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Populism and romanticised history undermine South Asia’s quest for scientific policymaking, says Nalaka Gunawardene
A region steeped in history and cultural heritage naturally draws much of its identity from the past. However, promoting science and technology to solve the region’s many development problems should not be delayed by esoteric debates on an idolised past.

Today’s policymakers, dealing with complexities of the modern world, need the best possible evidence, analysis and scenario-building to make their choices. They cannot afford to get too mired in contested versions of history, legends and myths.

Ancient science

In recent years, rising ultra-nationalism in parts of South Asia has spawned revisionist histories and glorification of indigenous knowledge.
Some of this has started entering school textbooks and academia.

The latest Indian Science Congress, held in Mumbai in early January, included a session titled ‘Ancient Science through Sanskrit’. According to media reports, papers presented talked about mythical aeroplanes capable of inter-planetary travel and unproven claims of scientific breakthroughs in prehistory. [1]

These and other fantastic claims — such as plastic surgery having been invented in India, and the ancient Hindus knowing how to conduct nuclear explosions — were not backed by any archaeological evidence or systematic research.

This particular session eclipsed, at least in media coverage, many others debating important current issues. Some Indian public intellectuals have already spoken out.

The noted historian and writer Ramachandra Guha lamented: “Unfortunately, the contributions to this session were not by scholars who had carefully studied the evidence, but ideologues who extrapolated from ancient myths to make extravagant claims about their veracity.” [2]

Sunita Narain, director general of the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), argued: “…whether we flew aircraft or mastered plastic surgery is immaterial for modern India. What matters is ancient Indians understood the science and art of settlement planning, architecture and governance of natural resources. This is the history we need to learn because it tells us what we must do right. These are the real symbols of ancient India’s scientific prowess.” [3]

And it is not only in India that certain academics and politicians selectively invoke visions of ancient technologies unrelated to current realities. For the past few years, Sri Lanka has seen an upsurge of public interest in Ravana, a mythical king who figures in the ancient Hindu epic of Ramayana.

Newspapers have carried ‘revelations’ of Ravana’s ancient aircraft and other advanced technologies including mastery of nuclear power. [4] Sadly, such fantasies distract the public’s mind from documented technological accomplishments of ancient Lankans — for example in managing soil fertility and water resources with high efficiency.  

Political astrology

Instead of drawing insights and inspiration from such practices, Sri Lanka’s politicians have been preoccupied with astrology — a questionable pursuit that claims to derive predictive powers by ‘reading stars and planets’.

The island nation’s recent presidential election highlighted how pervasive this belief is.
In mid November 2014, acting on astrological advice, incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa called an election two years ahead of schedule. [5]

During the run-up to the 8 January poll, hordes of astrologers appeared on television during prime time predicting a “resounding victory” for Rajapaksa. For nearly a decade, he had openly conducted all affairs of the state on astrologically determined ‘auspicious’ times.

“In Sri Lanka, selling superstition to audiences through mass media still works. No wonder then those superstitions contributed heavily to the electoral defeat of a war-winning president who should have possibly kept his own counsel,” senior journalist Dilrukshi Handunnetti wrote a week after Rajapaksa lost. [6]

Astrologers may have retreated for now, but their domination over Lankan society and politics is far from over. Private choices are left to individual discretion, but we should worry when politicians’ personal beliefs extend to public institutions and state policies.

In mid 2014, Rajapaksa’s minister of technology and research proposed allocating public funding for studying astrology. His research and development investment framework for 2015—2020 listed astrology under ‘Traditional Knowledge’. [7]

While the new government is unlikely to implement that, the politician who proposed it — Champika Ranawaka — has now become the minister of power and energy under the new president Maithripala Sirisena.

In a Twitter Q&A during the election campaign, Ranawaka defended his support for astrology saying, “Astrology is a science like biodiversity, cultural diversity, knowledge diversity, which is necessary for human existence.” [8]

Populist manifestos

Populism on scientific matters was also evident in candidate Sirisena’s election manifesto.

For example, Chronic Kidney Disease of uncertain aetiology (CKDu), a major public health concern in Sri Lanka, featured prominently in the section on food and agriculture. The manifesto directly attributed the disease to agrochemicals, and pledged to ‘prohibit the import and distribution of agrochemicals that were identified as causing kidney diseases’. [9]

The reality is not so straightforward. For many years, researchers have probed various environmental, geochemical and lifestyle related factors. There are over a dozen hypotheses, none conclusively proven.

During 2009-2011, the Lankan ministry of health coordinated a multidisciplinary study on CKDu with support from the World Health Organisation.

Its 2013 report identified several risk factors — including the rampant use of agrochemicals — but did not name a single causative factor. Further investigations were recommended. [10] [11]

Yet the Sirisena manifesto alluded to conspiracies that apparently prevented decisive action during the previous government. Sirisena himself was health minister from 2010 to 2014. [9]

In the same section, the manifesto promised a subsidy scheme for organic farming and to gradually ‘eliminate’ farmers’ use of chemical fertilisers and other agrochemicals. Laudable though it is, this goal is highly ambitious as organic farming currently covers less than two per cent of all farmland in Sri Lanka. [12]

Now in office, president Sirisena faces the hard task of balancing the interests of public health, food security and farmer welfare. Paddy farmers, long accustomed to a massive state subsidy on chemical fertiliser, are unlikely to give that up without a fight.

This illustrates the gulf between election campaigning and subsequent policy making. Elections may be won on a mix of rhetoric and populism, but good governance needs much more than feel-good stories or fantastic tales.

Nalaka Gunawardene is a Colombo-based science writer, blogger and development communication consultant. He is also a trustee of SciDev.Net. The views in this column are his own.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.


[1] Mythology hijacks Indian science meet. SciDev.Net 12 January 2015.
[2] India already the myth-making world superpower. By Ramachandra Guha. The Hindustan Times. 18 January 2015.
[3] Real pride of ancient Indian science. By Sunita Narain. The Business Standard. 18 January 2015.
[4] Once a nuclear power. Daily FT, Sri Lanka. 6 August 2014.
[5] Mahinda Rajapaksa's astrologer who advised early election packs bags. The Hindustan Times. 13 January 2015.
[6] Presidential polls 2015: An electoral trial on biased fortunetelling. By Dilrukshi Handunnetti., 16 January 2015.
[7] Sri Lanka 2020: Towards a Knowledge Economy: 5 Year R&D Investment Framework. Ministry of Technology and Research. July 2014.
[8] Twitter answer by Champika Ranawaka, from official account @pcranawaka. Accessed on 28 January 2015.
[9] NDF Presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena’s election manifesto, December 2014. Accessed on 28 January 2015.
[10] Agrochemicals blamed for chronic kidney disease in Sri Lanka. SciDev.Net 12 April 2013
[11] South Asia Analysis: Going upstream for lasting kidney disease remedies. SciDev.Net 22 January 2014.
[12] Once and Future Organics in Sri Lanka. By Nalaka Gunawardene. Ceylon Today, 15 August 2014. 

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