Shortly after his landslide victory in 2014 Prime Minister Narendra Modi startled India’s scientific community by mentioning the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh as evidence that ancient Indians had knowledge of plastic surgery. Then this yeara junior minister of human resource development mocked Darwin’s theory of evolution, saying no one had ever witnessed apes turning into people. And last month India’s Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan made apparently unsubstantiated claims that Stephen Hawking had suggested the Vedas, India’s ancient Hindu scriptures, might offer a theory superior to Albert Einstein’s E = mc2.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has often been accused of facilitating Hindu religious beliefs under the guise of promoting science. The party has also been associated with a right-wing group called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—an alliance some commentators have equated with the one falling between the U.S. Republican and Tea parties. None of the three ministers had responded to requests for comments on their stances by the time of publication.
Alarmed by this rhetoric and what many see as a lack of regard for science at the highest levels, scientists, educators, students and supporters took to streets Saturday in about 50 cities across India to mark the international March for Science. The effort was mobilized by the Breakthrough Science Society (BSS), a nongovernmental organization dedicated to defending scientific ideas “against the concerted attempt made by the government to propagate anti-science views, and poor funding for scientific endeavors,” says BSS President Dhruba Mukhopadhyay, who joined the march in Kolkata. He estimates about 14,000 people marched in cities across the nation.
India spends around 0.6 to 0.7 percent of its gross domestic product on research and development. This is significantly lower than, for example, Israel (4.3 percent), South Korea (4.2 percent), the U.S. (2.8 percent) and China (2.1 percent). India’s level has remained constant for the past two decades, according to government’s annual Economic Survey (pdf). Many of the country’s scientific institutions lack adequate infrastructure, says Soumitro Banerjee a professor of physical science at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata. (He is also general secretary of the BSS, and joined the march in Delhi.) The 23 Indian Institutes of Technology had a collective faculty shortage of 34 percent as of this March, Banerjee says, calling for the research and development budget to be increased to 3 percent of GDP.
Still, Indian science has made some notable progress in recent years: In 2013 the country ranked (pdf) sixth in the world in terms of scientific publications. Its space program has been hailed for carrying out complex missions at a low cost—including Chandrayaan 1, an uncrewed moon mission in 2008; the robotic Mars orbiter mission Mangalyaan, which arrived at the Red Planet in 2014; and the 2016 launch of an indigenous regional navigation satellite system.
But rhetoric from the highest levels of government has still proved unsettling to many in the scientific community, who say it sets a regressive tone for the country’s overall approach to science. Debabrata Ghosh, a biologist at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi, who marched in there on Saturday, quoted science historian George Sarton: “The great intellectual division of mankind is not along geographical or racial lines, but between those who understand and practice the experimental method and those who do not understand and do not practice it.”
“This march is a way of telling our fellow scientists that they cannot sit in an ivory tower and expect society to support them. They have to engage with society and explain to them why society should support what they are doing,” says Aniket Sule, a physicist who works at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and marched Saturday in Mumbai.
“The March in my view is a celebration of science, as…societies the world over are embracing fundamentalist ideals and tend to be moving away from rational thinking,” says Subramony Mahadevan, a molecular biologist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, who joined the march there. “It has become imperative for scientists to organize themselves and defend their position, including the right to teach scientific concepts like evolution by natural selection.”
In state capitals across the country march organizers and supporters submitted copies of a memorandum recommending specific steps to promote a more science-friendly environment—such as increasing the research budget—to state governors and addressed to the prime minister. The Prime Minister’s Office had not recognized the marches by the time of publication, and none of the country’s political parties had openly endorsed them. But some supporters remained optimistic, noting policy and institutional changes take time. “I get a sense of hope from this march,” says Professor K. K. Deepak, head of the Physiology Department at the AIIMS. He did not march on Saturday but says he supports the effort, and urges scientists to develop a tradition of getting involved in policymaking by publishing more editorials in leading research journals, newspapers and magazines.
But even as India readied for the science march in the past few weeks, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu a political party known as the MDMK held protests—which included at least one fatal self-immolation—against one of the government’s most ambitious scientific projects: an underground laboratory called the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO). There are long-running environmental concerns, and the leader of the MDMK has in the past been quoted saying “the neutrino project is not an industry that would generate jobs for the people in that area, but an institution to carry out research only.”