Indian S&T Minister Prithviraj Chavan: Transforming India through Education, S&T

India is pursuing dramatic, long-term investments in science education in order to combat poverty and illiteracy and support the nation’s transformation into a global center of innovation, said Minister of State for Science and Technology Prithviraj Chavan.

Speaking at AAAS, Chavan outlined India’s remarkably ambitious investment strategy: Government spending on education will increase nine-fold in the current five-year plan, which ends in 2014. The nation plans to build and open 700 new colleges and universities. It is serving millions of hot meals to students in impoverished areas in an effort to stem high dropout rates. And it is pursuing ambitious programs to identify young scientists at an early age and provide them incentives to pursue careers in science.

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Prithviraj Chavan

Under the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, “we are completely focused on transforming India through education, through science and technology, through innovation, and creating a knowledge economy,” Chavan said.

With China, India in the past decade has emerged as a transformational world economic power, with growth and development that few would have imagined a generation ago—and it still has enormous upside. In a 2 June talk, Chavan framed India’s effort as one that would improve the welfare of its 1.1 billion people while working with other nations to address global grand challenges such as energy and public health.

Alan I. Leshner, the AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of Science, introduced Chavan and moderated a question-and-answer session after the talk. The event was organized by the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy together with the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum (which features Norman P. Neureiter, the center’s senior adviser, as the U.S. co-chair).

Chavan is a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India’s Parliament; in addition to his portfolio as minister of state for the ministries of science & technology and earth sciences, he also holds the important assignment as the minister of state in the Prime Minister’s office.He received his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering in India, and a master’s degree in engineering from the University of California at Berkeley.

The Partnership Between Government and Business

In Chavan’s view, India’s growth is the result of a decades-long historical process, and more recently, a conscious effort to liberalize the economy and develop its own human resources.

After getting independence from Great Britain in 1947, more than 80% of India’s population was illiterate. The fledgling state played a central role in the economy, Chavan said, owning and controlling infrastructure and transportation, social services, education, and health. That allowed India to lay the foundation of a modern state, he explained, but as the years passed, it limited economic growth.

In 1991, India made a series of decisions to liberalize the economy. A primary motivation, he said, was to avoid the risk economic collapse that was evident then in other closed economies.

Since then, the economy has soared, especially since 2004, Chavan said, when a coalition government led by the Indian National Congress party took office. Growth in Indian’s gross domestic product was running at an annual rate of over 8.5% until the global economic crisis; growth dipped to 6.5%, but rebounded this year to 8.5%. And the government expects the rate to hit 9%. Meanwhile the rate of illiteracy has fallen to about 25%.

Still, Chavan said India must continue its transformation to address significant challenges.

The economy is “no longer centrally controlled—no longer dependent on government for creating jobs or aiding backward areas,” he said. “We have moved away from that model…. But even today, there are more jobs in the government sector than there are in the organized private sector.”

Currently, only less than a quarter of India’s annual research and development spending comes from the private sector. Through tax breaks and other measures, the government hopes to double that rate in the next five years.

Education: The Foundation for Prosperity

But the government has a crucial role in supporting that transformation, especially in education, Chavan said. While Indian education has drawn a high proportion of students to engineering, the government has set the expansion of science education as a priority.

“The entire field of higher education, and primary and secondary education, is undergoing a tremendous transformation, with a special focus on science,” he said. He characterized current government investment in education as “phenomenal.”

  • Over a 50-year period, the government helped create eight Indian Institutes of Technology. In recent years, eight more have been opened.
  • Over the course of a century, India had one research university devoted to science, the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. Since 2006, the government has opened five new Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research.
  • India currently has about 500 universities, but plans to open another 700.

Along with their ambitious bricks-and-mortar expansion, India needs to focus on building human resources for science.

A novel scholarship program called Innovation of Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE) is working village-by-village to identify students who show an aptitude for research, invention, and innovation. With scholarships totaling $1 billion over the next decade, India hopes to support potential scientists from the age of 14 or 15 and continuing through graduate school. The goal: 10,000 new Ph.D scientists every year.

Chavan acknowledged that poverty poses continuing challenges in this effort.

“We still have a problem of extremely poor areas,” he told the AAAS audience. “We still have a problem of extremely backward regions where the fruits of modern education have not reached at all. And though we build schools, the percentage of students who remain through high school stage is very low. There’s a huge dropout issue.”

To combat the dropout rate, and to identify potential scientists among the nation’s poorest families, India is providing 120 million cooked meals every day in its schools. Chavan characterized it as the biggest effort of its kind in the world.

At the same time, India is attempting to attract Indian scientists back from the United States and other nations to work in laboratories and centers of excellence. That effort is having “a huge response,” Chavan said.

But in answering a question from Leshner, Chavan said that developing a corps of science teachers to support the science education campaign is “a big problem.”

“We have put in place special programs that find good scientists and convert them to be good teachers,” he explained. “But let me admit it frankly: It’s a very great challenge. In the short run, there will be a problem.”

Grand Challenges: Energy, Food, and Water

Chavan characterized all of the government’s science education initiatives as necessary to support India’s ability to address long-term grand challenges.

He identified grand challenges in three areas: energy security, food security, and water. These are closely interrelated with challenges posed by climate change, health, and terrorism.

“There are many other challenges, but broadly these are the ones that that would be tackled primarily through science, technology, and innovation,” he said. “We are putting in place systems which will address these grand challenges, and that is where were are seeking international collaboration to work together so that not only will we work together for mutual benefit with our international partners, but so that together we can find solutions for our common problems.”

The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has established a national action plan for climate change, with an array of science and technology missions.

For example, he said, the government is seeking “a whole new paradigm” in energy. It has a two-pronged approach for developing alternative energy: It is providing subsidies for home owners and businesses to use solar and other alternative energy sources. At the same time, it has a massive R&D agenda focused on energy, ranging from new materials for batteries and photovoltaic cells to advanced transit systems.

The government also is working to understand and protect fragile Himalayan ecosystems, including the glaciers that provide the nation’s water, and re-doubling efforts to clean the nation’s rivers.

Such efforts have already produced close engagement with U.S. agencies such as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and offers opportunities for vastly expanded cooperation.

Chavan expressed regret that much concern in the United States was focused on U.S. firms’ outsourcing of work to India and other nations. Many studies have shown that U.S. and multinational firms that take advantage of India’s labor are making themselves more competitive in the global market, and perhaps preserving jobs at home.

Instead, he said, the focus should shift to the mutual advantages of cooperation.

The United States and India have much in common, he explained, and that creates a strong foundation for joint efforts. Both are large democracies, both share English as a common language, and both have large markets with strong education systems and well-trained workforces.

In Chavan’s view, that helps explain why over 750 multinational corporations have set up R&D centers in India, with a focus on integrated chip design, circuit design, and other areas of information technology. This makes India a center of technology innovation second only to Silicon Valley—and India may already have more chip designers than the United States, he said.

“I really am grateful for the friends of India, who have placed great faith in our relationship,” Chavan concluded. “Together, we can make a difference not just to our people, but the entire human race, as we face these grand challenges.”

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