A Dry Ice-Bucket Challenge To Shame The Indian ‘Intellects’

Karan Jani

May 01, 2016, 01:55 PM | Updated 01:55 PM IST

Drought in India (Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images)
Drought in India (Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images)
  • For 60 years, what did we academicians and university research fellows do about water crises in India?
  • Yogita Ashok Desai. 12 year old. Died with a heat stroke while fetching water from a handpump in her village. (ANI news)
    Yogita Ashok Desai. 12 year old. Died with a heat stroke while fetching water from a handpump in her village. (ANI news)

    “સુખી હું તેથી કોને શું / who cares if I’m happy

    દુ:ખી હું તેથી કોને શું / who cares if I’m sad

    જગતમાં કંઈ પડ્યા જીવ / so many beings lie in this society

    દુ:ખી કંઈ ને સુખી કંઈક” / some lie happy, nowhere resides sad

    -- Govardhanram Tripathi, “Saraswatichandra”

    Last week in Salt Lake City (Utah, USA), at one of the grandest physics conferences of the year, I was at all awe seeing multiple astrophysics talks mentioning the gravitational-wave detector going to be built in India. It is, of course, a moment of national pride, and the time we operate this detector, the feat is going to be no less than ISRO’s future manned mission to the moon.

    Oblivious to the walls of these conference centres and our 24x7 wifi/air-conditioned research institutes, exists a parallel universe. On paper, that universe has the same laws of physics and the law of land as our research labs, but the level of human rights in them seems darker than the darkest parts of our physical universe. In a news that did not become Twitter trend, a 12-year old village girl from Maharashtra, Yogita Ashok Desai, died of heat stroke while fetching water from a hand pump. Any person with a soul out there, I bet if you can stare at her picture in school uniform for more than 10 seconds and not feel a needle poking from Yogita’s universe to yours.

    Yogita was our future astrophysicist, detecting black holes from a facility being built not too far from her village. Yogita was our future sports medalist, holding our national flag at the 2024 Olympics. Yogita was our Foreign Service diplomat, strengthening India’s position in the UN. And Yogita was also our Member of Parliament, pioneering the policies for women’s rights and education. Most importantly, Yogita was the much needed female role model for our country. But instead Yogita died carrying 10 liters of water on her shoulder. Walking half a km in 42 degree celsius. 60 years after the independence of India. 4 hours away from few of the largest research centers and urban areas of the country. And many many other Yogitas die annually, which shamelessly neither I nor you or anyone in our universities are even aware of.

    However, in the universities - the universe of us academicians - agitations and issues of concern have become so romantic. We will sign open letters to mark intolerance in the country (even the directors of premier institutions will make their name shine in those letters). We will scream “aazadi” in chorus to testify our academic freedom. We will hyperconsciously chalkdown characteristics of a nationalist vs. an anti-nationalist. We will blacken and blaze our hour long prime time news. And we will daydream our resistance and revolutions, with Imagine Dragons playing in the background. But ohh! You are asking me to find innovative science and technology solutions for the water crisis in rural India? Can I instead just retweet?

    It needs no controlled experiments to conclude that most of the water crises in India are a result of deliberate human activities and lack of R&D for better water management. Both of which seem less complicated to resolve than to pick the best author at the literature fest or maintaining publishing track in low impact journals.

    However, even after having all the technical training at our disposal, we lack the intentions to lift the inertia, go out from the comfort zones of university campuses and resolve a major societal issue. And that is where we - the intellects of India - failed big time and have done an enormous disservice to our nation.

    As of now, the strategy and R&D initiatives for solving water crisis solely relies in the complicated layers of bureaucracy within the Ministry of Water Resources. In particular, the Water Commision of India does a great job of releasing periodic statistics of the major projects and its impact across each state in India.

    For example, in the state of Maharashtra, 153 major projects (including R&D) were initiated for better water management during the X Plan. The amount of taxpayers money that spent in these projects in Maharashtra was an astronomical Rs. 56,155 crore. This figure is more than the combined total for most states in India.

    Now, compare these statistics with the Commission’s report on pricing of water in India. For Maharashtra, the cost of water is absurdly and exponentially higher than any state in India (Figure 2). A farmer simply cannot make profit or compete by doing any form of farming in Maharashtra. To understand why such an anomaly between investment of our tax money and ground reality exists could alone be great Master’s thesis projects!

    But alas, no private or premier research institutes or universities in India carries independent, scalable research projects to complement the efforts of the Ministry.

    My mentor in black hole physics once wisely quoted, “Good scientists solve problems, but great scientists know what’s worth solving.” The university research in our country by and large has suffered through an atrocious mediocrity and oblivion to issues facing regular citizens. This, in turn, resulted in India’s scholarly citations impact and registered patents to be way less than the world average.

    That past was our fate and historians could correlate it with multiple factors, including misgovernance and lack of vision. But now is the time for the intellects to introspect and universities to initiate massive research projects which are in resonance with the priorities of the government. In one of the most laudable drives in participatory democracy, the Niti Aayog launched the Grand Innovation Challenge, inviting citizens to rejuvenate 14 of the most important sectors shaping the future of our nation. This is where we - the Indian intellectuals - need to lift the inertia, use our academic training, and contribute to science, technology and policy innovations of our country.

    Or else there is always dry ice in the fridge.

    Karan Jani is an astrophysicist and a recipient of the 2016 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics awarded by Stephen Hawking. He was listed by Forbes as 30 Most Influential Personalities Under 30.

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