In India, we believe in reincarnation. So it seems that the nuclear deal has found new life again after being throttled to death. This deal was supposed to be a triumph of Indian diplomacy and of lobbying by the Non-Resident Indian community. It would mean the symbolic acceptance of India as a member of the Nuclear Powers club – a rather parochial institution.

The deal assures that the US provides India nuclear fuel and allow for similar supplies from other nuclear suppliers to further India’s civilian nuclear program as long as IAEA safeguards are respected by India. Ok, all this is known. We also know how this has been opposed by Leftists in India, who threatened to bring down the UPA government and almost scuttled the deal. Now, perhaps due to the public fury generated by the Nandigram incidents, the Left has given its green signal to the deal albeit with silly caveats.

India’s Department of Atomic Energy is now negotiating with the IAEA for India-specific safeguards. Now the Left wants that post the negotiations, a report on the the list of IAEA safeguards agreed upon by India be submitted to a parliamentary committee led by them after which they will give the green signal. Since when have members of our polity become experts on nuclear security? Exactly what is accomplished by this roadblock except face-saving for the Left.

I recently spoke to a key US negotiator for the 123 agreement and I found him a worried man. Will the deal go ahead, he asked me given the political pressures in India? After all, he had spent months cobbling the agreement together along with India’s top diplomats such as Indian ambassador to US, Ronen Sen and Indian ambassador to Singapore, S.Jaishankar apart from officials of the US’ AEC and India’s Department of Atomic Energy. I told the Negotiator that the deal will go ahead, all the while hoping the Indian political system proves me right.

(Indian) Man on the Moon

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) recently held a meeting of major Indian scientists in Bangalore to discuss the feasibility and economics of sending an Indian astronaut into space and then later landing him/her on the moon. This has given rise to the usual arguments both in favor of and against such a venture. There are those who argue that India, with her many social and economic problems, should not waste money on something that has already been done before and will yield nothing new. That instead, the money should be used to help the poor and the downtrodden. Simply put, India should not dare to dream that big and be constantly aware of her limits.

I firmly disagree. I think India should seriously plan on putting a man into space and then later on the moon. Yes, it will be expensive. However, what no one realizes is how much of a kick start it will give to the science and technology fields in India and ultimately benefit society. The space race between the erstwhile U.S.S.R. and the U.S. in the 1950s and 60s led to the development of many new technologies that later found widespread applications in many different areas, ranging from health to housing.

Now, a Ban on Orkut?

A petition has been filed in the Bombay High Court for banning the social networking site, Orkut, which is owned by Google, according to this report. Apparently, the petitioner, a certain Subodh Balsaraf of Thane, found that ‘Orkut’ used “slang, rude and vulgar language” about the Maratha king Shivaji. Disturbingly, Orkut has already been banned in Pune by the police after the occurrence of a few violent incidents there.

I’m surprised. Does Mr. Balsaraf or for the matter the police even know how Orkut works? Orkut by itself does not post any inflammatory remarks. It is some people who are bent on stirring things up that start these ‘hate’ communities. I even know of a few ‘Hate India’ communities started by some Pakistanis on Orkut.

There is a feature on Orkut to report about such communities to the people who run Orkut. Apparently, if enough complaints are received, steps are taken to remove that community. Now, I’m not very sure how effective this report back feature is but if you have a problem about certain people posting defamatory remarks about your idol you should first write to the people who run the site. Banning the complete site won’t help. It will only cause inconvenience to thousands of others. Orkut is actually very popular among Indians and is used by many, including myself, to keep in touch with friends and people sharing similar interests from around the world.

Doing Business With Bush

India is rapidly growing and needs loads of energy soon to fuel that growth. We cannot (and should not) depend on the unstable Middle-East for our oil, not just because they are repressive and thus unstable regimes but also because of the spiraling cost and long-term environmental problems. Wind, solar and tidal energies are still at a nascent stage and need more time before they can be widespread. And there is stiff resistance in India to large scale hydro electric plants. So the only reliable alternative left is nuclear power. The Indian nuclear establishment for all its talent of working under adverse conditions is still using unstable cold-war era technologies. Added to this is the fact that India has very low reserves of Uranium. We do have huge reserves of Thorium but lack the technology to use it as a nuclear fuel as of yet. So we urgently need access to safe and reliable nuclear technologies and fuel. And who controls this? The US (and other Western powers) of course. So if not today tomorrow we would need this deal. And that I think is the raison d’etre for this agreement. Remember, this deal was asked for by the Indians and not the Americans.

Now with this little setting of context out of the way let us come to Mr. Bush. I do not like him and I think he is perhaps the worst US president in history. He is a war mongerer and I seriously think he is in the pocket of big business. But I do give him certain credit. He has had the courage to change decades of anti-India policies by the US. I know he is not doing this out of love for India, he is doing it from a purely strategic and business point of view but he did something which even Clinton was not willing to do.

So it is a purely pragmatic decision on India’s part to deal with him. When we can directly deal with war mongerers and repressive dictators like Musharraf of Pakistan and Wen Jiabao of China what is wrong in dealing with Bush? Musharraf is even worse than Bush I think. He was directly responsible for the killing of hundreds of Indian soldiers during the Kargil episode and indirectly responsible for the thousands of deaths due to terrorism in Kashmir and beyond. For god’s sake, he blatantly ignores terrorists acting from his own soil! And I doubt if even you will support a totalitarian state like China and the immense human rights abuses it’s ruling government has been party to. So why didn’t anyone (apart from perhaps the far right parties) protest their visit to India? Why didn’t the Left come out in full force and protest the Chinese leadership’s visit sometime back or Musharraf’s continuing support for terrorism? Do you really believe that the Indian left cares for the issues on hand? They are making such a noise only because they have elections coming up in key states where they hold power or have influence. So I don’t see anything really wrong in India doing business with Bush.

Finally, that brings us to the question, what is it that the Indian left wants? Do they even have a vision for India’s future or does it change every time they taste power? Do they want to turn India into a totalitarian communist regime like China? I mean these were the very people who apparently opposed nuclear weapons of any kind when India embarked on a such a program first. Now, it is hilarious to see them getting concerned for the military nuclear program!

Even though my politics lie left of center I’ve never been in favor of the Indian Left parties. They have never done anything that has benefited the poor and have only bothered themselves about staying in power as long as possible.

Let not the above words give you the impression that I support nuclear weapons. Far from it, I wish they had never been invented in the first place. But they exist and will continue to do so. I was disappointed to see India soften its long held stand for the complete eradication of nuclear weapons in the world. However, that is a also a shift based on current reality. India is surrounded by hostile and unstable regimes. From Pakistan to Burma, from China to Bangladesh, we have neighbors who refuse to see reason and are willing to continue on the path of violence and/or brutal suppression of human rights. So we do need a credible deterrent, something that will make them think twice before threatening our national and territorial integrity. In spite of this obvious security fear, India is perhaps the only nuclear power in the world who has imposed on herself a no first-strike policy. Did any of the other other nuclear powers follow India’s example? The answer is a resounding no. And this is where India’s need for nuclear weapons comes from.

(A post that was in response to Tushar’s argument that Bush is a war criminal and therefore it was an insult for him to offer respects at Mahatma Gandhi’s samadhi and that India should not do business with him.)

Indian Life Sciences

In its latest issue, the science journal Nature has produced a special Outlook section on the current state of science, and in particular life science research in India. The articles are uniformly well-written and objective with very little of the usual condescension shown by Western scientific establishments towards Indian science. Together, they give us an insight into how research is done in India and the many problems plaguing it. From a scientific culture which frowns upon independent thinking and instead rewards conformity and obedience to the lack of accountability and appropriate funding, from the lack of proper regulatory frameworks for critical areas like stem cell research and human clinical trials to the heart-warming stories of a handful of research institutes leading the way in life sciences the issues are many.

To name a few; India is still way behind in research spending as a percentage of GDP even when compared to other developing countries like China, Brazil or South Korea. Ayurveda is another crucial area where India is sitting on a goldmine of traditional medicine that could be a potential source for new drugs if only the traditional knowledge is subjected to rigorous scientific analysis. The education system also needs to be upgraded and revamped. The present emphasis on only the theoretical aspects of science should be changed and equal emphasis needs to be placed on the experimental aspects, which are what makes a good scientist in the long run. This is one crucial area, I feel, where science graduates from India in general are behind their Western counterparts. I am a product of the Indian scientific education and have experienced first-hand the deficiencies of the existing system. Most of the crucial experiments in Genetics and Molecular Biology were either demonstrated to us or worse only described. We rarely had hands-on experience over techniques which would be considered standard laboratory work elsewhere and this was in a central university where the standard is much much higher compared to state universities!

But do not despair yet. Things are slowly but surely moving ahead in the right direction. The success of independent research institutes like National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, National Centre for Cell Science, Pune and few others is reason enough to hope for more change. Scientists from these institutes regularly publish in high-impact, peer-reviewed international journals and their numbers are steadily increasing from year to year. Start-up biotech companies like Biocon, Avesthagen and established pharma companies like Dr. Reddy’s, and Ranbaxy are also growing in strength and stature. All that India needs now is good support and direction from the government in terms of funding, less bureaucratic hurdles, and last but not the least, for a critical mass of life-scientists to develop to give research the right push. This could usher in the next revolution, for after IT it might just be the turn of BT!