Half a century ago, from a little known village of Thumba, every Wednesday, a rocket was launched from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launching station. It went up to little less than 100 km high in the sky, equipments in it recording weather conditions in the upper atmosphere and then it would fall in the ocean somewhere. Since then a lot has changed and after two reasonably successful phases of the mission Chandrayaan, the recent third mission was lauded for its successful soft landing of a rover vehicle on the moon. The second mission had failed in soft landing and this time it worked. The electronics and other gadgetry worked fine and the meticulous efforts of a large number of scientists ended in a successful mission. The technical details have been mentioned in several reports published in the last two months. The success of the mission is a testament to the quality of advanced levels of science and technology (S & T) that India is able to provide, though much of it is connected to and derived from developments in the Western S & T. The devices for probing the lunar surface are not all manufactured in India, but the knowledge and expertise available in the country is of a very advanced level.
Indeed, one should not confine progress in S&T to National boundaries. It is, after all, human ingenuity, that has made the rapid advancements in communication, high speed travel, tenacious surfaces of space vehicles, and other aspects of space travel possible. Scientists and engineers from across the world have contributed to it. If many of the components are not manufactured in India today, they will be some day and movements of gadgetry across the planet Earth should not be a concern. Such massive adventures consume a lot of resources and a certain amount of priority must be given to them as a long term investment for human progress. Having said this, we need to realise that the world is not a homogeneous entity and a cost benefit analysis of technological exercises cannot be avoided. Any technology has differential effects on sections of society and questions need to be asked about who benefits and who loses. This needs to be done not just for a particular kind of mission like the Chandrayaan, but for any such highly expensive exercise utilising sophisticated economic, land and manpower resources.
In an interview given to the BBC, Dr Kasturirangan, ex-head of ISRO, aptly said that the question is not whether we can afford it (space missions), but rather it is whether we can afford to ignore it. This statement can be read with varying perspectives. There is a need for spreading out the S & T developments that the humankind achieves. It is also true that those who own and control modern technology exploit others who do not. Every advancement in a particular technology has fall-outs in subsidiary sectors and hence, we cannot afford to ignore advancements in particular areas and every country must participate in the process. The history of recent centuries is dominated by anti-colonial struggles and it is apt to view acquisition and implementation of new technologies in the erstwhile colonies as a part of the continuing struggle against the hegemony of the North. The S & T establishment in most countries has little respect for a fundamental characteristic of science that the fruits of science must benefit humanity as a whole. More than a century ago, Merton laid down sociological characteristics of science as communitarian, universal, disinterested and skeptic. It was realised soon afterwards that such characterisation is rather simplistic and debates continue on whether there is something structurally wrong with science in that it contributes to disparities, or it is just a matter of superstructural compulsions. Technology, on the other hand, is much better understood and it is generally recognised that technology is mostly socially constructed. Thus, what we afford to ignore and what we do not, is part of this social construction.
Chandrayaan has not made the larger Indian society aware of the capabilities of our scientists. In fact, most of our scientists are not capable of communicating their knowledge to the masses. Many of them may find such a thought irrelevant. What has the moon missions done to the people? Naturally, in a world of overwhelming domination of electronic media, people know what they hear and see on the TV and social media. So, while a small section of scientists found it uncouth that the live transmission of soft landing of the rover on the moon was shown to the masses together with the prime minister’s face appearing on the screen instead of focusing on the scientific progress, most people understood only this – that it is the success of the leader. Research in areas like space science and atomic energy was always given high priority, but it was only when the ruling regime turned ultra-Nationalist, that tantalising nuclear explosions and moon missions were done and that too with so much pomp.
What else can we afford to ignore (or not to ignore)? First, let us talk of science. That scientific knowledge has certain characteristics that makes it distinct from other institutions like religion or tradition, that it is a certain kind of gyan-mimansa – epistemology, and it is not about Nationalist chauvinism, is what we are ignoring. That technology should be used for the benefit of all, especially in a country like ours with such large disparities, is what we are ignoring. It is good that we are rivaling the advanced Nations in areas like space science, but are we anywhere close to rivaling them in universal education of quality, access to primary health-care and robust shelter?
Some people point out the lack of scientific temper in many of our scientists and often one hears of high officials of organisations like ISRO going to temples to offer Pujas before major missions. This has symbolic consequences, and is also relevant to the state of secular values in our science establishment. That a person is entitled to practice their traditional beliefs and private visits to places of worship should not be scrutinised critically, is a reasonable proposition. But when the visit is not private and its official nature is flaunted on visual media, then one wonders about its purpose. What should be a minor personal feature becomes a political means for perpetuating the hegemony of the ruling ideology. But this is not a surprise. The S & T establishment in India, is mostly an upper caste and upper class, male-dominated world. Occasional glories, like the remarkable contribution of women scientists in the space mission, remain minor outliers in the larger scenario.
The moon is a satellite with not yet fully explored topography and material analysis. Whatever new information becomes available must be shared with all, especially young students and potential researchers. But will that ever happen in a country where three-fourths of the youth never enters college and half of them drop out after middle school? Most in the Indian S & T establishment are looking at all new findings like the occurrence of elements like sulphur and some metallic substances near the South pole of the moon not as curious scientific discoveries, but more as yet another footprint in the Nationalist scenario. In times of rising fascism, this should be of great concern. Thousands of crores are spent in the moon missions and it is important to ask what are the people of this country getting after paying for it with their hard labour. When seen from this perspective, the moon mission becomes an addendum to the militarist capitalist complex that throws away resources in purchasing weapons as a state with the largest standing forces. In whose interests? - ‘the answer is blowing in the wind’. So while for the privileged, it is a story of ‘rags to riches’, for the masses, it is ‘rags to even more tattered rags’ – the Nationalist pride sold to them via these missions is of no use to them.
Unfortunately, for most people in India, the moon remains a ‘purnimaar chaand jeno jholsaano ruti (the full moon is like a burnt roti – Sukanto Bhattacharya, a hundred years ago) or ‘chandaa mamaa’ of the fairy tales and Bollywood mix. The present regime is particularly keen to hypnotise the masses with fake glories over ancient achievements by constructing false narratives. While on the one hand, we talk of scientists leading us towards a place among the advanced, young students are being deprived of some of the revolutionary ideas of modern science like the theory of evolution, as parts related to lessons on such ideas are removed from text books. The under-educated leaders have been loudly exhibiting their desire to project ideas from the dark ages on the collective imagination, as we have seen in the mythical claims of expertise in flying and medical surgery in ancient India derived from the myths. Sadly, all this pseudoscience overshadows the hard work and achievements of the scientists working in the laboratories and elsewhere. For success in S & T, the primary requirement anywhere is to build a strong foundation of knowledge-base that is very wide in its reach. A country with unequal opportunities for access to quality education cannot achieve advancement in S & T, the moon missions notwithstanding.