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In season of emotion, call for reason

Calcutta, Jan. 3: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today called on Indian society to use reason rather than emotion to resolve controversial issues — a suggestion that acquired a degree of audacity because of the presence of Mamata Banerjee, one of the most emotion-prone politicians in the country, among his audience dominated by scientists.

Addressing the 100th Indian Science Congress here, the Prime Minister specifically referred to contentious issues such as genetically-modified food or nuclear energy that, many scientists believe, have generated unwarranted public fears.

While Singh spoke at a gathering exclusively intended for scientific affairs, his exhortation to put “structured debate” above emotion came only days after the national capital witnessed intense outbursts sparked by the brutal gang rape of a girl who died on Saturday.

The Prime Minister told the nation’s largest congregation of scientists that India’s young must adopt a “science-based value system” to benefit from science and make up for lost time.

“Complex issues, be they genetically modified food or nuclear energy, cannot be settled by faith, emotion and fear but by structured debate, analysis, and enlightenment,” Singh told the meeting that was inaugurated by President Pranab Mukherjee at the Salt Lake stadium here.

Among the dignitaries on the dais was Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee whose government has rejected proposals by the public sector entity Nuclear Power Corporation to consider Haripur in Bengal as a potential site for a nuclear power station.

When her turn came to speak, Mamata steered clear of pet topics such as culture and the arts and focused on science and the need for funds for research. The change in style was noticed by some researchers.

Many scientists erupted in applause when Mamata displayed her skills at working the audience by calling for increased scholarships and adding: “People doing research should not worry about how to run a family. They should not be under any tension.”

The Prime Minister’s remarks come at a time sections of scientists are worried that unjustified public fears have contributed to stalling or at least causing delays in India’s plans to roll out genetically modified food crops and rapidly expand nuclear power capacity.

“A scientific approach and understanding of these issues are as vital as our core scientific capabilities,” Singh said. “We must invest in popularising science, not only in schools and colleges... but also in our homes, workplaces and communities,” he said.

Several thousand scientists, science policymakers, and research scholars from across the country and dozens of invited scientists, including a few Nobel laureates, are expected to attend the five-day event.

Singh, who is the first Prime Minister to be chosen the general president of this centennial meeting of the Indian Science Congress, made similar remarks during a panel discussion on how science should shape the future of India. “Inculcating rational thinking among ordinary people is a task that scientists, from their vantage point, should take upon themselves as a sacred mission,” he said.

A senior scientist said the Prime Minister’s remarks were well timed. “The public has apprehensions about genetically modified foods,” said M.S. Swaminathan, an eminent crop scientist who had helped bring the Green Revolution into India.

“India will need to expand per capita electricity six to eight fold — and to do this, we’ll need to rely on a range of energy options, thermal, hydro, renewable, and nuclear,” said R. Chidambaram, a former chairman of the department of atomic energy.

Swaminathan and Chidambaram were participants in the panel discussion initiated by the Prime Minister. The five-day Indian Science Congress will feature presentations by scientists and policymakers on diverse subjects — from space exploration to medicine to the future of fishing.

Singh asked the scientific community to take into account India’s economic realities. “Given the limited resources that we, as a nation, are able to devote to scientific research, it is imperative we give priority to meeting those challenges which are fundamental to the transformation of our economy,” he said.

The Prime Minister said any improvements in the living standards of the estimated 65 per cent of India’s population living in rural areas would depend greatly on the growth of agricultural productivity.

“This growth is constrained by shortages of water and land... we need new breakthroughs in water-saving technologies of cultivation, enhancement of land productivity. This transformation of agriculture must be the top priority concern of our public policies, including our science and technology policies,” Singh said.

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