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Recollections of a biology student: waiting for “achchhe din”, which never came!

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Summary

The decades before the turn of the century, years prior to globalization, and emergence of internet, the prevailing scene of science training and research in India were replete with repetitive and meaningless research themes and decadence in the social and human dimensions of academic life. The author recalls, in a general and anecdotal manner, the overall atmosphere prevailing in academic institutions, as a student of biology in the 1980s. It is left open for the reader to decide whether situations have changed in the meantime.

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Why look back into the past? Partly because it is nostalgic to recall a time when one was a student, and also to reflect upon how much have things changed, if at all, since then. As I attempt to recall my student days, I appreciate that while many of my experiences would be outdated, a few might be pertinent even today. Rather than attempt a detailed analysis on state of scientific research and teaching in India, and how it has changed since the 1980s when I was a student, I take a different approach here. Using the platform of Confluence, I prefer to write informally about select issues— particularly those which used to exercise our imagination then and were the stuff of discussions, arguments and heated debates in coffee houses and canteens.

 

Much can be said about the attempts that are made to boost the morale of scientists and work towards building a ‘scientific temper’ at the community level. This endeavour is even enshrined in the Constitution. I remember, one feature of our times was that we sometimes had people coming over to give ‘pep talks’ about the importance of science for ‘nation building’ and the status of science in the country. Our ‘inspirers’ were usually highly decorated scientists or technocrats who had snatched time from their busy schedule to instill in us a sense of purpose. They lamented how, as a nation we had failed in making strides in science & technology, compared to other nations and reminded us that we constituted ‘an army of young scientists’ who would lead a developing and ‘newly independent country’ forward, towards enlightenment and economic progress.

 

Such sentiments, though very inspiring, seemed dated. Echoing Nehru’s vision about a new nation embracing science—with industries, dams, space technology etc being referred to as ‘temples of modern India’, may well have found much traction a couple of decades earlier i.e. 1950’s or 60’s.

 

During the course of my studies I attended three central universities in North India, each with a vibrant campus life—Aligarh Muslim University, University of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and in addition visited dozens of others, including some of the elite institutes as well as the not so well known institutions in provincial towns. Whether it was about the scope for doing research in biology, the manner in which research was done, the relationship between research scholars and their PhD supervisors, or the disparity in academic standards, which seemingly existed across different institutions in the country, some of these issues, taken up here, may be of relevance even today.

 

Fig 1. A view of the science block at Aligarh Muslim University. Photo by A.J. Urfi.

In the shadows of the Raj

During British days, the objectives of scientific activity were clear—it had to be of some use to the empire (Kumar, 1995). While at Indian institutions, even in independent India, the nature of research was applied, the trend in the west in general, in the early decades of the 20th Century, was far more eclectic. Bright Indian students of some means, if they could, traveled abroad, explored the frontiers of knowledge and made a mark for themselves. So many examples abound, including Nobel Prize winners of Indian origin, settled abroad.

Fig. 2. A row of pantheon pillars in a building in the science faculty, University of Delhi. Photo by A.J. Urfi.

The buildings of science departments in many universities, built in pre-independence days, reflect the prevailing architectural styles of that period. Those antediluvian buildings, with their old style lecture theaters and labs seemed like molluscan shells, piled on the seashore—looking very beautiful from the outside, with their intricate carvings and patterns but the animal that once inhabited them had died long ago (Urfi 2019). Nevertheless, it was an experience in itself to attend classes in those old structures, as one felt being transported back in time. Thankfully, in most places these old buildings are now preserved as heritage structures, with their interesting artifacts and markers still intact. (Figs 1 & 2).

 

What good does biology education do?

Zoology, in which I majored, was not taught in a manner that would generate any interest in life forms, patterns of diversity or the underlying mechanisms. There seemed to be no connect with what was taught to us and our lived reality, especially with respect to the biodiversity around us. The pressing question then was ‘what good does biology education do?’ For some, studying these subjects was supposed to be just a passing station on the journey to becoming a doctor. You started with dissecting frogs and ended up doing surgery on humans (Urfi 2019).

 

In our times, entomology was a popular discipline. Many students were attracted towards it because it also offered employment opportunities in agricultural and taxonomic research with organizations such as Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) etc. A whole generation of insect taxonomists received training with very simple equipment like a compound microscope and Camera Lucida. I think the careers of many biologists were spent peering at specimens of insects or agricultural nematodes and describing new species largely  based on morphological criteria (Fig 3).

 

Fig. 3. Simplicity was the name of the game. One could spend hours on a microscope just observing the shapes and structures of plankton in a drop of water collected from a pond. Photo by A.J. Urfi.

 

As far as general perceptions of the students were concerned, some felt that studying zoology was a springboard to specializing in bio-medical sciences, finding a cure for dreaded diseases like Malaria, AIDS, Cancer etc. This trend has changed significantly over the last few decades with many groups having come up in the country, doing excellent work in organismal biology including areas of evolutionary biology, population  genetics, ecology, biodiversity conservation etc. Others felt content that the Biology course at least imparted a few basic skills —the tests which we did in the physiology practical classes viz. estimation of Carbohydrates, Lipids and Proteins etc. were potentially useful, as with this knowledge, one might one day get employment in a pathology lab, testing urine and blood samples.

 

The teacher and pupil

In academics, one of the closest relationships is that between research scholars and their PhD supervisors. One has to be lucky to get a good mentor. While there were certainly excellent teachers and research guides around, one also occasionally heard tales of harassment by guides and even PhD students committing suicide under pressure.

 

As happens, one sometimes came across professors, some quite famous, with monumental egos. I recall a dear friend who was the topper of his batch in MSc and had joined PhD under one such well-known professor. Sometime later, when he discovered that his supervisor was hardly mentoring him, he decided to leave, only to discover, too late, that he had been blacklisted and no other teacher, either in the same department or in any other institution across India, was willing to accept him as a student. Finally, he left for the USA from where he completed his PhD.

 

I recall another professor who claimed to be interested in environment, biodiversity conservation etc. But as I interacted with him more and more, I discovered that his major pre-occupation was actually to edit journals, bring out books (which no one read), and organize symposium and seminars etc, all under the aegis of a society which he had himself founded and on whose advisory board were a number of his friends and relatives. I saw very little evidence of any serious scientific research activity going on in his lab as most of the time he was talking about his visits abroad and memberships to international and national boards and policy organizations.

 

In general, many research students blindly followed everything what their supervisors said. Their apparent obedient nature could be on account of several factors—given that the supervisor can be of help in many ways, say landing a job, there is no point in annoying him/her. While in our student days we found it amusing, perhaps this is true even today.

 

But surely, in those days, the overall trend of sycophancy, more in the science departments, was probably so widely prevalent that it was almost a national phenomenon. That is why it once figured in a popular comedy serial which used to be aired on Doordarshan,  called ‘Flop Show’  by the well known comedy actor of those times (late) Jaspal Bhatti. One particular episode, a satirical take on the harassment that research students are subjected to by their supervisors, showed a professor in a Chemistry department (played by Jaspal Bhatti himself) guiding a PhD student. The professor got all his domestic chores done through his pupil, and eventually agreed to pass his student’s thesis with the intention of getting him married to his sister-in-law.

 

In this particular episode the theme of ‘boss is always right’ was shown by parodying a well known Hindi film song, Jo tumko ho pasand wohi baat kahenge/Tum din ko agar raat kaho, raat kahenge (I’ll only say what you like to hear/If you call the day as night, then I’ll call it night). In Bhatti’s version, the research scholar was shown singing a slightly different lyrics, Jo tumko ho pasand wohi baat kahenge /Tum  beaker ko agar jar kaho to jar kahenge (I’ll only say what you like to hear/O supervisor, if you insist upon calling a ‘beaker’ a ‘jar’ then so be it).

 

Islands of excellence, sea of mediocrity

In retrospect, looking at some of the research activity being done in less well-known institutions, in provincial towns, in the bygone period I am talking about, indicates that it was mostly done to catch up with whatever was in fashion, often without much thought. A cursory look at some research papers listed in proceedings of symposia on a variety of biological and environmental disciplines, which used to be conducted at various places, throws up some amusing titles.

 

Studies attempting to document biodiversity was an area in which people published a lot, say birds found in a particular locality. Besides providing a checklist of all species recorded, the author did not fail to calculate a diversity index, usually ‘Shannon Weaver index’— an index of biological diversity based on information theory. Most such mathematical indices have tight underlying assumptions making the interpretation of results highly case specific (Magurran, 1988). Yet in many ecological publications of that period (mostly published in what would be termed as ‘grey literature’) such indices continued to proliferate, largely I suspect for their ‘decorative value’.

 

However, not everyone was engaged in doing humdrum work; certainly not the people at some of the best institutions in the country. In 1980s, the prestigious British journal Nature focused on Indian science in one of its issues and by and large praised Indian scientific efforts, pointing  to the existence of some world class institutions in India where ‘cutting edge’ research in ‘frontier areas of science’ was being done. (I think frontier areas meant what was being done in some high profile labs in USA and other western countries). John Maddox, the iconic editor of the journal in a lead article wrote of Indian science as ‘Excellence in the Midst of Poverty’ (Maddox & Rich, 1981).

To use old clichés, in India there existed ‘islands of excellence’ in a ‘sea of mediocrity’.

 

Momentous campus events

The prevalence of lobbies (based on regional or social grouping) within the academe was a reality of the day. With their clout in funding and regulating bodies like DST, UGC, CSIR etc, they also played a vital role in selection and approval committees. Monopolization over resources is ofcourse a universal phenomenon though in India it is perhaps more pronounced. Yet surprisingly a lot of discussions in those days centred on ‘merit’.

 

Merit should always prevail—in principle that is fine but then the question is who should judge merit and whether there were any objective criteria for defining merit. Clearly, those who espoused the meritocracy cause were mostly those who already had it all, by virtue of their social status. Was it a coincidence that almost all the people in power in the university set up largely belonged to a particular segment of society? The system which had been created by the so called meritocracy was such that they had usually favoured their own when it came to recruitments and promotions. Though the sad part was that in doing so they had not promoted the best among their lot but gone for what could be referred to as mere ‘service providers’. The result was that we had a bunch of teachers, deans and heads, who wanted to maintain a status quo and a system where only mediocrity would prevail.

 

A much hated word in those days was (and is) ‘reservation’- a devise created in the Constitution to reserve a small number of positions in government jobs for historically deprived sections of the society.

 

A storm soon hit the academe and although it should have come from within i.e. the need for reform, sadly it came from outside the system. The funny thing is that the upheaval to follow was never intended to set a wrong right in the first place; and therefore the wrong was never set right.

 

It all started in the shaky V P Singh’s government, when a weak and cornered prime minister pulled a rabbit out of the hat by implementing an old ‘Mandal Commission’ report, which would bring about a substantial reservation for other backward castes (OBC) in government jobs, including educational institutions. This immediately triggered off violent protests from students all  across the country, the epicentre of which was Delhi University. A significant feature of the protests was that it involved many students committing or trying to commit acts of self-immolation.

 

For a while, the university became a cauldron.  We were witnessing historic times- a real turn in those tumultuous days of the early 90s when other momentous events were also happening throughout the world.

 

Conclusion

As students in the 1980s we experienced that in many educational institutions, especially those located in provincial places, even the basics of science (or other subjects for that matter) were not being taught properly,  added to which was the dismal reality that the status of primary education was and still is extremely pathetic. We all hoped that in the better times to come the system would be fixed. However, the good times or “achchhe din”, it seems, never came.

 

I thank the University of Delhi for funds under various schemes (‘DST purse’, Research & Development grant and ‘Teaching & Research Grant’). I also thank the referees for their constructive comments on previous versions of the manuscript.

 

References

Kumar, D. 1995. Science and the Raj. A study of British India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Maddox, J. and V. Rich. 1981. Excellence in the Midst of Poverty, Nature 308.

Magurran, A. E. 1988. Ecological Diversity and Its Measurement. Springer, Netherlands.

Urfi, A.J. 2019.  Discovering Zoology Through My Passion for Birdwatching Part 1.  Journal of Stories in Science 15 Aug 2019.

 

Abdul Jamil Urfi is an Associate Professor at the Department of Environmental Studies,  University of Delhi,  New Delhi 110007.

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