Bengaluru: The national budget presented by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has been hailed as "growth oriented" by the corporate sector, but Indian scientists seem not too enthused and say the much-touted "achhe din" (good days) are yet to arrive.
According to the budget documents, the government has provided Rs.356 billion ($6 billion) for research to various departments in the ministries of science, atomic energy defence, health, earth sciences, new and renewable energy and space. This allocation is 17.2 percent more than last year's but is still a mere two per cent of the total Rs.17,775 billion available with the government for expenses this year.
The scientists, who were expecting some big bang announcements and a huge hike for scientific research in the wake of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rhetoric in the past, are depressed that Jaitley's 90-minute speech left no cause for such celebration.
They note that the word science finds only a cursory mention in the 47-page budget document and that, unlike in previous years, science and technology does not get the prominence it deserved.
It is sad that funding for science in India continues to remain sub-optimal, C.N.R Rao, scientific adviser to former prime ministers since 2004 and a Bharat Ratna awardee, lamented. "I do not know what to say except that (our) science continues to be in bad shape due to inadequate funding," Rao told IANS.
Only 10 days ago, thousands of PhD scholars turned the spotlight on the poor state of research funding through nation-wide protests demanding a hike in the fellowship amount. Noting that no new science projects have been initiated in this year's budget, Rao said "even existing programmes" are already feeling the crunch.
"My appeal to the prime minister is that even now it is not too late to rectify the mistake and allocate additional funds for science," Rao said. "The increase required is so small (in comparison to the available total budget) that it will not even be noticed." He hoped that the science academies in the country would collectively take up the issue.
M. Vijayan, former president of the New Delhi-based Indian National Science Academy and a professor in the Indian Institute of science in Bengaluru, said he too was surprised at science not getting emphasis on allocations in the budget. "The hike in allocation this year is only slight, and our science spending is still hovering around 0.8 per cent of the GDP - far short of the two percent target," Vijayan told IANS.
The finance minister's announcement that the government will set up one more IIT in Karnataka and six more institutions of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences-type has not brought any cheer either. Rao says this is a futile exercise "as many such institutions established earlier remain headless and without laboratory facilities".
But K. Vijay Raghavan, secretary in the department of biotechnology, an incurable optimist, did not think the government has let scientists down. "The budget is good news (for science). No cuts, a modest increase and new opportunities in entrepreneurship," Raghavan told IANS.
Subhash Lakhotia, professor emeritus at the Banaras Hindu University, cautioned that though the modest increase is good news, "an allocation, by itself, does not mean much unless the amount is really made available in good time".
Last year, the allocated budget of the government laboratories and grants for research projects were cut by as much as 35 percent. "This feature is a greater worry as it upsets any planning by the agencies," Lakhotia told IANS.
But the government's move to establish an Innovation Promotion Platform involving academics, entrepreneurs, and researchers and another mechanism called SETU (Self-Employment and Talent Utilisation) to support all aspects of start-up businesses in technology-driven areas has been widely welcomed.
"If administered well, these steps can act as a force multiplier for both the Make in India initiative and for employment generation," Bhaskar Ramamurthi, director of the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, told IANS.