Why was the Indian Science Congress deferred indefinitely?

M Somasekhar Hyderabad | Updated on January 09, 2018

Among the many rumoured reasons for the Congress being put off are Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao’s strained ties with the student community at Osmania University, which was to host the event KVS GIRI   -  KVS GIRI

Politics seems to have trumped science in the unusual decision to defer India’s biggest scientific meet.

Hyderabad, which has held the annual Indian Science Congress on seven earlier occasions, has lost out on a chance to host the 105th Session of the event, which was to be held during January 3-7, 2018.

The reason put out by the Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA) is that the situation on the Osmania University campus, the hosts to the show, was not conducive to the Prime Minister, the Telangana Chief Minister and Nobel Laureates taking part.

Enviable history

The first session of the Congress was held in Kolkata under the General Presidentship of Ashutosh Mukherjee in 1914. In 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister, was the General President.

Post-Independence, Nehru made it a practice to inaugurate the event, every January 3. The tradition has been carried on by successive PMs for the last 70 years.

It’s also a record that the Science Congress has been held without a break so far.

In its initial years, the Congress would discuss the latest scientific developments, but it moved on to the Prime Minister of the day making policy statements on science and technology.

Contentious issues

Traditionally, the General President is elected by the members of the ISCA and is invariably a person of repute. Over the past decades, sections of the scientific community have expressed unhappiness with the affairs at ISCA, with PM Bhargava openly criticising the ‘low quality’ and pseudo-science being discussed at the sessions.

Even Indian-origin Nobel Laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who participated at one session, was very critical and felt the Congress was a big jamboree and ‘mela’ than any useful science. Some others felt the entry of governments into the affairs had diluted its strengths.

In a major effort to ‘clean up’ affairs at ISCA and bring back the Congress to a forum of serious science, the Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, T Ramaswami in 2012 convened a meeting of all former Presidents. Chaired by MGK Menon, at least 18 took part and came up with suggestions for change.

Asked about the impact Ramaswami said efforts from suggestions, recommendations to streamline election process and withhold Govt funding did not make much headway. In the interest of Science, urgent steps are required to restructure the Congress and get the President elect known for their scientific accomplishments to restore some meaning to the event, he added.

“It’s time to relook at the relevance of the Science Congress now and in future. The way Science is done, communicated and practiced has dramatically changed” says RA Mashelkar, noted Scientist and the year 2000 Science Congress held under his Presidentship in Pune is considered among the better one’s.

The time for melas and events is over and India needs missions. Mashelkar cited the British Scientific Association which has a number of scientific events spread over a year unlike ISCA sticking to annual event. Given the limited resources, changed times with digital space dominating restructuring the Science Congress is a must to give it a meaning, the former DG of CSIR felt.

Alternate developments

In the last few years the India International Science Festival (IISF), whose third session was held in Chennai almost replicates the Science Congress in many ways and has tacit support from the present dispensation at the Centre.

Sources say that there are efforts to prop up IISF at the cost of ISC. However, scientists spoken to by BusinessLine felt substitution was not the solution, but restructuring and making the traditional event meaningful and relevant. “ There is no point in burning down the house to get rid of a few mosquitoes”, said one scientist who was closely associated with the ISC.

Centre-State issues

Political observers point out that the Centre and Telangana governments have their own reasons to see the postponement of the Congress. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pre-occupied with the Winter session of Parliament till January 5.

The gruelling Gujarat elections saw the PM intensely engaged, and consequently his busy itinerary has got affected. Hence, the ISC might not be on his priority.

For Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao, host Osmania University is practically his only political rival. The Dharna Chowk, where all political protests were held during the separate Telangana movement, has been barred from use.

Given the embarrassment that his presence on campus at the ISC’s inaugural might create, the deferral of the event works to the advantage of the Chief Minister.

The BJP saw conspiracy in the postponement and it’s Assembly leader Kishen Reddy said: “It’s the outcome of the CM’s hatred for OU.” Unlike the GES 2017 and the World Telugu Conference, the CM has not shown any interest in the ISC, the party alleged.

The question that emerges from these developments is whether the ISC has lost steam and relevance. Is another tradition from the Nehruvian era bidding goodbye? The ISCA Executive Committee, which meets on December 27 in Kolkata, might throw some light.

Published on December 25, 2017

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