The political economy of Nehruvian Science

Sukhbeer Tej Pratap Singh



‘Vanity, ambition and eagerness for certainty are the greatest sources of hazards to scientific knowledge’   -Francis Bacon

The concept of planning in the sphere of scientific research is said to reduce the risk of fragmented efforts, minimising possibilities of duplication & making resources more efficient but the idea of planning science for economic advancement has been considered seriously only since the mid-sixties (Bhaneja, 1976). The political economy of the science & technology policy of India in the Nehruvian era involves a complex interplay between the various elements of the Indian society such as the political executive, the scientific community and educationists. This interplay must be seen in the context of post-independence India’s national & international aspirations. Since pre- independence India’s material base was weak after deindustrialisation under colonial rule, there was a major thrust on increasing the material base of Indian society through the application of technology. The fundamental belief underlying this initiative was the belief in the capacity of scientific innovation to accelerate the process of improving India’s socio-economic status. These aspirations had to be balanced with the resource crunch faced by the Indian state since investment in science & technology is a long term investment.

This paper is an attempt to analyse the modalities of post-independence India’s science & technology policy and trace the reasons for suboptimal performance of India’s pure science research and corrective initiatives in the field.

The Historical Context: Science Policy in the Colonial Period

In the pre-independence period, the desire to promote science was limited to a few scientists at universities and research centres. The British organised Indian universities deliberately to limit scientific research to mere examination oriented bodies. (Desiraju, 2008:38)

The initiatives to promote scientific temper and research, however, picked up the pace in the late 1930’s. Meghnad Saha (1893–1956) inspired by soviet planning proposed a series of hydroelectric dams in his native Bengal through state funds to generate power for industrial development, in the process addressing the problems of poverty & flood control(Anderson, 1975, pp. 24-29). Through his journal Science & Culture he expounded these ideas and they later came to be associated with Nehru (Arnold, 2013, p. 365). In 1938, Saha impressed upon Subhash Chandra Bose, then the president of Indian National Congress, his scheme for the regeneration of India which came to be reflected in Bose’s speeches at the time.  (Vasu, Reddi, & Ayer, 1990, pp. 72-99)  The rudimentary framework of science policy planning that existed in India consisted of Board of Scientific & Industrial Research created in 1938 and replaced by the Council of  Scientific & Industrial Research created out of a military necessity in 1942 (Bhaneja, 1979, pp. 70-97) In 1945, prior to the election of the new national government, the Congress party resolution declared:

Science, in its instrumental field of activity, has played an ever increasing part in influencing and moulding human life and will do so in even greater measure in the future. Industrial, agricultural and cultural advance, as well as national defence, depends upon it. Scientific research is, therefore, a basic and essential activity of the State and should be organised and encouraged on the widest scale.(Congress Party Manifesto,11th December 1945, 1969)

In the colonial period, science establishments were largely state-owned, located in specialist research institutes rather than in public universities (Arnold, 2013, p. 365).This was carried over after independence.  The reasoning put forth was that modern science technology was too fundamental yet also too specialist to be left to poorly funded universities. Also, defence and self-sufficiency needs seemed to favour state control. Another aspect of the reasoning behind pushing for a comprehensive science policy was the foreign policy angle of keeping India out of the cold war countries and the cold war out of India and  to establish India’s primacy in south Asia. (Kapur, 1976, pp. 72-99)

Parliamentary and administrative influence on science policy in the post-independence period

Our primary aims after independence were developing a large industrial base for the economic advancement of the country. This goal necessitated the development of a sound science and technology base. From the very outset, there existed two divergent schools of thoughts in the scientific planning community, with one school advocating the creation of government administered research institutions where substantive research would happen with universities to be focussed solely on the creation of a pool of scientific practitioners. Essentially, government research bodies were to serve as the centres of research.

The other school, championed by Meghnad Saha, himself a parliamentarian and physicist, wanted universities to continue as centres of scientific research, and be administered by scientists with minimal role of government officials with a non-science background, even in programmes with major funding from the government. The government chose to go ahead with the former plan.  

As patron and mentor of Indian science in the post-colonial period, Nehru assembled around himself like-minded scientists like S.S. Bhatnagar, P. C. Mahalanobis, and notably Homi K. Bhabha, chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission. The Department of Atomic Energy remained under Nehru’s control. Thus, the funding for a particular branch of scientific research depended upon the proximity of the top scientists of that field to the politico-administrative system. The National Committee on Science & Technology was created under Department of Science & Technology as a body to advise the government on preparation and evaluation of national science plans.

The demand and growth of science and technology lead to the emergence of a new configuration of “institutional and social complex”, which reciprocates the influence of the larger social order. It is this anachronistic connection between the social-institutional complex which was responsible for most of the problems faced by the Indian science policy in the past and needs to be redefined. (Sharma, 1976)

The Indian parliament on 4th march, 1958 passed the Science Policy resolution under the leadership of Jawaharlal Lal Nehru. The successful implementation of the Science Policy resolution mandated the adoption of a new scientific outlook by the entire population.

Under the direction of Nehru, the government of India held the first national conference of scientists, technologists and educationists for getting inputs on the implementation of the science resolution. The second national conference was held in August 1963. The Third conference was held in November 1970. It concluded in the formation of four working groups, viz. (1) Science Policy at the National Level, (2) Management of Scientific and Technological Institutions, (3) Research and Industrial Development, and (4) Higher Education and Manpower.

The conference criticised the process of education for ”diffusing the concepts and methodology of science”. It observed that science had remained confined to the periphery of our society. It also emphasised the (i) lack of inter-disciplinary approach & most importantly (ii) “the absence of a component dealing with the role of a scientist or a technologist as the agent of change in a developing society”. (The Proceedings of the Third National Conference of Scientists, Technologists & Educationists, 1970). The conference also emphasised on the “urgency for close collaboration between universities,  research bodies and other scientific bodies”. The consensus within the scientific community was that the cleavage between the research institutions and universities was producing sub-optimal results. The conference argued that for the development of a cohesive National Science Plan, it was imperative that working scientists be involved in the decision-making in public policy as put forward in the Science Policy resolution of 1958. Despite such recommendations, the third conference noted “though decision-making on important national issues involves political, administrative and technical components, at present, only the politicians and administrators participate in decision-making. This situation prevails even in areas where the policy issues involved have high scientific and technological content.” (Ibid:p.46)

In the proceedings of the 3rd conference it was noted that the feudal mindset was the greatest obstacle to the implementation of the Science Policy Resolution for betterment of the socio-economic system, but in praxis the scientific policy and polity remained disjointed in terms of implementation & organisational dynamics (Sharma, 1976) As Alexander King said, “Science is in disarray because society itself was in disarray”. It was also observed that some top scientists used public relations and management techniques to further their own ambition, – for instance to secure financial funding for research programmes of their choice, the building of institutions and laboratories. This was a drawback of the reduction in the significance of universities as centres of research and increasing centralisation of decision making in scientific planning at the highest level of government. The foundation of India’s atomic energy edifice was laid through Homi Bhabha’s personal relationship with Nehru (Sondhi, 1990, p. 510)(Arnold,2013:p23)

The programming methods and  techniques such as critical path methods, network analysis, programming budgeting systems and  critical path methods, have been considered favourably in the western countries (Bhaneja, 1976, p. 1) although their application to science  has been limited because most of the Research & development in these countries has been in the private sector. In contrast, 90 percent of the research in developing countries takes place in the government scientific institutions. (ibid.) Armed conflicts with China and  Pakistan and  two droughts gradually eroded the enthusiasm of parliamentarians leading them to  questioning the substantial quantitative expenditure on science in India, with Indira Gandhi remarking, “the nation had not secured sufficient returns from the quantitative expansion of scientific research” (Proceedings of the Third National Conference of Scientists, Technologists,p.5)In this context it is important to examine the  Science & Technology plan 1974-79 arrived at by NCST in consultation with 1800 scientists & technologists.

After 1965, different demands began to be made of the scientific research institutions. For the first time in 1971, the national expenditure on research & development in agriculture exceeded that on atomic energy. The declining agricultural productivity created pressure on the government to act in this line. In 1972 and under the fifth plan allocation, the expenditure rose higher than that on defence and atomic energy. However, agriculture was distinct from rural and there was yet to emerge a definitive idea of necessary rural bias in science policy in India.

This makes a case for research in universities in localised environments with greater devolution of funds to universities & decentralisation in decision-making processes in terms of the research focus areas. In every country with a significant scientific research base, fundamental research takes place in universities.  The reason why the SPR 1958 failed to create a cultural revolution in terms of inculcating scientific temper in the population was because of perceived distance from the outcomes of these centralised research institutions. The funding into these elite institutions for industrial and energy science research had little to show in terms of impact on rural socio-economic life except in terms of agriculture. This led to further questions being asked in the polity of the country on the money being funnelled into scientific research. In this sense the Chinese experience must be considered, China has invested in 100 universities with each a budget of Rs.100 crores per annum. This would have a budgetary outlay of 10000 crores which contrasts with DAE annual allowance of Rs. 7000 crores per annum. (Desiraju, 2008) Aspects of rural life such as sanitation, modernisation of rural cottage industries could have been better served by research in localised universities. The National Knowledge commission report, 2006 has criticised this approach of centralised research bodies and argued in favour of making universities the pre-eminent centres of fundamental research. It is argued that government ministries like Department of Biotechnology & Department of Science & Technology should not be running research centres. There is also the need to resuscitate state universities since they can have a broader social outreach than centralised research laboratories and also achieve the goal of interdisciplinarity in scientific research expounded by 3rd Science Conference, 1971.

In this sense the view of the Kothari commission on education that talks about the ill effects of bureaucratisation of higher education are also of relevance. The setting up of research centres outside of universities led to the divorce between teaching & research leading to undergraduate education in the sciences becoming static. Huge investments were made in these institutes was made at the cost of funding and reform in the universities.  (Shah, 2005, p. 2239)

Evolution of Current Policy & Possible solutions:

The latest science policy looks at the convergence between pure science research, technology and innovation. The 2013 policy reiterates the important aim of inter-disciplinarity necessary for the inclusive growth of the country It is through this convergence that we seek to evolve a scientific research base with a pronounced socio-economic orientation. The encouragement given to inter-university centres for research based on their success is recognising the importance of universities as the centres of research. The current policy document fails to analyse the shortcomings of the previous policies and fails to address the fundamental structural shortcomings of the research institutions. The disparity in terms of numbers is that in India 75 percent of the science & technology funds come from the government yet from the 1960s – the 1990s only 10 percent of the Research & Development funds went to universities The cleavage between the research institutions & universities has broken the organic linkage between talent which could be harvested in-house in a university environment

(Sukhbeer Tej Pratap Singh is a graduate student of Master of Public Policy in the National Law School of India University. He can be reached at


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