India's general election is becoming a lost opportunity to set out a fresh science policy for development.
India's general election — a five-phase process involving 714 million eligible voters — has garnered worldwide attention. International media coverage ranges from commentaries on the enormity of the task ahead, to reports of violence by radical 'Naxalite' extremists, to entertaining accounts of polling officers riding elephants to reach the country's remote forests.
Less covered are the candidates' attitudes to science. Between the left-wing secular Indian National Congress (INC) party — that heads the ruling coalition — the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), and the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) — that leads the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) — the manifestoes do mention new funding mechanisms and the need to boost science infrastructure and alleviate poverty. But we've heard it all before. And there's a notable absence of any trail-blazing science vision or strategy in any of them to steer the country ahead.
And if, as some analysts predict, a third coalition of regional, state-level and communist parties emerges, little is known about its likely line on science — bar the communists' antagonism towards anything involving the United States, including the Indo-US deals on civil nuclear energy and agricultural biotechnology (see Sowing trouble: India's 'second green revolution').
Veteran scientists say this ennui towards a new science vision is long-standing, pointing out that, despite Indian governments' enthusiasm for science, the 1950s — when Jawaharlal Nehru stood at the helm — was perhaps the only time the country had some clear science policy. Since the 1970s science has become a convenient slogan for Indian politicians — without any real vision.
Yet, irrespective of the ruling party, the Indian government has supported science departments and has not hindered any major science programme, be it space, atomic energy, biotechnology, medical or crop research. Indeed, Indian science has grown considerably since independence in 1947 and now attracts international attention and collaboration. India is hailed as a global hub for biotechnology and information technology industries and India's 2008 lunar spacecraft, Chandrayaan, carries both NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) instruments. The United States even rewrote its rules about supplying nuclear fuel and reactors to India's civilian nuclear energy programme despite India not signing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
But India should be wary of equating space and nuclear programmes with national pride and honour. That risks branding legitimate queries about a science project's worth as unpatriotic.
Nor should politicians shy away from fresh thinking: reassessing priorities, even terminating an unsuccessful project if need be.
The two main parties (the INC and the BJP) do broadly agree on the national climate change action plan, expanding information technology, and the need to improve energy and food security.
The INC manifesto, for example, promises to improve energy security by adding at least 12,000-15,000 MegaWatts of energy every year — through a mix of coal, nuclear and renewables such as hydropower.
And the party trumpets the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal as its major achievement.
The BJP, however, has criticised this deal as reducing the independence of India's nuclear energy programme (though the party's prime ministerial candidate, Lal Krishna Advani, has since done a U-turn and said the party is committed to the deal). The BJP also accuses the ruling UPA coalition of compromising India's nuclear programme, and itself pledges more funds for research into using the country's thorium reserves for nuclear energy.
The heading for the science section in the BJP manifesto points to another of the party's priorities: "Over the Moon and Beyond".
The BJP does have some more 'down to Earth' plans — to invest more heavily in non-fossil fuel based energy sources, encourage innovation in research, boost biotechnology and materials science and foster international collaboration. But these are sadly lost in evangelising about nuclear testing and India's maiden moon mission.
What about the real issues?
Elections are a good time to consider and address the problem of asymmetric growth — both in the country's economy and in its science — and to bring some fresh thinking.
In particular, India's next government should acknowledge that technology is needed to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. The winning party should consider how to achieve a more inclusive scientific agenda, where India can showcase not just its moon mission, but also home-grown technology that has changed the face of rural India.
Many other issues deserve attention. How to improve the outputs from government-funded laboratories? How to reform intellectual property rights while balancing the interests of both industry and the poor — the vast majority of the population? How to tackle international competition, especially from China; and whether the recession in information technology firms should be used to divert young graduates towards scientific careers?
Hopefully, even if the Indian election manifestoes do not address these issues, science advisors will be looking at them. Heads of key scientific departments in India are not political appointees and money will come to scientific departments irrespective of which party rules.
But the danger is that a government struggling to survive as a shaky coalition will be busy accommodating various parties' political agendas, rather than focusing on serious issues, much less developing a clear vision for how science can promote socially inclusive development.
T. V. Padma
Regional coordinator, South Asia, SciDev.Net