LIGO-India, a victim of red tape

Indian bureaucracy is infamous for its procrastination tactics. The delay may be justified sometimes, for better cross-checks and reviews, but there are ample number of occasions when mere red-tapism blocks progress. Given that background, the NDA government's recent announcement of establishing a Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory in India (LIGO-India) may appear prompt as it comes within a week of physicists spotting the elusive gravitational wave that had escaped detection for the last 100 years. The project, in reality, was a five-year-old one and cleared by the Planning Commission as one of the mega-science proposals, which the science departments were pursuing in the last decade. Since the commission’s approval, the LIGO-India project document was gathering dust till the time the Internet grew abuzz with the news of an exciting possibility of gravitational-wave detection. Due to inaction on the proposal for five years, the government now has little other option but to accord an “in-principle” approval as the cost of the Rs 1,260 crore project needs to be recalculated taking inflation and increased land price into account. The observatory requires 300 acres of land.

LIGO-India is not an isolated case. The same trend was seen with other mega-science projects like the Indian Neutrino Observatory (proposed in 2002), which after receiving the Cabinet's approval in January 2015, is now stuck with the Tamil Nadu government. There is no clear answer from the government on why it took such a long time to formalise India's linkage with prestigious international projects like Square Kilometre Array, Thirty Metre Telescope and why the government is still sitting on the proposal of upgrading India’s membership at CERN (European Centre for Nuclear Research) to the level of an ‘associate member.’ Notwithstanding its significant contribution in particle physics research at CERN, India continues to be an ‘observer’ while Pakistan and Turkey are now ‘associate members.’ It is not that associated costs are prohibitory, but the government has remained silent for the last three years. Scientists in biological or medical laboratories recount numerous stories when they received the approval to import reagents or biological material many months later, by which time rival groups in Western laboratories had already conducted that particular experiment.

Since time is of vital importance in a fiercely competitive scientific world, India’s researchers are always handicapped thanks to the bureaucracy. In almost every Indian Science Congress over the last 15 years, successive prime ministers promised reduction of red-tapism in research. On the ground, however, changes are little and cosmetic. Unless the government prioritises science and sensitises  officials, Indian scholars are unlikely to deliver world-class science and bright students will tend to migrate abroad.

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