A budgetary boost

Published : Mar 30, 2002 00:00 IST

Budget 2002 increases substantially the allocations for various government departments concerned with science and technology.

THE Union government's departments that concern the science and technology (S&T) sector ought to feel quite happy with the allocations made to them in the Budget for the first year of the Tenth Plan period. There is a general increase in the 2002-03 Budget for nearly all the key departments that constitute the Indian S&T sector, ranging from a nominal 6 per cent to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) to nearly 40 per cent to the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). The rise is even more marked if one looks at the Plan allocations alone. The respective increases for the above two extremes become 10 per cent and 56.25 per cent.

However, the overall planning and execution of projects in the S&T sector continues to be poor, considering the fact that year after year the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) on scientific departments highlights the amount of allocated money that remains unspent - usually in the range of 5 to 10 per cent - in nearly all the departments. More pertinently, as an official from one of the scientific organisations handling extramural funding pointed out, "money for research is no longer the issue. I am not able to find people and projects for giving the money. No one is paying attention to this. There are no good people around any more and enrolment is dwindling. It is going to hit us very badly just few years down the line."

Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, in his Budget speech, highlighted several elements that pertain to the S&T sector. He referred to the increase of about 13 per cent made in the Plan allocations for agricultural research and education and said that the accelerated diversification and modernisation of agriculture required a new approach to research and extension services. He added that a full review of the agricultural research system in the country was to be taken up. In fact, a timely performance audit of the ICAR has been carried out by the CAG whose report will be presented to Parliament shortly. The allocations under various subheads indicate that a major part of the increase, of the order of nearly Rs.120 crores, has gone towards soil and water conservation research, agro-forestry research and related institutes.

Yashwant Sinha also referred to an increase of nearly 115 per cent in the allocation to the 'Fund for Improvement of S&T (FIST) Infrastructure in Universities and Related Institutes' programme under the Department of Science and Technology (DST) from last year's Rs.35 crores to Rs.75 crores. He implied that the increased allocation would be used to augment library facilities in the universities, a welcome and much-needed funding proposal provided, of course, the whole scheme is planned and executed well. However, the manner of execution of the Information and Library Network (INFLIBNET) project to network the various university libraries, being executed by the University Grants Commission (UGC) for some years now, leaves a lot to be desired.

The Finance Minister also announced the institution of "at least" 100 scholarships a year under the DST to women scientists and technologists to encourage women to take up scientific professions. However, Yashwant Sinha has not allocated any money for this purpose in the Budget. In fact, even the increased allocation for FIST that the Minister referred to does not appear in the Budget. V.S. Ramamurthy, Secretary, DST, says this has been subsumed in the allocation to 'Multi-Disciplinary Research' under the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) subhead. Why this should be so is not clear, especially if FIST is meant to improve university infrastructure. The SERC's budget has been increased from Rs.84 crores to Rs.212 crores. However, if one takes out the FIST allocation of Rs.75 crores, there is an effective increase of nearly 60 per cent in the mainstream programmes of SERC. According to Ramamurthy, this will include a major programme in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), to be launched by the DST. This is proposed to be on the lines of the high-temperature superconductivity (HTS) programme that was launched in the late 1980s. One only hopes that the fate of the poorly planned HTS programme, which has not produced any tangible results or products despite substantive (albeit subcritical) funding, does not get repeated in the case of the NNI.

There is a 200 per cent increase - from Rs.5 crores to Rs.15 crores - in the Plan allocations to the Survey of India (SoI). With the proposal for a National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), which is awaiting the passing of an Act by Parliament, the tasks for the SoI have increased enormously, especially the creation of digital topographic maps, the geodetic definition of the Indian datum using Global Positioning System (GPS) surveys, software for cartographic transformations (from the present datum to the GPS-based datum), microgravity surveys in the light of increased earthquake activity in the Indian subcontinent and so on.

Meanwhile, the Technology Development Board (TDB), whose funds actually derive from the research and development (R&D) cess collected under the R&D Cess Act of 1986 and which is of the order of Rs.100 crores annually, is not given the entire amount. Compared to last year's Rs.57 crores (of which only Rs.35 crores has been disbursed so far), this year's allocation is again only Rs.58 crores when the TDB's commitment during 2001-02 alone was of the order of Rs.100 crores. The promise made by successive Finance Ministers that projects committed for will be completely met by allocations is still not being fulfilled despite the TDB's impressive performance in technology development.

The other wings of the Ministry of S&T - the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), which includes the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) - have also got substantial increases. According to CSIR Director-General R.A. Mashelkar, the 28.8 per cent increase in the CSIR's Plan allocations is one of the highest in recent years. A major fraction of the allocation is in the funding to the national laboratories under the CSIR, which have undertaken major initiatives such as functional genomics and research in new fuels like ethanol. The Plan funding to the 40-odd laboratories has increased from Rs.188.5 crores to Rs.310 crores.

Mashelkar's emphasis on the modernisation of CSIR laboratories has also got a boost with a fresh funding of Rs.27 crores. Funding for the New Millennium Indian Technology Initiative (NMTLI) under the CSIR, initiated in the 2000-01 Budget with a funding of Rs.50 crores, has also been sustained at Rs.45 crores. According to Mashelkar, expert groups have shortlisted 28 potential areas, of which nine projects have been taken up, involving 55 R&D institutions and 20 industrial R&D units. "Had we started something like this a couple of decades ago, Indian technology would have been something else," says Mashelkar.

The increase in the DBT's funding is meant for R&D and bio-product and process development as well as higher Plan allocation (an increase of 56.25 per cent) to the National Institute of Immunology (NII). Significantly, besides four 'Jai Vigyan' technology missions (on development of new generation vaccines, coffee development, herbal product development and genomic research), the R&D programme is slated to include the setting up of three or four containment facilities in different agro-climatic regions to test and evaluate transgenic plants. In fact, although the DBT has had a dismal record in product development over the years (for instance, the department has no revenue to show), it continues to be funded heavily for this component. The DBT has also managed to get a funding of Rs.21 crores to create 'new centres of excellence and biotech facilities'.

The Department of Ocean Development (DOD) seems to have been rewarded for its "discovery" of a "pre-Harappan" civilisation off the Gulf of Khambat in the allocation for the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) under it. The revised allocation for the NIOT during 2001-02 was marked by an increase of 128 per cent over the budget estimate. Compared to last year's estimate of Rs.13.30 crores, this year the NIOT gets Rs.23.40 crores. However, the areas which deserve higher funding - continental shelf mapping, marine resources programme and so on - have received poor allocations. The polymetallic nodule seabed mining project continues to be substantively funded though its results are yet to show. Officials in the DOD say that shallow seabed mining and remotely operated vehicle deep mining systems, developed jointly with German and Russian institutions respectively, are being tested off the Chennai coast.

The well-funded departments of atomic energy, space and defence research account for nearly 60 per cent of the 2002-03 budgetary allocations to the S&T sector. Of these, the allocation to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is all shown as 'non-Plan' like the rest of the defence budget. As a result, it is difficult to know towards which programmes the allocated sum of Rs.3,679.89 crores is going. It is time the Finance and the Defence Ministries began showing the Plan and non-Plan components of at least the allocations for R&D in defence.

The bulk of the increase seen in the allocations for the DAE is for its nuclear power component. Compared to an increase of 30.6 per cent in the component pertaining to atomic energy research and industries (other than power, including heavy water production), the nuclear power component (which includes budgetary support to the Nuclear Power Corporation) has had an increase of 50.6 per cent in its allocation. In fact, the Plan part of the allocations to nuclear power shows a massive 70 per cent increase. This is mainly because of a 73 per cent increase in the budgetary support provided to the NPC. This is despite the higher extra-budgetary resources of Rs.482 crores that the NPC was able to mobilise last year against the budgetary estimate of Rs.149 crores.

V.K. Chaturvedi, NPC chairman, said that the increased governmental support for nuclear power schemes was a much-needed and welcome step. He said it was the result of the extraordinary performance - about 85 per cent capacity factor - that the nuclear power plants had shown during the past year. He added that though no power plant was expected to come up before 2004 (when the first 540 MWe plant at Tarapur is likely to be completed), this would facilitate the procurement process and the NPC would not be forced to go in for market borrowings at high interest rates. Chaturvedi said that the government would like the NPC to double the estimated target of additional 4,000 MWe by 2007 and was willing to fund the programme appropriately.

There is a 21.9 per cent increase in the Plan component of the Department of Space (DOS). The major programmes that will benefit from the increased funding are the indigenous Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-Mk. II) development, the associated cryogenic upper stage development (which was successfully test-fired recently) and the new GSLV-Mk. III development. Other programmes to benefit include the space capsule recovery experiment (towards the development of launch vehicles whose discarded parts like strap-on boosters and other components are not destroyed but land safely back thanks to re-entry technology, which is to be developed) and the INSAT-4 series of satellites, the first of which, according to K. Kasturirangan, Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), should be ready in 18 months. According to Kasturirangan, the configuration of INSAT-4 satellites has been more or less frozen and the most important improvement in these would be the high-power Ku-band transponders.

Despite the heavy funding for the GSLV, ISRO sources say that the indigenous cryo-stage is still a long way off. First, the important task of a long-duration firing is yet to be attempted. Secondly, the hardware manufacture for Mk-II, particularly the vacuum brazing technique for the regenerative cooling mechanism in the cryo-engine, has not yet been successfully developed even at the bench scale. Hence, industrial-scale production would be even farther off. Mark-III is supposed to be based on an entirely different configuration, for high lift, using a combination of twin Vikas-type engines coupled with regenerative cooling. Of course, it is still only on the drawing board. Moreover, the allocation has earmarked Rs.30 crores for a Radar Imaging Satellite (RISAT-1) with active microwave sensors for an all-weather imaging capability with applications in hydrology, forestry, agriculture and disaster management.

Among the departments in the S&T sector, two key R&D agencies continue to get a poor deal. Ironically, despite all the rhetoric about medical research, this year round the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has been treated to a marginal decrease in its allocation instead of the marginal increase that it used to get. The government continues to blow hot and cold in funding the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DoT). Its funding has once again dropped (by nearly a quarter). From the substantial increase from Rs.116 crores to Rs.166 crores in the 2000-01 budget estimates, the revised estimate brought down the funding for C-DOT to Rs.110 crores. The 2001-02 budget estimates was cut drastically to Rs.59 crores, to be increased in the revised estimates back to the 2000-01 level at Rs.108 crores. Now it has once again been cut down to Rs.82 crores. "There is tremendous uncertainty with regard to the future of C-DoT," said a C-DoT scientist. "I will not be surprised if they decide to close down C-DoT suddenly."

Overall, according to DST Secretary Ramamurthy, the S&T sector funding should bring the total R&D expenditure to close to 1 per cent of the gross national product (GNP). According to him, currently it is around 0.9 per cent. Of course, the slowdown in the growth rate of the gross domestic product (GDP) has helped increase the ratio. Despite the substantive increase in the first year of the new Plan, it does not seem likely that the R&D expenditure will touch 2 per cent by end of the Plan as promised by the Prime Minister in his speech at the Lucknow Science Congress early this year. In any case, availability of funds is not the issue anymore. There is a dire need of skill and expertise in R&D and to attract youngsters into science. Unfortunately, the Budget has not offered any path-breaking measure on this front.

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