The fantastic achievement of Mangalyaan is a tribute to the young leadership of India’s Independence movement. Gandhiji was against machinery and all things modern. But Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose were all for modernisation, science and technology. They were neither disdainful of Western technology, even though the Imperialists had brought it to India, nor did they share the odd ideas of the traditionalists that ancient India had all the modern science and technology. The point was not that we had the ‘Pushpak Vimana’ in the Ramayana. Where was the factory to make hundreds of such vimanas?
Bose and Nehru wanted independent India to industrialise as rapidly as possible and set up the National Planning Committee in 1938 to plan for the future of India. From the outset, Nehru exhorted independent India to acquire a scientific and rationalistic spirit. We had to watch the newsreel at the start of every film during those days. There would be Panditji haranguing us in his somewhat feeble voice about the spirit of modern India. He set up research institutions for advanced work even when many were urging that, in a poor country, such research would be a luxury. He encouraged Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai and others to aim for the best and compete with the world in the field of research. India was setting up satellites when its trains barely ran on time.
The instinct was correct. Progress is non-linear. You have to leapfrog if you are behind the rest. Setting up good research institutions takes a lot of time and needs good people who spurn money and love work. They collaborate with their equals in merit, regardless of age or status. These people are the real karmayogis. One could see their happiness when they had successfully launched the spacecraft to rendezvous with Mars. They boasted little till then and, even now, their reward will not be in golden statues or fat contracts to promote perfumes. The joy of a fantastically complicated and innovative work well done is something you cannot measure in any scale. Only those who have done such work know what pleasure comes from a delicate piece of engineering well done or an elegant mathematical proof.
Alas! Elsewhere in the Indian educational system, the standards are deplorably low. Not a single Indian university makes it in the top 200 in the world. The culture is of promotion by age regardless of merit, the perpetuation of mediocrity, and the thousands of unnecessary bureaucratic regulations coming from the UGC and other busy bodies which have no interest in excellence but only in maintenance of their rule. The recent scuttling of the Delhi University experiment of a four-year degree tells all. No innovation is allowed. If arguments will not win it for the mediocre, then political power will be deployed to crush innovation. We copied the UGC from the British, but only in letter, not in spirit. The idea of freedom of universities to teach and research is what makes for quality abroad. Education reforms in the UK have kept to that spirit even as institutional labels have changed and public funding has waxed and waned.
Good and excellent students and researchers go abroad where they can do decent, honest work, where they don’t have to flatter their incompetent head of department or be polite to their local MLA or MP. They are valued for the quality of their work, not for the gifts they give to their superiors.
There has to be a missing link if we can have world-class space laboratories and third-class universities. Is it that the advanced research institutes have freedom to do what they like? Is autonomy the key to excellence? Has the UGC reduced every college and university to a bureaucratic unit with no autonomy and no culture of promotion by merit? If there are smart MBAs, entrepreneurial young men and women, why are they not harnessed into an overhaul of the higher education system? It takes 18 years to clean the Ganga, so let us begin the cleaning of the education system now.