Cursory look at science development links

THAT SCIENCE and technology (in the broadest sense) have something to do with development is accepted now almost universally. From the discovery of iron to the harnessing of steam, technology has played a major role in determining the level of economic development of any era. This is as true today in the time of ceramic superconductors, as it was in the ancient times of Painted Grey Ware.

On the other hand, communication -- and especially mass communication -- is widely seen as an important component of any developmental programme. From literacy to public health, mass communication is regarded as a crucial tool for empowering the dispossessed.

What is not so obvious are the linkages between science communication and development and J V Vilanilam, vice chancellor of Kerala University, endeavours to explore precisely these linkages in his book.

What role does science and technology (S & T) play in a developing country and how does it differ from their role in developed countries? Vilanilam contends S & T, like other forms of knowledge, is culture-specific and attempts to develop an analytic framework to understand S & T's role -- especially its communication aspect -- in national development. Even though he touches almost all the important issues, he does not succeed in evolving a conceptual framework within which to address these issues.

The book contains a commendable if sketchy survey of the history of S & T in the ancient world and in ancient and medieval India. Vilanilam states that with the coming of the British to India, there was a tremendous growth in the number of S & T institutions, responsible not only for a systematic survey of exploitable natural resources but also to play a major role in modernising Indian industry. Inevitably, though, the introduction of modern products and processes led to the decline and ultimate extinction of a number of traditional techniques and their practitioners.

Undoubtedly, there has been a tremendous growth in scientific activity since Independence. This is true of both industrial production and the number of research establishments. But, the author asks, has this phenomenal growth in our S & T activities really influenced development in India? Has the establishing of world class hospitals got anything to do with providing health care in a country where the focus is still on preventive and primary health? The country's development model stresses on an essentially elitist consumer growth -- and this the author rightly terms immoral.

Self-reliance and import substitution have led to some dividends, but a culture of indigenous research and development is still to take root. Vilanilam does not explore this aspect in any detail nor does he discuss the role of universities as the very foundation of any sustainable R & D activity because they produce scientific and technological "personware".

The Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), the countrywide classroom of UGC and the Kheda community television project are some of the most innovative experiments in development communication carried out anywhere in the world. The author analyses and provides a useful evaluation of these projects, but instead of offering viable strategies for successful development communications, he harps on the need for "selfless communication workers".

There is much material on science, technology, communication and development in this book. And, this is precisely the difficulty with it. None of the topics is covered in any detail and as the book lacks any overall analytic framework, the connections are not fully explored.

It is sad that a book by an expert on mass communication on a subject of vital importance to this specialised field does not at all live up to the expectations generated by the title.

Shobhit Mahajan teaches physics at the University of Delhi.