‘We are losing scientific temperament, moving away from rational thinking’: Sam Pitroda

TDU University, Bengaluru, aims to merge traditional and modern medicine. Founder Sam Pitroda on medicine, science, technology, education policy.

A former policy maker under Manmohan Singh-led government, Pitroda is “deeply concerned” with the education policies of BJP government.A former policy maker under Manmohan Singh-led government, Pitroda is “deeply concerned” with the education policies of BJP government.

R. Radhika | July 12, 2023 | 04:34 PM IST

NEW DELHI: Satyanarayan Gangaram Pitroda, better known as Sam Pitroda, wears many hats. He served as an advisor to the prime minister during Manmohan Singh’s tenure, led the National Knowledge Commission and is credited for contributions to India’s telecom industry. Pitroda founded the University of Trans-Disciplinary Health Sciences and Technology (TDU) in Bengaluru in 2013. The university promotes trans-disciplinary research and education in modern and traditional medicine, biomedicine and life sciences.

As a former policy maker under the Manmohan Singh-led government, Pitroda is “deeply concerned” with the direction the current government is taking on key education reforms. He spoke to Careers360 about the lack of rationality and scientific temperament in current education-related policies along with the need for transdisciplinary medicine, the controversies around it and concerns.

Q. When you founded the TDU, what was your main objective and vision for education?

A. In 1990, we felt that it is important to have an organised database of all medicinal plants so we started a new institute called Foundation for Revitalization of Local Health Tradition. It took us years to get it running and we finally managed to do so with the help of Danish government funding. The idea was to create a modern computerised database genetic pool in terms of modern chemistry. Then we started a hospital to treat patients with traditional medicines. We realised that there is a big vacuum here between traditional and modern practices.

Modern medicine does not believe in some of these [traditional] practices because we don’t have enough data, experiments and proof. We felt that there is a need for transdisciplinary medicine where we take best of both practices and provide services to large populations in rural areas who have access to traditional medicine but don’t have access to modern ones. The university came about as our effort to encourage transdisciplinary sciences. We have leadership lessons in traditional wisdom as well as in modern business administration. Our idea is to merge the best of modern and traditional to create an integrated knowledge base.

Q. You served as chairman of the National Knowledge Commission. What impact did it have?

A. The National Knowledge Commission was created to look at knowledge institutes and infrastructure that India will need in the next couple of decades. A report was published which essentially focused on right to education, libraries, languages, translation and how to help more students learn maths and sciences and increase enrolment in PhD. We spoke to around 2,000 domain experts all over the country and created the document which essentially outlines a roadmap for education in India. Some of it was implemented and a lot of it was not due to lack of will and internal conflicts.

But at the end of the day, we have done reasonably well in education. At the time of independence, we had only a 12 percent literacy rate. Now we have reached almost 80 percent. It is, of course, not good enough. When the knowledge commission was constituted, only 12 percent could go to college but now 21 percent go to college.

Q. The Commission was supposed to guide India’s path to becoming a “knowledge economy”. Do you think this vision has been realised?

A. After independence, our leaders realised the need for engineers, scientists and management experts for nation-building. In the process, probably, primary education was overlooked. In 1981, I presented the idea of how the information technology and telecom industry will change the face of India to Indira Gandhi. With her support we established the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT) in 1984. In those days we were talking about C++, microprocessors, programming and software development. After her death Rajiv Gandhi supported the plan. For a nation, it takes three-four decades to see the fruits of seeds planted. We planted seeds by establishing C-DOT, C-DAC [Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, India], TIFAC [Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council] all in the 80s.

We are now recognised as the hub of IT with Bangalore as its capital. We have created a large number of IT professionals. We have exported knowledge workers across the globe. It was all possible because seeds were planted when it was necessary. IT may be only a part of the larger picture but it allows you to explore other frontiers.

Q You were deeply involved with the Congress-led government. What kind of changes do you see in the education policy of the current government?

A. I am worried about education in India. People of India need to decide what kind of country they want to build in the 21st century. I was born in 1942 under the British Raj. I grew up with Gandhian thought. We celebrated diversity. Muslim, Sikh, Jain neighbours had their own customs and we participated as a community.

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In our time textbooks talked about Maulana Azad, Akbar, Guru Gobind Singh, Buddha, Ram without discrimination. Today leaders of this country are lying through their teeth and they are comfortable. How could a prime minister of a country lie about his education and get away with it?

All of this is reflected in education. Let us not underestimate the values that percolate down from top into the classrooms. Today we are on the track of polarised politics, dividing societies, unnecessarily disturbing peace which will ultimately disrupt education.

Q. The National Education Policy 2020 emphasises on the use of technology for access to education. What are your thoughts on the policy?

A. Back in the day, we had set up a large committee for the National Knowledge Network and the idea was to create a physical network of universities, libraries and research institutions so they could share data. We connected all our universities to 40 Gigabyte bandwidth. We also pushed the government to connect panchayats to broadband networks so that the schools can also become a part of the digital network. This level of groundwork done before has been forgotten.

We always have had good policies but the problem is in the execution. I have observed that we are losing scientific temperament and moving away from rational thinking. There is not enough about the vision for the future but mostly about the past. We want to recognise the heroes of the past and not celebrate the heroes of the future. That bothers me.

I do not like too much privatisation of education either. Today engineering and medical education fees go beyond lakhs of rupees in a system ridden with corruption and additional capitation fees. I believe education is the responsibility of the state.

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Q. You have a keen interest in traditional medicine. Why do you think there is a need for “revitalising Indian medicinal heritage”?

A. In a small tribal village in Odisha, we had no doctors or nurses where my mother delivered and raised eight healthy children. She must have done something right. I always wonder what information that generation had which can be used even today. There is a lot of wisdom in our traditional practices which cannot be ignored. It may not be scientific in the modern sense but it
is still wisdom. This practice is a science by observation and not by experimentation.

We wanted to go explore these and map it with modern sciences. We have a group of scholars working on food at the TDU. They are looking at the history of food and how it was prepared 2,000 years ago. For instance, the origin of tadka (tempering) is something very unique to India. Use of hing (asafoetida) is very critical in Indian cuisine that can be integrated in the modern sciences. Education cannot be in vertical silos anymore. Being an electrical engineer is not enough, students must have other skills which require multidisciplinary education. Students must have multiple skills to excel which requires multidisciplinary education.

Q. The fresh leaning towards “traditional medicine” has been controversial. What is your take on the matter?

A. I agree that some of it is controversial but I also believe that a lot of it is useful. Traditional medicine comes in the play of prevention more than cure. While modern medicine is about cure. People must be careful of when to use traditional medicine and when to use modern medicines. To me, traditional medicine is augmenting modern medicine but in certain cases there is no option but to rely on modern medicine.

Note: A shorter version of this interview was published in the July issue of the Careers360 magazine. This version contains paragraphs that could not be accommodated in print.

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