On August 12, India lost Ashok Parthasarathi, a prominent figure who helped shape the country’s science and technology policies. He also played a critical role in formulating strategies that would make India technology-reliant long before the advent of the economic liberalisation in the early 1990s.
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With his intervention, the country was able to set up various public sector companies that would go not manufacture critical components ranging from satellite-based communication systems to microchips.
As he writes in a December 2017 article for Frontline, “it was not in the early 1990s that we launched ourselves on the road to becoming an IT superpower. That was done as far back as 1972, by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, her Principal Secretary, P.N. Haksar and Prof. M.G.K. Menon, the first Chairman, Electronics Commission, and Secretary, DoE.”
Born in 1940, Parthasarathi was the grandson of N Gopalaswami Ayyangar, a leading figure of the Constituent Assembly, and the son of legendary diplomat G Parathasarathi.
A physicist and electronics engineer, he was dedicated to science policy and its analysis. He taught physics at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, and studied technology policy at the world-famous MIT in the United States.
For three years between 1967 and 1970, he was Special Assistant to Dr Vikram Sarabhai, the father of India’s space programme and at that time Chairman of both the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in Mumbai.
He would go onto work with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi across two stints from 1970-76 and 1980-84 and was barely 30 years old when he became Special Assistant for Science and technology in 1970.
He held that office for six years, and closely worked alongside PN Haksar, Principal Secretary to Indira Gandhi, to create the foundation for modern Indian science and technology both in terms of the institutions and the people they appointed like Dr Satish Dhawan to replace Dr Vikram Sarabhai as the Secretary of India’s Department of Space.
This was also when ISRO and the Space Commission were formally born, and it was Dr Dhawan who lent substance to this vision and built ISRO into the world-class body that it is today.
Consulted by the Government of India during the 1971 War with Pakistan, Parthasarathi also played an essential role in the 1974 peaceful nuclear explosion in Pokhran.
In his 2016 address, former Vice President Hamid Ansari lists two specific contributions of Professor Parthasarathi, which had a profound impact on “the shaping of Indian sciences.”
“The first was, when, under his instigation, the National Committee on Science and Technology prepared a comprehensive S&T Plan in 1974. The Plan identified 24 sectors ‘with a view to evolving suitable programmes of research, development and design …..for accomplishing time bound targets’. The Plan was geared towards import substitution, adaptation of imported technology, enhancement of industrial productivity, export promotion and building up capabilities in frontier areas and augmentation of R&D. It is not surprising that some of the sectors identified back then including- Nuclear Energy, Space Sciences, Pharmaceuticals, heavy engineering- are the areas where Indian has shown remarkable progress.
The next was in the 1980s when Prof. Parthasarthi was again appointed the Science and Technology Advisor to the Prime Minister. The government issued the Technology Policy Statement (TPS), and a high-level committee was constituted to implement the recommendations of the TPS which included a focus on developing indigenous technology and efficiently absorbing and adapting imported technology. The TPS aimed at fostering linkages between the various S&T institutions in order to generate technology which would impart economic benefit. These were later to transmute into various technology missions that saw translation of S&T gains into practical and public oriented solutions,” said Ansari.
Besides, he also played a vital role in the development of the defence electronics sector and saw very early the potential of solar power systems for the Indian economy.
Speaking to The Print, former director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research Dr Raghunath Anant Mashelkar talks about Parthasarathi’s fundamental role in establishing public sector enterprises in the 1970s to make India self-reliant in science and technology.
“The context at that time was very different for India than it is today. In the 70s, we did not have dollars. There was technology, but it was not available to us. We had to do everything on our own. For example, none of the defence electronics technologies like microchips, fibre optics were available in India. These had to be developed and then given to those who needed them — like the DRDO. Ashok’s major contribution was to create self-reliant technology in strategic sectors,” he said.
Following his stint in government, he would go onto write extensively on science policy with columns across media publications and books as well. He also served as a professor at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University for five years.
Yes, one can argue against the emphasis that the likes of Parthasarathi laid on state control and support to expand indigenous capabilities in science and technology, but it is impossible to ignore his contributions towards helping India become self-reliant in the arena of science and technology.
On this front, he stands tall.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)