As India launched the Mangalayaan project recently, it joined an elite group of nations in the world overtaking even Japan and China. Naysayers have castigated the R450 crore-project as a pathetic attempt by the country to be counted as an emerging superpower. They say that India should focus more on immediate issues dealing with mosquito borne diseases and alleviate poverty of millions of Indians.
India does have millions below the poverty line and does suffer from serious shortage of essential services. However, this does not mean that we cannot make scientific progress until we solve the myriad of social issues. When you take into account that Mumbai alone spends over R1,000 crore on crackers every year, these arguments seem pessimistic, self-defeatist, and parochial. While the Mangalyaan project will propel our understanding of our universe, it will also increase our institutional learning of fundamental mathematics, chemistry, and physics, it will enhance our application of mechanics, metallurgy, engineering, and countless other applications.
India has never had difficulty in figuring out high technology. Years of scientific isolation from Cold War politics or sanctions against nuclear tests have kept the country starved for technology and her scientists always found a way out. The challenge is more in the translation of said high technology into products that are relevant to local and ubiquitous use. While some have seen its way down, the large quantum of invention has never been translated into innovations. Part of the challenge is the tyranny of numbers.
India has 400 million people below the poverty line and another 600 million in the lower middle class and aspirant poor. Such a large number spread across different states each with a different language, tradition, and practice does seem daunting. How can we address the aspirations of a billion people with varying set of capabilities and abilities? The standard refrain from successive regimes is to deliver a one-size-fits-all solution. Thus, we try to teach a child from a remote area complex biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics and try to equate that child with one in an urban set up. This is not to say that the