The 8th India International Science Festival was held in Bhopal from January 21 to 24. Photo: Yogita Suresh
I first heard about the India International Science Festival (IISF) through an email chain consisting of other scholars who are primarily interested in Science and Technology Studies. The festival seemed promising to my own research, which looks at the state of science and technology in India, so I decided to go to Bhopal to attend the event held at Maulana Azad National Institute of Technology (MANIT) from January 21 to 24. The IISF is an initiative by the of Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Earth Science of the Government of India.
This year concludes the 8th year of IISF with the grand theme, “Marching Towards Amrit Kaal with Science, Technology and Innovation”. The festival advertised 15 events with ambitious titles spread out over four days. I attended seven of those events until I had seen enough. The current government’s strategy to “Indianise” science was starkly visible at the event. This narrative has led to the controversial legitimation of disciplines and facts that have been argued to be incorrect and pseudo-scientific, to the extent that it has interfered with actual scientific reasoning and discoveries.
Typically, a science festival is organised to communicate scientific theories/facts to the common population, build scientific interest and temperament, exchange ideas between scientists and non-scientists, experiment with radical ideas or unusual scientific applications and assess the needs of contemporary society while connecting techno-scientific advancements with them. Festivals of this scale are expected to present possibilities to the general population that suggests betterment and improvement of daily life. This is especially crucial in a country like India which has one of the highest income disparity in the world, leaving millions to struggle for everyday resources.
The display at the festival reflected the state of science in our country – disappointing, market-oriented, and non-utilitarian. The event, “Artisans Technology Village – Vocal for Local” was nothing but a replication of a flea market where artists – most of whom were from cities like Delhi and Jaipur – were selling their products under the pretext of being local artisans. The products consisted of paintings by urban artists who also had Instagram business accounts, weavers who sold their products in large handlooms in urban cities, randomised object sellers like keychains, bookmarks etc., expensive cotton kurtas that one can usually find in boutiques around cities in the country, among other things.
The event had failed to furnish a comprehensive justification for how this could possibly be considered relevant to an International Science Festival. It vaguely mentioned how artisans create their objects with the use of technology, but it appeared tangential and insignificant to the products being sold.
The major failure to connect this event to science in anyway echoes the suggestions of the UGC report on social responsibility and community engagement in Higher Educational Institutes (HEIs). The report states that there must be compulsory courses in science education which focus on developing an “appreciation” for rural culture as local knowledge produces value systems. This is a popular narrative that has also been echoed in the NEP 2020 as well as other documents of the current government. By exoticising rural culture and proposing an NGO-ised approach to scientific knowledge, the regime is not only selling science in spaces that should be reserved for genuine research and experimentation like the IISF, but also shielding young researchers from ground socio-political realities.
The tag “Vocal for Local” generated by the government grossly misrepresents the ground reality of struggling rural artisans and interprets their means of survival due to lack of resources as an effort towards social good. The Students’ Science Village was another event that similarly attempted to reach out to the rural masses to understand their problems and think of scientific solutions for the same, but ignored ground realities.
The Students’ Innovation Festival was slightly more appealing as it directly dealt with Science and Technology. Themes relating to agriculture, women’s safety, sustainability, and drones dominated the exhibition. The theme for the event focused on the five elements of nature as per ancient Indian thought – Air, Water, Earth, Space and Fire. The event was not underwhelming because of the lack of passion and effort by the students but because of their inability to relate their innovations to the real world. Most of the students also mentioned how their innovations will be profitable in the market, while being rather ambiguous about their social function and democratic usefulness. This also reflects the state of science education in the country – separating scientific thought from social significance.
The event “Science Through Games and Fun” was yet another shockingly commercial space where participants were selling products that enabled children to learn scientific facts in an entertaining manner. The most scientific engagement that I encountered at this event was a participant who guessed my birth date through a number chart. There was a desperate search for the operative word “science” at yet another event at the festival. For instance, one stall displayed an impressive replica of the Shimla Railway Station behind a scene of the Ramayana displayed through toys. The repetitive question one keeps asking here is where is the science? The current regime’s intermingling of religion and science was displaced with pride and grandeur while researchers and students of science lurked around with disappointment.
As I left the building, I met a professor from a medical public university in Bhopal. She seemed quite discontent with the festival. She told me that they took the day off and came here with the students so that they “could learn something that we don’t teach in the classroom”, but the festival was far from a learning experience. She asked me, rather rhetorically, “Did you find it worth coming all the way from Delhi?”
The festival was proof that we are in a period of Indian scientific history when there is large-scale commercialisation and a disconnect with the economic, political, and social realities. Science has become a tool used by those who govern us to transform the meaning of knowledge and its production. It blurs the struggles and aspirations of a democratic and liberatory science and most importantly, dilutes radical scientific thought in university spaces. The question remains: where is the science?
Yogita Suresh is a PhD scholar interested in topics surrounding science and technology.