Thursday, March 22, 2012

Science in India's budget

Highlights from the Union Budget of India for 2012-13, indicating allocation to various science sectors:

India’s budget

Discouraging result

Budget allocations in billions of rupees.

2011–122012–13% increase
Atomic energy67.2476.5113.8
Department of Health Research7.709.0817.9
Department of Science and Technology26.0628.7310.3
Department of Scientific and Industrial Research32.1734.848.3
Department of Biotechnology13.7715.009.0
Department of Agricultural Research50.0853.927.7
Oceanographic research6.997.131.8

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wilting Willow

The Gentleman’s game is witnessing a rather un-gentlemanly change. Cricket is increasingly administered and ‘owned’ by bureaucrats, politicians and movie stars. Spot fixing is turning out to be more than a one-off incident, threatening to consume young players interested in the frills of life outside the game. On the field, one can see the evolution of a rather shameful correlation between venues and playing standards. Almost all cricketing nations excel at home, only to flop abysmally on tour. Players’ behaviour on-field is anything but gentlemanly. Gone (ok, at least vanishing!) are the days of showing respect to the opposition. Forget confrontations between players; today, even the spectator gets the middle finger salute for needling a player. Of course, there are exceptions to all this, but the drop in cricketing standards cannot be denied. The game is evolving into a boring, money-minting business; in stark contrast to the passionate, adrenalin-gushing rage that it was in the nineties and early 2000s. This, in spite of India’s so-called resurgence – two World Cup triumphs in the last five years, a year at the top of the Test cricket table and a cricket league that rivals EPL and NBA in terms of prize money and fan following. I say this not only because I am an Indian and, like most in my age-group, grew up on a fair amount of playing and watching the game. India is world cricket’s biggest pot of gold. India’s success on the field means more money comes into the coffers of cricket agencies everywhere.

While I reserve an in-depth analysis of the ‘why’s and ‘why not’s of cricket’s looming decline for later, here, I outline three possible reasons that cannot be missed.

First, Cricket’s outreach has been extremely poor. It is perhaps an exception if you compare the money it generates worldwide with the number of teams that play the game (you can count them on your fingers). Over the last two decades, only a handful (South Africa, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh) of teams have entered the mainstream and managed to stay there. Even among these, the latter two have remained in the big league largely due to the lack of any other competitor, and for the need of the game’s bosses to show on paper that they are making efforts to reach out. The few minnows that make up the numbers in World Cups have not managed to come through so far. If so few teams play the game, it is inevitable that decay creeps in.

Second, with satellite TV and the internet, people have more access to watching other sports than ever before. The shorter, faster and more exciting games like tennis, motorsport, soccer, basketball, etc. are eating up cricket’s time and space. (Of course, ‘exciting’ is a subjective term. For some, nothing can be more exciting than an Indian batsman pounding the hell out of an Australian pacer, even if it is on the dustbowls of Kotla where such a result is a foregone conclusion nine times out of ten.) To counter this challenge, a new form of cricket has evolved; which has added to the decay. I discuss this next.

Third, the emergence of the slam-bang T20 has made watching cricket so so boring, quite contrary to its initial view of making the game shorter (from 8-9 hrs to under 3 hrs). T20s are heavily loaded in favour of batsmen. Rarely does one see a T20 game being played on a green top. A low scoring T20 is termed boring, as if all that is there to cricket is boundaries and more boundaries. As a result, young batsmen are getting used to batting on hard, bald wickets that offer little to no assistance to bowlers. When the same batsmen play one day cricket, or the more classical (did someone say classy?) Test cricket, they are sitting ducks to seam-and-swing bowling. Nothing exemplifies this more than India’s recent tours to England and Australia; and England’s test matches against Pakistan in Dubai.

Cricket needs to be administered by people who know the game, the players. While it is great to make money out of it, this shouldn’t happen at the cost of the quality of play. Visionary planning and execution is required to save cricket from decaying into a boring, predictable sport.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Remembering A Dark Night

Twenty-seven years ago, a killer gas leaked out of a pesticide factory, owned primarily by the Union Carbide Corporation – an American firm that dealt with production of chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers. A faulty valve caused Methyl Isocyanate, a toxic gas, to leak out late in the night of December 2 1984. Within a couple of hours, the gas engulfed a 40 sq km area around the factory. People were roused from sleep, totally unaware of their impending doom.

The Powers

The Dec 3 issue of The Statesman set the death toll to 410, which rose to 1000 on Dec 4, 1200 on Dec 5 and 2000 on Dec 6. Although the country’s leaders expressed shock at the accident and grief for the deaths, customary hospital visits, media interviews, etc by politicians followed; strong measures against the factory owners were lacking in the immediate aftermath of the accident. The opportunism in the powers was evident from the fact that party labels were visible even in relief efforts.

The People

The factory siren sounded almost two hours after the leak. People living in nearby areas took it to be part of the customary drill. Coughing children were caressed to go back to sleep by their mothers. Only when adults started sensing the gas did people connect the dots and realize what could have happened. All this while, no representative of the factory was sent out to the town to warn people of what was coming. People spilled out on to the streets, with their eyes shut tightly because, to quote a Bhopal resident, ‘exposure to the toxic gas was like having chillies thrown into the eyes’. Owners of private vehicles helped the affected to escape to farther areas. In the ensuing melee, many a child slipped away from the hands of panic-stricken parents. Many of the affected could not even finish their escape – unable to walk any further, their lungs already killed by the toxic fumes, they helplessly slumped down on the streets and died. Whole households were killed; a group of gypsies that had camped near the railway station was wiped out. Within a day of the leak, almost 20,000 people thronged the city hospitals in search of relief and medication.

The Company

The Managing Director of Union Carbide was quick to term the accident as unfortunate, and announced that the leak was effectively sealed within two hours. A lot of the Methyl Isocyanate in the factory had escaped. None of the plant workers were affected by the leak. A Union Carbide spokesperson expressed deep concern over the tragedy, and added that the company had substantial insurance to cover any lawsuits that may be filed against it. On December 5, Union Carbide stopped all production and shipment of Methyl Isocyanate worldwide.

The Present

Health issues such as breathing problems and mental illness, which were initially written off as temporary injuries, have since blown into gargantuan problems for tens of thousands of people, and their offspring, in the vicinity. Physical deformities and stunted mental growth are commonplace among children of affected parents. Scientific analysis of samples from the area reveal that the soil and water around the factory are heavily contaminated with pesticides and fertilizer chemicals, aside from the gas leak.

Union Carbide and the Government of India ‘settled’ the issue with some compensation being paid to the victims – a settlement that might be understood only by the two parties, for it is unacceptable by any standards. $500 for each human life lost - a pittance of a compensation!!! Frustrated with and lacking any faith in their own government, the people of Bhopal have risen against the injustice meted out to them. They demand a just compensation for the atrocities they continue to suffer, and cleanup of their town by the factory owner.

Things are not as simple, though. Sixteen years after the accident, Dow Chemical, one of the largest chemical manufacturers in the world, bought Union Carbide. The new owners claim that they are not legally responsible for an event that happened before the merger of Union Carbide and Dow; and whose compensation was paid off. The people of Bhopal do not believe this argument, and are campaigning against the aforementioned company. Most recently, Dow has signed an agreement with the International Olympics Committee to sponsor all its events until 2020. Groups working for the Bhopal victims are opposing sponsorship of the 2012 London Olympics* by Dow.


Was the gas leak a result of technical or human failure? Could the enormity of the tragedy been controlled by quick remedial measures? Was the Govt of India prompt and correct in its immediate response to the accident? Were the safety measures in Bhopal identical to those enforced by Union Carbide in US plants? Is enough being done to provide justice to, and safeguard the interests of, the victims of the Gas Leak and all affected people living in areas near the factory?


1) While inspiration came from multiple sources, I referred to a compilation of news articles in the immediate aftermath of the Gas Leak: ‘The Legal Aftermath of the Bhopal Disaster: A Collection of Press Clippings and Other Materials (up to May 1985)’ compiled by Marc Galanter and Gary Wilson, University of Wisconsin Law School. Any errors in interpretation or presentation of facts are solely mine.

2) Most of this reading and writing was triggered when I heard of 'Bhopali' - a documentary on the survivors of the Gas Leak. It is a wonderfully made movie that captures the stories of children and youth who live in the aftermath of the disaster. If you get a chance, please watch the movie online, or organize a screening in your campus/locality. More information may be obtained at Bhopali.

* More information is available at Bhopal

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


A chat between a grad student and his friend:

Friend: Do you know... today (21st june) is the longest day of the year?

Grad student: Dude, in grad school, EVERY day seems to be the longest day of my life... sigh.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The grant mantra

A recent visit to a potential collaborator’s lab threw up more than just a possible research project. As we drove through corn fields, I discovered how grant writing is akin to story-telling. You start with a basic idea / thought / premise. Develop a few off shoots and pursue the one that sounds most promising. Cite well-cited publications, if it’s a method development grant, always mention a biomedical application (preferably cancer or stem cells: you are sure to get money on these). Beat around the bush a little bit; throw in bombastic adjectives like ‘novel’, ‘pioneering’, etc. Then, just to be on the safe side, add a few words of caution, so that the reviewers think that you know what you are talking about. The best way to get a grant funded is to send a draft to one of the panel members before submission. If you have a friend among the elders, then life is great. Make the necessary changes and name the editors suggested by this friend, submit your grant; and sit back and relax. In any case, the people sitting on the elders’ heads who decide government policy have little to no scientific aptitude; forget knowledge of your area of research. All you can then do is hope that the sorting hat calls out your name.

Friday, March 25, 2011


What's with this blog??? Defunct for months, eh! Time to sweep aside the cobwebs yet again.

Madison tit-bits

Let me start by apologizing to the scant readers who might have given up all hope, if ever there was some, to see something new spring up here. Spring... ya, that's something new. The next five months are the best time to be in this part of the globe. Longer days, warmer nights, music by the lake, bike trips, shorts and tees.... those little things I never knew I would cherish and crave for!

From back home

Think India right now and the first thing that comes to one's mind is the 22 yard strip, timber, men-in-blue and the Cup. However mediocre the teams may be, this Cup seems to have been as entertaining as any. Holding it in the subcontinent, the heart of the cricketing world, has proven to be a master stroke for the ICC. More moolaah, more fans, everyone's happy. The Indian team has stumbled its way through to set up a mouth watering clash with neighbours Pakistan. May the best team win.

Across the world

Earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear threats.. eeks! What's next? (I had stopped here to check on an experiment. As things usually turn out, I followed this with a quick browse of the world news and was horrified to watch a video of a Brazilian teen being shot five times by a bunch of cops!! It seemed as if the cops were on weed, or thought they were playing PS2... sanity, people!)

Lab chatter


I am getting started on a project that involves watching how bacteria get killed by a toxin; and until today, was being 'bug'ged by air bubbles that would enter my reaction chamber. This problem seems to have been sorted out today. Hope this isn't a flash in the pan. Progress feels sweet :)

That's all for now. Peace out...

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I am writing this post to discuss the inherent fear of raising a question in public, which undoubtedly resides within many of us. Most of us fear becoming the butt of everyone’s jokes for asking a seemingly dumb question, although we secretly admire someone brave enough to ask the same question. Having experienced the pangs of many an unasked question personally, I can easily relate to this thought. Where does this apprehension arise from? I feel one overarching source is the fear of being judged by others. Questions tend to acquire tags, which lead to you questioning yourself and that eventually results in hesitation. I am, often, amused by the tags people assign: a ‘simple’ question gets the ‘dumb’ tag, a well-framed question might be called ‘smart’, etc. Such tags invariably get transferred from the question to the questioner, and may have high levels of persistence.

As a high schooler, I remember feeling happy asking questions in class. Some were due to my imagination, a few would come to my mind because I would day dream in lectures and lose track of what was being taught, yet others came up when I wanted to break the monotony of the class; and I would always have one question to eat up the last five minutes of class hours! Asking questions is always easier when people around you are interested more in the discussion than in taking potshots at each other. It also has a lot to do with how the respondent answers a question. I have felt less inclined to question teachers who have rubbished my questions nonchalantly. Instead, those who would help me frame a question properly and then go on to answer it were the ones who got more queries from me later. Brushing aside a question without paying attention is probably the worst thing a teacher could do. It breaks the confidence in the teacher, sending out a message that the teacher is superior and hence should not be bugged with trivia. Giving a patient hearing to a question breaks the ice between the questioner and the respondent, paving the way for detailed discussion.

Some of my most memorable classes were in Biochemistry during my Masters where my teacher would set aside time in each lecture for questions alone. The thought of being able to ask any question, even one without any relevance to the day’s discussion, was liberating. He would then ponder over it for a minute, and give a lot more than just a straightforward answer. A good answer should open one or more windows, he would say, that allow the questioner to look beyond the confines of a specific answer and provide ample opportunities to scratch parallel lines of thought.

Shashi Tharoor, former Under-Secretary General of the UN and member of the Indian Parliament, said about his undergrad life, “In College, in addition to answering questions, we learnt to question the answers. Some of us would go a step further and question the questions!” Questioning observed and abstract concepts lies at the root of science and life. Ignoring or discouraging this basic act is akin to anathema.