Science spoke with Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh about the role of science in poverty alleviation.
NEW DELHI—With more than 400 million people in India earning less than $1.25 a day, poverty reduction in this sprawling nation is an urgent task. Perhaps that's why the ruling United Progressive Alliance turned to one of its deep thinkers to tackle the intransigent problem. In July 2011, Jairam Ramesh was tapped to lead the Ministry of Rural Development, an $18 billion agency focused on the plight of the 70% of India's 1.2 billion people who live in the countryside.
Last month, Science spoke with Ramesh in his office here about the role of science in poverty alleviation. His remarks were edited for brevity and clarity.Ramesh, 59, is no stranger to India's scientific community. He garnered headlines in January 2010, when, as environment minister, he imposed an indefinite moratorium on the introduction of genetically modified eggplant (Science, 12 February 2010, p. 767). A mechanical engineer by training who's known for his wit and biting remarks, Ramesh is also a China expert; in 2005 he published a book on the relationship between the two Asian powers, Making Sense of Chindia: Reflections on China and India.
Q:Is science in India helping the poor?
J.R.:People are coming out of poverty because of agricultural growth, better wages, and better infrastructure. Science played an important role in creating new varieties of rice and wheat; that has lifted farmers out of poverty. Science has created mobile phones that are giving farmers and wage seekers links with markets. But if you are asking me if there is a direct relationship between investment in science in India and rural development, my answer is no.
Q:How would you get scientists more involved in poverty alleviation?
J.R.:Almost 60% of all open defecations in the world are in India. And open defecation and poor sanitation has a direct link with malnutrition and stunted growth. But we've had no innovation whatsoever in the field of toilets. So when Mr. Bill Gates came to meet me a couple of months ago, we said, why don't we collaborate together and have a global challenge? Challenge the world's inventors to come up with low-cost toilets for use in trains, for use in our homes. You take four or five crucial areas and certainly you can throw the market open for ideas.
Q:Why is poverty so entrenched in India?
J.R.:It has nothing to do with science. It is the failure of land reform. We have not ensured equal access to land. We've had a horrendously iniquitous caste system, which is still very much prevalent in our country. Public health successes in India have reduced mortality rates drastically, but we've had a tripling of our population since independence. So the causes of poverty are complex, and the causes of poverty are not linked to the availability or nonavailability of science and technology.
One shouldn't make the mistake of giving science and technology more power than it actually has to alleviate poverty. Sure, it has a place to reduce drudgery, for example, if you can develop improved cookstoves. But how do you disseminate 150 million cookstoves?
Q:What about a McDonald's of cookstoves?
J.R.:McDonaldization has taken place in a few areas. Mobile telephones are the most ubiquitous instrument of rural transformation today. But in other areas, we have not been very successful. Cookstoves is a classic example. We've been at this cookstove game for almost 40 years. But whether improved stoves have actually penetrated rural households, I find no convincing answer.
Q:Will the universal ID (see p. 1032) make a major difference?
J.R.:It is a very big technological intervention that will have a major transformative effect in rural areas. All pension payments will be delivered electronically to the doorstep of the beneficiaries.
Q:How long will it take for everyone in India to have a universal ID?
J.R.:It is a huge priority issue. We hope that by the end of 2014, all subsidy payments, whether it is a kerosene subsidy or cooking gas or whatever subsidy, will be through this route, through micro-ATMs.
Q:So you need 600,000 micro-ATM machines, one for every village?
J.R.:At least. From a rural point of view, this is a game changer. It gives you a channel for delivery: cash benefits in a relatively hassle-free environment.
Q:India helped find water on the moon. But it struggles to provide clean drinking water to its people. Why?
J.R.:Water is a good example of where science is coming to our rescue. In 1987, there were about 50,000 villages in India without drinking water sources. Satellites helped locate sources for these villages within 1.5 kilometers. This was one of the earliest examples of a quick win for science in rural development.
I am not a worshipper of science. I realize the potential of science and the power of science. But I also realize that there is more to life than science itself. And the constraints to the diffusion of knowledge, the societal barriers, those have to be addressed.