New Delhi, May 17: India's science and technology ministry has set up a "national steering committee" to guide research to assess the many claimed virtues of Panchgavya, a traditional concoction of cow dung, urine, milk, curd and ghee, water and three other ingredients.
The committee, chaired by Union science minister Harsh Vardhan with administrators of science agencies among its members, is intended to serve as an apex body to guide "scientific validation and research on Panchgavya", the department of science and technology (DST) said.
The committee has been asked to select, guide and review research projects involving Panchgavya, recommend budgets and formulate the "delivery mechanisms" for "widespread application" of the research outcomes.
Sections of scientists view the move as driven by either politics or ideology. But scientists and officials associated with the initiative assert that it merely seeks to use modern scientific techniques to assess claims about the traditional concoction made from five products from cows in addition to banana, jaggery and tender coconut.
The DST, in a note circulated to the committee members, has described the initiative as a "multi-disciplinary programme" seeking the participation of government departments and academic institutions to validate the use of Panchgavya in agriculture, medicine, nutrition and "utility products".
The programme, the April 25 note said, will also be aimed at "scientific validation of the uniqueness of Indian cows".
A DST official told The Telegraph that the department had not committed any funding for the initiative, which will depend on the "quality and variety" of project proposals it receives.
The department is collaborating with the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, where researchers have developed and patented technology for the extraction and bottling of biogas from cow dung to run transport vehicles.
"In this Panchgavya programme, there will be no criteria other than science," said Virendra Kumar Vijay, professor at the IIT's Centre for Rural Development and Technology (CRDT) who says he has been running his car on biogas for five years.
But some scientists are concerned that the DST appears to be preparing to invest funds and human resources into this traditional concoction.
"India has limited money and limited talent for research - we need to ask ourselves: are we spending what we have wisely?" asked a physicist who is among the DST's panel of experts who review proposals for projects and requested not to be named.
Some view the DST's Panchgavya initiative as driven by lines of thinking similar to what prompted the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), another government agency, to initiate about two years ago research efforts aimed at investigating "special properties of Ganga jal."
A senior scientist who has himself conducted research on ayurvedic biology in the past said rational analysis and the rigor of science should be applied to such initiatives, if they are launched.
"Ideology-driven research is not good for any field of scientific activity," said Subhash Lakhotia, professor at Banaras Hindu University. "Traditional knowledge may be put to test to understand how or why something works, but no matter what the results - positive or negative - they should be accepted."
Agricultural researchers in India have between 2002 and 2016 published about a dozen papers on the promises of Panchgavya, claiming that the concoction can improve post-harvest attributes of roses, enhance soil nutrients and fight a cauliflower pest disease.
Kavya Dashora, assistant professor at IIT's CRDT, and co-convenor of the committee, said the Panchgavya initiative would allow scientists to validate such claims. "This is an opportunity to establish whether something works or does not work," she said.
But critics point out that mere claims of validation do not necessarily translate into applications. In June 2000 and May 2005, a CSIR laboratory in Lucknow working with collaborators in Nagpur had obtained patents on the use of a cow urine distillate as a bioenhancer that would increase the biological activity of certain medicines.
Those patents still remain unexploited, a source in the CSIR told The Telegraph. "The work on the distillate was not pursued," the source said.
The DST note establishing the committee follows a brain-storming session organised by the IIT's CRDT in December 2016 where scientists and policymakers had met to work out mechanisms to promote research on Panchgavya.
The other members of the NSC are Vijay Bhatkar, a scientist who led the development of India's first supercomputer in 1990 and now chancellor of Nalanda University, Raghunath Mashelkar, former director-general of the CSIR, Sunil Mansingka, the head of the Go Vigyan Anusandhan Kendra in Nagpur, and the administrative heads of science and research agencies, including the DST, the department of biotechnology, the Indian Council of Medical Research, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the ministry of new renewable energy.