Scaling new heights

Decade for india

Homegrown scientists and engineers miniaturised a nuclear reactor to make India’s first nuclear submarine, took the first few steps to create a missile shield, launched heavy-weight rockets to reach the geo-synchronous orbit at a distance of 36,000 km and developed a tsunami warning centre to alert the entire region on an impending disaster. Buoyed by the success, the government offered a helping hand by raising budgets for both science and education, setting up a string of new institutes.

Pinnacle of the decade

The pinnacle of the decade was Chandrayaan-1, launched in October 2008. After years of using space for remote sensing, telecommunication and broadcasting, ISRO finally ventured to outer space with Chandrayaan. The orbiter circled the moon for 10 months and beamed loads of information back to the earth.

The end came somewhat abruptly. Its solar panel malfunctioned and star sensors failed, possibly due to excess heat in the hostile cosmic environment. The back-up navigation and power-supply system had its limitations and Chandrayaan-1 drifted away in the space.

The gloom, however, was lifted a month later when Chandrayaan reported presence of water on the moon – known as a bone dry place since the Apollo and Luna missions. Not only three instruments on board the satellite picked up water signals, one of them also detected carbon dioxide, rekindling a debate on lunar chemistry.

Success came in the strategic sector also.  After decades of diligent research (apart from sharp criticism from various quarters), defence and nuclear scientists delivered two big successes in the last decade. The indigenous fighter plane, Tejas light combat aircraft, took to the sky proving its critics wrong and the first indigenous nuclear submarine was launched in the sea positioning India as a major strategic power. A sea-launched ballistic missile was tested successfully signaling completion of India’s nuclear triad.

The missile men were not far behind. Not only they did they deliver Agni and Prithvi to the armed forces but also made rapid strides with Aakash, Trishul and Dhanush. Scientists are now working to put up a ballistic missile defence for shielding the country from enemy attacks.

Era of genetics

The last decade was also the era of genetics. Even though India missed the bus on the Human Genome Project, it caught up later with human genome variation project, the largest ever analysis of Indian genes, which threw up quite a few surprises like the genetic similarities between all Indians from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and the closeness with the Chinese at the genetic level. The genetic analysis provides a new window to look at the human migration story in South Asia.

The genetic analysis of human migration story also established the fact that the natives of Andaman and Nicobar are the direct descendents of the first human beings that moved out of Africa even though how they reach the islands remained a mystery.

The researchers took baby steps with disease analysis with the genetic structure. The genetic information is being used to identify people who are at risk from various diseases, suggest the leads in drug development and establishing Ayurveda as a scientific diagnosis tool for the mass. Mapping of the first Indian genome was another key step that would come handy while studying the risk factors for Indian population.

Applications in agriculture

Agricultural scientists too embraced genetics and molecular biology. India successfully completed mapping rice and potato genome as a member of an international consortium.

The genome of other economically important crops like chickpea was sequenced from where genes are being identified for crop improvement. Genetically-engineered Bt cotton was a runaway success catapulting India as one of the world’s leaders in cotton production. Animal scientists cloned the world’s first buffalo with a objective of developing a more productive breed of cattle.

Indian scientists also sequenced the first ever microbe – a predecessor to the modern-day TB bacteria. They improved the nutritional value of potato and increased the shelf-life of tomato by shrewd genetic engineering. They used carbon nanotubes for biological applications.

In the last 10 years, India joined the Large Hadron Collider project. India has also become members of two international consortia probing deep in the universe (Thirty Meter Telescope project) and the elusive gravity wave.

There were disappointments as well. The Simputer, an indigenous low cost computer that began the decades with a big promises is nowhere to be seen. Indigenous Saras aircraft and GSLV rocket met with tragic accidents and callous attitude of an university lead to India’s first radiation death.

But the biggest blunder was possibly caused by six science academies when they botched up in preparing scientific report on the pros and cons of genetically modified Bt brinjal. The government offered them a chance to scientifically lead a technical debate but a shoddy report demolished their reputation.

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