By ESHA SHAH, STEPS Centre Member

No meetings examining science in society are nowadays complete without reference to India-China. The meeting organised by ESRC’s Science in Society programme on ‘Innovation Culture or Anti-Science Britain?’ on 16 October was no exception.
The hyphenated lumping together of two continent-size countries with vastly different histories, socio-economic background and culture into one category is widely common across all fora, including the meeting on Anti-Science Britain. Treating India and China as if they were Siamese twins, their heads only severed with a hyphen post-natal, signals the fact that only one aspect – India and China emerging as global market players – matters the most to a significant number of European scholars.

A range of responses, which I describe as sentimental and born out of anxiety, on India and China emerged during the science in society meeting. Whether they were referred as rising powers, global players, innovation leaders, suppliers of highly skilled labour, pharmaceutical powers or emphatically described as “not a threat but an opportunity”, India and China’s positioning in the global commodity chain is clearly what mattered the most to nearly all of the scholars making the references.

One of the keynote speakers, David Edgerton described India and China as “not the Other” but his otherwise scathing criticism of the elite response to science and technology policy in Britain did not go as far as even superficially establishing if India and China were not ‘the Other’, in what way they were close to ‘the Self’ then? And who is ‘the Self’ anyway – European policy/European elite?

Spanning opinions across the spectrum – India and China as the threat or opportunity, Self or the Other- the European scholarly response to science, technology and society in India and China is neither normative, nor intellectual, it is purely emotive. None of the speakers questioned the hyphen suggests that these two global players are quintessentially defined by their relation to Europe and that also to the European and the US markets. That’s why all normative questions, such as in which direction the innovation trajectories in India and China are proceeding, to whom the innovation and production chains from India and China are serving, and to what extent these trajectories are able to take care of needs of the poor and marginalised, remain inadequately engaged with.

Speaking about the elite engagement of science policy in Britain, the keynote speaker, David Edgerton proposed that history is the most important way to understand the relationship between science and society. He in fact advocated different kind of history to examine co-relationship between science, technology and economic development. After separating it from its hyphenated twin, it is pertinent to historically examine how has India become a global player from playing pauper in just 30 to 40 years.

India’s nationalist elites, along with international aid actors in the UN development decades of the 1960s and 1970s, relentlessly constructed the images of India as a hungry, dying nation of poor people. Playing pauper, India, along with its Latin American colleagues, demanded technology transfer and technology access as the foundational principles in the UN Conference for the Application of Science, Technology for the Benefit of the less Developed Areas (UNCSAT) held in Geneva in 1963. The same argument was repeated amidst the heated debates on the New International Economic Order in the Vienna UN conference in 1979.

Now, India is not troubled by the UN Millennium task force on science, technology and innovation removing the distinction between developed and developing countries and in fact unabashedly talks about global innovation capacity building on science and technology. And that is in the context that India’s performance in combating hunger is as bad as ranking 94th among 110 nations in the recent report 2007 on world hunger prepared by International Food Policy Research Institute (Global Hunger Index 2007). Yester-year’s street kid, India, is now asking buddy-buddy for a membership in the European golf-club. And the only response that Europe can muster is enormous emotional anxiety about ‘the Self ‘and ‘the Other’.

Is India indeed a massive success story? How has it, in the span of just a few decades transformed itself from what was described by an influential economic historian in the 1960s as so “badly wounded” that it “should be left to die in the battlefield” in to a rising economic power? Has it fed all its hungry, taken care of its poor and nursed all of its wounded?

Following on from what David Edgerton proposed, I would appeal to research funding bodies that, in addition to supporting research that examines how rising powers are engaging with international science and technology governance, India and China’s science in society should be examined in their all-encompassing historical details.

But before asking what these rising powers are doing, the first question to answer would be ‘whose’ rising power is it and what is it rising to? Most importantly, the first step towards asking any intellectual/normative questions would be to, what the subaltern scholar Dipesh Chakravarty argued, provincialize Europe: stop making Europe the only reference scale against which powers, societies and countries are evaluated as ‘rising’ or ‘emerging’ or ‘setting’ or ‘dying’. This is essential to allow both Europe and India to own up to their respective histories and, in the process, transform both ‘the Self’ and ‘the Other’.