The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Science superpower salute to India

London, Feb. 19: Brilliant Indian scientists have featured in a cover story in a major western journal, in a sign that the world is looking at India as the next knowledge superpower.

India has in the past made the cover of Newsweek, Time and other international magazines for such stories as Bollywood, economic development, political assassinations and tragedies of one kind or another. But probably never before as a world-beater in science.

Now, for a change, there is a cover story that does not even reach for a photograph of Aishwarya Rai.

This week, in what is probably a first and, perhaps, a harbinger of things to come, one of Britain's premier scientific journals, NewScientist, has done a cover story on Indian science.

The cover image on the special issue, for which the journal sent a team of investigative journalists to India, is of a shining hub ' instead of the spinning wheel-against the backdrop of saffron, white and green. Possibly even the Mahatma might not have objected too much.

The issue is simply called: 'India. The Next Knowledge Superpower.'

The magazine says: 'Make no mistake, India is heading for greatness. NewScientist investigates a world-beating nation in the making.'

Also on the cover is a selection from the many articles inside. They include Silicon Subcontinent; Vaccines for pennies; The giant telescope; Super chickpea; Cordless village; Sight-giving stem cells; Thorium power and Mission to the moon.

What is encouraging about the NewScientist issue is that there is no hype that would be intolerable to scientists with clinical minds.

'For the NewScientist reporters who have been in India for this special report, many features of the country stand out,' says the magazine. 'With a population of more than a billion, the country presents some curious contrasts. It has the world's 11th largest economy, yet it is home to more than a quarter of the world's poorest people. It is the sixth largest emitter of carbon dioxide, yet hundreds of millions of its people have no steady electricity supply. It has more than 250 universities which catered last year for more than 3.2 million science students, yet 39 per cent of adult Indians cannot read or write.'

It is against this sober background it informs its discriminating readers, who include the best-informed scientists in the West: 'The first sign that something was up came about eight years back. Stories began to appear in the international media suggesting that India was 'stealing' jobs from wealthy nations ' not industrial jobs, like those that had migrated to south-east Asia, but the white-collar jobs of well-educated people. Today, we know that the trickle of jobs turned into a flood. India is now the back office of many banks, a magnet for labour-intensive, often tedious programming, and the customer services voice of everything from British Airways to Microsoft.'

It points out: 'In reality, the changes in India have been more profound than this suggests. Over the past five years alone, more than 100 IT and science-based firms have located R&D labs in India. These are not drudge jobs: high-tech companies are coming to India to find innovators whose ideas will take the world by storm. Their recruits are young graduates, straight from India's universities and elite technology institutes, or expats who are streaming back because they see India as the place to be ' better than Europe and the US. The knowledge revolution has begun.'

According to NewScientist: 'There's a revolution afoot in India. Unlike any other developing nation, India is using brainpower rather than cheap physical labour or natural resources to leapfrog into the league of technologically advanced nations. Every high tech company, from Intel to Google, is coming to India to find innovators. Leading the charge is Infosys, the country's first billion-dollar IT company.'

'But the revolution is not confined to IT,' it adds. 'Crop scientists are passionately pursuing GM crops to help feed India's poor. Some intrepid molecular biologists are pioneering stem-cell cures for blindness, while others have beaten the odds to produce vaccines for pennies.'

There is also the space programme. 'Looking skyward, India's unique space programme has fought international sanctions to emerge as a key player in India's development. Meanwhile, India's nuclear industry is boldly building cutting-edge fast-breeder reactors.'

There are those who ask: 'But why is India, a country that still has so many development problems on the ground, aiming for the heavens' To Indian scientists, the question is not only patronising of their scientific aspirations, it betrays an ignorance of the Indian space programme's greater purpose and successes against the odds.'

NewScientist provides the answer: 'India's political leaders say the country cannot afford not to have a space programme. Indira Gandhi, who was India's longest-serving Prime Minister, believed it was not only important for science, but also vital to India's development.'

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