The IITs, IISERs have lost the plot on what science really means and how it connects with societyhttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/lok-sabha-elections-2019-party-promises-bjp-congress-job-growth-5683106/

The IITs, IISERs have lost the plot on what science really means and how it connects with society

Educational institutes and higher learning centres should devote a substantial chunk of their resources to solve local problems for vikas to be meaningful.

Large water supply schemes based on surface water — that are needed — are moribund. Illustration by CR Sasikumar.

As another election gets underway, we see the political class engaged, yet again, in a war of words — claims and counterclaims on what was delivered, of jumle-baazi and corruption. Sadly, there is no analysis of why is vikas— basic amenities, jobs and growth for small enterprises — not being delivered or why there is no coherent plan for the purpose. Instead, what we have is more rights-based beneficiary and good intentions.

The fact of the matter is that the politicians cannot deliver vikas even if they wanted to. They are the junior-most partner of largely spectators, touts and fixers in the bureaucrat-scientist-politician triumvirate which rules this nation. The sooner we citizens and our politicians realise this, the better.

Indeed, there are about 2,000 elite bureaucrats — the IAS — and a similar number of senior professors, scientists, social scientists and experts from elite centrally-funded institutions — the IITs, JNU, scientific and multilateral agencies — who determine what happens to most of our people. It is what they think and do, or fail to do, that decides how buses run, droughts or anganwadis are managed, what is taught in colleges, and how local businesses survive.

As an example, consider drinking water in Parbhani, a district in the drought-prone Marathwada region of Maharashtra. Traditional rural water supply schemes, which were based on wells, have failed long ago as groundwater levels plummeted and these wells went dry. This happened because cropping patterns changed and more land was brought under well irrigation. Of course, there was no systematic study of either of this by our elite institutions since this is not what they consider science. Regional universities are simply incapable of formulating such research and carrying it out, unhindered by the bureaucracy.

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Large water supply schemes based on surface water — that are needed — are moribund. No new techniques of design and optimisation have come up. The Water Supply Department is supposed to spend 1 per cent of its expenditure on monitoring and evaluation. The secretary has not bothered to establish protocols and standards or to set up a network of trusted institutions. As a result, “jar water” and RO plants abound. Many “jar water” plants are illegal and their quality is doubtful. There is no easy certification. Getting an ISI label is tied up in bureaucracy and red-tape, leading to corruption.

Yet another example is the recent BEST bus strike in Mumbai. For nine days, the common people were held to ransom by an argument between the management, which wants to reduce losses, and the employee union, which wants an increase in wages. And yet, there is no report in the public domain on the actual operations of BEST, the routes that are profitable, the crew and vehicle utilisation and the social welfare that it provides. This should have come from an IIT or an IIM. In the absence of such factual analysis, the can was kicked down the road, with few changes in planning or operations. The same situation prevails in social sectors such as public health, where an absence of analysis is a primary cause of paralysis.

Why is this happening and what is to be done? The IAS system, itself an enormous concentration of power, has great faith in its own competence and does not allow any factual analysis or review. This has prevented the emergence of a long-term plan for any sector. The IITs, IISERs etc. have lost the plot on what science really means and how it connects with society and the real world. Let alone documenting and analysing the lived reality, they live in cocoons of borrowed rigour, which they call “global science”. Their prestige comes from their monopoly over central funds and the right given to them by Parliament to conduct national-level competitive exams in the name of science. This has destroyed an important purpose of science — the means for the common man to speak truth to power. It has converted the university into a franking machine instead of an institution which empowers the community.

What our political parties should now do is to unravel the bureaucrat-scientist elite nexus through political means. A huge number of problems lie before us. Problems of planning and efficiency, nutrition and health, poorly-run small factories and disappearing forests and rivers. These threaten our very existence as a peace-loving and multi-cultural society. Solving these problems requires concrete steps to democratise knowledge and power and localise the ability to act. It also needs a revitalised university and an immersive curricula which prepares our youth to meet these challenges. So here are our top 10 suggestions to our politicians, our vikas manifesto:
The All India Services Act, 1951, will be amended so as to ensure accountability and competence and allow lateral entry at all levels, including the state and the district.

The secretary of each department at the state level will bring out every two years, a public document assessing the delivery levels, knowledge and practices within the department, the key problem areas, and a long-term vision.
A deputy secretary level position will be created within each department to handle monitoring, assessment and knowledge management. This should be done by creating a network of regional institutions and enterprises, who will support and conduct the required applied research.

Centrally-funded institutions like the IITs, IIMs, and IISERs will devote 20 per cent of their curricula, faculty time and funding in solving regional problems. They should do this through innovative multidisciplinary field-work based curricula, in partnerships with state agencies and regional universities. These institutions and their partners will create a state-level knowledge network which implements a “Right to Know” — a right to an analysis of failures of public services and problems of small enterprises.

Centrally-funded agencies such as the Department of Science and Technology will disburse 50 per cent of their funds directly to state-level science and technology councils with guidelines on research topics and measurements of outcomes. Central and state scientific agencies will strive to make most useful data public, for example, maps in all formats, data from irrigation, agriculture and other departments.

Research in the form of case studies in key areas of sustainability, natural resources, small industries, public amenities, social welfare will be encouraged. Institutions like IISc, IITs and JNU will administer a journal of development research as an avenue for reporting such work. School curricula will include a substantial component of local and regional relevance — local maps, village handbooks, measurement of local produce, field trips to facilities such as bus depots or rice mills, and visits by local functionaries. Colleges and educational institutions at the district level will have an important role in studying the outcomes of development programmes and providing professional support to state agencies. This will be done by students, faculty members and fresh graduates through innovative curricula and mechanisms.

All national entrance exams will slowly be modified from ranking exams to qualifying exams in the spirit of the Constitution. States will have a more constructive role in student admissions into elite institutions so that graduates contribute to the national and state economy and society.

The above agenda will establish a new balance between science, the state and the community, and a social understanding to sustain it. Only when this emerges, will we see vikas and jobs which deliver value. It is also the only way to approach more vexing problems of sustainability, equity and culture.

This article first appeared in print under the headline: Coming down from ivory towers

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The writer is with Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas, IIT Bombay. He is currently on deputation to IIT Goa