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Nehru’s contribution to India’s scientific growth

It was a year later, in 1963, that the first rocket was launched.

Praveen Davar | New Delhi |

“Jawaharlal Nehru was one of the greatest figures of our generation, an outstanding statesman whose service to the cause of human freedom are unforgettable. As a fighter for freedom he was illustrious, as a maker of modern India his services were unparalleled. His life and work have had profound influence on our mental make-up, social structure and intellectual development. It will be difficult to reconcile ourselves to the image of India without Nehru’s active and all-pervasive leadership.”

So spoke President Dr. S Radhakrishanan on 27 May 1964, the day India’s first Prime Minister passed away. During his 17 years at the helm, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru left an indelible imprint in every aspect of the nation’s life. He laid the foundations of parliamentary democracy, secularism, social justice, non-alignment and, above all, a strong and selfreliant India. In this short essay we will confine ourselves to the contribution of Nehru in the field of science and technology and inculcating scientific temper in the country. By 1947, when India gained freedom, she had been systematically deprived of all the advantages of an advanced industrial culture.

The West had in the meantime built up a strong scientific and technological base as a result of the industrial revolution and scientific researches which had developed throughout the preceding two ceuntries and culminating in such breath-taking advances during World War II as the harnessing of atomic energy. This formed the backdrop of the challenge that lay before political leaders, scientists, technologists and engineers when the nation made its “tryst with destiny” in 1947. Not only was there a big gap to be filled, but developed countries were continuing to advance at a tremendous pace widening the gap even further.

Nearly a decade before independence, in December 1937, while addressing a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences at Calcutta, the 48 year old Jawaharlal, then President INC, revealed his deep faith in science: “Politics led me to economics, and this led me inevitably to science and the scientific approach to all our problems and to life itself… It was science alone that could solve these 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.”

In March 1938 he spoke to the National Academy of Science, Allahabad: “We have vast problems to face and to solve. They will not be solved by the politician alone, for they may not have the vision or the expert knowledge; they will not be solved by the scientist alone, for they will not have the power to do so or the larger outlook which takes everything into its ken. They can and will be solved by the co-operation of the two…” Thus, the significant part that science and modern technology could play in the development of the nation was realised by the Congress under Nehru long before independence.

What is even more remarkable is that even in midst of the struggle for political freedom, the analytical mind of Nehru did not lose sight of the preparation and planning essential to solve the multifarious problems the country would face after Independence. It was at his initiative that the Congress set up, in 1939, a National Planning Committee and thereby invited leading scientists in the formulation of plans for scientific, technological and economic development of the country. As part of the effort to promote self-sustaining scientific and technological growth, the foundation stone of India’s first national laboratory, the National Physical Laboratory, was laid on 4 January 1947.

This was followed by the setting up of a network of 17 national laboratories, specialising in different areas of research. To emphasize the importance of science and scientific research, Nehru himself assumed the chairmanship of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, which guided and financed national laboratories and other scientific institutions. In 1952, the first of the five institutes of technology, patterned after the Massachusettes Institute of Technology, was set up at Kharagpur – the other four were set up subsequently at Madras, Bombay, Kanpur and Delhi.

The extent of the effort put in developing science and its success is revealed by the expenditure on scientific research and science-based activities which increased from Rs.1.10 crore in 1948-49 to Rs.85.06 crore in 1965-66, and the number of scientific and technical personnel which rose from 188,000 in 1950 to 731,500 in 1964. The enrolment at the undergraduate stage in engineering and technology went up from 13,000 in 1950 to 78,000 in 1964. Similarly, the number of undergraduate students studying agriculture increased from about 2,600 in 1950 to 14,900 in 1964.

Steps were also taken to increase India’s capacity in production of defence equipment so that India could gradually become self-sufficient. A Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) was set up for research in the manufacture of missiles, armaments, explosives and other defence-related inventory. India was one of the first nations to recognise the importance of nuclear energy. Nehru was convinced that nuclear energy would bring about a global revolution in the social, economic and political spheres, besides affecting a nation’s defence capabilities. The constitution of an Atomic Energy Commission in 1948 and the establishment of the Department of Atomic Energy again under the charge of the Prime Minister are proof of the foresightedness of this great lover of science.

Inspite of his great enthusiasm for this inexhaustible source of energy for human good, Nehru was probably the first among the world’s great statesman who raised his voice against the indiscriminate destruction threatened by nuclear bombs. Although he warned the world repeatedly on the possible misuse of atomic energy, he was a great supporter of the use of this powerful source of energy for the benefit of humanity. He was, however, firmly convinced that the exploitation of this new source of energy was even more important for developing countries like ours.

“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.” Professor M.M. Newitt, a distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering of the University of London wrote in 1964: “Pandit Nehru had the distinction of being almost the only Prime Minister of his day with any real comprehension of the fundamental importance of science and technology in the modern state; and his interest in this field was dictated not by political expediency but by a deep rooted conviction that it afforded the only ready and practicable means of establishing a stable economy and raising the standards of living of the great masses of the Indian people.”

India also took up space research. It set up the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) in 1962 and established a Rocket Launching Facility at Thumba (TERLS). It was a year later, in 1963, that the first rocket was launched. And fifty years later India’s prestigious interplanetary mission to Mars has been successfully launched and it is a tribute to Nehru and his vision of a scientifically and technologically advanced India which has made such giant strides possible today.

(The writer, an ex Army Officer is a former member of the National Commission for Minorities)