Back to school again

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Tapan Misra

As a nation, we did the opposite. Instead of attracting best minds as school teachers, we drove them away by paying very less salary, with less than desirable school environment. In contrast we built huge laboratories, institutions with very less number of creative minds. We made examination systems to test knowledge, but not learning. We sent exhausted teens to higher education institutions. They are already tired of preparing for entrance examinations in tuition classes. They have been prepared like soldiers to live the life, their parents dreamt.

In the early part of eleventh century (1017), Ujbek born Persian polymath and traveller, Al Biruni, accompanied different forays to Indian subcontinent by marauding army of Mahmud of Ghazni, who had his seat of power in Afganistan and his rule stretched across Persia. He was court astrologer to Mahmud of Ghazni.

Ancient India, Vedic tradition and Sanskrit texts

Al Biruni was probably the first Indologist who studied different aspects of Indian civilisation; rituals and customs of Hindu religion; Vedic literature and scientific texts in Sanskrit; geography and soil structure of Gangetic plain; Anthropology. He even speculated, based on his observation of fossils of sea creatures in the Himalayas, that in ancient ages, a sea was there where the Himalayas stood.

He was amazed at the knowledge of astronomy in Sanskrit texts, accurate description of lunar phases, and seasons. He learnt from Brahmagupta’s text that earth is a rotating sphere and went on to discover a method of measuring earth’s radius. Remember, Christian scholars in contemporary Europe were convinced that the earth was flat.

For information, Indian Mathematician Brahmagupta (c.628 CE) noted:
“All heavy things fall down to earth by a law of nature. It is the nature of the earth to attract things. Thrown object always returns. Earth on all its sides is same”. And all these observations preceded Newton by more than 1000 years.

Al Biruni observed that Hindu learned pundits, escaped from wrath of invaders by shifting from towns to far away villages. In fact he had to travel to far flung areas of Gangetic plains to locate scholars and learn from them. It was to his credit, he translated a large amount of Sanskrit texts in Arabic and Persian and transmitted them to the Arab world. From Arab world, that knowledge spread to Europe through trade routes and Islamic conquests. Most of the knowledge among Hindus was concentrated and transmitted along the family tree by oral rendition or tradition.

Hindu tradition

Al Biruni made a less than generous observation: though Hindus were very advanced in mathematics, astronomy, medicine and other sciences, they applied their knowledge of astronomy in Yagnas or vedic rituals and their knowledge in science and engineering, to build splendid temples and beautiful sculptures of many Gods and Goddesses. But they hardly applied it in their day to day lives. Hindus believed in simple living and high thinking. Even now, Indians are referred as Hindus in Arabic.

You will see the creations of great architectures of temples and sculptures, by our ancestors, still around; surviving onslaught of vagaries of weather, waves of conquests and centuries of neglect. But there is hardly any ruin of palaces or abodes of famous Kings and Emperors in Indian history like Ashoka, Guptas, Mouryas, Cholas, Satbavahanas, Harshavardana and many others. It only means that even celebrated kings and emperors lived a comparatively spartan lives, hardly leaving any relic of their existence, unlike the Mughals and Britishers who left huge edifices, graves and palaces for posterity.

India faced colonisation by Turks, Mughals, Ujbeks, Afgans, Persians for almost eight centuries since tenth century onward, followed by two hundred years of colonisation by Britishers. The brightest jewel in British crown was a subjugated populace and land. Still Indian civilisation survived. Remember, ancient civilisations of Palestines, Byzantines, Sumerians, Zoroastrians got obliterated by Arab-Islamic expansion over a period of one and half century from 650 to 800 CE.

Indians adopted two strategies to save themselves and their culture. In arid and desert plains of West India, they built huge forts, surrounded by moats, infested with alligators. Their kings and soldiers specialised in hit-and-run guerilla battle tactics.

Civilisational knowledge

In Gangetic plains, they got themselves disbursed in far-flung villages, separated by thick forests and large rivers. Essentially thinning themselves. They preserved the civilisational knowledge through oral tradition, written material, folklore, dance forms, and religious rituals. Unlike other civilisations, Indian civilisation did not crumble even when Taxila was destroyed by Hunas in 5th century or world’s first university, Nalanda, with a library of three million books, was burnt down in 1193.

Simple living, high thinking worked well as survival technique. Our civilisation’s strength became proverbial albatross around our necks in Independent India. We became our masters seven decades back. As we grew older, we became younger and younger.


We are no more isolated and insular. As we became more and more integrated with world, we became aspirational. Consumerism was no longer a taboo. In fact, this life ingredient, which was considered as not so desirable, became cornerstone of our economy. More we consume, more we earn. GDP growth rate became the new barometer. For the country, accustomed to 2-3% GDP growth rate a few decades ago and happily content with it, started making scathing criticism when we fell a slight notch from our expected growth rate of 7-8%.

But consumerism, at affordable cost and sustainable profit margin, is fuelled by technology. And we cannot meet the twin goals of economy if we not only manufacture products in India, but we should also manufacture them using machines, production lines, production processes, raw materials – all sourced in India. In economic parlance, we need to concentrate on developing and producing capital goods indigenously. Then only we can satisfy our consumers, we can export surplus, if our products are competitive. Economy needs innovation, or in other words, we should be able to convert our knowledge to produce machines, materials, and experimental set up.

Civilisation’s dilemma

This is where we face civilisation’s dilemma. We built temples but we did not make our lives better through mechanization. There is dichotomy. Knowledge was meant for abstraction, we made less efforts to use knowledge to live our lives better. We are building LIGO, but could not make LEGO equivalent toys. We built rockets, we thought it as below our level to build a geared bicycle. We built high resolution satellite cameras, but could not produce our own hand-held camera. We built sophisticated space based imaging radars, but could not make a simple collision avoidance radar for trains, cars, buses. We sent satellites to Mars. But we could not design a passenger aircraft. We became great software exporter. But we have no well known, ‘Made in India’, software brand. We export VLSI designers. But import almost all VLSI chips as there is no VLSI fab facility worth the salt. We produced tomes in research in physics. But could not devise sophisticated physics experiment set up. We take pride that our scientists get a chance to work at prestigious experimental set ups abroad. We are lucky to have in the country world class surgeons and doctors. But we import almost all sophisticated medical equipment like sonography, CT, MRI, and PETSCAN machines. We lose thousands of precious lives daily as sophisticated and specialised medical treatment is not affordable. After all, medical equipment are to be imported at exorbitant cost.

Service sector, agriculture and industry

Our GDP growth is prominently fuelled by service sector to the tune of 55%. Agriculture, the largest employer, constitutes around 13%. Industrial product, consumer industries, value added agro-products constitute around 25-30%. Service industry fuels economy by circulating money through more and more strata. But it cannot be infinite circulation. Circulation stops after 4 to 6 layers.

Money has to be generated in the first place. Agriculture and industry generate that money. For an economy to sustain large growth rate for sustained periods, contribution of agriculture and industry need to be pegged at around 55-60 percent. Innovations in technology, processes and raw materials are key drivers for industrial and agricultural growths.

We built high citadels of natural sciences, engineering, medical sciences. They are supposed to give birth to innovators. But we built citadels on weak foundations. In order to convert knowledge to products, tools, and raw materials, we need to inculcate creative but structured thinking process. It is not enough for a child to be endowed with prodigious inclination for painting; he or she should know intuitively what size of brush to apply, what type of paint to use, what type of canvas to choose. Creativity with structured, coherent thought process is the key.

Schooling is important

This is where our schooling is important, more than our graduate and higher studies. In our primary schools, high schools, teachers encourage us to dream, to experiment, to attach wings to our imagination. We learn how to express ourselves and convince others, how to feel the rhythm of symmetry in natural sciences. Our teachers encourage children to gain confidence that we can do anything, given a chance, and self confidence, in taking risks. The last but not the least, they instill pride in our past and in ourselves and love for our nature. In essence, all the psychological foundations of innovations and creativity, are laid in the inquisitive minds of a growing child. In higher studies afterwards, our psychological growth starts stalling. We gather mostly knowledge and exhibit creativity, provided we acquired and honed that talent in our growing period.

But as a nation, we did the opposite. Instead of attracting best minds as school teachers, we drove them away by paying very less salary, with less than desirable school environment. In contrast we built huge laboratories, institutions with very less number of creative minds. We made examination systems to test knowledge, but not learning. We sent exhausted teens to higher education institutions. They are already tired of preparing for entrance examinations in tuition classes. They have been prepared like soldiers to live the life, their parents dreamt.

Harvest billion dreams

We need to reverse what ails us. If we want to grow at 10-12% GDP rate, we need a movement: Back to school again. We need to make massive investments in schooling. We have done investment in schooling, but in quantity. Next investment is desired in improving quality. Otherwise, all the big ticket investments we made in institutions of repute, will lead to less than desired results and we will pay penalty in terms of plateaued growth rate at moderate range, not enough for a population of 1.3 billion. We should invest in harvesting billion dreams.

Tapan Misra is a Distinguished Scientist with Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and heads the Office of Innovations Management at ISRO headquarters in Bangalore. Earlier, he was Director Space Applications Centre. For a brief period he had additional charge of Director, Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad.


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