As a child, I had a problem. I used to question a lot. There were many doubts in my mind and my favourite question would be – “Why?”. While this annoyed people around, it was an involuntary thirst for an answer to my natural curiosities. But I know I wasn’t the only child with this problem. Curiosity is a basic human trait. It’s the basis of evolution. Inventions and discoveries are primarily rooted in man’s quest to find answers to pressing questions.
This curiosity is sourced from rationality. Logic, reason and inquisitiveness is what leads us to be rational. Questioning the status quo, backing our thoughts with credible evidence and “factfulness” are some manifestations of what we often call – ‘Scientific Temper’. Jawaharlal Nehru is credited with the coinage of this term and he emphasized that it is the temper of a “free man”.
But as a conscientious citizen of this country and a public policy enthusiast, I am disturbed. I fear, there is an erosion of the scientific temperament in our masses. While this trend is a global one in the “post-truth” era, it is bound to have a disproportionate impact on our society and the smooth functioning of the State. This is because, while we are over-populated and under-resourced, we are also a pluralistic society where differences often become fissures. When reason gets clouded by belief, anarchial belligerence will always thwart progress. This is where we lose the public in Republic.
On the demand side of governance
Governance is the art of marrying goals of public good with tangible outcomes. While the State is a supplier of resources, the people create demand. And it’s not a creaseless relationship between the two. Major objectives of public policy in India often get derailed due to the absolute lack of rationality and scientific temper on the ‘demand’ side of policy.
Managing the pandemic required effective policies for containment and a well-reasoned public information campaign. Notwithstanding some deficiencies in the course of action from the State, the reception from a large section of the public was irrational and full of unsubstantiated facts. Many felt that granite baths would evade the “evil” of COVID-19 and others consumed alcohol in the belief that it’ll sanitise their bodies.
India’s COVID-19 vaccination program also felt quakes of rumour-mongering and unscientific biases. While some felt that Ayurvedic drugs could be a clear substitute for the vaccine, other’s believed false notions regarding it’s side-effects. What is disturbing is that many of my young friends and family members who form the glorious minority of the “educated class” fell prey to such misinformation.
Policy with obscurantism will be obscure
Major policy reforms are also a victim of obscurantism and irrationality. Take the introduction of GM crops in our agricultural landscape for example. There have been multiple expert committees that have declared them safe for production and in fact, many of the edible oils that we import from the US are produced from seeds grown using biotechnological interventions. These crops auger well for pest resistance, drought proofing and climate smart agriculture and will help us double farmer’s income quickly. However, a large “desi” lobby has been misguiding the narratives around these crops. Where science should speak, rumours are screaming.
Initiatives taken to empower our women are often rendered ineffective owing to prejudice and bigotry in our patriarchal society. For example, despite a brilliant public communication effort for raising awareness about menstrual hygiene, there are many pockets in India that have no access to sanitary pads. The idea that women, who are referred to as “Grehlakshmi”, should be dignified by not going out to openly defecate took a herculean campaign called the “Swachha Bharat Abhiyaan” to be enforced. Even today, many cases of toilets being non-functional are common. The reason often cited by people is that toilets “pollute” their courtyard.
The government launched the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan to catalyse India’s efforts to eradicate Manual Scavenging. This was done as a behavioral change campaign to complement the efforts taken through the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. However, we have tasted limited success with over 15 lakh manual scavengers existing in India according to 2019 data from the Rehabilitation Research Initiative. This a matter of ignominy for us as a society. This sluggish pace of societal reform is a direct result of degraded scientific temperament. That 21st century India has to battle the idea of untouchability and rigid segmentation of labour based on caste is reprehensible.
Education is something that imparts this scientific temper. It cultivates the faculties of reasoning and logic. However, this noble instrument is often rusted with dirt of unreason. Recent cases of “caste bands” in a school in Tamil Nadu is testimony to this fact. Across India, many teachers at the elementary level still believe that girls should be imparted Home Science education and not STEM because their intellectual level is beneath that of men. In an India in which a team of women launched historic space missions, this dichotomy is despicable.
Premiums on questions
When society puts a premium on questioning the status quo, there is a guarantee for progression in mindsets and beliefs. This must begin at home. Parents must allow their child ample space to question them on any matter. There needs to be enough room for doubt to flourish. Same needs to happen in education. National Education Policy, 2020 talks about activity based learning and pedagogical changes that incentivize curiosity. A critical aspect here is to ramp up teacher training and sensitization so that they are open to questions from pupils and they don’t reprimand the natural inquisitiveness. Along with these, schemes like JIGYASA (CSIR) and Atal tinkering labs need to be scaled up, especially in vernacular habitations.
Leaders for scientific temper
The role of community and political leaders and religious organisations is of paramount importance. Since public ignorance and prejudice can be a prime breeding ground for propaganda and manipulation, power hungry entities will always use these to their advantage. A sense of self-accountability must prevail with logic and reason at the base of all discourse.
In an intriguing dialogue between Mahatma Gandhi and Sir CV Raman, Raman observed- “Mahatmaji, religions cannot unite. Science offers the best opportunity for a complete fellowship. All men of science are brothers”. Gandhi jokingly asked, “What about the converse? All who are not men of science are not brothers?”. Raman remarked with his famous scientific smirk, “But all can become men of science”.
I also recall a scene from the movie Swades where a member of the gram panchayat said that India has something that no other nation in the world can ever have – “Sanskaar and Parampara” (Values and tradition). Somewhere in this commonly expounded mindset lies a ruse – one that seeks to mask the glaring prejudices and spurious prepossessions.
As we approach our 75th year of independence, in the spirit of what Pt. Nehru said, “I would like every Indian to have the temper of a “free man” – free from prejudices, free from dogmas and free from obscurantism.”
Read more: Climate Change Policy Regime in India
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.