to bear on the YSA-2004 project.

Tobacco farmers use an e-portal in Kolkata.-PARTH SANYAL

Besides, scientists have developed instruments to assess the level of scientific awareness among different strata of society and have conducted studies to assess the impact of the initiatives taken in the past. The results of such studies have gone into policy formulation. An appropriate communication material has been developed through innovative processes involving resource persons, and these have led to record-breaking radio and television serials, award-winning science films, popular science books and scripts for folk performances, among other things. A dedicated website has been launched and the Vigyan Prasar, an autonomous body under the DST, undertakes the dissemination of this software. The DST has helped select universities to start degree and diploma courses in science journalism. Several short-term courses have been conducted to develop skills among resource persons to become effective science communicators. Field projects have also been undertaken. These include Children's Science Congress, which is an annual event now in its 11th year, Teachers Science Conference and science quiz. Nature science activity camps, root and shoot projects in which groups of children adopt a tree for three or more years and other similar projects are organised to make students aware of issues concerning environment and development. There are also programmes like U-PROBE, which seeks to familiarise students and teachers with meteorological instruments and their functioning, and the neighbourhood mapping project, which seeks to familiarise the students with the various aspects of geographical studies with the use of latest instruments.

The current initiative, the YSA-2004, seeks to make the people scientifically literate and inculcate in them the habit of putting their scientific awareness to practical use in day-to-day life. It seeks to help them overcome superstitions, get rid of blind beliefs, and handle situations arising out of age-old practices and traditions. According to NCSTC sources, the YSA-2004 project envisages multiple-level activities to be conducted all over the country. The jatha activities would be in three phases - pre-jatha, jatha and post-jatha. The duration of these phases could vary from region to region depending on a number of factors, including weather.

Schoolchildren study insects at a museum of the Forest Research Institute, Dehra Dun.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The pre- and post-jatha activities would be conducted through a variety of media. These include interactive discussions, public lectures, theme-based exhibitions, radio and television programmes, multi-media CDs, publications, posters and wall charts, puppet shows and folk performances, contests, features in the print media, activity corners and websites. The "Vigyan Rail", containing exhibits on Indian S&T efforts, which was flagged off by the Prime Minister on December 15, 2003, from Safdarjung Railway Station in New Delhi, is also a part of this scientific awareness programme. Traditionally, jathas have been used for entertainment and general awareness generation. In the YSA-2004 project too the Vigyan Chetna Jathas would seek to provide educational and motivational entertainment to the target audience at pre-planned halts of the troupes. The resource persons, communicators and jatha activists and performers would be provided appropriate training.

All the activities would be built around select issues of major concern and involve two-way interaction. The broad issues and areas of concern have been identified. One relates to water and sanitation, and the effort in this would be to explain to the people the various aspects of water management and sanitation, besides the hazards of contaminated water and inadequate sanitation. Another area identified is health and nutrition, wherein the focus would be not only on creating awareness about and providing insight into health hazards, their forms and causes but on possible solutions through the integration of traditional and modern scientific knowledge. The conditions and periods in a year when these health hazards are likely to assume threatening proportions will also be explained to the people. Creating awareness on nutritious and hygienic food practices is also envisaged.

The third area to be covered relates to environment and biodiversity. The focus here would be on motivating the people to look for alternatives to current practices that lead to environmental degradation, besides highlighting the threats to biodiversity and steps to conserve it. The fourth issue of focus is disaster-preparedness and post-disaster management. Many regions in the country are prone to some form of natural and man-made disasters. The people will be educated on steps to be taken in the wake of such disasters. Soil management is another area that has been identified. The people will be given an insight into topsoil quality and its possible pollutants and educated on the means to maintain soil moisture and fertility and methods to guard against all forms of soil degradation. Empowerment of the people through information technology is envisaged by focussing on IT as a means of access to problem-solving and decision-making capabilities.

Participants at a telescope-making workshop, with the instruments they made.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

For the purpose of this project the country has been divided into eight regions with some common characteristics and some important common issues or problems of concern. Thus even within a State some parts will be in one region and some others in another. The eight regions are (1) Eastern coastal region comprising parts/whole of West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Pondicherry; (2) Western coastal region comprising parts/whole of Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Daman and Diu, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Lakshadweep; (3) Eastern Himalayan region comprising parts/whole of West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, Mizoram, Sikkim; (4) Western Himalayan region comprising parts/whole of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal; (5) Arid zone region comprising parts and whole of Rajasthan and Gujarat; (6) North-central region comprising parts/whole of Chandigarh, Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh; (7) South-central region comprising parts/whole of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu; (8) Central region comprising parts/whole of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.

Considering the size, population, and diversity of the country, the project would involve a massive effort of a large number of government agencies and NGOs. Besides a whole lot of voluntary organisations, a number of Central departments, State Councils and academic and research institutions are expected to take active part in this endeavour. This calls for an effective organisational structure to coordinate the activities of different organisations and ensure smooth progress of the project. This is sought to be achieved through apex committees at different levels.

The National Organising Committee (NOC) will be the apex body for planning and implementation. The regional organising committees, the State organising committees (SOCs) and the district organising committees (DOCs) will ensure coordination at zonal, State and district levels. The local organising committees (LOCs) will conduct the activities at the local level. Dr. Vasant Gowariker, former Scientific Adviser to Prime Minister, is the president of the NOC, while Dr. Narendra K. Sehgal, UNESCO Kalinga Prize Winner, is its chairman and Dr. Madhu Phull of the NCSTC the convener. The NOC consists of members who have played an active role in science popularisation and have been the founders of the Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha and Bharat Jan Gyan Vigyan Jatha network. The organising committees are in the process of formation. Besides the apex committees, coordinating agencies have been named at regional and State levels.

Watching the solar eclipse at the Brahma Sarovar in Kurushetra. The government's efforts at removing superstitions have met with some success.-SANDEEP SAXENA

The project seeks to target generally the people and specifically students, teachers, housewives, organised labour, farmers, sector-specific workers such as those in the armed forces, the Railways and the steel and coal industry besides construction workers. These groups will be reached through school science clubs, college students unions, community groups such as Lions, Rotary and resident welfare associations, youth clubs such as the Nehru Yuva Kendras, labour unions, employees associations, industrial associations, professional societies, S&T-based NGOs, and academic and research institutions.

According to official sources, the YSA-2004 project is not a programme just to fulfil certain physical targets but is the beginning of a larger and continuing process to make people participate in the scientific endeavour to build a modern, sustainable and developed India. As the Prime Minister has observed, a bright future can be realised only when science is in league with the majority of society. That is the aim of YSA-2004.

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