India – The good, bad and the ugly

Three news stories coming out from India this week highlight how unequal the country is in regard to scientific temper and use of science and technology.

First the good news.

India’s space agency debuted a massive rocket on Monday, launching it from the southeastern barrier island of Sriharikota. The Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV Mk III) will function mainly as a delivery system for heavier satellites, but the Indian Space Research Organization hopes that it can one day carry a manned mission — the country’s first — beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

Image courtesy PTI

The launch was a quarter-century in the making. Much of that time was spent painstakingly developing an indigenous, cryogenic engine that uses liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen as propellants, said ISRO’s chairman, A.S. Kiran Kumar.

The new rocket will be able to transport heavier satellites that India had previously relied on France’s space agency to carry. Monday’s launch carried the nearly 7,000-pound GSAT-19 satellite, which has a 10-year life cycle and is meant to improve telecommunications and Internet services. The satellite detached from the rocket at just over 110 miles above sea level.

ISRO has become known for its low-cost missions. In 2014, India sent a probe into orbit around Mars at the jaw-droppingly low cost of $74 million.

Now the bad news.

 India continues to record one of the world’s highest rate of child mortality due to diarrhoea with more than 100,000 under-five deaths reported on account of it in 2015, a new study has found. The highest rates of under-five mortality due to diarrhoea were in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, with India and Nigeria combined registering 42 per cent of the 499,000 global under-five deaths due to diarrhoea in 2015, according to medical journal ‘Lancet’. “Diarrheal diseases disproportionately affect young children,” said lead author Dr Ali Mokdad, of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington.
“Despite some promising reductions in mortality, the devastating impact of these diseases cannot be overlooked. Immediate and sustained actions must be taken to help low- income countries address this problem by increasing healthcare access and the use of oral rehydration solutions,” he noted. Globally, diarrhoea is the fourth biggest killer of children under the age of five, while India is its third biggest victim. According to the analysis by US researchers, about half of the all under-five deaths occur in only five countries – India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and China.

Diarrhoeal diseases in children is something that can be tackled easily with minimum technology and money , both of which India have in abundance as proved by its Space program. Sadly the authorities have other priorities.

Now the ugly one. This happened a few hundred miles away from India’s rocket launching site.

A highway near Hyderabad was dug up in search of a Shiva Linga on Monday, after a man from Telangana claimed that the god Shiva had appeared in his dream and told him that there was a Shiva Linga in the area that must be excavated.

Thirty-year-old Lakhan Manoj from Gundlagadda in Jangaon of Telangana claimed that there was a Shiva Linga on the highway near Pembarthy village in Telangana. He insisted that after “excavating” it, a temple must be constructed on the land.

Image courtesy NDTV

The sarpanch of Jangaon Balne Siddu Lingam and municipal vice-chairman also believed Manoj. “Manoj is an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva and has been getting this dream since three years,” he said. “He used to conduct prayers at this location every Monday. As Manoj swooned in excitement at this spot we believed him.”

Manoj had been trying to garner support for his project for three years, and intended to find the Linga on Shivratri. Every time he visited the spot, he would go into a trance, rolling around and shaking uncontrollably, said NDTV.

After hiring a road mover, Manoj started digging near Jangaon on Monday, which is about 80 kilometres from Hyderabad. This led to traffic jams at least a kilometre long on both sides of the Hyderabad-Warangal highway, as JCB excavator machines dug up a 15 feet by 8 feet hole in the middle of the highway.

Though the Shiva Linga was meant to be found at a depth of 10 feet, the excavators could find nothing even after digging 15 feet underground. This frustrated a local policeman, reported NDTV. “First he said 10 feet. They dug over 15 feet. Now he says 2 more feet. At this rate, we will have a well in the middle of the road,’’ he said. However, The Hindu reported that the excavation had continued to a depth of 20 feet underground.

With traffic jams worsening on both sides of the highway, police arrested Manoj and the persons who helped him.

Problems of inequitable distribution of wealth and lack of scientific temper in Indian society need to be addressed in a war footing with the same zeal as for Space programs.


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