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[HYDERABAD] Senior figures in India's government have urged the country's scientists to end their bias towards industrial and high-tech applications, and focus instead on research that benefits rural areas.

Prime minister Manmohan Singh said yesterday (3 January) that the government would encourage world-class research on water and energy-related technologies, as India urgently needs science-based solutions in these areas.

Singh was addressing the Indian Science Congress, the country's largest annual scientific meeting, whose theme this year is the role of science and technology in integrated rural development.

"The Western world has not invested enough in research on water, biomass, solar and other relevant sources of energy because they are not under the kind of pressure we face," he said.

"Solar energy and biomass are areas where Indian scientists must be at the forefront of research and development."

Singh said the "real architects and builders of modern India" would be those whose high-quality research addresses the needs of development and job creation in rural areas. 

He said that in addition to doing research on water and energy, Indian scientists are needed to increase agricultural productivity and developing technologies for rural businesses that are efficient but do not eliminate jobs.

Science minister Kapil Sibal warned delegates of the "inadequacy" and "low capacity" of publicly-funded research institutions to respond to rural concerns.

He said the professional conditioning of Indian scientists has led to skewed priorities and biases of perception.

They focus on "whatever is urban, industrial, high technology, capital-intensive, appropriate for temperate climates and marketed and exported," he commented, "to the neglect of what is rural, agricultural, low-technology, labour-intensive, appropriate for tropical climates, retained by households and locally consumed".

Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1998, also highlighted India's growing rural-urban divide. He said that while information technology, communications, pharmaceuticals and many other parts of India's urban economy have expanded rapidly, agriculture, which employs 60 per cent of the country's workforce, has lagged behind.

Stressing the need for balanced social and economic progress, Sen warned that India's vision of its future "cannot be one that is half California and half sub-Saharan Africa".

Both Sen and the prime minister referred to the call by India's top crop scientist, M. S. Swaminathan, for "agricultural renewal" through a second 'green revolution'. The first green revolution began in the 1940s when the US-based Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government created a programme to increase crop yields through research.

Swaminathan believes the solution lies in improving soil health; improved water management; access to affordable loans and crop insurance; development and dissemination of appropriate technologies; and improved rural opportunities, infrastructure and marketing.

The Indian prime minister pointed out the second green revolution will not be possible without rejuvenating the country's agricultural universities and research institutions.

"We have to improve their academic standing and their relevance to agrarian society and the economy," he said.