1. ‘Sustained investment in science helped India fight pandemic’
Govt. to organise week-long festival to celebrate science
Ahead of a week-long celebration of India’s achievements in science and technology since Independence, top officials of Ministries linked to science and technology said the country was able to conduct COVID-19 tests and make vaccines efficiently because of investments “in the right places” going back decades.
“India was one of the few countries under colonial rule that invested in science and technology almost simultaneously with getting independent. The various revolutions such as the Green, White and Blue Revolutions show that we have invested extensively in science and technology,” said Rajesh Gokhale, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology (DBT).
“The very fact that we have the diagnostic labs, the manpower and the training to be able to conduct crores of RT-PCR tests and genome sequencing… the capacity building has been excellent over the years and India has done fabulously,” he said.
The Vigyan Sarvatra Pujye festival, as it is called, begins on February 22 and ends on February 28 to coincide with the National Science Day, commemorating Dr. C.V. Raman’s discovery of the Raman effect.
“The festival will be conducted at 75 locations and host 75 expositions, 75 lectures, 75 films, 75 radio talks, 75 science literary activities, and more through a hybrid mode,” according to a press statement.
Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology S. Chandrashekhar said, “It’s because we made the right investments at the right time, we’ve been able to handle the pandemic much better than many countries. The generic drug industry and the vaccine industry are examples of this. DST/DBT was the first one to encourage Dr. [Krishna] Ella [head of Bharat Biotech] to start a vaccine company when he returned from the U.S. We lagged a little on innovation but we are catching up and now we are focussing on quantum computers and technologies that will take us to the next stage of development.
Principal Scientific Adviser K. VijayRaghavan said, “It’s remarkable how science has adjusted to the requirement of speed. Going forward, scientists have learnt that it’s important to be prepared and have the tools ready.”
Department of Science & Technology (DST)
Department of Science & Technology (DST) was established in May 1971, with the objective of promoting new areas of Science & Technology and to play the role of a nodal department for organising, coordinating and promoting S&T activities in the country. The Department has major responsibilities for specific projects and programmes as listed below:
- Formulation of policies relating to Science and Technology.
- Matters relating to the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Cabinet (SACC).
- Promotion of new areas of Science and Technology with special emphasis on emerging areas.
- Research and Development through its research institutions or laboratories for development of indigenous technologies concerning bio-fuel production, processing, standardization and applications, in co-ordination with the concerned Ministry or Department;
- Research and Development activities to promote utilization of by-products to development value added chemicals.
- Coordination and integration of areas of Science & Technology having cross-sectoral linkages in which a number of institutions and departments have interest and capabilities.
- Undertaking or financially sponsoring scientific and technological surveys, research design and development, where necessary.
- Support and Grants-in-aid to Scientific Research Institutions, Scientific Associations and Bodies.
- All matters concerning:
- Science and Engineering Research Council;
- Technology Development Board and related Acts such as the Research and Development Cess Act,1986 (32 of 1986) and the Technology Development Board Act,1995 (44 of 1995);
- National Council for Science and Technology Communication;
- National Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Development Board;
- International Science and Technology Cooperation including appointment of scientific attaches abroad (These functions shall be exercised in close cooperation with the Ministry of External Affairs);
- Autonomous Science and Technology Institutions relating to the subject under the Department of Science and Technology including Institute of Astro-physics, and Institute of Geo-magnetism;
- Professional Science Academies promoted and funded by Department of Science and Technology;
- The Survey of India, and National Atlas and Thematic Mapping Organisation;
- National Spatial Data Infrastructure and promotion of G.I.S;
- The National Innovation Foundation, Ahmedabad.
- Matters commonly affecting Scientific and technological departments/organisations/ institutions e.g. financial, personnel, purchase and import policies and practices.
- Management Information Systems for Science and Technology and coordination thereof.
- Matters regarding Inter-Agency/Inter-Departmental coordination for evolving science and technology missions.
- Matters concerning domestic technology particularly the promotion of ventures involving the commercialization of such technology other than those under the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.
- All other measures needed for the promotion of science and technology and their application to the development and security of the nation.
- Matters relating to institutional Science and Technology capacity building including setting up of new institutions and institutional infrastructure.
- Promotion of Science and Technology at the State, District, and Village levels for grass- roots development through State Science and Technology Councils and other mechanisms.
- Application of Science and Technology for weaker sections, women and other disadvantaged sections of Society.
Department of Biotechnology
The remarkable march of India into the world of biosciences and technological advances began in 1986. That year, the then Prime Minister of the country, late Rajiv Gandhi accepted the vision that unless India created a separate Department for Biotechnology, within the Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India the country would not progress to the desired extent. This was because many of our macro-economic issues of growth were subsumed within that science’s development.
That decision has made India one of the first countries to have a separate department for this stream of science and technology. However the initiation of deliberations to establish the department started much earlier In 1982, after detailed deliberations with the scientific community, and on the basis of recommendations by the then Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet, a National Biotechnology Board (NBTB) was constituted by the Government to identify priority areas and evolve long term perspective for Biotechnology in India. It was also responsible for fostering programmes and strengthening indigenous capabilities in this newly emerging discipline.
The NBTB was chaired by the formidable scientist Professor MGK Menon, the then Member (Science) of India’s Planning Commission. All the Secretaries to the various departments of the government dealing with science were appointed as Members of this Board. A separate Department of Biotechnology (DBT) was finally set up in February, 1986 and the NBTB selected Dr S Ramachandran as the first Secretary of the department. The DBT constituted a ten member Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) with heads of various scientific agencies and a seven member Standing Advisory Committee for North America SAC (0) to ensure that the Department kept abreast of global developments in the field of Biotechnology.
Dr S Ramachandran, says that Prime Minister Shri Rajiv Gandhi recognised that the pace at which biological sciences were growing globally, that “unless we leap forward, there is no way of catching up with the rest of the world”. So space was allocated to a small team to sit in the now sprawling and modern CGO Complex, at Lodhi Road, New Delhi, to set up the DBT. According to Dr Ramachndran the Department started with a modest beginning of around Rs 4 to 6 crore as its first budget.
- There were many serious challenges at the start. First, there were inter-departmental conflicts with no department willing to part with its earlier responsibilities to a new but specialised body.
- The second most important problem was the “tendency of Indian scientists to publish only in national journals” because publishing in international and solidly peer-reviewed journals took too long.
- Third, the industry could not be persuaded early to join hands as governmental procedures took too long.
- The fourth major obstacle was procuring scientific equipment and reagents and other vital necessities for lab research.
In those days in the country, not too many people were working on biosciences. The department had, therefore, to focus on
- Developing human resources
- Creation of appropriate infrastructure
- Research and development
- Creating a regulatory framework
Despite the challenges, the department started to roll on almost as soon as it was formed. The first autonomous institute, the National Institute of Immunology which was set up in 1981 was brought under the wings of DBT. Soon after, it was joined by the National Facility for Animal Tissue and Cell Culture of Pune formed in 1986 which was later christened the National Centre for Cell Science. The late 1990s and early 2000 saw many other institutes like The National Institute for Plant Genome Research (NIPGR), the National Brain Research Centre (NBRC) followed, the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting & Diagnostics, Institute of Bioresources and Sustainable Development and the Institute of Life Sciences take shape. Subsequently, several other prominent institutes like Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (THISTI), Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (INstem), National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute (NABI) at Mohali, and National Institute of Biomedical Genomics (NIBMG) at Kalyani in West Bengal were established.
There is also renewed effort on social aspects such as health care, food and agriculture, energy and environmental security. International collaborations have become more strategic, with better reach and breadth and industry partnerships are growing. The new focus on Young India is clear from the various Grants and Funds as well as Awards, and the DBT’s commitment to revisit the funding mechanism to ensure a quicker assessment of project values and disbursements of funds for research.
2. The crisis in Ukraine’s Donbass region
Why are the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk critical in the Ukraine-Russia stand-off? Will the provisions in the Minsk agreement offer a solution?
Since Moscow invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, pro-Russia rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions began seizing territory in Eastern Ukraine and held a referendum to declare independence from Ukraine. Since then, these regions within Ukraine have been witnessing skirmishes between the rebels and Ukrainian forces leading to the loss of over 14,000 lives, creating around 1.5 million registered Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and destruction of the local economy. This shelling has intensified since last October when Russia began amassing troops along the borders with Ukraine.
There are two Minsk agreements, Minsk 1 and Minsk 2. Minsk 1 was written in September 2014 by the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine, i.e. Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE with mediation by France and Germany. Under Minsk 1, Ukraine and the Russia-backed rebels agreed on a 12-point ceasefire deal, which due to violations by both sides, did not last long.
In February 2015, representatives of Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE and the leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk signed a 13-point agreement, now known as the Minsk 2 accord. However, the provisions under the agreement have not been implemented because of the ‘Minsk Conundrum’. Russia believes that the agreement asks Ukraine to grant the Russia-backed rebels in Donbas comprehensive autonomy and representation in the central Government. Only when this is done will Russia hand over control of the Russia-Ukraine border to Ukraine. Ukraine, on the other hand, feels that Minsk 2 allows it to first re-establish control over Donbas, then give it control of the Russia-Ukraine border, then have elections in the Donbas, and a limited devolution of power to the rebels. Ukraine believes the accord supports its sovereignty fully while Russia believes it only gives Ukraine limited sovereignty. Thus, the Minsk 2 agreement has been rightly criticised for being too hastily drafted, ambiguous and contradictory, making it difficult to implement.
The story so far: As tensions spiral between Russia and the West over Ukraine, the rebel-held self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR/DPR and LNR/LPR) in Eastern Ukraine have started evacuating civilians to the Rostov region in Russia claiming an impending Ukrainian military offensive.
They have also declared a full military mobilisation. Shelling is going on even in civilian areas between Ukrainian soldiers and Russia-backed rebels; in response, Russia has extended military exercises on Ukraine’s northern borders. The Chairman of the Russian Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin has already said that Russia is ready to protect its citizens in DNR and LNR if their lives are in danger. Moscow is paying everyone arriving from the Donbass 10,000 roubles and giving them refuge. It is also fastpacking passports for people from the region. Meanwhile, the Duma has requested President Putin to initiate proceedings for recognising the independence of the DNR and LPR. Allegations are flying thick and fast with the rebels and Russia accusing Ukraine of carrying out a genocide against the Russian-speaking population in these regions and Ukraine and the West claiming that Russia is manufacturing a crisis as a pretext to invade Ukraine.
How did the crisis start?
The Donbass region, comprising the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine, has been at the centre of the conflict since March 2014 when Moscow invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula. In April, pro-Russia rebels began seizing territory (with Russia supporting them through hybrid warfare) in Eastern Ukraine and in May 2014, the rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions held a referendum to declare independence from Ukraine. Since then, these predominantly Russian speaking regions (more than 70% speak Russian) within Ukraine have been witnessing shelling and skirmishes between the rebels and Ukrainian forces leading to the loss of over 14,000 lives by most estimates, creating around 1.5 million registered Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and destruction of the local economy. What has changed now is that the shelling has intensified since last October when Russia began amassing troops along the borders with Ukraine. If the situation in the Donbass escalates, the possibility of a war cannot be dismissed. One way to prevent the outbreak of a war would be to implement the Minsk agreements immediately, as Russia has suggested.
What are the Minsk Agreements?
There are two Minsk agreements, Minsk 1 and Minsk 2, named after the Belarussian capital Minsk where the talks were held. Minsk 1 was written in September 2014 by the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine, i.e. Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) with mediation by France and Germany in the so-called Normandy Format. Under Minsk 1, Ukraine and the Russia-backed rebels agreed on a 12-point ceasefire deal, which included prisoner exchanges, delivery of humanitarian assistance, and the withdrawal of heavy weapons. However, due to violations by both sides, the agreement did not last long.
Following this, as the rebels moved further into Ukraine, in February 2015, representatives of Russia, Ukraine, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk signed a 13-point agreement , now known as the Minsk 2 accord. The new agreement had provisions for an immediate cease-fire, withdrawal of heavy weaponry, OSCE monitoring, dialogue on interim self-government for Donetsk and Luhansk, in accordance with Ukrainian law, and acknowledgement of special status by parliament, pardon and amnesty for fighters, exchange of hostages and prisoners, humanitarian aid, constitutional reform in Ukraine including decentralisation, with specific mention of Donetsk and Luhansk, elections in Donetsk and Luhansk, withdrawal of foreign armed formations, military equipment, mercenaries, full Ukrainian Government control throughout the conflict zone and calls to Ukraine to restore control of state borders, etc.
However, these provisions have not been implemented because of what is popularly known as the ‘Minsk Conundrum’. This essentially means that Ukraine and Russia have contradictory interpretations about the agreement, particularly about when each part of the agreement is to be fulfilled. Russia believes that the agreement means that Ukraine has to grant the Russia-backed rebels in Donbas comprehensive autonomy and representation in the central Government, effectively giving Russia a veto over Ukraine’s foreign policy. Only when this is done is Russia ready to hand over control of the Russia-Ukraine border to Ukraine. Ukraine, on the other hand, feels that Minsk 2 allows it to first re-establish control over Donbas, then give it control of the Russia-Ukraine border, elections in the Donbas, and a limited devolution of power to the rebels —in that sequence. So, Minsk-2 is ambiguous.
While Ukraine believes the accord supports its sovereignty fully, Russia believes it only gives Ukraine limited sovereignty. Thus, the Minsk 2 agreement has been rightly criticised for being too hastily drafted, ambiguous and contradictory, making it difficult to implement. Moreover, the fact is that Ukraine has been reluctant to implement it for fear of Balkanisation of the country as other regions might also come up with such demands and because any Government which agrees to the kind of autonomy for LPR and DPR that Russia wants will lose domestic support. Russia, on the other hand, wants it to be implemented because it will guarantee protection of the Russian minority and Russian language and culture while increasing its leverage over Ukraine. Its fears about this are justified to some extent because in 2014, the new Ukrainian government had banned Russian as an official language despite almost 30% of its population being native Russian speakers.
Can implementing the Minsk Agreement avert war?
One of the principal demands Russia has made of the West is the immediate implementation of the Minsk 2 agreement.
While the agreement is far from ideal, it could be a baseline from which a diplomatic solution to the current crisis could be found and reviving it could be the ‘only path on which peace can be built’ as French President Emmanuel Macron has said.
For Ukraine, it could help it gain control over its borders and end the threat of a Russian invasion for the time being, while for Russia it could be a way to ensure that Ukraine never becomes a part of NATO and ensure that Russian language and culture are protected under a new federal Constitution in Ukraine.
However, there could be very prolonged negotiations on the type of autonomy the LNR and DPR could get. The latest news about a Biden-Putin summit followed by talks among all relevant parties, might just be the start to dialling back this crisis which could otherwise escalate into a cataclysmic war.
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