Let’s look at the most significant strides we have made in the last 75 years in the field of science and technology and progress with a focus on how it can help the people of our nation.
By Abhijit Chanda
- In 1950, the Planning Commission set up a plan to focus on the most significant priorities for our society
- With the Green Revolution India became a rice bowl of Asia
- Verghese Kurien changed the name of Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union Ltd to AMUL, derived from Amulya, means priceless
- Startup India was launched by the Modi Government in an effort to foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship
INDIA’S progress as a country over the last seven and a half decades has been incredible under the circumstances, but there’s still a long way to go before we rival more developed countries. In the context of science and technology, though, it is no less astounding how far we have come, not in terms of absolute groundbreaking research but in terms of our innovation and progress with a focus on how it can help the people of our nation.
Let’s look at the most significant strides we have made in the last 75 years and the giants who have taken them for us. Then, with our history firmly in our hearts, we turn our minds to the future to find the most prominent areas we need to focus on to accelerate us to greater heights.
THE FIRST STEP: FROM 1947 TO 1957
In 1950, the Planning Commission set up a plan to focus on the most significant priorities for our society and the goals we needed to set in each one of them. They were agriculture, science, infrastructure, and education. The first draft was proposed in 1951 with a dedicated chapter on “Scientific and Industrial Research”. It’s heartening to know that science was such a high priority for the first plan.
The plan recognised several research institutes at the national level to focus on the country’s future. Among them were the National Chemical Laboratory in Pune, Maharashtra; the National Physical Laboratory of India, Delhi; and the Central Electrochemical Research Institute in Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu.
To help them develop, the plan is prioritised for building completion and installing the necessary equipment. New research facilities like the Radio and Electronics Research Institute, the Mechanical Engineering Research Institute, and the Central Salt Research Station were also developed. These were the keys to unlocking India’s future in science and research.
THE FOOD REVOLUTIONS: 1957 TO 1967
THE GREEN REVOLUTION
As India began to take stock after independence, one of the most severe revelations was how inadequate our food supplies were. For example, we were only producing 6 million tons of wheat a year, which was woeful for the burgeoning population, forcing us to depend on imports and draining our national finances.
A host of initiatives were launched to change the tide: land reforms, improvements in irrigation, boosting fertiliser production, and the Intensive Agriculture District Programme. With these in place, wheat production rose to 12 million in 1964 – which was still insufficient to feed all Indians.
Benjamin Peary Pal, a plant breeding specialist at the Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI), was trying to create a variety of wheat that would resist disease and increase yield. In 1961, Peary Pal found a breakthrough with a Norin-10 dwarfing gene developed by Normal Borlaug in Mexico and used it to grow a dwarf spring wheat variety in IARI. The crop was shorter but had longer panicles and gave excellent yields.
This success led to further research on rice, maise, sorghum and pearl millet. At its peak, wheat production went up to 20 million tons by 1970, and rice grew to 42 million tons, sparking what is now called The Green Revolution. This towering achievement turned India from holding a begging bowl to becoming a rice bowl of Asia. The All India Coordinated Wheat Research Project is still a shining example of agricultural research.
THE WHITE REVOLUTION
Milk was also running low after independence. Hundreds of tons of butter and baby food were being imported into India at the time. In fact, in 1955, 3,000 tons of baby food and 500 tons of butter were imported from Europe.
In 1946, the KDCMPUL (Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union Limited) was founded by Mr Tribhuvandas Patel in Anand, Gujarat. In 1950, Verghese Kurien returned from the US to fulfil his bond with the Indian government for his education. He was charged with moving to Anand and becoming the General Manager of the cooperative in 1950, where he began changing the face of the milk industry.
Kurien quickly got to work on expanding the cooperative network to encompass more of the surrounding villages, putting systems in place to offer the farmers a fair price for the milk they brought in. Since KDCMPUL was a mouthful, Kurien changed the cooperative’s name to Anand Milk Union Limited, or AMUL, derived from Amulya, meaning priceless in Gujarati.
Through his research, Harichand Megha Dalaya, a young dairy engineer working with Kurien, discovered that buffalo milk could be converted into milk powder. An ingenious assembly of a spray paint gun and an air heater was put together, for the first time ever, powdered buffalo milk. Dalaya became the inventor of the first spray-dryer for buffalo milk in the world. Eventually, he demonstrated that a Niro Atomizer, the world’s first buffalo milk spray-dryer, a commercially available machine, could do it too, and at larger scales. An Indian dairy revolution was born out of this, making the country self-sufficient.
Our initial steps forward, like the Green and White Revolutions, and our endeavours in health and medicine, were all to rise above the mess the British left us and start caring for a burgeoning population of Indians
INDIA ON SPACE: 1967 TO PRESENT
Vikram Sarabhai, one of the most important Indian pioneers, established the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in 1969, India’s space agency. This is probably one of the most important contributors to India’s scientific achievements since independence, as you’ll see in this article.
He once said, “There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the Moon or the planets or manned space flight. “
But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.”
ISRO’s first groundbreaking achievement was on April 19th, 1975, when it launched Aryabhata, India’s first unmanned satellite, from a Russian Cosmodrome. This was designed to run experiments and observations in solar physics, aeronomy, and x-ray astronomy. In 1983, India launched INSAT, the most extensive domestic communication system in the Asia-Pacific, making India a powerful player in the region in telecommunications, broadcasting, and meteorology.
As the chairman of the Indian National Committee for Space Research, Vikram Sarabhai envisioned using satellite technology for communication and weather forecasting. As a result of his communications with NASA in 1966, India became a capable developer of space technology and introduced the Space Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), even though this was made possible after his death.
FIRST STRATEGIC MISSILE
The AGNI-1 was India’s first strategic missile. The program started in the 1980s, with the successful launch of Agni in 1989. Scientists worked diligently to expand and demonstrate its capabilities, like its manoeuvring, guidance, two-stage propulsion, stage separation, and re-entry. The programme continues to this day and has tested a series of missiles, with Agni-V being the most recent in 2018 to low earth orbit.
The Moon was our next stop. Chandrayaan-I was launched from Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, on October 22, 2008. ISRO received chemical, photo-geologic, and mineralogical data from the spacecraft as it circled the Moon.
In 2019, India launched Chandrayaan-II with the Vikram Lander, which was supposed to land on the Moon and launch a rover to explore the presence of water on our satellite. Unfortunately, the lander crashed due to a glitch in the software, but the orbiter remains operational.
India’s first interplanetary Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is a historic first. MOM established India’s position in the field of space exploration. Launched on November 5th 2013, MOM studied Mars’s topography, morphology, mineralogy, and atmosphere.
This wasn’t just one feather, but several in India and ISRO’s cap. Mangalyaan was India’s first interplanetary mission, being the first Asian country to do so and the first in the world to succeed on the first attempt. This also made India one of the few countries to have completed successful Mars missions. As a cherry on top, ISRO managed to do it all while spending just $75 million. In comparison, NASA’s MAVEN orbiter cost around $485 million to develop and approximately $187 million to launch and execute.
Coming closer to home, ISRO developed the Gaganyaan programme with a crewed mission to get humans into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), which is home to the International Space Station. This mission is expected to become the launch pad for India’s future ventures into space.
Mangalyaan, India’s first interplanetary Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was a historic first. MOM established India’s position in the field of space exploration. Lmangalayan studied Mars’s topography, morphology, mineralogy, and atmosphere
DNA FINGERPRINTING: 1987 TO 1997
Lalji Singh was a pioneer in the science of DNA, studying all the while bringing it to India. After getting his PhD from Banaras Hindu University in 1971, where he studied the differences between male and female snakes’ chromosomes, he found a part of DNA where the letters that make up DNA were repeated over and over again. Christened the Banded Krait minor (Bkm), this region was present in almost all the species Lajlji tested. It was found that studying this region could help differentiate between species and even individuals of the same species, even between parents and children.
Lalji, as he was known, made significant contributions to the science of the molecular basis of sex determination, wildlife conservation, silkworm genome analysis, population genetics, and ancient DNA studies. During his career, he published around 219 research papers. One of his final papers was published in Nature and studied the genetic origins of the people of India.
He even brought the science of DNA fingerprinting to India. Under his leadership, the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD) was established in 1995 in Hyderabad under the Department of Biotechnology. In 1998, he was named director of the Centre for Computational and Molecular Biology (CCMB).
NUCLEAR POWER: 1947 TO 2007
Soon after independence, Homi Jehangir Bhaba convinced Jawaharlal Nehru to initiate work on nuclear research. In 1948, he proposed that all research be led by a powerful Atomic Research Commission created with direct communication privileges with the Prime Minister. Later that year, he was made the chairman of that commission.
Bhaba was dedicated to making nuclear energy a cheap and reliable way to power India, emphasising using India’s thorium reserves to make that possible. Other nations, like Canada and the US, helped him develop a heavy water reactor (HWR) to create enriched plutonium 239 from uranium 238. However, some of the plutonium produced in that reactor found its way to helping develop India’s nuclear weapons research. Homi Bhabha wanted India to be not only a nation powered by nuclear energy but empowered by nuclear weapons too.
In 1968, two years after his death, the first of India’s nuclear bombs started being built. Operation Smiling Buddha, as the successful underground nuclear tests in Pokhran, Rajasthan, were called, took place on May 18th, 1974. On May 11th, 1998, Pokhran-II detonated five nuclear bombs underground.
HEALTH AND MEDICINE
The Indian government initially founded Hindustan Antibiotics Limited in 1954, and a year later, Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Limited followed suit. Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar was responsible for increasing the council’s capacity at the Central Drug Research Institute. He is known as the “Father of Research Laboratories” in India for his work as the CSIR’s first director general. He was the first Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC).
The Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology was established by the Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in 1958 to recognise scientists who have made outstanding contributions to various scientific fields.
POLIO-FREE INDIA: 1994 TO PRESENT
Around 60 percent of polio cases were found in India in 1994. Our polio-free status was achieved in less than two decades thanks to a government-sponsored vaccination effort. This monumental immunisation drive was hugely successful due to sound policies, devoted healthcare professionals, and frontline and community workers. The campaign’s main goal was to raise vaccination rates in less developed and rural areas of the country by educating people about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) certified India as “polio-free” on March 27th, 2014.
COVID-19 VACCINE DRIVE
COVID-19 vaccines were developed significantly during the pandemic because India was at the forefront of vaccine development research and manufacturing. We have shipped over 7 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccination to countries worldwide.
Furthermore, the immunisation campaign in India has reached record proportions. We have fully vaccinated over 97.2 crore Indians, making it over 67% of the population. That is about 5% higher than the global vaccination rate.
This certainly is something to be proud of, but there are reservations to be made here, which we will come to a little later.
THE IT INDUSTRY
After independence, IBM and ICL dominated the data processing business. The government, military, and research institutions depended heavily on these companies’ machines, so they demanded high rental rates.
As of 1970, the Department of Electronics and public-sector businesses like Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL), Computer Maintenance Corporation (CMC) and state electronics development corporations were established. The skills and knowledge thus developed got transferred to private industry.
The first major application of information technology was the passenger reservation project of the Railways launched in 1986. ECIL and CMC broke the monopoly on electronic products. One of the top ten global information technology (IT) firms is Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). Leading multinational corporations (MNCs) view India as a top outsourcing location because of its ability to speak English and produce software.
To add fuel to the fast-growing IT industry, the Indian government decided to encourage a start-up culture, which has paid massive dividends to India’s economy and people.
The “Startup India” programme was launched by the Government of India on January 16th, 2016, in an effort to foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in India.
Indian start-up numbers have grown since then and are expected to continue to rise. More than 52,000 start-ups were operating in India as of July 2021, making it one of the world’s largest start-up ecosystems.
More than 5 million employment opportunities have been created as a result. Start-ups in India’s top ten industries include information technology (IT), healthcare and biotechnology, education and ed-tech, food and beverages, agricultural technology, financial technology, hardware, and green technology.
More than 52,000 start-ups were operating in India as of July 2021, making it one of the world’s largest start-up ecosystems. More than 5 million employment opportunities have been created as a result
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
So many pioneers have pushed India forward into its current state, where it sometimes proudly competes with other countries. We now stand on the towering giants Verghese Kurien, Lalji Singh, Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, Homi Bhaba, and so many more that I haven’t managed to mention in this article.
However, we are far from becoming a first-world nation. Our initial steps forward, like the Green and White Revolutions, and our endeavours in health and medicine, were all to rise above the mess the British left us and start caring for a burgeoning population of Indians. Now we have an even bigger population, and while the lives of many have improved, hunger, abysmal healthcare, and extreme poverty still plague millions across our nation. We must find ways to stabilise population growth through sex education and women’s empowerment and education. Innovations in GMOs, farming technologies, and biotech can feed the hungry by producing hardier crops that can grow with less water and in more extreme conditions.
We have set our sights on the stars with ISRO’s remarkable achievements. Our nuclear and space programmes are certainly of note but still far behind the giants of NASA and ESA, among other space agencies worldwide. Accelerating our route to renewable and carbon-free energy is essential. But most of us living in India’s cities can barely even breathe the dust and pollution, let alone see the stars through it.
We must bring back the importance of scientific rigour, essential research, and evidence-based medicine. We may be manufacturing and exporting massive amounts of pharmaceuticals and vaccines globally, but our population cannot be reached through our hospitals. And health networks. Adding to that, our ministry of AYUSH is pushing pseudoscientific quackery to the masses, reversing and aggravating problems that doctors are combating. For example, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare wholeheartedly supported quackery like Patanjali’s Corona Kit and the Ministry of Ayush.
Adding to this, students wanting to study medicine, business or science often go to study abroad because of the sore lack of affordable or good-quality colleges in India. We have one of the world’s biggest English-speaking, educated populations, but so few want to stay in India and work. Doctors, engineers, and IT professionals take every opportunity to go abroad. Why don’t we work on developing world-class universities that can bring students from other countries?
Our infrastructure is burgeoning with excellent cellular networks that rival the best in the world; 10-lane highways filled with world-class cars and excellent budget airlines flying above them. But safe drinking water is still woefully inadequate for the population, and 24-hour power is still a distant dream for most in the country
Our infrastructure is burgeoning with excellent cellular networks that rival the best in the world; 10-lane highways filled with world-class cars and excellent budget airlines flying above them. But safe drinking water is still woefully inadequate for the population, and 24-hour power is still a distant dream for most places in the country. These basic facilities can be created through innovation and advancements in power generation and distribution, as well as water treatment and storage.
These are just the basics. But investing in science and technology can find novel solutions to many of our problems. For the first 75 years, many visionaries have brought us to where we are. We need to nurture the next generations to stand on their shoulders and pave the way to our future with science.