Indian budget gives science a boost

New Delhi, Mar 14: Scientists in India were preparing for the worst—a drastic cut in the budgetary allocations. However, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley surprised them by being benevolent and gave Science and Technology Ministry a Rs 811 crore increase in the central plan outlay as compared to the last fiscal, which represents a rise of about 11 per cent, reports AFP. Many suggest that Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes personal interest in issues related to S&T and hence his government continues to be supportive. A day before the budget was to be presented, on occasion of the National Science Day, Modi said, “May the spirit of research and innovation grow further in our country”, reflecting his scientific temper. Speaking at the Indian Science Congress in Mysuru earlier this year, Modi gave some indication “we will also try to increase the level of resources for science, and deploy them in accordance with our strategic priorities... In a world of resource constraints and competing claims, we have to be smart in defining our priorities.” When it was widely expected that belt tightening would be the norm, this increase has brought a smile on the face of India’s amiable Science Minister Harsh Vardhan who said, “This will facilitate Ministry of Science and Technology to implement S&T programmes aligned with the country’s strategic priorities.” Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology, Ashutosh Sharma was almost ecstatic on the increase, calling it “fantastic”, usually around the last quarter of any calendar year the government issues revised estimates for the budget and by and large ministries are forced to cut back, but in fiscal 2015-2016, DST was not asked to cut back and this new budget gave him a bonanza. The total ‘plan allocation’ of Ministry of Science and Technology for the financial years 2013-14, 2014-15, and 2015-16 was Rs 5145 crore, Rs 5495 crore and Rs 7200.80 crore respectively. Central Plan outlay for 2016-2017 is Rs 8100 crore for the Ministry of Science and Technology. This year on year increase helps India’s vast S&T establishment keep pace with the inflation and keeps the programs ticking. Yet infusing new blood into the system seems to be suffering as fresh recruitment is almost on a freeze. Recently the director general of Defence Research and Development Organisation voiced his sharp concern directly to Modi saying an “aging scientific work force was counter-productive for cutting edge development work”. The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, which also accommodates the massive Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) having a network of 37 labs came worst off with an almost flat budget. But then there was also reason for some huge relief since less than a year ago at meeting in Dehradun of all directors of CSIR, Vardhan had pushed through a proposal that “all CSIR labs to make efforts to be self-financing in next 2 years”. This had sent shock waves among the 16,000 staff who felt that CSIR would soon become a low-cost contract research organisation and the lofty goals of doing ‘blue sky research’ could be given a go by. The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) came out getting a Rs 193 crore increase, which represented a 12 per cent increase over the last fiscal. This may not take it very far in trying to make India a USD 100 billion biotech industry by 2020 as mandated in its new biotechnology strategy document released a few months ago. DBT’s Secretary K VijayRaghavan, a top-notch researcher who recently got a rare extension to his term, felt the increase was ‘very good’ and there was no reason to complain. This sector continues to face a slowdown as the much-needed Biotech Regulatory Authority of India bill continues to languish with Parliament. Young students, it seems, are deserting this field of research since regulatory issues plague the commercialisation of products. The case in point being no new genetically modified crop has seen the light of the day into farmer’s fields after the first and only introduction of Bt cotton way back in 2002. Despite a huge oilseeds import bill, a new high yielding genetically modified variety of mustard developed by the University of Delhi continues to be red flagged as there is no clarity on regulatory issues and the ‘ideological hurdle’ that GM technology encounters at the Krishi Bhawan. The Department of Atomic Energy fared a shade better by getting a 4 per cent increase in the central plan outlay and a promise that Rs 3000 crore would be made available for making power reactors. This comes even as India has failed to sign even a single new reactor contract for an imported reactor as part of the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. Now the ‘leak’ of heavy water at the Kakrapar Atomic Power Station in southern Gujarat on Friday that caused a ‘plant emergency’ is only going raise more hackles against the faster deployment of ‘carbon free’ atomic power. According to the Sekhar Basu, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission ‘no worker was exposed to radioactivity and no radiation leak took place’ in this leak of heavy water that according to the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited was limited only to the inside of the ‘containment building’. The Indian nuclear watchdog, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, was a little more circumspect as it said “there has not been any abnormal release of radioactivity outside the plant or radiation exposures as result of the incident”. Coming exactly five years after the notorious meltdown of nuclear reactors at Fukushima in Japan, the Indian nuclear establishment will have to do a lot more to win the hearts minds and confidence of people that atomic energy is a safe option. The Department of Space also came out flat in its central plan outlay this year with an allotment of Rs 6000 crore even as it prepares for launching Prime Minister Modi’s dream project the ‘SAARC satellite’ a friendly bird in the sky India is gifting to the 8 South Asian nations later this year. There was much expectation that Modi who is a known space buff would get the Indian Space Research Organisation a big boost. Nevertheless, it seems programmatic needs necessitated that the budget remains flat. The other big ministry that concerns us all is the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare where according to Health Minister J P Nadda there has been a 21 per cent increase with the allocations reaching Rs 31,300 crore up from Rs 25,946 crore last year. This comes in the wake of a landmark survey by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare that presented a somewhat bleak picture of India’s health. The survey, a quick but robust snapshot of India’s health, was revealed as part of the National Family Health Survey-4 (NFHS-4), presented data only for 13 states and 2 union territories. Among some good points the latest survey suggests that ‘wasting or severe malnutrition in children is still very high by international standards’ in all of the 13 states and 2 union territories that were surveyed. Expressing satisfaction with the allocation Nadda said, “There is no real shortage of money for the health sector and more often than not states do not have the capacity to spend it.”To elucidate his point Nadda says in the last fiscal Bihar alone returned Rs 1000 crore as unutilised funds in the health sector. Nadda asserted “there is just no shortage of funds”. The Department of Health Research got an increase of mere Rs 37 crore with its central plan outlay reaching Rs 750 crore even as it gets ready to battle new infections like the Zika virus. Vardhan expressed satisfaction with budgetary allocations adding that all in his ministries have been gearing up to work in a concerted and coordinated manner for the overall objective of higher economic growth, employment and social equity.


source : the news today

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