Recalling PCR

Science for the People

Rabin Majumdar

It is strangely true that there is no institute or centre of research to follow up the issues initiated and pursued by Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy (PCR). A host of things have been named after him—schools, colleges, polytechnics, co-operatives, libraries, museums, auditoria, roads, bazars, colonies etc. but not a single research establishment to delve into what he engaged himself in. On the other hand quite a number of research institutes have come up in India that are named after great personalities recognized as scientists during pre- and post-independence years. One can recall the names of Basu Bigyan Mandir (J C Bose), Raman Research Institute (C V Raman), Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (MN Saha), Bhava Atomic Research Centre (Homi J Bhava), S N Bose National Institute of Basic Sciences and others. The history of their emergence and development are not the same, but, it is generally true that except Basu Bigyan Mandir, they could be established with generous help of governments (both Central and State); they also flourished as the governments wanted them to follow and explore the fields of activities of the scientists bearing their names.

Not only Prafulla Chandra Roy (PCR), there are others who made phenomenal scientific contributions but whose names have passed into oblivion; there is hardly any legacy of their tremendous service to the benefit of Indian population. The names of Upendranath Brahmachari, Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi and Sambhu Nath De may be cited as examples of scientists of this category. Brahmachari discovered and established urea stibamine as an effective antidote to Kala-Azar, synthesized and marketed it. His name was proposed for Nobel award, but Brahmachari Research Institute established by him died prematurely. Kosambi, a world-famous mathematician and statistician braved new interpretation of Indian history and paved novel ways to study important aspects of public health. Sambhu Nath De designed simple and novel experiments to discover the nature of the long elusive toxin so deadly in patients infected by Vibrio choleri suffered mostly by the poor in the tropics. His discovery provided the fundamental understanding of the causes of dehydration in cholera and indirectly helped in the acceptance of as simple a life-saving remedy as Oral Rehydration Therapy (OPT) for cholera (and other diarrhoeal dehydrations) saving millions of lives in the third world countries through mass-ORT programs administered by WHO. De was nominated for Nobel Prize more than once but he died (1985) almost unknown in India. He was not even a recipient of any National award and was never elected to the membership of any Academy. All three of these scientists worked over a short span of time in the 1950’s and 1960’s and their important researches were carried out in India. All the three named scientists share, in some way or other, the scientific spirit and vision of Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy, namely, use their knowledge and expertise in the service of the less-fortunate countrymen. All of them received undifferentiated treatment in free India.

Back to the issue—there is no place to follow up the researches of PCR, why? Wasn't he a scientist of adequate stature? Weren't the researches pursued by him of any relevance to independent India?

As a scientist and researcher PCR treaded mainly three areas: i) education and research in science, particularly in Chemistry ii) explorations into history of Chemistry in ancient and medieval India and iii) technology development and organization of industry. Whatever he did was with a spirit of nationalism. He devoted himself to the huge, complex and difficult task of adopting Western Science to suit the Indian society to cater to the needs of social and economic progress of India. And to those ends each of his areas was complementary to the other.

PCR did not invent any theory, formula, equation, instrument or method that still survives, that still is included in any curriculum or syllabus. Some of his followers even ventured to project him as a scientist making great inventions, without context and they made a mess of it. But the same PCR is a pioneer in the exposition of interactions and interrelations of Science and Society. And, in today's context, it is clear that he also pioneered the study of the connections between Science, Society and Environment. It was here that he was unique, original and great.

The study of environment and ecology was in its infancy at the time of PCR. But there has been explosive growth in this area during the last 60-70 years. And new lights have been thrown on many old ideas. A new PCR can be recognized in that light. Essentially, PCR's activities engulfed Indian heritage, culture, nature and environment. All his works bore these connections but it was most profoundly reflected in his endeavours leading to the emergence of Bengal Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works (BCPW). It was an astoundingly grand experimental research leading to the establishment and development of BCPW. BCPW was not merely a Swadeshi venture, as is often depicted, in every sense it was a fine example of a multipurpose heavy chemical industry -green and sustainable -in the typical environmental milieu of this country. But in India Sir Jamshedji Tata is much discussed and hailed as the pioneer of national industrial endeavour, PCR and his BCPW remain unnoticed or even denigrated.

Combatting hundreds of hurdles in colonial India PCR, JC Bose et al developed infrastructures and a culture for scientific researches in India to a height that stood almost at par with those in the West and paved the way to the emergence of a band of bright scientists, the legacy of this grand phenomenon sustained till one or two decades after independence.

In free India the unique scientific spirit of PCR that engulfed human, society and environment, got first neglected and gradually abandoned. They even became matter of ridicule as soft science. Free India soon became bent upon Hard Science, Big Science. The old universities that were once cradle of science in this country, starved of funds and encouragement and became dry in creativity. Science in India is almost totally a State-endeavour, fully supported by the State, the corporates are the advisors and almost the only beneficiaries. The State guides national science endeavour to look to the West and to serve corporates. Even the newly organized National Laboratories set up primarily to cater to immediate technological needs of the society, quickly changed stance and followed suit. The issues that bother the common Indians were gradually pushed to the back. In the beginning this change was hesitant but slowly it became bolder and bolder and now it is taken for granted, there is no need for any pretention. Everybody pursues the frontiers.

There appears to reign an all-round degradation in pursuits of Science in India. At the same time there appears to be a paradoxical contradiction—a section of scientists in developed countries who were born and educated in India are doing excellent science abroad, especially in the advanced countries in the West. Even in super-duper mega events of Human genome Project and God Particle Project Indian scientists are successful participants. But the same Indian scientists while working in India are flops. They are least interested in taking up small issues and finding remedies to the local problems/crises like arsenic-fluoride in drinking water, pesticide residues in foods, beverages and vegetables; the state is also more interested, even keen, on importing solutions. The day may not be far off when, faced with endemic spread of diseases India would send samples to foreign laboratories for analysis and the governments would patronize mass-worship of Indian deities whose wrath, as believed popularly, cause the diseases.

So, it is no wonder that no research centre or institute has come up in India to inculcate the ideas initiated and demonstrated by PCR. Even efforts to introduce study-courses in History of Science at Calcutta and Jadavpur Universities have so far been unsuccessful.

Mere establishment of such a Centre or institute would hardly make any difference, it may be argued. Quite true. But one could at least try to assess how much of politics, how much of economic policies and how much of elite’s greed and dishonesty are responsible for the plight people are in. Reality is not determined by some personal opinion or explanation, it needs systematic and institutional fact-finding and research. How PCR and his fellow teachers could kindle young minds to successfully pursue science and research? Why today, in spite of large inputs and not-so-bad amenities, interest in research is fast dwindling? These and similar questions remain-to be searched into, it is useless to rely upon someone's intuition. Today India is in severe danger of robbery and piracy of environmental and genetic materials. The unavoidable thought is that countries like India that are underdeveloped but are endowed with rich environmental and genetic resources might be rightly rewarded by researches correlating science, society and environment as demonstrated by PCR.

Such a centre for research cannot be created overnight, not even by any official decree. Official encouragement and support, under the given situation, also appear remote. But people may come forward and initiate such an endeavour irrespective of the official intentions. This was demonstrated by Dr Mahendralal Sarkar about 150 years ago, through the establishment of Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science with contributions from the people.

The notion that there is no place of nationalism or regionalism in science—is not supported by history of science. To the contrary, of late, there are strong indications suggesting that the Earth as the abode of man can only survive if its environment and biodiversity are preserved,  if human races with all their cultural and linguistic diversities survive. Irrespective of whether the governments encourage or not can concerned people not develop a modern centre for study and researches into science, society and environment emulating the life and works of Acharya PCR?

Vol. 47, No. 37, Mar 22 - 28, 2015