As the first day of India’s largest annual science conference wound down on Saturday, some delegates and students were debating the wisdom of including symposiums on specific government initiatives in the programme schedule. Two of the six largest sessions of the 102nd Indian Science Congress are on the government initiatives, Swachh Bharat and Make in India.

Unlike other panels for which scientists and researchers present papers within the fields of science and technology, participants in these two government programme-inspired panels will be largely high-ranking industry officials. These sessions do not overlap entirely in timing with others, indicating that these are to be of general interest to all participants in an otherwise highly specialised conference. The theme for this year is Science and Technology for Human Development.

“Both are good ideas, but I don’t know if they belong at the Congress,” said Sunil Mukhi, a particle physicist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune, who is also going to present a paper at the Congress. “Where is the innovation in them? This is not high- level technology we don’t already have. There already are countries that have been clean for centuries. Swachh Bharat especially is more a cultural issue than a technological one.”

Harsh Vardhan's speech 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who inaugurated the Congress on Saturday, did not dwell at great length on the two initiatives, but Harsh Vardhan, minister of science and technology, did.

“[When they heard about Make in India] scientists from every village clenched their fists and said yes, we can do it,” said the minister at the inaugural session. “Unfortunately, we are losing scientists to foreign countries and laboratories, but under the able leadership of Narendra Modi, we will restore the glory of the country.”

The Congress is organised jointly by the Indian Science Congress Association, which is a government body, and whichever university is its venue for that year. This year, the Congress is in Mumbai after a gap of 45 years. It has 12,000 registered participants, around half of whom are students, according to a press note by Rajan Welukar, vice chancellor of the venue, Mumbai University.

The vision of the Congress is “to inculcate scientific temper among the common people” apart from providing a platform for scientists to collaborate on the cutting edge of research. It is not, however, supposed to be a vehicle to push government policies to promote industries.

“There is a large gap between science, technology and industry,” said Mukhi, on the goal of science research. “Science has a long-term broad outlook, whereas technology is supposed to make it practical and industry to take it to the market.”

It is not as if the Congress has never had unusual sessions. Mukhi recalled that around 1985, he led a signature campaign against the decision of the Congress to have a named award for the field of astrology. That award was subsequently scrapped.

Students sceptical

Even so, students at the Congress were confused by the decision to include these panels, even as they expressed their support and admiration for Modi.

“Of course there should be Swachh Bharat, especially in Mumbai,” said Shweta Jagtap, a first-year Bachelor of Science student from Pusad near Yewatmal in Maharashtra. She and her classmates had been waiting all morning for a chance to see Modi.

“I think they might have put these panels in to inspire us,” she added. “I guess there must be some science in them, maybe engineering.”

Said Sneha Verma, a PhD scholar from Lucknow who researches fish, "“These panels are good for spreading the prime minister’s message. It must be a political decision. He was attending the inauguration, so they must have added this to the conference.”

But even those who supported Modi were critical of including the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan in the sessions.

“A panel on Make in India can help us put our ideas forward and help us to connect with important people,” said Arvind Jagtap, a second-year student of engineering from Nashik, referring to the industry names that will present at the session. “Make in India is related to the science and careers of people, so it has more importance. Swachh Bharat is nice, but it has more to come from inside.”

Jagtap added, “Swachh Bharat is launched by the prime minister, so it is the fundamental duty of every citizen to follow.”

Others said that even Make in India did not really have a place in the conference.

“Just because Modiji has these schemes, it does not mean they should be in this Congress,” said Ganesh Tambatkar, a chemistry teacher from Shegaon in Maharashtra who has attended seven Congresses before this. He pointed out that these conferences were largely oriented towards pure sciences, which was why not many engineers or doctors might attend it despite sessions geared towards them.

“There is a difference between science and applied science,” he said. “You can make use of applied science for all these initiatives, but science is a different story altogether. It cannot be just about its uses.”