Dissent and Innovation: Science and Civil Society in India

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Dissent and Innovation: Science and Civil Society in India
C. Shambu Prasad

Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar

for the symposium on

The Culture of Innovation in Science and Technology in India – Opportunities Seized and Opportunities Lost’,

January 19 – 21, 2005 at University of Hyderabad.
Session on
Historical and Theoretical Background’
It is not uncommon these days to see India referred to as an ‘innovating developing country’ and people speaking about the ‘Indian innovation system’. Innovation has become popular within the scientific establishment and is often seen as ‘the way’ for a country like India spurred by recent success and confidence from the IT and BT booms. The Innovation Systems concept started by an adoption of the OECD studies in the late nineties and was set in the developed world. This concept has recently been extended to agriculture and developing countries. Within India, some of the key scientific organisations such as the CSIR and ICAR are seeking to adapt these ideas. The World Bank has used Mashelkar’s report on the Indian innovation system to bring about changes in the ICAR. The new policy of the Bank to support Indian agriculture has a very strong innovation focus, the National Agricultural Technology Project (NATP) being reinvented as the National Agricultural Innovation Project (NAIP). Grassroots innovation, a concept popularised by Anil Gupta, now has official recognition with CSIR being an active promoter of the National Innovation Foundation and President Kalam supporting a movement for creativity at the grassroots and highlighting the need to develop an efficient innovation system in India.1
While these developments are very welcome, it is not clear how these recent developments address the relations between research and non research actors in the innovation system to be built. Would the new arrangements continue to privilege the research organisations? Would the innovation system include diverse interpretations of innovation in pluralistic India? I argue in this paper that an innovation system needs to look at dissenting views on science and dissenting scientific imaginations if it needs to find acceptance and ownership amongst large sections of the populace. An innovation system that ignores the ‘politics of knowledge’ and treats the people or citizen sector as passive recipients of technological gizmos or in need of infusion of scientific temper is unlikely to create an innovation culture and enhance innovation capacity of the nation in the long run. I argue that science as practiced by civil society in India has shown greater plurality of approaches and there are several examples of alternate scientific imaginations. These however have not featured in the debates on Indian science. Newer historical evidence shows that there have been several opportunities that have been thrown up by science in civil society which has escaped the attention of the scientific establishment.
In this paper I seek to chart a genealogy of creative scientific dissent by looking at ‘science by civil society’ as articulated in the writings of Gandhi and enunciated in his practice through the khadi and village movements. Newer material and readings on the historiography of science and the sociology of practice of ‘Gandhian science’ indicates that there is a need to reinterpret the debate on traditional and modern science and the role of civil society in production and not just the dissemination of (scientific and other) knowledge. I also argue that this project of a science policy with a greater role for civil society requires a non-linear reading of the history of science on the one hand and also Gandhian studies on the other. I hope to highlight these aspects by bringing into the Gandhian discourse people who were scientists in their own right and not Gandhians like Sam Higginbottom with whom Gandhi had a long correspondence and association. I also touch upon ‘Gandhians’ such as Haldane who in his later years pursued a ‘non-violent biology’ and was influenced by Gandhi whom he never met as also scientist such as Seshadri, a passionate biotechnologist who seemed to outline an alternate path of biotechnology in India that was pro-poor. I finally conclude by highlighting recent evidence from the field of agriculture where civil society has led innovation in rice cultivation whereas the scientific establishment has been unable to participate due to denial and disbelief of a dissenting scientific imagination. The System of Rice Intensification, or SRI, has shown that in those places where civil society has been able to dialogue with the scientific establishment on equal terms the spread of innovation and the building of innovation capacities has been rapid.
Constructive Dissent in Gandhian Science
Unlike most other enterprises of independent India, the domain of science and technology has surprisingly seen little debate and discussion amongst the political elite. There seems to be a silent consensus amongst most political parties on science and technology. The 2003 Science and Technology Policy statement is instructive as this was the first articulation of a new S&T policy by a non-Congress government which ostensibly sought to steer clear of the Nehruvian vision of science. However a closer look at the language and importantly the view of science as an activity that needs to be taken to the people bears closer resemblance to the scientific policy resolution of 1958 under Nehru’s leadership. There does seem some emphasis on the need for science being a more widespread activity. Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister while placing the new policy endorsed Nehru’s statement that ‘Scientists are a minority in league with the future’ with a caveat, ‘But let us also remember that a bright future can be realized only when science is in league with the majority of our society’. To this the then Minister for Science and Technology added that the new policy ‘must empower the community as a whole and not merely a section of it’.2 Both suggest a possibility of a broader mandate, however there is little in the policy document that seems to indicate how this could be achieved or more importantly whether the existing scientific institutions are equipped to deal with this larger scientific quest. A look at the policy document would reveal that a preamble to emphasise India’s glorious tradition in science and technology has prefaced and juxtaposed with an existing schemata of the old science policy vision of 1958. The document reiterates the need to advance scientific temper and ensure the flow of the message of science to every citizen of India and little on how citizens of India can participate in the new scientific era. Laudable as most of the attempts of the science policy are to integrate Indian economy and scientists to the challenges of globalisation and strengthening internal capacities to meet such goals, my critique of the document is based on the fact that much of the changes are still very internal to the scientific enterprise with little role for the larger civil society.3
I argue in this paper that if science is indeed supposed to be in league with the majority of (Indian) society it need science policy to go beyond bemoaning the poor percentage of research and development expenditure of Indian Gross Domestic Product or patent and citation indices of scientists and scientific institutions. Science in India needs to engage with sources of knowledge outside the scientific establishment. While there has been a lot of recent work looking at the linking of scientific institutions with the industry through public private partnerships, the linkage of science with civil society has been muted. I argue in this paper that civil society is a source of creative dissent and the scientific enterprise would be poorer if it did not engage with such dissent. The role of civil society in science, as evidence shows, goes beyond the stereotypes of popularisers of science or disseminators of science and technology; and as activist critics of science. The scientific establishment has been comfortable with a reduced role of civil society as its promotional arm, and shy to engage with voices of dissent that it dubs as ‘anti science’.
I take as a starting point for an alternate scientific imagination, Gandhi’s views on science. Gandhi’s views on development and his political philosophy have been extensively researched and articulated in the existing Gandhian literature. However, his views on science remain relatively unexplored. Based largely on his views on modern civilisation as expressed in Hind Swaraj (published in 1908), Gandhi has been represented as being anti-science. There is enough evidence of Gandhi expressing himself directly on the subject in many of his other writings - on khadi4 and education, and almost throughout his Collected Works5, in letters to his co-workers and speeches. A detailed collation of his views chronologically has been done earlier (Shambu Prasad 2001) and I shall here select only those that relate to an alternate scientific imagination, and point to opportunities of an innovation culture that has been missed in the discourse on science policy in India.
Gandhi believed that the prevailing practice of science had defects but this was not necessarily intrinsic to the scientific quest. Nor was such a condition irremediable warranting a total rejection. That he felt that the scientific quest was in need of a course correction was implied in some of his early writings in South Africa which indicate both his admiration for individual scientists and organisations such as the British Association for the Advancement Science, an organisation whose work he commended and believed if extended to India would be greatly to the advantage not only to India but the Association as well.6 However he also felt that the practice of inflicting pain and violence on live animals that had become an integral part of the experimental method ‘normal’ to modern science was ethically and epistemically unacceptable. This to him was a case for self restraint of the scientific enterprise.
One sees in these writings his differences with the liberal view of the British and members of the Indian elite like Rammohun Roy who saw in the introduction of western science in India as critical for India’s emancipation. On the contrary, Gandhi placed science in the larger context of decolonisation. The scientist, he believed, was to benefit equally from interaction with the colonies and its subjects. Popularisation of science, Gandhi suggested was not a linear transfer of knowledge from the expert to the lay person but had to be a collaborative effort. The inclusion of the colonial subject was to Gandhi a starting point for the re-articulation of the content and not just the context of an alternate and non-violent science that he believed had to include the claims of dumb, sub-human creatures as well. Several years later Haldane chose to pursue a non-violent biology on some of these principles.
His scientific quest had four elements. The first was the setting out of different axioms and starting points for research where normative and moral issues came into place. This was based on a different cosmology of man nature and fact value relations. He chose to provide a new meaning for the notion of the experiment. The second and related element was in providing ‘agency’ to the scientist. The self was not to be separated from the scientific quest and to Gandhi was to be seen as part of the experiment. In fact experiments on the self were seen as important as experiments on the other. He did not see science as an autonomous search independent of the individual scientist. The scientist had to be conscious and self-reflecting. At another level he also wanted the scientist to relate to and reflect on what to and what not to work on. He was not to flinch from the question of ‘what should the scientist be working on’? His speech to students at the Indian Institute of Science in 1927 illustrates the need for Indian scientists to link with larger societal constraints.7 The duty of the satyagrahi scientist was to work on those areas that required ‘tender nursing’ which neither the state nor the market could institutionally provide for. This domain he believed was large and had substantial scope for research.8
Despite his radical criticism of the anthropomorphism of modern medicine inherent in the practice of vivisection, Gandhi was not an uncritical traditionalist. He was appreciative of modern scientists’ humility and spirit of inquiry, a spirit that he felt that many traditional practitioners solely lacked. His open criticisms on Ayurvedic practitioners in 1920s created quite a stir. However the context of these criticisms needs to be understood within a broader vision for a revitalised Indian science and technology. He felt the need to revitalise a tradition whose self-reflective practices had either been lost or become blunt with disuse. He wanted to reform it from the inside and not by pitting it against a more competitive and organised system from the outside. It was with the same spirit that he had earlier in South Africa carried features on the courage of several scientists.9 Similarly he was equally critical of the educational practice in India that had separated the mind and body, reserving the former to the sciences and the latter to occupations through vocational education.
Indians, according to him had not developed its scientist-engineers like in the West because:

‘Manual work has been regarded as something inferior, and owing to the wretched distortion of the Varna we came to regard spinners and weavers and carpenters and shoe-makers as belonging to the inferior castes and the proletariat. We have had no Comptons and Hargreaves10 because of this vicious system of considering the crafts as something inferior divorced from the skilled. If they had been regarded as callings having an independent status of their own equal to the status that learning enjoyed, we should have had great inventors from among our craftsmen.’ (CW 66: 137-8).

Finally at another level the Gandhian scientific imagination was to develop alternate institutions that would produce and train such scientific manpower.11 He viewed his own ashrams as laboratories – the Ashram he believed ‘represents a prayerful and scientific experiment’12. These institutions were to mediate between self and society and were to produce the ‘satyagrahi scientists’ of Gandhi’s conception. The Ashrams were more like Gurukuls of science and were places of great experimentation. One cannot imagine the spread of the khadi movement without the Satyagraha Ashram. As a resource centre in the field of khadi the Ashram served also and used to send its staff, spindles, specimens of yarn, and charts explaining the effect of the wheel to khadi exhibitions all over the country. The Ashram had a role in spawning several institutions across the country and starting the All India Spinners Association in 1925. The Ashram was also the site for several novel social experiments as well. More men spun than women. Though the general effort at the Ashram was on the resuscitation of ancient industries, the movement did not get bogged down with traditional occupational barriers. The ashramites were in a sense a new class of community workers who could perform a variety of roles. It was through their personal examples that they could, for instance, dispense with the dying class of carders, who were increasingly difficult to get, by teaching the spinners carding. The emphasis was on practice that allowed for constant innovation.13
It is in the khadi movement that the Gandhian understanding of science was translated most into practice leading to the coinage of new terms such as the ‘science of the spinning wheel’ and later ‘khadi science’. This effort he later extended to village industries as well and when he started the All India Village Industries Association (AIVIA) in 1934 with the economist scholar, J C Kumarappa, as its head. The conception and need for alternate scientific institutions is summarised by his talk at the start of AIVIA.

‘Here the field is so vast, there is such an infinite variety of industries to handle and organise, that it will tax all our business talent, expert knowledge and scientific training. It cannot be achieved without hard toil, incessant endeavour and application of all our business and scientific abilities to this supreme purpose. Thus, I sent a questionnaire to several of our well-known doctors and chemists, asking them to enlighten me on the chemical analysis and different food values of polished and unpolished rice, jaggery and sugar, and so on. Many friends, I am thankful to say, have immediately responded, but only to confess that there has been no research in some of the directions I had inquired about. Is it not a tragedy that no scientist should be able to give me the chemical analysis of such a simple article as gur? The reason is that we have not thought of the villager’ (CW 59: 409).

The conception of most of these institutions had an inbuilt possibility of radical restructuring to provide contemporary meaning, something that Gandhian and other institutions have lost since independence. Gandhi renamed several of his institutions, the Satyagraha Ashram became Udyog Mandir and he had plans to rework the Gandhi Seva Sangh into a ‘postgraduate Institute of Research’ in 1940. India was for Gandhi an ideal site for experiments of an alternate scientific imagination, a view as we shall see that was shared by people like Higginbottom and Haldane.
It is interesting to note that the Association (AIVIA) from the very start was conceptualised differently. A notable part of the institutional structure is an attempt to broadbase itself by having a number of stakeholders at conceptual stage. These stakeholders were to include lay persons who could be members with no qualifications other than the desire and interest to participate as well as agents who are to market the produce. 14 Such a system necessarily ensured better information flow between the various actors. This ability to include non-experts who nevertheless have the interest and passion for a subject runs through most civil society initiatives that we shall see later. This was a modification of the ‘public understanding of science’ to a more broader public participation in science.
Gandhi did not provide a blueprint for a scientific method but gave general guidelines for experimentation. He saw his community workers as scientists. The future of khadi (and all his programs) lay in workers not pursuing a Gandhian ‘line’ but in carrying out scientific experiments. He was clear that the right place of the scientist lay neither with the exploiting market nor with the stifling state, but with the people. The practice of science Gandhi emphasised required an attitude for research more than scientific qualifications. In Gandhi’s method, lack of resources could not be an excuse for not practising science. Gandhi’s focus on the non-physical resources in organising for science, the satyagrahi scientist, for instance, is a radical departure from science policy as expressed by Nehru in his famous Scientific Policy Resolution of 1956 and followed in India since independence.

Not all of Gandhi’s experiments on an alternate trajectory of science and technology in India were completed during his life time or by him and later the khadi movement. In fact, the changes in the khadi movement into a commission soon after India’s independence led to a slow death of the method in khadi science though there were some very original contributions by the khadi movement in terms of bringing science in the vernacular in the late sixties. The focus on Gandhi the person to the exclusion of several of his co-workers such as Maganlal Gandhi and to the alternate scientific imagination that he was propounding has necessitated a non-linear reading of not just the history of science but of Gandhian studies as well. In the next section we move away from Gandhi by looking at some unconventional Gandhian scientists such as Higginbottom, Haldane and Seshadri – three scientists who were impressed by Gandhi’s views and extended it through their work. They represent three different periods, Higginbottom before independence, Haldane in the late fifties and sixties, and Seshadri in the eighties. They represented different disciplines of agriculture, biology and chemical and biotechnology and had perhaps never met with or corresponded with each other. However all of them in their own ways seemed to bring out the possibility of a different opportunity of science and technology in India.


Towards a Genealogy of Alternative Scientific Imaginations in India

There have been several recent debates in India on reforming the Indian Agricultural Research System.15 In the latest report of the United Nations, the Millennium Report on how to take forward the Millennium Development Goals, the task force (no 10) that looked at science and innovation (UN Millennium Project. 2005) had made a special mention about the Earth Institute in Costa Rica as an interesting example of ‘creating agents of change’ and for its potential for adapting universities to social needs.16 The Earth University had developed a distinctive and novel curriculum that emphasizes agriculture as a human activity, holistic integration of many academic disciplines, understanding the changing and globalizing world and a philosophy of learning by doing. While the Earth University as a model does not figure in the discourse on reforms of Indian agriculture, an interesting question to ask in the Indian context is whether India had developed its own versions of ‘Earth Institutes’. It is here that that Sam Higginbottom’s efforts at the Allahabad Agricultural University in the early quarter of the twentieth century assume significance. This was one Indo – US collaboration in agriculture that derived from experiences that Higginbottom, the American Presbyterian had from many agricultural colleges in America but assumed quite a different form in Allahabad than the latter land grant universities and the Training and Visit extension models that have been the basis of agricultural universities in India since independence.

Higginbottom’s critique on public research in agriculture in India was based on an alternate scientific practice. The Allahabad Agricultural Institute (AAI) in 1910 was one such dissenting imagination of science. AAI was not the first agricultural college in India; the imperial government had earlier set up two others at Madras as early as 1876 and in Pune in 1879 to cater to the production of staff for the agricultural service or revenue officials. Higginbottom on the other hand shaped his institute to equip India with scientifically trained farmers. By the thirties, AAI had established itself as one of the finest agricultural colleges in India with pioneering research in farm implements, the first ever degree course in agricultural engineering, one of the earliest schemes of extension projects and a women’s programme in home science. The college also innovated in having a strong social science programme with the famous Charlotte Wiser (Behind Mud Walls) teaching rural sociology in the agricultural university. It was far more comprehensive than any of the other agricultural schools in India then that were almost exclusively teaching centres with little or no contact with villagers or any appreciation of problems facing farmers. The institute provided practical training aimed at producing good farmers. The institute and Higginbottom were involved in one of the earliest programmes on rural development in India at Gwalior and Ujjain (Hess 1967, Wallach 1996).
Higginbottom’s work did not receive state attention during the colonial regime and finds no mention in the (official) comprehensive history of agriculture in India (Randhawa 1986). It however caught the imagination of Gandhi who found in Higginbottom and his work the kind of agricultural education that India needed. Their correspondence and interaction is interesting for it reveals a trajectory of agricultural science that has been ignored in India. They first met at the lecture series held on the occasion of the laying of the foundation stone of the Benares Hindu University in February 1916, a talk of Gandhi that was historic for he had outlined a vision for the Indian National Congress that was revolutionary and shocking to the members at the same time. Gandhi was in fact asked to discontinue his speech by the chair Annie Beasant who felt it was hurting the sensibilities of some of the princes and educated class who were sitting there. Ironically Gandhi found more in common with Higginbottom’s outlook on India’s future than the leaders of Congress. Gandhi and Higginbottom were in regular correspondence since about the means to deal with poverty in India. Later in 1934 when Gandhi visited Bihar following the devastating earthquake, Gandhi wrote to Higginbottom seeking his assistance. His letter indicates the regard Gandhi had for him and also the need for work on science by civil society. ‘Come, see the afflicted area and tell us … how (to) drain water-logged areas, how (to) remove the sand which covers our fair fields. Of course the Government and the people are working in unison. But you know my regard for your expert knowledge. Even if you do not show us anything new, I personally will have the satisfaction of knowing that you have seen the area.’17
Gandhi had wished that Higginbottom head the agriculture wing of the Congress, an offer that the latter had to decline given the political climate of the times. Gandhi however saw Higginbottom as a part of his dissenting tradition of scientific intervention with a pro-poor focus. 18 He made Higginbottom one of the scientific members of the Board of Advisors when he constituted the AIVIA in 1934 and sought and valued his advice for scientific experts who could serve village India, establish a diary farm etc. AAI continues to this day and so are many Gandhian institutions. However if we were to follow a linear trajectory for the dissenting scientific imagination we would be stuck with organisations that have lost their creative dissenting element. Gandhi’s own ‘post graduate institute for research’ never took off and most of the khadi institutions in independent India are but a pale shadow of dissenting science that the All India Spinners Association (AISA) and All India Village Industries Association were part of.
I would like to take forward the genealogy of creative dissent in science in India by looking at Haldane’s work in India, a country that he made his home in the early fifties and sixties.
Haldane’s search for a non-violent Biology
Gandhi’s views on vivisection and the need for the scientific enterprise having to respect the claims of sub human creatures had an unusual proponent in Haldane the English biologist and founder of evolutionary population genetics, who posited an Indian and non-violent biology. In 1957 Haldane accepted P C Mahalanobis’s invitation and moved to India to join the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta, as a Research Professor. He left the Institute in 1962 and after a brief period of employment with the CSIR, New Delhi, he moved to Bhubaneswar to start his own Genetics and Biometry Laboratory. Haldane advocated the closer link between science and ethics. He, like his father, the Oxford physiologist John Scott Haldane conducted many scientific experiments on himself.
Haldane believed that his stint in India gave him the opportunity of making some very important discoveries amongst which he rated his the training of young researchers with the right attitude to pursue research on what he later called a ‘non-violent biology’. He was a firm believe that India needed to pursue a different research path than the Anglo Saxon world. He believed that rather than look only at America and Britain Indian scientists would do well to learn from cultures of science practiced in Australia, Japan and Israel. He was critical of the manner in which academic institutions were insensitive to the specificities of India and their uncritical acceptance of the West. He deplored what he termed the ‘The new caste system’ in India that were based on the excessive emphasis on academic degrees for teaching and research and believed that most of the scientific institutions in India were not supportive and encouraging of junior researchers. He in fact termed the CSIR as the Council for Suppression of Independent Research.19
There have been recent attempts by the Indian scientific establishment to bring out Haldane’s contribution to India.20 However most of these works refuse to acknowledge his conception of a non-violent biology for India, the need for a different kind of experimentation and his inspiration from Gandhi in his later years. Echoing Gandhi’s views on vivisection Haldane added insights on the accuracy of experiments on the self, ‘Gandhi realised that if non violence to human beings is to be effective, it requires both courage and intelligence. ….I believe that this non-violent approach to biology is a fruitful one. I do not condemn those who experiment on animals which involve their death, or even moderate suffering. But I have never done an experiment on an animal of a kind which I have not previously or subsequently done on myself, and I hope I never shall. …. One great advantage of working on oneself or a friend is that far greater accuracy is possible than is usual in experiments with animals.’ (Haldane 1965: 54).
He cited Salim Ali’s work as a good example and his attitude a ‘challenge to Hindu biologists. There is a very great opening for non violent biological studies in India, and what is important, they require no complicated apparatus.’ He added, ‘Gandhi was quite clear that men have a duty of non violence to animals and there is no reason why biological studies cannot be conducted along Gandhian principles. … If Indian physiologists were ashamed to do an experiment on an animal which they would do on themselves, Indian physiology would, in my opinion, be considerably more fruitful.’’ Haldane believed that the Indian ideal of non-violence needed to be married to the European contribution of the scientific method to raise mankind to a new level.
Haldane took forward the Gandhian agenda perhaps more than latter day Gandhians. He too believed in minimal use of apparatus. Referring to Gandhi, he added, ‘I am not a consistent Gandhian,but I certainly think that Indian scientific research would be the better for adopting a few Gandhian principles, one of which is to regard machines as made to serve men, and never to think of men as made to serve machines’. 21 It appears that Haldane’s ideas on a non-violent biology were pursued more by his students in other parts of the world and his project had not taken sufficient root in India despite his seeking to make links between his work and Indian culture.
I would like to add that dissent in Indian science was by no means restricted to a few scientists. Around the same time as Haldane was propounding his vision of a non-violent biology the khadi and village industries movement were pursuing a different model of science and technology. Much research still needs to be done on these institutions that sought to take further the Gandhian ideals of science for and by the people. I would like to here briefly touch upon some of the other aspects of Gandhi’s views on science mentioned earlier. Contrary to the popular understanding that much of Gandhi’s ideas died with independence and the achievement of freedom and his death, there were several Gandhian scientists who tried to shape different kinds of scientific institutions like Kumarappa who started the journal Gram Udyog Patrika, perhaps the most critical journal of its times of the trajectory of science followed in India in the late fifties and early sixties, and the Khadi Gramodyog Prayog Samiti (KGPS) started by Krishnadas Gandhi in 1958.

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