Chandrayaan 3’s Debt To Nehru
And a national policy on science
India’s scientific and technological capability reached unprecedented heights when lander “Vikram” on board the moon probe Chandrayaan 3, made a soft landing on the moon’s south pole for the first time in the history of mankind.
This remarkable achievement of the scientists and technicians of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) owed immensely to the far-sightedness of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who in his 17-year stint at the helm, gave India a national policy on science and built research and educational institutions in a bid to create a “scientific temper” to guide India in the scientific, economic and social spheres.
Most of Nehru’s colleagues in the freedom movement had no clear blueprint for a free India. All they wanted was that the British should hand over power to them. Hard core Gandhians, of course, accepted his plea for de-industrialization, revival of the village economy and a return to the village. But Gandhi’s closest lieutenant, Nehru, had a radically different notion of a free India. He propagated industrialization, the application of modern science and technology and the development of a “scientific temper” which he passionately believed was the panacea for India’s economic and social ills.
In an article in The Statesman in 2019, Praveen Davar recalls that even before independence, in 1937, Nehru told the National Academy of Sciences at Calcutta that “science alone could solve India’s problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people.”
It was at Nehru’s initiative that the Congress party set up a National Planning Committee in 1939, and invited leading scientists to formulate plans for the scientific, technological and economic development of the country. Before independence, even as interim Prime Minister in January 1947, Nehru laid the foundation for the National Physical Laboratory, India’s first national laboratory.
To emphasize the importance of scientific research, Nehru himself assumed the chairmanship of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). CSIR was set up in 1942 to do war-related research for the British rulers. Its brief changed under Nehru.
A number of national laboratories and research institutes were set up between 1947 and 1964 when Nehru died of a stroke. Seventeen national laboratories, specialising in different areas of research, came up over the years.
Among them were, the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology at Hyderabad (1977); the Central Electronics Engineering Research Institute at Pilani (1953); the National Aerospace Laboratories in Bengaluru (1959); the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa (1966); and the National Botanical Research Institute in Lucknow (1978); and the CentraI Institute of Mining and Fuel Research at Dhanbad.
According to Britannia.com, CSIR’s major achievements include, the development of the Light Combat Aircraft (LAC) “Tejas” and the supercomputer Flysolver; the creation of a relatively cheap antiretroviral drug for treating HIV infection, and the organization of expeditions and research studies in Antarctica.
In 1952, the first of the five Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), patterned after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was set up at Kharagpur in West Bengal. The other four were at Madras, Bombay, Kanpur and Delhi. In subsequent years many more IITs came up.
Preveen Davar says the expenditure on scientific research and science-based activities increased from INR 10 million in 1948-49 to INR 850 million in 1965-66. The number of scientific and technical personnel rose from 188,000 in 1950 to 731,500 in 1964. The enrollment at the undergraduate stage in engineering and technology went up from 13,000 in 1950 to 78,000 in 1964. That is while Nehru was in office as PM.
It was Nehru who pioneered the present government’s Atma Nirbhar/self-reliance/Make-in-India projects. Nehru set up the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in 1958.
Within a year after independence, he set up the Atomic Energy Commission and established the Department of Atomic Energy. On 4 August 1956, the Nuclear Research Reactor APSARA was commissioned by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). APSARA was the first Nuclear Research Reactor in India and also Asia. Nehru was adamant that nuclear power should be used only for peaceful purposes.
“The use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes is more important for a country like India whose power resources are limited than for an industrially advanced country. It may be to the advantage of countries which have adequate power resources to restrain the use of atomic energy, because they do not need that power. It would be to the disadvantage of a country like India if that is restricted or stopped,” Nehru said.
Nehru pioneered space research in India. The Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was set up in 1962 and established a Rocket Launching Facility at Thumba (TERLS) in Kerala. In 1963, the first rocket was launched. This eventuially led to the Mangalyaan mission to Mars in 2013 and the Chandrayaan 3 mission to the moon in 2023.
Nehru did not set the natural, experimental and exact sciences in opposition to human sciences, says Prof.Madhavan. K.Palat, an editor of the Collected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru published by Oxford University Press. Nehru’s concept of the “scientific temper” was akin to a free soaring of the creative spirit, says Palat in an article in The Hindu in 2021.
What Nehru wrote and spoke was in the realm of human sciences rather than in what is commonly understood as “science”, Palat points out. He did not set the natural, experimental, and exact sciences in opposition to the human sciences.
“To him, knowledge was the product of empirical investigation and logical reasoning, usually known as the scientific method, and any other process led to error. The philosopher, historian, jurist, or literary critic had to be as scientific as the sociologist, economist, or linguist; and, unlikely as it might seem, they had to be no less so than the mathematician, astronomer, and zoologist.”
The sciences admit of no “privileged knowledge” and Nehru was firmly against its confinement to special classes or castes. The Indian Space Research Organization, like other scientific institutions, has many people in high positions from humble, lower middle class and non-anglicized backgrounds. And these men and women have scored as many successes as those from elite backgrounds and elite institutions.
For Nehru, the propagation of science and the scientific temper was linked to his mission to get his people to use scientific reasoning in whatever they did. Science he said “liberated the mind from superstition, dogma, ritual, habit, and custom, and permitted it to explore both the infinite expanse of the universe of nature and the limitless internal spaces of the mind.”
In spite of the misuse of science for destructive purposes, Nehru believed that science and technology were inherently good and beneficial to mankind. Palat points out that Nehru firmly “adhered to the position that true knowledge alone could bring awareness of danger even if such knowledge could be perverted.”
Nehru felt that scientists and laypeople tended to have a narrow and limited vision of science and called for a broader vision.
“We live in a scientific age, so we are told, but there is little evidence of this temper in the people anywhere or even in their leaders. The end of an arduous investigation would be merely the beginning of another.”
“The true scientist”, Nehru said, “is the sage unattached to life and the fruits of action, ever seeking truth wheresoever this quest might lead him.”
In a hard hitting statement, Nehru said: “For me, a true scientist today is, perhaps, more spiritual than a man who may call himself religious, and whose mind is limited by some religious values and does not go beyond it.”
In this context, Nehru found “a certain spiritual quality” in the work of both Indian botanist Jagdish Chandra Bose and Albert Einstein.
P.K.Balachandran is a senior journalist.
Cover Photograph: Late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with scientist Vikram Sarabhai.