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Rajiv Gandhi Special: Science & Technology

Rajiv had a result-oriented approach

 

Professor Yashpal leading Indian scientist and educator
VIMALENDU SINGH | Issue Dated: May 22, 2011, New Delhi
Tags : Rajiv Gandhi | professor yashpal | leading Indian scientists and educator | Tata Institute of Fundamental Research | Mumbai | assassination of Indira Gandhi | Sam Pitroda | Science in Society | University Grants | Commission of Higher Education | P.V. Narasimha Rao | National Commission for Higher Education |
 



My first memories of Rajiv go back to the time when he was only eight or nine years old. I was with the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. For the study of cosmic rays, we would release balloons into the outer atmosphere in a bunch of 70 to 80, with the scientific instrument suspended under them. On one occasion, we decided to conduct the experiment in Delhi. I invited Indira Gandhi’s elder son. He needed no coaxing. Rajiv was at the Delhi University grounds at the crack of dawn – it was 4 am – to witness the experiment. He was only a small boy, but he was wide awake and took keen interest in the proceedings.

Many years later, when this boy became India’s Prime Minister, he opted to keep the science and technology department under him. I was the secretary of the ministry. I had worked with his mother as well. My association with Rajiv was very eventful. 

After he took over as PM following the assassination of Indira Gandhi I, as chief consultant to the Planning Commission, proposed that we should adopt a mission-oriented approach to science and technology. What I meant was that we should set clear-cut goals in every area of scientific endeavour and work towards it. In the Indian context, people usually connect the word ‘mission’ with the name of Sam Pitroda. But I was the first to bring in this concept. Rajiv liked my proposal and it eventually became the cornerstone of India’s science and technology planning.
I remember being invited by Rajiv to a meeting of a parliamentary consultative committee for science and technology. His secretary telephoned me and asked whether I would like to make a presentation on ‘Science and Society’. I said I’d rather speak on ‘Science in Society’. Rajiv agreed. I made an elaborate presentation. As always, Rajiv was all ears.
Rajiv, a man who was receptive to new ideas, believed in action. I was once attending a ten-day conference in the United Nations headquarters as a member of the UN committee on science and technology. A few days into the conference, I received a call from Rajiv’s secretary informing me that the PM had decided to make me the chairman of the University Grants
Commission (UGC) for the post had fallen vacant.
I was not only taken aback but was also rather put off by the decision. I made no bones about my disagreement. I told Rajiv’s secretary that I would need time to make up my mind. I also told him that if the PM did not like my performance as the science and technology secretary, he should let me know on my face and I would happily return to the field of research from where I had come. Later, the PM’s secretary called me again and sought to assuage my feelings. But I did not budge. I asserted that I wouldn’t accept the UGC chairman’s post without a full-fledged discussion on the matter.
After this, I received a call from Rajiv. I repeated everything that I had told his secretary. Rajiv replied: “Yashpalji, please understand. If we don’t make science and technology an integral part of our education system, it will remain confined to the laboratories.”
While agreeing with his argument in principle, I put forth my thoughts in detail and raised several questions. Weren’t science and technology limited to just a handful of universities anyways? And doesn’t the government fund the national laboratories where scientific and technological research takes place? We also have the IITs and the medical colleges. So, in this scenario, what was science education really going to constitute? And how was science research going to be a part of UGC as the government wasn’t funding research projects in the universities?

Rajiv, on his part, asked me for a solution. I said we should consider setting up a commission to encompass the entire educational spectrum and phase out UGC. I asked: “Are you ready to set up a commission?” He responded with another question: “Will you join such a commission if it is set up?” I expressed my scepticism about the commission being set quickly enough for me to be a part of it. Rajiv went all out to prove me wrong – he almost immediately announced the formation of a Commission of Higher Education.
When I returned to India two days later, I had a message waiting for me: a meeting was scheduled for the morrow. The then human resource development minister P.V. Narasimha Rao was present along with the education minister, health minister and agriculture minister. I presented my thoughts passionately about a National Commission for Higher Education. All the ministers gave their consent in front of Rajiv. Right then and there, Rajiv told the Cabinet Secretary to prepare the working paper for the purpose.

A few days later, Rajiv repeated his offer: would I be ready to take over as the head of the proposed Commission? I
reminded him that he wanted me to
assume charge as UGC chairman, so he would have to look for somebody else to head the Commission. Rajiv assured me that the Commission would be ready within two to three weeks and I wouldn’t have to go to UGC. Three weeks later, he enquired whether the Commission was in place. I replied in the negative. But I did tell him that detailed discussions had been held with the Cabinet Secretary.

The report that laid down the modalities for the formation of a National Commission of Higher Education took four months to be wrapped up. When I read the report I realised that it was devised only to buy time – it recommended the setting up of a coordination committee made up of the ministers who had attended the first meeting that Rajiv Gandhi had convened. Despite all the dilly-dallying, I did manage to start an Inter-University Centre, which initiated numerous crucial steps. Rajiv was always keen to keep things moving. 

But before anything more could be done, elections were declared. I had already been selected as the president of the next Science Congress. The Science Congress is inaugurated by the PM. So I went to Rajiv to let him know that the theme of the upcoming science congress would be ‘Science and Society’. He felt very happy.
However, the Congress party lost the elections and the Janata Dal-led National Front came to power before the Science Congress began. Sadly, Rajiv lost the opportunity to inaugurate the Science Congress. VP Singh was elected the new PM and it was he who declared the Science Congress open. 

During Rajiv’s reign, I faced resistance on some points. Sam Pitroda, being a technology expert, wanted a science museum to be built in Delhi at a cost of hundreds of crores of rupees. At a meeting, I expressed my reservations about the plan. I was of the opinion that our aim should be to teach science to children, instead of turning it into a spectacle designed to dazzle them. Rajiv, Shivraj Patil and Sam, each one of them tried to convince me but I stood my ground.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017