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Research better than ad hocism

WITH EYES WIDE OPEN

D. N. Bezboruah

One of the best things to have happened recently was our own renowned astrophysicist Dr Jitendra th Goswami urging IIT Guwahati and other institutes of the region in very categorical terms to initiate consolidated research projects that are pertinent to the needs of the Northeast. Addressing the 18th convocation of IIT Guwahati on Wednesday, he said, “I would like to request IIT Guwahati and the faculty in particular, to initiate consolidated research projects that are pertinent to the multifarious needs of the Northeast so that one can have scientific rather than ad hoc solutions for problems in many sectors that continue to plague all the north-eastern States. Being an Assamese by birth and educated in school, college and university in this State, I wish to see the university system in the seven States in the Northeast contributing significantly in tackling some of the local problems, starting with tackling the perennial floods to conservation of ecosystems, which unfortutely, is not happening, even though some small and notable steps have been initiated.”

Dr Goswami did not make just a passing suggestion. He made an appeal for a change in our customary mode of conducting things and our casual, ad hoc approaches to most of our problems. When he spoke of “consolidated research projects” and scientific solutions, he obviously had in mind an approach to our problems through proper research and with a scientific temper rather than through hit-or-miss ad hoc solutions that we think up and often misapply to our problems. Dr Goswami implied that the consolidated research programmes that he had in mind did not belong to the realm of academic research alone, but were also relevant for what might be called informal or non-academic research. There is little doubt about two aspects of such research. One is that the scientific temper has to take over in all such informal research as well. Research, whether academic or informal, must at all times be motivated by a healthy scientific temper rather than any kind of arbitrariness that makes no room for scientific attitudes. So, in making a plea for research in dealing with our problems, Dr Goswami was actually suggesting a methodology for more efficient handling of day-to-day problems that our administrators, scientists, teachers, students and other citizens face. It is important to appreciate that not all research has to lead to a Ph.D. or D.Litt. thesis and a degree. All research being a mode of enquiry, there is a place for research even in some of the most mundane things we undertake. What is significant is that some of the research that we undertake to ensure more efficient ways of doing things can well lead also to doctoral degrees. The fact that most Indians are capable of this is underscored by the different kinds of research undertaken by people in different walks of life. Our scientists have never ceased to surprise us with their potential in their areas of study and research and their achievements in some of the most esoteric facets of science and technology. On the day when Dr Jitendra th Goswami made his appeal for research on the problems facing the Northeast, scientists of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) created a record of sorts by launching 20 satellites on the same day. This is a feat that gets very close to Russia’s record of sending up 37 satellites in 2014 and the US space agency SA launching 29 satellites in a day. The question is: where does it leave the rest of us who are not scientists but sometimes have things to do that fall within the ambit of scientific activity and call for the exercise of scientific temper?

As I said earlier, not all research has to be on academic issues alone. But as a method of getting things done, it is far more efficient than the kind of ad-hocism that is much in evidence in our government offices. Such hit-or-miss ways of solving problems have been much in evidence in government offices for decades. Such ad hoc ways of solving problems received much encouragement during the 15-year reign of the Tarun Gogoi government during which all semblance of fiscal discipline and other aspects of discipline got thrown to the winds. And since every activity in government offices involves expenditure (as in other institutions as well), fiscal discipline can make or mar the approach to efficient research. Take, for instance, the monsoon in Assam that makes impacts on our lives in different and sometimes unexpected ways. Apart from the figures of rainfall and duration of rains that the government routinely records and preserves, there is obviously need for greater research on different aspects of how the monsoon touches our lives. How does the monsoon affect the movement fishes and their concentration in certain pockets? How does it affect bird migration? How does the monsoon affect the import of essential commodities to the State or the region due to the decline in the number of trucks coming during the rainy season? What impact does the monsoon have on vegetable and foodgrains prices? How do prices change at the end of the rainy season? Anyone who collates such seemingly trivial data would have a way of virtually predicting many things that are controlled by the monsoon if the data collected were accurate and provided information about several years.

Take, for instance, the data compiled for the updating of the tiol Register of Citizens (NRC), 1951. In about a couple of months from now, we are likely to have information about every family in Assam in greater detail than census reports can provide. In fact, our updated NRC can undo for Assam what P. Chidambaram decided for the entire country during his brief stint as Union Home Minister. My readers will recall that during his brief stint as Union Home Minister, he had said that it was impossible for the government to issue certificates of citizenship to Indian tiols, and that it could issue only certificates of residence. This would be considered a preposterous statement from the home minister (or interior minister) of any civilized democracy. Every civilized country ought to be in a position to issue its citizens identity cards to be able to prove their citizenship. A certificate of residence does not serve this function. In fact, in the context of Assam, a certificate of residence puts me on a par with someone from Bangladesh illegally residing in Assam. Everyone has noticed how willing and prompt some government officers have been to issue all necessary proofs of citizenship (like permanent resident certificates and registration as voters) to migrants from Bangladesh who are here without any travel documents. I have always been amazed at the speed at which the enrolment of Bangladeshis as permanent residents and voters takes place in Assam. But when it comes to issuing even such unsatisfactory proofs of domicile to children of the soil (generally for admission to professiol colleges), such officers are generally short of forms.

As expected, the process of updating the NRC of 1951 has got somewhat bogged down by the production of thousands of fake documents that some of our ‘patriotic’ officers had helped thousands of applicants to produce in order to get their mes entered in the updated NRC. Mercifully, most of these fake documents have been detected. But they have greatly slowed down the process of updating the NRC. In any case, the updated NRC will provide a rich fund of data and information about how the demography of Assam has undergone alarming and diabolic changes during the last 65 years. It will also tell us how we and our vote-hungry political leaders have been responsible for the irreversible demographic betrayal wrought to the land of our birth. Those who are in the habit of regularly referring to the illegal migrants from Bangladesh living in Assam as ‘the minorities’, will realize how incorrect the word minorities has been on two counts: (1) the minorities of any country have to be citizens in the first place; most of the Bangladeshi migrants are not Indian citizens; (2) in at least ten districts of Assam, these illegal migrants from Bangladesh now constitute the majority. So how can we call them ‘minorities’?

The updated NRC itself can be a pointer to the fact that there had been very little research (whether academic or informal) going on even in activities and undertakings that have a strong statistical bias. This is good enough reason to abandon our ad hoc approaches to activities that involve the spending of public money and time paid for by the government. It is high time we worked towards developing a scientific temper and the spirit of research in most of our endeavours that will in some way have a bearing on the lives of our fellow humans. This is the least we can do to function efficiently when our actions have a bearing on the lives of others.

About the author

Ankur Kalita