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Indira Gandhi as benefactor of science and technology

Nandkumar Kamat

Indira Priydarshini Nehru born on 19 November 1917, became world famous by the name Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India and a respected statesman after marrying parliamentarian Firoj Gandhi. The nation would be ungrateful if her contributions to promote science and technology during 1967-84 are forgotten in her centenary year. Our headmaster had asked me, a class II student to offer a garland to Indiraji who was on her maiden visit to Goa as PM, travelling via Santa Cruz from Dabolim to Panaji. I still remember her personality in a sari as she stood smilingly in an open jeep, accepted the garland and then tossed it back in the crowd.

Indoctrination from a rational and atheist father Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, her wide global travel experience and interaction with reputed scientists at early age, including Nobel laureates had completed her education in matters of science policy and administration. Indiraji sent emissaries abroad to get talented young Indian scientists to return and serve the country; that’s how three famous personalities – astrophysicist Jayant Naralikar (TIFR/IUCAA), Polymer technologist Raghunath Mashelkar (NCL)and Nuclear technologist Anil Kakodkar (BARC, AEC) returned to India. The work done by this triumvirate in their respective fields is before the nation. Dr. Kurian the father of “Operation Flood” who made India self reliant in milk production and dairy products has written positively about the support given by Indiraji when he felt demoralised.

She laid solid foundations for ISRO to emerge as a space superpower. Her tenure saw the successful launching of Aryabhatta the first artificial satellite of India. Just few months before her assassination, on April 2, 1984 she was pleased to talk to Rakesh Sharma, who flew aboard Soyuz T-11 as part of the Intercosmos programme. She created a separate Department of Ocean Development (DOD) in 1981. Indiraji had seen the benefits of country’s power projection beyond normal borders and took a historic step to launch the ambitious Antarctic Research programme. She had full faith in ex NIO director S Z Quasim who persuaded her to establish the Antarctic research centre in Goa. Today because of her Goa hosts and boasts National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (

Indiraji understood future benefits of seabed mining. She encouraged the oceanographers to work on polymetallic nodules on seabed. It was due to her vision that in 1987, India became the first country to have received the status of a pioneer investor and was allocated an exclusive area in Central Indian Ocean Basin by United Nations (UN) for exploration and utilisation of nodules. She was a transformed personality after attending the first Earth summit, Stockholm, Sweden in 1972. She had sensed the directions of the global winds. That’s how ministry of environment and forests (MOEF) came into existence in 1977, followed by a separate Department of Science and Technology (DST) in 1982. She immediately ordered revamp of the forest and environmental laws.

First came the powerful Wildlife Act, 1972, followed by the Water Pollution Control Act, 1974 and the Air Pollution Control Act, 1981. Project tiger was launched in 1973 to conserve the natural habitats of the diminishing Royal Bengal Tigers. She laid down the foundation for Department of Biotechnology (DBT). In 1982, a National Biotechnology Board (NBTB) was constituted by the Government to identify priority areas and evolve long term perspective for Biotechnology in India chaired by Professor MGK Menon. The DBT actually came into existence in 1986 due to efforts later made by Rajiv Gandhi. In December 1971 Indiraji led the country to emphatic victory in Indo-Pak war 1971 by liberating Bangladesh. But she could see the military blackmailing by USA and felt the need to test a nuclear device.

On September 7, 1972, she ordered the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) to prepare an experimental atomic device to be exploded under Indian army’s supervision. BARC completed the work in total secrecy in two years. Indira Gandhi would be remembered as a bold politician to order the first test of India’s nuclear device on 18 May 1974. This whole secret operation codenamed as “Smiling Buddha” shook the western world. India had proudly joined the nuclear club. Within a year Indiraji ensured that India would also join the space club.

We were in high school when we felt the excitement of victory in 1971 war, the Pokhran atomic test and the launching of India’s first satellite on April 19, 1975. Very few people in Goa know how much Indiraji loved and cared for this state’s ecology and environment. She used to receive regular briefings from NIO oceanographer Quasim. She had seen the vulnerability of India’s fragile coastline. She personally wrote a letter in 1981 to all the Chief Ministers of coastal states, drawing their attention to the fact that owing to their aesthetic and environmental value, beaches must be kept clear of all activities up to 500 metres from the highest water line.

This was a visionary approach. But only for ecologically vulnerable state of Goa as chairperson of Planning Commission, she appointed a task force under M S Swaminathan in 1981 to prepare an Eco-development plan. This plan submitted in March 1982 has solutions for all the current ecological issues in the state, thanks to Indira Gandhi. But no Goan politician cared or dared to implement that report.

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