Science through fun and games

POPULAR demand for informative and entertaining science fare is constantly rising. And, any doubts on this score would be dispelled by the public response to Doordarshan's recent invitation to write in and say what they would like to see on the extended transmission that becomes effective early next year. More than one lakh letters have flooded into Doordarshan's offices, and many viewers want to see far more and varied science programmes than are being offered now on Doordarshan. For example, Turning Point is so popular, viewers want to watch it in Hindi during prime time. Viewers also want other serials on science subjects, including science fiction.

BBC and STAR TV have given Indian viewers a taste for fast-paced, slick programmes such as Beyond 2000. Many of the letter-writers asked for programmes on modern science and on the application of science to daily life, for Quest to be telecast at an earlier hour and for interesting, biographical programmes on leading scientists and their achievements.

Given this level of popular interest in science, exhibitions such as the one the Ministry of Environment and Forests organised recently in Delhi on Environment and Development are most welcome. Using films, photographs, puppets and outsize three-dimensional models, the exhibition was designed for urban children, some of whom were on duty in certain stalls. Featured were a nature trail, a puppet show and all-day screening of films on Project Tiger, on the monsoons and on a number of other subjects.

With the exhibition designed to be as participative as possible, a variety of contests were organised, including one on clay modelling for disabled schoolchildren. The nature trail was a bit jocular, with stuffed animals hidden in the bushes, coloured wires and sound effects. The smaller children must have enjoyed it all, including the artificial pug marks.

This reviewer ran into a clutch of children from a government school, who made a visit to the exhibition a regular part of their daily routine getting back from school. Having seen the puppet troupe's entire repertoire several times, the children could almost recite the lines backwards and they were also an authority on details of the nature trail. With a little more guidance from the organisers, the exhibition could have become an even greater learning experience for deprived children.

Some government exhibits lacked flair and imagination, consisting as they did of a seemingly endless series of unexplained photographs. Others were either cryptic or timid. The Central Water Commission stall, for instance, displayed an informative model on river pollution and demonstrations of sprinkler and drip irrigation systems. But its section on multipurpose dam projects was bland and showed nothing of how these affected lives or of the debates they had generated or even of small dams. "We don't want to go into controversies," shrugged an official at the stall, in explanation.

The controversies they sought to avoid, however, were dealt with in the INTACH (India National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) stall just a few metres away. The INTACH stall described the genesis of the country's environmental problems and blamed them squarely on government policy. Schoolchildren and adults unfamiliar with the human cost of the dams, would have been amply educated by the time they finished with the INTACH panels, for they displayed cumulative statistics on the human cost to date of multipurpose dam projects. It also described environmental refugees and explained what the Chipko movement was all about.

Pollution was also dealt with graphically at this Teen Murti exhibition, by screening a recreated mountain of the sort of everyday trash that is ruining the country's land and water. The department of non-conventional energy sources could have done much better than having just a few smokeless chulhas strewn around and some guides sitting about laconically. There could have been, instead, live demonstrations of the chulhas or the solar cookers.

In the end, the puppet show was, perhaps, the most popular draw, with its improvised skits featuring basic environmental messages. What ministry officials now need to decide is whether to transform this into a travelling exhibition that would tour mofussil towns. Even better, the state governments should exert efforts in this direction.