Fire-side storytelling – Primetime with Dr Raghunath Mashelkar

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In dialogue with India’s Prime Scientist Dr Raghunath Mashelkar when Prime Minister Modi was dialoguing with the nation on 16th January 2021.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 16th January 2021 launched India’s national vaccination drive against COVID19, the largest vaccination programme anywhere in the world. At around the same time, I spent Prime-time with the Prime-scientist of India Dr Raghunath Mashelkar, known as technocrat par excellence and former Director-General of CSIR ( Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) -a network of 38 scientific institutes, apart from its innovation centres and outreach-hubs across India.

The chat was about ‘challenges of 2021 and our responses’ Our ‘discussion-plate’ was full of contemporary stories. We travelled with turns and twists or rather continuously veered. The focus was on Indian youth and their potential for transformation.

The achievements of India’s scientists and technologists in developing and collaborating with international institutes in developing COVID19 vaccine, that too in record time, was on the top of our plate. Dr. Mashelkar proudly stated that not only the time in developing vaccine was historically unprecedented but the biotechnology used in developing the vaccine was also unique. Old methods of developing vaccine-and generally known to common people-are related to injecting the dead or semi-dead virus into human bodies to train the human-antibodies to develop their ability to deal with eventual entry of fully active virus.

However, this time Indian scientists were engaged in research on ‘ bio-cheating’ of the deadly CORONA! Finding the ‘genome’ of CORONA was the first step ( thanks to China to have made it available!) and then use of bio-sciences to develop a technique to deliberately mislead the virus to win the battle. ( I call it “Che Guevara technique’ in bio-engineering! ). But that’s not all. There are other methods in developing vaccines used by Indian scientists. Viral-vector vaccines, Nucleic-acid vaccines, Protein-based vaccines, there are at least eight different approaches that scientists are focussing on and struggling hard. Development of a vaccine for COVID19 itself is the exciting story of 2020 and could have been science-fiction some decades back.

Dr Raghunath Mashelkar and Dr Rajendra Shende
Dr Raghunath Mashelkar and Dr Rajendra Shende

Listening to Dr Mashelkar and talking with him was nothing but simply a ‘new year’s party’ of wisdom. 2021 was still fresh. The subjects shifted from one to another- India’s scientific temperament, development of soft encyclopaedia of traditional knowledge led by Dr Anil Gupta of IIM-Ahmedabad, use of turmeric-ginger in improving immune power in a pandemic, modern virus-killing masks that kill the virus at the external surface of the mask, transition to Green

Hydrogen from Grey Hydrogen, solar energy revolution and formidable barriers of battery technology, 3 As ( Availability, Accessibility and Affordability) for renewable technologies and 3Ds ( Digitalisation, Decentralization and Decarbonisation ) of energy transition and moving away from carbon-addicted economy were the wide subject we touched upon. Contemporary topics and those which were of immediate importance in coming months including carbon neutrality was the focus. I was swimming in a flood of knowledge and getting swept away to diverse subjects.

Dr Mashelkar is a chemical engineer from Bombay University-University Department of Chemical Technology and I am a chemical engineer from IIT Bombay. That made sort of easy for me to climb the towering knowledge of Dr Mashelkar. Particularly when he explained the Grey Hydrogen produced from reforming of hydrocarbons. I recalled my lessons in chemical engineering and later as project engineer at the cracking unit where the natural gas and oil are catalytically reformed to hydrogen. ‘The long term however would need Green Hydrogen produced by electricity coming from renewables’, emphasised DR. Mashelkar. The clarity with which he explains the vision of Mukesh Ambani, who heads Reliance Industry and India’s richest business tycoon, technocrat and yet another chemical engineer from UDCT, to whom Dr Mashelkar advises on energy transition. Mukesh Ambani’s priority-strategy today is utilising the hydrogen produced by his largest refinery in the world near Jamnagar in Gujarat and other places to launch the hydrogen economy by replacing carbon-economy. In short term, it would be Grey Hydrogen and in long term , the Green Hydrogen. ‘Yes, we need to accelerate such strategy if we do not want to be caught in climate-pandemic’, Dr Mashelkar agreed.

Dr Mashelkar recalled the stories of visionary industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani- Mukesh’s father, who also represents a transformation from ‘ bare bottom to propelled prosperity’. Dhirubhai once said, ‘phone-calls should be cheaper than post-cards’. Having achieved that, now Mukesh wants ‘digital data’ cheaper than ‘dingy dictionaries’. Mukesh is already moving in that direction. We emphasized the most radical aspect of the idea of ‘ Indian affordability’ of innovation promoted by PM Modi. Nowhere in the world, the affordability is so deeply engrained as in Reliance Industries and PM Modi’s policies. For example, the cost of space-exploration by spacecraft of India, Mangalayan, was cheaper than ride by Auto-Riksha per km basis. We agree on what makes Modi stand apart is his ‘ execution speed’, apart from his commitment and devotion to India.

Does the world need to spend time and money in exploring space when we have not even explored the science of virus on the Earth? Do we need to continue to collect the sample of rocks from the moon to analyse them on the earth when we have not yet collected enough microorganisms on the Earth to understand their genomes and their adverse impacts on our civilization, I ask. “ Why man explored Mount Everest when the world was deep in poverty? Why the solar plane travelled around the earth when poor people do not get adequate electricity?’ Dr Mashelkar questioned. ‘It is inner urge to constantly explore and continuum of knowledge collection and adventure that characterised the development of our civilization, right from the first-ever group of African homo-sapiens left the African continent to explore other continents’ Dr Mashelkar reflected. It is never ‘ either-or’ when it comes to exploration.

Curiosity is the character of human DNA. Tesla’s launch of the electric car in India in the coming months when Indians are yet to recover from electric-shock of COVID19 is the latest example of the spiralling nature of human DNA.

We discussed India’s British legacy of establishing the metallic statues on every city-squares and crossroads. In London, one sees metallic-someone-or-other riding the metallic-horse in every nooks and corner. Saradar Vallabhbai Patel’s statue, we agreed, may be priced and criticised in terms of huge money spent on that. However, both of us concurred that the use of recycled scrap iron in making that statue , is the life-long message of circular economy spread by that statue to every visitor. That is the generational value of that statue of iron-man of India.

Scrap metal is the by-product of modern steel technology and throw-away culture. Such construction material made Indians enter into the unsustainable. Consumerism. But we now can explore green-steel to turn the tide. Making steel without coke and without fossil fuel.

We lamented the environmental impacts of entering into the era of renewable energy. Solar Panel manufacturing is not without pollution. ‘Sand to Silicon’ and then to its chloride before making the solar cells is environmentally very damaging. So also the manufacture of Lithium batteries that are needed for the solar-electricity-storage. This ecology challenge in making ‘green-electricity’ is formidable.

That was the entry point for discussion on India’s demographic advantage and potential to innovate. We agreed that youth not only have the potential to innovate and find the solutions to such a dilemma but youth themselves ARE the solutions.

That was the entry to India’s youth ‘power-unlimited’. We discussed TERRE Policy Centre’s project Smart Campus Cloud Network, SCCN for short, that has now 200 university and colleges in its web matrix. The pledge of ‘Not Zero-Net Zero’ launched by TERRE under its SCCN, to make university campuses ‘Carbon-Neutral’. Decarbonization is the vaccine for Climate Crisis, we agreed. ‘ The challenge would be to find carbon-sink for the extra carbon’, Dr Mashelkar foretells. ‘ But we have such technology with us for last billions of year-the tree plantation’ I observe. TERRE Policy Centre is using that carbon-offsetting tool to develop urban forestry and making rural area more green. Off-setting carbon and pledge of decarbonisation go hand-in-hand. Dr Mashelkar eyes brightened with the two projects.

When I exited after taking shot in arms with ‘ vaccine of vision’, I realised that it was not just a dialogue. It was like getting responses and finding the clues on ‘google-search’ for nearly two hours. Yes, it was a dialogue with a Dr. Mashelkar , Fellow of Royal Society and Chairman of many national and international academies. But most importantly, for me, he was from village Mashel in Goa and now India’s Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest national recognition of unparalleled work done by individuals.

I strongly believe that the potential of Innovation and Restructure, Reimagining and Reinventing is more prominent with those who come from villages. The curiosity and adventure to get to the Everest summit mainly originates when humans dialogue to nature. Only villages can offer such ecosystem. END

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