Readdressing People's Science Movement in India

Quest for an Alternative Science

Term Paper, 2016

9 Pages

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Readdressing People’s Science Movement in India: A Quest for an Alternative Science

Vairaj Arjune

Organized movements, whether social, scientific, political or religious has been the backbone of India’s developmental capabilities. The more prominent movement in recent times has been the environmental movement group such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan which questions the relevance of constructing large dams at the expense of people’s livelihood in India. But one can assume that with so many movements in the history of India, ranging from highly successful to suppression, there would be some form of coordination or structured framework pushing these groups. This we can trace through the People Science Movement (PSM) that can be considered an umbrella movement that embodies “science” movements in India.

First, it is important to examine the factors responsible for the emergence of the PSM, which can be attributed to the dichotomy between modern science and traditional science, or between elite science and science for the people. There was a growing concern among scientists and social scientists that scientific research in India was done at the helm of the elite group with little to no purpose or application for the wider section of society. Thus, this elite touch of science led to the emergence of numerous voluntary groups (Vaidyanathan et al., 1979).

To give a definition of PSM would greatly hamper the activities and purpose of the People Science Movement. One can attempt to understand PSM through various episodes in Indian history. Prakash (1984) in her article, People’s Science Movement and Women Struggle stated that the pursuance of people science simply implies the dissemination of science, creation of a new science, or it can be a synthesis of a science which in its production, content and use operates to challenge the status quo.

1. What is PSM?

The earliest group to advocate the science for the people was the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) which was driven by the realization that science in its broadest sense should embrace all branches of knowledge. KSSP was founded in Kerala in 1960, with the ultimate burden and task of modernizing India. The slogan for the group was “Science for Social Revolution”, and the use of the term science in the slogan meant relying on factual evidence and information rather than blinding accepting faith and superstitious statements. But in traditional India, where it was common for people to rely on godmen and religion for answers, it was challenging for KSSP to bring about any real scientific consciousness in its infant stage. The movement was heavily biased towards the use of science and technology to solve the problems of the common people. The members of the group – scientists, teachers, engineer students – sought to shift some of the powers of scientific knowledge and technology being concentrated in the West and in elite Indians to the hands of the masses (Varna, 2001). Whenever there was a government policy that would affect the livelihood of communities, the people would organize themselves to oppose such destructive policy. Thus, this led to PSM incorporating mobilization and participation of people for their own development in an effort to stimulate scientific empowerment.

Many social scientists points to the fact that natural science content exist in every social science issue and vica versa. This means that science is not limited just to nature but also encompass social reality. To quote Kannan (1990):

Imbibing and inculcating the method of science to understand not only the physical reality but the social reality as well and attempting to raise relevant questions in order to find solutions to social problems is what gives science an activist role.

Other voluntary groups that were operating in the country in an effort to enhance people’s capability to understand and analyze social issues in a scientific context included Lok Vidnyan Sanghatma in Maharashtra and Karnataka Rajya Vigyan Parishat in Karnataka. These groups were motivated by a Bernalist perception of science - capitalist knowledge production which needed to be harness towards people-oriented knowledge (Anonymous, 1996). This means that the groups wanted to apply the practical aspect of science and technology for the social good and empowerment of the masses through scientific knowledge and revitalization of traditional or indigenous knowledge.

1.1. History and Function of PSM

People science should not be mistaken for science that one possesses but rather taking science and scientific knowledge to the people. The first Convention of People Science Movements was held on November 1978 in Trivandrum, India under the guidance of KSSP. As the early Kerala movement was instrumental in putting forth a radically different view of the creation of scientific knowledge, it sought to transcend these experiences through an All-India Convention stretching for three days. The Convention revolve around four thematic areas: 1) formal and non-formal education; 2) health movements; 3) science and technology; 4) science for social revolution (Vaidyanathan et al., 1979).

Re-assessing the outcomes of the Convention, the KSSP sought to convene another in 1983. The first Convention sought to motivate more voluntary groups within the breath and length of India and at the start of the second Convention, additional participants included: Medico Friends Circle form Pune; Vidushak Karkhana, Kishore Bharati and Ekalavya from Madhya Pradesh; Kalpavriksh, People’s Institute for Development and Training from New Delhi; Patriotic and People-Oriented Science and Technology from Tamil Nadu; Eastern India Science Club Association for West Bengal; Programme Community Organization and Society for Conservation of Nature from Kerala; and Vigyan Siksha Kendra from Uttar Pradesh (Anwar et al., 1983).

Some of the main objectives pursued by the People Science Movements are (Kannan, 1990; Kumar, 1984):

1. popularization of scientific knowledge among the common people;
2. developing a scientific outlook among people, especially children;
3. challenging the forces of supernaturalism, obscurantism and superstition;
4. equip the poor with knowledge and skills to analyze and articulate their demands and rights in an effective manner;
5. re-assess modern 'Western' science and technology which has grown mainly within the historical and economic context of colonialism;
6. re-evaluate non-Western or indigenous traditions in search of an alternative science and technology for our society;
7. dissemination of appropriate technologies in the socio economic environment in rural areas;
8. motivate professional scientists to work on problems that are relevant for the lives of the poor people;
9. involve science researchers, teachers, and students in mobilizing the masses for structural change in society;
10. build pressure on state structures to ensure that decisions are taken in a rational manner;
11. contribute to self-reliance and participatory development un the use of local resources in matters such as health, education, housing and industry;
12. develop a critical awareness regarding the methods used in the present system of education, and to develop an alternative method of education, especially science education, that would be relevant to children's own lives.

It is not easy to identify all the activities and functions of PSM, as literature available is meagre compared to the work carried out by PSM. The fact that PSM based their activities on scientific knowledge clearly differentiates them from other groups such as trade unions groups, political groups among others. Basically, the evolution of PSM or more specifically, voluntary science groups in the 1900s had risen due to two forces which can be segregated into anti-science – godmen who command the poor by perpetuating supernatural superstition, and anti-progress – development that makes the rich, richer and the poor, poorer (Jaffy et al., 1983; Kumar, 1984).

1.2. Scientific Controversies and People Science Movements

Social movements defined by Melucci (1985) refers to “a form of collective action (a) based on solidarity, (b) carrying action, (c) breaking the limits of the system in which action occurs” (Varma, 2001). Social movements act a catalyst for breaking the existing framework, where some sort of suppression of science, freedom or need exists. In this sense, PSM does not set out to destroy the existing framework, whether political, religious etc. or to build an entirely new framework, but rather to enrich the framework through the development of science and technology. Other means of modifying the existing framework as pointed out by Varma (2001) includes: protection and conservation of natural resources, improvement in medical health care, building cultural identities, promoting the use of scientific knowledge among the masses, innovation in scientific communication, and rediscovering the Indian heritage.

After India gained Independence in 1947, the country was left stripped and burden, with a lot of people in grief. However, Nehruvian era had drastically changed the shape and course of India’s scientific community. Nehru emphasized scientific temper and digresses from western positivist view of science. By this, Nehru meant checking and relying on facts alone, taking nothing on 'blind trust' or faith, altering beliefs in the light of new evidence, and being precise and exact, relying on the method of trial and error (Parekh, 1991). Nehru was very much aware that to reach the level of development in the West, India had to match-up with sophisticated science that had promoted development in the West. To understand Nehru’s position, I will quote Varna (2001):

He felt that Indian must learn to think and behave scientifically to overcome traditional, mystical, supernatural, uncritical, and inward-looking way of life so they can adapt to the modern age.”

One can clearly see that the view of science to the social development of India coincided with Nehru ideologies, in which he advocated that science alone could not solve everything and people need some form of supreme power to answer the complex problems of life struggles.

1.2.1. Missing link of Women Struggle in PSM activities

It is no surprise that when we say science, we imply a scientific method that is neutral and which can be used to solve problems relating to nature. However, Prakash (1984) contemplates that women consider science as “masculine” because a sexist bias exist. The main characteristic of scientific method is that of scientific objectivity which implies the existence of an active subject as well as a passive subject and their distinct separation. In simple terms, it means that logic and emotion are on the two opposite sides of a line with movement towards logic implying objectivity and movement towards emotion is un-scientific. Even Nandy (1995) in his book, Alternative Sciences had pointed out that the supreme science of mathematics involves some emotional touch, needless to say that natural sciences is not isolated from social reality. What Praskash argues is that PSM should not fall into a patriarchal structure but should recognize women contribution to early knowledge of nature, and challenge the dominating-dominated nature of man-woman relationship in society.

2. Is Science Owned?

Science is about trying to solve life problems. We live in a world of business-oriented behavior where everything is owned. So what if science was owned or is it already owned? Kumar (1984) looks at PSM through the paradigms of development theory – modernization, dependency, and alternative development – to identify areas of divergence and convergence within the movement. He pinpointed that science movements are mainly concerned with the concentration of scientific knowledge and technology in the West and elite class in Third World countries. Thus, the solution sought by science group involves changing scientist First World orientation of selecting research problems but Kumar rightfully argues that the selection of research problems is subjugated to the colonial heritage of international economy and education. Simply put, this means that the process of colonialism has meticulously rendered Third World countries dependent on the scientific knowledge and technologies from First World countries. So the centre-periphery framework of colonialism would see the rich and wealthy countries as the centre and the Third World or developing countries as the periphery. To look more deeply into the western influence of science I will present an overview of Nandy’s book: Alternative Science:Creativity and Authenticity in Two Indian Scientists. But the argument of Kumar on modern development is noteworthy. He posited that India would lose out on valuable research if such are co-opted by scientists who oppose socio-economic change in order to prove modern science is Western and thereby alien. The question truly is not that India needs to develop its own science to fulfill its own needs but rather identifying the right political and economic goals that universal science should serve.

2.1. Alternative Science versus Modern Science

In one of his finest pieces of work, Ashis Nandy describes J.C Bose as directly opposing to Western science and shows the conflicts he faced because of his western education that many believed he would try to import in India. The Indian culture was not prepared for such an intellectual, even Croft and Tawney rejected his appointment at the Presidency College based on the opinion that Indian could be great in the field of metaphysics and languages but natural sciences were a thing for Englishmen. Nevertheless, Bose held that India has a role to play in world science and actively saw himself at the centre, he would even quarrel with bureaucratic on salary differences between English and Indian teachers.

Bose search for a different form of science rather than contributing to the existing body of science portrayed by Nandy may have shadowed Bose entire image. It was not that he wanted to build a separate Indian science with different methodologies, or compete with superiority in the Sciences, rather Bose wanted recognition for science that could be drawn from imagination and Indian tradition of meditation and religion. He advocated science to be un-owned by one society or culture, meaning, it belong not to the West, East or South or anywhere. Bose made a valuable contribution for which I would agree with Vishwanathan, that he helped avoid the dichotomy nationalism was creating between Western and Indian Science. His role of dissent in resisting the compartmentalization in natural sciences in India and provoking interdisciplinary research was proof that India participation and contribution would only enrich and strengthen the world of modern science. Even the purest of sciences – mathematics – involves an emotional touch that will allow for certain creative problem solving.

2.2. Where we stand today?

To mention the contemporary view of PSM, I will attempt to model the thematic areas of PSM in present day India. As stated previously, the main focal areas of PSM include: health, education, environment, and social revolution. I will however focus on the first three.

2.2.1. Health

There is a long debate on Indian health care and the need for alternatives in meeting health requirements. Jaffy et al., (1983) pointed out that the dominant approach of medical problems in developing countries relies on clinical and curative methods. This shows that the health sector has now become a business economy aimed at promoting high-end technology. This creates an enterprise of lobbing by big companies rather than looking at traditional and preventive disease methods. Postman (1992) in his book, Technopoly, explains that machines eliminate complexity, doubt, and ambiguity and provide us with numbers that you can see and calculate with. On the other hand, magic is significant in the sense that it directs our attention to the wrong place, and this evokes in us a sense of wonder rather than understanding. To explain this point, Postman cited that American doctors perform more prostate surgery per capita than do doctors anywhere in Europe. Another case in point is C-section, a technology used for delivering babies at risk. When this surgical procedure is performed routinely purposefully as an elective option, doctors risk the life’s of patients with the chances of a woman dying during a C-section delivery are two to four times greater than during a normal non-surgical delivery (Postman, 1992). Now we are at crossroads, though improvement in science and technology is able to solve health problems, doctors have become techno-dependent on high-end technologies for which the poor section of societies cannot afford.

2.2.2. Education

The issue of education can be streamlined into two categories. Ruling elite class who tend to secure private education for their children would lack interest in public education reform programs. The other case is where the education system caters for the upper class of society. Fortunately or unfortunately, India has improved accessibility to education but the overall literary rate seems to be climbing gradually. The burden for PSM is therefore to implement programmes to promote non-formal, vocational and technical skills to school drop-outs and to those who are unable to access the basic requirement of an education.

2.2.3. Environment

Environmental issues represent one of the most long standing issues for most science and social groups. The Forest Bill of the government gives exclusive powers to forest officers and greatly impede on the traditional livelihoods of the local people who have lived in harmony with nature. Even large scale environment projects are carried out without any public participation. One of the early women active movements that successfully thrive to protect the forest was the Chipko/tree hugging movement. The effort of this group as well as others has led to Joint Forest Management Plan between the local people and forest officers. Even the hype of implementing genetically engineered foods was suppressed by environmental movement that sought to elevate the concerns of the people. Though the struggle is ongoing, PSM activities has transcended over the years with greater emphasis and consciousness.

3. Conclusion

The People Science Movement has been instrumental in the dissemination and popularization of science – not just natural science – but also social science and the interconnectedness of natural science to social science and vica versa. Science is not region specific or country specific, thus the controversy in India is not between modern science and traditional science; or scientific knowledge and humanistic temper since contemporary activists focus more on unity of science and society. However, PSM should be cautious that the principle of inclusion of the poorer section of society would gradually conflict and lead to some sort of confrontation with the elite class of society. Therefore, a balancing mechanism needs to be worked out for which the synergies of both the elite and non-elite class can strive towards progressive social transformation.


1. Anonymous (1996). Defunct Project? Economic and Political Weekly, pp. 3340-3341

2. Choudhary, K. (1990). Gramsci's Intellectuals and People's Science Movement. Economic and Political Weekly, 743-744.

3. Jaffry, A., Rangarajan, M., Ekbal, B., & Kannan, K. P. (1983). Towards a People's Science Movement. Economic and Political Weekly, 372-376.

4. Kannan, K. P. (1990). Secularism and People's Science Movement in India. Economic and Political Weekly, 311-313.

5. Kumar, K. (1984). “People’s Science" and Development Theory. Economic and Political Weekly, 1082-1084.

6. Mahanti, S. (2013). A Perspective on Scientific Temper in India. Journal of Scientific Temper, Vol 1, pp. 46-62

7. Nandy, Ashis. (1995). Alternative Sciences: Creativity and Authenticity in Two Indian Scientists. Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 152. 2nd edition

8. Parekh, B (1991). Nehru and the National Philosophy of India. Economic and Political Weekly, 35-48.

9. Patel, J. (1980). Review: Science for the People. Economic and Political Weekly, p. 515.

10. Postman, N. (1992). TECHNOPOLY: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York. NY: Vintage Books, pp. 239.

11. Prakash, P. (1984). People's Science Movement and Women's Struggle. Economic and Political Weekly, 1656-1658.

12. Vaidyanathan, A., Krishnaji, N., & Kannan, K. P. (1979). People's Science Movements. Economic and Political Weekly, 57-58.

13. Varma, R. (2001). People's Science Movements and Science Wars?. Economic and political Weekly, 4796-4802.


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Readdressing People's Science Movement in India
Quest for an Alternative Science
Jawaharlal Nehru University
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Vairaj Arjune (Author), 2016, Readdressing People's Science Movement in India, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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