Is India a nation of geeks?

Angela Saini, in her book Geek Nation: how Indian science is taking over the world, wants to convince us that Indian science is taking over the world. Now any well read student of the physical and mathematical sciences will be able to provide you with notable scientific contributions. Even the Indian constitution abjures: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper”. Does “Indian science” exist, and if so what makes it special?

First, pause and contemplate the following statistics. India is the world’s largest democracy: with a population over 1.23 billion (more than 1 in 6 of the world’s 7.14 billion total population are Indian). India has 415 living languages, with 22 having more that 1 million native speakers – 41% of the population speak Standard Hindi – India’s official language. Some states have their own language as the sole language; Maharashtra (capital Mumbai) has 72 million native Marathi speakers. There are 28 Indian states, the smallest Arunachal Pradesh has 1.3 million people, while the largest, the Hindi speaking Uttar Pradesh, has 199.6 million people, and includes the growing cities of of Lucknow and Kanpur. India is also birthplace to four of the world’s major religions, of which Hinduism has 80.5% of the Indian population as followers. India has a large Muslim following at 13.4% of its population, the third largest Muslim population in the world. Despite so many languages the 2010 adult literacy is 63%, with 8% internet users and a staggering 61 mobile phones per 100 of population. With an improved 88% having satisfactory water facilities only 31% of the population has satisfactory sanitation facilities.

These statistics underlie what a competent revelation Saini’s book is. The diversity of topics is to be applauded. Saini has a breezy, almost whimsical style in introducing topics and providing Indian settings for an perspective of each topic.

In particular I liked her mature handling of two hot-button topics: nuclear power and genetically modified foods. To many in the developed world energy and food security are lifestyle discussions – in India they are of life-and-death importance for many millions of the population, both now and the future.

Saini manages a well-reasoned discussion of the energy option for India – looking in detail at one important option. A visit to the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre provides a first hand glimpse of India’s nuclear aspirations, and reasoning behind it. The ensuing discussion on the indigenous development of thorium based nuclear technologies was both fascinating and compelling. From an economic point of view this development would seem to be a necessity if India is to manage its growth and not burn coal and become a major polluter such as the USA or China. They see this as a crucial intermediate step to a solar energy future. My caution is that India is yet to sign either nuclear ratification or nuclear weapons non-proliferation treaties, a point the author fails to mention.

Similarly a trip around the markets provides a great introduction into genetically modifies crops. India is by both legislation and custom a country of small rural-family run farms. These rural communities are poor and very much at the mercy of the elements. Saini presents a reasoned and sensitive discussion on the development of genetically modified crops (such as a long-life banana) that are relevant to ordinary Indians. There is a greater acceptance of these crops amongst the rural farmers than you first might imagine – provided they are cheap and preferably developed in India.

In addition Saini provides a fascinating look at the development of tuberculosis drugs, the use of electronic documents to speed up the notoriously slow bureaucratic and legal systems of India, as well as electronics and information systems companies. We are taken to the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre to get a first-hand update on the Indian space program and aspirations. Saini comments, “There’s something unimaginably ambitious about the speed and scale of India’s space programme, as if it’s no longer content fulfilling its early goals of sending up satellites so ordinary people could have colour television and cheaper mobile phone connections. Now it seems India has something else to prove.” With a successful first moon-shot India has established itself as a space power – only lacking a manned mission.

In amongst all of this excellent investigation and examination there was one discordant section. “The mindreading machine” discusses a the use of an Indian lie-detector test based on brain wave measurements. The test has been used as legal evidence in cases, including one of murder, in Indian courts. Saini voices disquiet at this ‘science’ yet at no stage does she state the obvious – that this is not science. There are no theories supporting its claims, no peer review nor double-blind tests to give any credence to the claims. I expect that a science writer would point this out, explicitly; Saini doesn’t.

Including this item in the book highlights a very fascinating aspect of what Saini sees as quintessential Indian science. Indian science nurtures the nutty, allowing questions to be asked and curiosity to be followed before they are shouted down by a conservative mainstream view of what is appropriate science. Interesting scientific and technological achievements aside this for me, is the book’s the defining point – India is having an impact far beyond the scientific statistics and measures. Saini’s book is a welcome and worthwhile look at the the idiosyncrasies and successes of the scientific and technological side of India. I’m not convinced it will take over the world, it will certainly influence and impact the direction of science and technology – that will be interesting to participate in.

2 thoughts on “Is India a nation of geeks?

  1. Good food for thought, but before India can take anything to the next level, it must learn to manage its own backyard. One major example: India is a country with amazing river systems fed by some of the highest mountains in the world, but most of these rivers are now categorised as “dead”.
    The reasons for this environmental devastation are many and obvious but need to be addressed and the process slowly reversed. For those of you that visited China 30 -40 years ago, and have also done so recently, you will be aware that it is possible.

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