January 3-7


Indian Science Congress: an appraisal
Prof D.K. Sinha

Former General President, Indian Science Congress Association

D.K. Sinha
Prof D.K. Sinha

ABOUT a decade from now the Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA) will be one hundred years old. The golden jubilee and platinum jubilee celebrations were somewhat different from what ISCA had in its silver jubilee counterpart. Perhaps, this may be attributed to the silver jubilee being held during pre-Independence days.

The ISCA was born in pre-Independent India, namely in 1914 on the historic premises of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta. As is well-known, Sir Asutosh Mookerjee, the then Vice-Chancellor of University of Calcutta, having ushered in the existence the academic domain of the university, was looking for allies, as borne out by his address as the First President of Indian Science Congress (ISC). He could rope in endowments for the establishment of the academic structure of the university. Obviously, in those days, we didnít have the parlance of "private sector" for possible linkages with the academic world. Sir Asutosh never minced words, as also stressed in his Presidential address, for the needs of the university community to seek inputs from the then existing institutions such as different Surveys of India. The government, at that point of time, was averse to extending support to the university and Sir Asutosh sought how to have the platform, among many others, ISCA, where denial of government support could be focused and collaboration with different sectors of the society could be pushed through. Although the genesis of ISCA bore some flavour of yearnings of British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), ISCA did not allow itself to be an adjunct to the establishment in those days.

The post-independence phase of ISCA and ISCís had initially continuation, consolidation and implementation of what could be conceptualised in the sessions of pre-independent days. As for leadership of ISCís sessions, the university community did have a prevailing edge over others without, of course, being delinked from non-governmental establishments. A feature which has continued unabated is the participation of scientists from abroad through the collaborative relationship that the ISCA built up through decades.

Any statement about the present status of the ISC session or even about the ISCA must necessarily provide some sort of critique of its functioning in the contemporary times. This, in turn, raises several posers. Can we speak about the ISCA delegates or functionaries forming a scientific community who do not labour under any sort of inhibition? Is it capable of having a strict but alluring veneer? Is it continuing with its initial motivation it had through BAAS or American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)? Does its present complexion seem to be a homage to its earlier strands? ISC sessions often smack of foreignness, perhaps ostentatiousness which it didnít have in its original texture. Does its contemporary track record run counter to its lineage? Jawaharlal Nehru used to be repetitive about "scientific temper" in various ISC sessions; has the ISCA developed a temper uniquely of its own? Obviously, we can ill afford to dispense with the stirrings of nostalgia and more so, in the newly globalising world. The ISCA has irrevocably a heritage site, because of the Indian context; science has come up through colonial linkages. Is the fusion thereof reflected through ISC sessions? The ISC is often glibly described as Bangla (or Bengali) Congress, but is the essence of initial absorption of Western culture and assimilation thereof through science well mirrored in the contemporary phase? What complexity and complexion too have it acquired? If the ISC could provide earlier a platform for interaction between younger and senior people of the scientific community, does it stand alienated from the younger group now ? The partnership-culture about which we talk now-a-days, had its origin in ISC sessions and ISCA matters as well. Does it exist with its present variants ? These are some of the leading questions and issues affecting the growth trajectory of the ISCA and the ISCs.

A redeeming paradigm in current times, seems to have originated with the introduction of "focal theme" of ISC sessions. The choices of some of these themes have had remarkable spin-offs. For examples, those on "Integrated Rural Development", "Ocean Development", "Environment", "Energy" and in particular, "Non-conventional Energy", "Biotechnology" etc. did bring about some infrastructures in governmental setup; that on "Coping with Natural Disaster Management", in keeping with its global bearing through IDNDR, has had a compellingly feeble effect on governmental initiatives. Another shift in paradigm has been the creation of a Standing Task Force at the Department (later on Ministry) of Science and Technology, which identifies the implementable aspects of recommendations on focal themes. The Prime Minister being the presiding deity of Science and Technology Ministry and also, the inaugurator of ISCs, upshots of exercises through the meetings of Task Force are, in many ways, purposeful. One may mention, in this connection, about Mrs Indira Gandhi announcing the Technology Resolution in the early eighties in a session ISC without embarassing Parliament which was in session at that point of time. Obviously, such associations with high-ups have paid dividends but there is a feeling of the university community being gradually eroded from activities of science and technology. However useful and necessary have been the establishment of such departments like DoS, DAE, DoE, DoEn, DoD over and above, CSIR, this feeling of the university community has become all the more deepened.

A significant development, in recent decades, is the institution of several awards and lectures, mostly to perpetuate the memories of those who shaped the affairs of the ISCA; gleaning through the names of recipients is likely to make one dismayed because of unfortunate repetition of several names; this, of course, hasnít happened for younger scientists.

It might often seem that the ritualistic presence of the functionaries of the establishment represents, as it were, what may be described as integers of practicality, but hasnít it damaged the vision of the landscape of science? Perhaps, ISCA lacks the interiority which has obviously come in the way in having its evolutionary traits. ISCA sessions have had flirtations with "frontiers of science and technology" captioned through its focal themes and thereby, it appears to have situated itself somewhere in the current gusto of globalisation, without acquiring some form of stability.

It is a pity that not all political functionaries are enamoured of science, unlike Jawaharlal Nehru being inexorably passionate about it, but talking about it and/or mixing with scientists may provide them with some kind of aura. In western scenarios, the community who keep on hobnobbing with political echelons often go by the label "operators", allowing science bureaucrats or technocrats to creep into the affairs of science. Fortunately, till now, this has not happened in our setting in a big way. The ISCA has to be vigilant about its likely perception to the public at large, as a pro-establishment organisation. Science keeps on renewing itself continually; its interactions with other fields of human endeavour need to be focussed, not as a matter of condescension, but as one of compulsions because of the intrinsic and perennial receptivity of science. Partnership-culture, in its pervasive ways, has to be a continuing ethos of ISCA in its emerging variety of programmes and activites.

Internalising science is yet to be a mission through ISCA pursuits. This may well be facilitated through networking with and leveraging, its local/regional chapters. In other words, if outsourcing and offshoring, its vision and ideas, may be under the aegis of its counterparts abroad, are not expedited now through the agenda of its activities and programmes, when will it acquire an enduring niche in the annals of scientific organisations flourishing in the current global scenario?