Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

Iwith con­sid­er­able im­pa­tience and one ques­tion. WRITE THIS Do we re­ally have the time to waste on con­tro­ver­sies like what an­cient In­dia did or did not achieve by way of sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies? This is when there is the huge un­fin­ished agenda to use the best of science to tackle cur­rent chal­lenges and crises. At the re­cently con­cluded an­nual rit­ual of the In­dian Science Congress, the Union science and tech­nol­ogy min­is­ter drew so­lace from the fact that an­cient In­dia had math­e­mat­i­cal prow­ess—we gifted the Pythago­ras the­o­rem and algebra to the world. There is truth in this, no doubt. But this is about the past. At best, it tells us to be proud of our le­gacy. But what does it tell us about what needs to be done to in­no­vate for our needs?

There is no doubt that In­dian science is los­ing ground; ev­ery in­di­ca­tor shows this. The rank­ing of our top sci­en­tific ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions is con­sis­tently fall­ing and our achieve­ments are fewer by the day. Most im­por­tantly, In­dian sci­en­tists are nowhere to be seen in the world you and I in­habit. This is when our mod­ern world re­quires science to be in­te­grated into ev­ery as­pect of daily life.

This is also the prob­lem I have with the cur­rent con­tro­versy about Vedic science—whether we flew air­craft or mas­tered plas­tic surgery is im­ma­te­rial for mod­ern In­dia. What mat­ters is an­cient In­di­ans un­der­stood the science and art of set­tle­ment plan­ning, ar­chi­tec­ture and gov­er­nance of nat­u­ral re­sources. This is the his­tory we need to learn be­cause it tells us what we must do right. Th­ese are the real sym­bols of an­cient In­dia’s sci­en­tific prow­ess.

Take wa­ter, for in­stance. Tra­di­tion­ally, we built highly so­phis­ti­cated sys­tems, which var­ied to suit dif­fer­ent ecosys­tems, for har­vest­ing ev­ery drop of wa­ter. Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­ca­va­tions near Al­la­habad have found ev­i­dence of early In­dian hy­draulic en­gi­neer­ing. Dat­ing back to the end of 1st cen­tury BC, the Sringav­er­a­pura tank is a re­mark­able sys­tem to take the flood­wa­ter of Ganga into a set of de­silt­ing cham­bers, in­clud­ing wa­ter weirs, to clean the wa­ter for drink­ing.It can be a mat­ter of be­lief that Lord Ram drank wa­ter from this tank. But it is a fact that the tech­no­log­i­cal sys­tem is so evolved that it would put to shame all public works en­gi­neers of to­day’s In­dia.

Dholavira, a set­tle­ment off the coast of Gu­jarat, dates back to the In­dus Val­ley civ­i­liza­tion. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists have found this desert city had built lakes to col­lect mon­soon runoff, bunds and in­let chan­nels to di­vert wa­ter, and in­tri­cate drainage sys­tem for storm wa­ter,drink- ing wa­ter and waste. To­day, we can­not even build city roads that do not get flooded each mon­soon, or pro­tect lakes for stor­ing rain­wa­ter.

Till the time the Bri­tish came to In­dia, the wa­ter tra­di­tions were in vogue. Bri­tish gazettes speak of th­ese sys­tems, at times with awe, call­ing us a hy­draulic so­ci­ety. Sir Wil­liam Wil­locks, a Bri­tish ir­ri­ga­tion en­gi­neer, who was called in 1920 to ad­vise the ad­min­is­tra­tion on how to han­dle famines, said the best an­swer was to go back to the in­ge­nious sys­tem of flood man­age­ment of Ben­gal. This was never done, of course. An­cient In­di­ans also un­der­stood the art of wa­ter gov­er­nance. Kau­tilya’s Arthasas­tra, writ­ten around 300 BC, has de­tails of how tanks and canals are to be built and man­aged.The key was to clar­ify the en­abling role of the state—the king—and the man­age­ment role of lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.The kings did not have armies of public works en­gi­neers; they pro­vided fis­cal in­cen­tives to com­mu­ni­ties and in­di­vid­u­als who built wa­ter sys­tems. The Bri­tish changed all this, by vest­ing the re­source with the state and cre­at­ing large bu­reau­cra­cies for man­age­ment.

The Bri­tish rulers also changed the tax sys­tem; col­lec­tion of rev­enue be­came para­mount, even dur­ing droughts. There was lit­tle then to in­vest in com­mu­nity as­sets.The decline came quickly and was ce­mented by po­lices of in­de­pen­dent In­dia. This is the his­tory of re­source man­age­ment we need to learn.

But if we must be proud of our wa­ter her­itage and re­learn its art and science,then we must also re­ject its ills—the fo­cus on rit­u­als and the evils of the caste sys­tem.We are such a dirty na­tion to­day—look at the un­treated sewage in our rivers and garbage on our streets— be­cause we come from a so­ci­ety where waste is an “un­touch­able” busi­ness.As long as we can live with the idea of man­ual scav­eng­ing— some­body from a “lower”caste will carry our exc­reta away—we will never get a clean In­dia.

If we must glo­rify the past,we must be proud of our present.This is what we need to learn.Quickly.

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