Nanoscale: Society’s deep impact on science, technology and innovation in India – Pankaj Sekhsaria

NANOSCALE: Society's deep impact on science, technology and innovation in  India, Sekhsaria, Pankaj - Amazon.com

Knitted together as part of a PhD research project on Indian Nanoscience & Technology, Pankaj Sekhsaria’s “Nanoscale” is a revealing homage to a conflation of an unquenchable thirst for innovation and a powerful technology whose minuscule scale belies its gargantuan impact. Mr. Sekhsaria, an Associate Professor in the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, has done yeoman service to bring to the fore the importance of lab ethnography and embellished – deservedly – the outcomes which laboratory research has on the positive prospects for an economy. Building on his stellar work, his foray takes him to the esoteric portals of four niche laboratories in India, each of which is involved in experimenting with a product or a process. The potential for nanotechnology in diverse fields is immense, inevitable and incredible. Take healthcare for instance. As Mr. Raj Kumar, Mr. Keshaw Ram Aadil, Mr. Shivendu Ranjan, and Mr. Vijay Bhooshan Kumar reveal in their paper titled, “Advances in nanotechnology and nanomaterials based strategies for neural tissue engineering”,[2] various kinds of nanomaterials-based engineering approaches have been developed and are under investigation to prevent or treat nerve injuries. “Inorganic nanomaterials such as metal, alloys, silica, magnetic, up conversion nanoparticles and quantum dots; and organic nanomaterials such as polymeric nanoparticles, nanofibers, carbon-based nanomaterials namely carbon nanotubes and graphene, liposomes, micelles and dendrimers. These are promising nanomaterials with suitable physicochemical properties and hence employed for neural tissue engineering applications.”  Hence Mr. Sekhsaria’s remarkable and nuanced descriptions of the institutions that he visits and the cutting-edge research that is carried out within their cluttered bowels, does not come as a surprise.

First stop, Savitribai Phule Pune University[3], and the untidy laboratory of the unassuming Prof. C.V. Dharmadhikari, whose indefatigable and intrepid research team, succeeded in building a microscope at the cutting edge of Nano Science & Technology (“NS &T). The Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM), as Mr. Sekhsaria informs his readers, is a machine of extraordinary value. The ultimate testimony of its worth was demonstrated when one half of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Physics[4] was awarded to its makers, Heinrich Rohrer and Gerd Binning of the IBM Research Laboratory in Zurich. The allure of the STM which allows scientists to create images at the nanoscale was not lost on Mr. Dharmadhikari. Within the limitations of a modest laboratory that was the very epitome of disorder, the Scientist and his team began work on the STM. According them company was an eclectic paraphernalia that inter alia comprised of furniture, “computers, bookshelves, cupboards and tables, cutting pliers, screwdrivers, nuts, bolts, small boxes of plastic and aluminium, double-sided tape, glue sticks, scraps of paper, sheets of paper, files, books, pens, pencils, circuit boards, streams of wires running from here to there and, of course, a series of big and small instruments.”

If the laboratory was eclectic, then the materials employed by the project team to come up with the end product was singularly peculiar. As Mr. Sekhsaria robustly illustrates, this is where the inimitably Indian concept of “Jugaad[5]” comes into the picture. A concatenation between ingenuity, practicality and everything in between, the vernacular word signifies a remarkable ability to make good with the available resources, yet not compromising on quality. Some of the tools employed to make the STM dream come true were – hold your breath – abandoned refrigerators, stepper motors procured from junked computers, tubes from car tyres, bungee cords, viton rubber tubing, weights from the grocers’ shop, aluminium vessels generally used in the kitchen, a tuning fork from inside a wrist-watch condenser and bobbins from sewing machines.

However, the glory of such an indigenous achievement is nullified in an unfortunate manner when post retirement of Mr. Dharmadhikari, the laboratories are occupied by other teams and the instruments so painstakingly manufactured, carted away to be either dumped as scrap heap or to be sold. This as Mr. Sekhsaria poignantly illustrates is the gap between the entrepreneur and the technologist where invention is not necessarily translated into commercialization.

Mr. Sekhsaria’s second port of call is the hallowed portals of the Centre for Nanobioscience. This centre is one of the constituents of the Microbial Sciences Division at the Agharkar Research Institute[6], Pune. This multifaceted institute occupies itself in conducting cutting edge NS&T Research by adopting a multi-disciplinary, integrated and multi-faceted approach. The cocktail of research involved in the Institute encompasses, among others, Ayurveda, biomimetics, nanomedicine, microfabrication, and nanotechnology in agriculture and environment. As Mr. Sekhsaria informs his readers, the output leaving the boundaries of this University is admirable for its quality and use. For example the innovation paraphernalia churned out by the Centre include, ‘development of eco-friendly methods of synthesizing metal and semiconductor metal sulfide nanoparticles using yeasts’, the ‘development of nanocrystalline silver gel for the treatment of burns and wounds’, development of ‘a method and kit for rapid recovery, identification and antimicrobial susceptibility of microorganisms’ and the ‘μSpore® DNA preservation technology’”

But the research that captures the imagination and inclination of Mr. Sekhsaria involves a confluence of Ayurveda and nanotechnology. Jasada Bhasma, an Ayurvedic preparation made up of sub-micronic particles, predominantly of zinc oxide, is commonly consumed by thousands of patients across the country as an anti-diabetic medicine. In the Centre for Nanobioscience, researcher Rinku Umrani prepares the Ayurvedic medicine in its most traditional manner before validating and corroborating its efficacy by resorting to the more conventional and advanced techniques of nano technology. This makes it the first scientifically validated study proving the anti-diabetic properties of jasada bhasma and also that the preparation was free of heavy metals and safe for use even at 100 times the efficacy dose.

Mr. Sekhsaria thus demonstrates that there is immense scope for co-operation and appropriation transcending disciplines that prima facie seem to be tangentially opposite and diametrically different. All it requires is the appropriate bent of mind that facilitates a reciprocal acknowledgment and acceptance of ideas, concepts and methods.

The third illustration in Mr. Sekhsaria’s engaging and engrossing book, is unfortunately a case of what could have been. The International Advanced Research Centre for Powder Metallurgy and New Materials (ARCI)[7], Hyderabad, plays home to an experiment which while initially exhibiting extraordinary promise, ultimately fizzled away into avoidable obscurity. ARCI is part of 24 institutions located across the country under the umbrella of the Government of India’s Department of Science and Technology[8] (DST). “Four of these are specialized knowledge institutions, five are professional bodies and 15 are research institutions that conduct research on topics as diverse as microbiology, soft matter, nanoscience and technology, paleobotany, geology and astronomy and astrophysics.”

With a view to obviating the insidious impact triggered by contaminated drinking water, ARCI, developed ‘nanosilver incorporated ceramic candles for drinking water disinfection’ and positioned this as a low cost, point of use (PoU) water filtration device. It was made available in the market under the brand name ‘Puritech’ through an arrangement with a small Hyderabad-based entrepreneur. The technology offered safe drinking water at an additional cost of not more than Rs 250. As Mr. Sekhsaria elucidates in an articulate fashion, both elements and environment seemed to favour the ideation, inception and implementation of the technology. A “developing country, emerging nanotechnology, high-tech research, government scientific institutions, industrial participation, technology transfer, low cost, NGO facilitation, appropriate technology and bottom of the pyramid reach.” And yet, within four years since it was launched, the nano-enabled ceramic water filter was termed a dud and vanished into oblivion. G. Bharath Kumar, the Managing Director of SBP Aqua Tech Pvt. Ltd who optimistically manufactured and marketing the water filter had shut down the plant manufacturing Puritech and dumped all the implements and equipment in a veritable heap.

This story portrays the expectation gap between an entrepreneur and the technologist. A failure to include both the entrepreneur and the user at the product conception stage itself created a chasm crossing which was a veritable impossibility for both the technologist as well as the entrepreneur. As Mr. Sekhsaria articulates, “one sees here what the sociologist of technology Wiebe Bijker has called interpretive flexibility in how different sections (he calls them relevant social groups) of society often relate to what otherwise looks like one single technological entity. The consumer was clearly not in the same frame as the technologist or the entrepreneur and the implications of this for the latter were evident and serious.”

The final experience of Mr. Sekhsaria is also the most emotional and heart wrenching amongst all. In India every year around 1,200 – 1,600 infants are diagnosed with retinoblastoma[9], which is a cancer of the eye. Modern technologies such, chemotherapy, external beam radiation therapy, cryotherapy, photocoagulation and thermotherapy, have all contributed significantly to improve the prospects of children suffering from retinoblastoma. However, this phalanx of technological options work only when the tumour is detected early. A delay in treatment would necessitate a removal of the impacted eye. As Dr, Javed Ali, of the LV Prasad Eye Institute[10], Hyderabad, and Vikas Khetan, clinician at Sankara Nethralaya[11], Chennai illustrate, societal factors, stigma, entrenched dogmas and an archaic bent of mind all play a role in the delay and even discarding of treatment options. At the heart of the dilemma lies the neglected girl child. Parents of a little girl afflicted by retinoblastoma, prefer losing the patient over agreeing to remove the infected eye. The logic accorded being a one-eyed girl would be ‘non-marriageable’ material in the future and hence would constitute more of a liability or a burden than an asset. No wonder India has the second highest rate of female infanticide, lagging only behind Tonga[12]. In such circumstances, as Mr. Sekhsaria learns, a medical practioner must don the mantle of a clinician-scientist-social-activist. Of what utility would be a technology that is too late to be employed? What advantages can be bestowed by a phalanx of sophisticated instruments and a sprawling infrastructure that offers expensive treatment free of cost to those who cannot afford it, when a medieval mindset does not even desire such benefits? Hence as Mr. Sekhsaria alludes, professionals such as Dr, Javed Ali and Vikas Khetan need to treat not just a solitary patient, but four different yet highly discernible ‘users’: “the helpless infant of today; the ‘to be married’ woman of tomorrow; the infant’s immediate family that decides on her behalf; and the eventual non-user, which is both the family and the individual with retinoblastoma.”

It is not that studies and research in the field of STS suffer from a dearth of funds. On the contrary. As Arindam Ghosh, of the Department of Physics in Indian Institute of Science[13], Bangalore, Yamuna Krishnan, National Centre for Biological Studies[14] set out in a paper published under the aegis of the Centre for Nano Science and Engineering (CeNSE) observe[15], “The NanoScience and Technology Initiative” started with a funding of Rs. 60 crores. In 2007, the government launched a 5-year program called Nano Mission with wider objectives and larger funding of USD 250 million. The funding spanned multiple areas like basic research in nanotechnology, human resources development, infrastructure development and international collaboration. Multiple institutions like Department on Information Technology, Defence Research and Development Organisation, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and Department of Biotechnology provided the funding to researchers, scholars and projects. National Centers for Nanofabrication and Nanoelectronics were started in Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai.

The issue, as Mr. Sekhsaria eruditely identifies is in creating the requisite ecosystem that recognizes the importance of “instrument development” and imbibing such an ecosystem with all the necessary incentives.

“Nanoscale” is a stirring chronicle of intentions that are noble, but an implementation that is woeful. As Mr. Sekhsaria illustrates, India is brimming with intellectual capital. We as a nation, are spoilt for choice when it comes to innovation and ingenuity. However, a confluence of ingrained vices seem to be holding us back from achieving our true potential. An aversion to collaborate, a Byzantine bureaucracy that values processes and policies over promising outcomes, a Neanderthal mindset courtesy lack of education at the grassroots level all collude and contrive to put paid to many an aspiration and many a hope. Only a paradigm shift in collective thinking can overcome such seemingly insurmountable hindrances.


[2] Advances in nanotechnology and nanomaterials based strategies for neural tissue engineering – Raj Kumar, Keshaw Ram Aadil, Mr. Shivendu Ranjan, and Mr. Vijay Bhooshan Kumar, Journal of Drug Delivery Science and Technology, Volume 57, June 2020, 101617

[3] http://www.unipune.ac.in/

[4] https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1986/summary/

[5] https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20171213-jugaad-an-untranslatable-word-for-winging-it

[6] http://aripune.org/

[7] https://www.arci.res.in/

[8] https://dst.gov.in/

[9] TY  – JOUR

AU  – Rangamani, Sukanya

AU  – Krishnan, Sathishkumar

AU  – Julka, Pramod

AU  – Rath, Goura

AU  – Shanta, Viswanathan

AU  – Swaminathan, Rajaraman

AU  – Rama, Ranganathan

AU  – Datta, Karabi

AU  – Mondal, Shyamkumar

AU  – Koyande, Shravani

AU  – Deshmane, Vinay

AU  – Ganesh, B

AU  – Banavali, Shripad

AU  – Badwe, Rajendra

AU  – C, Ramesh

AU  – Appaji, Lingappa

AU  – Nandakumar, Ambakumar

PY  – 2015/06/03

SP  – 4193

EP  – 8

T1  – Pediatric Retinoblastoma in India: Evidence from the National Cancer Registry Programme

VL  – 16

DO  – 10.7314/APJCP.2015.16.10.4193

JO  – Asian Pacific journal of cancer prevention : APJCP

ER  –

[10] https://www.lvpei.org/

[11] https://www.sankaranethralaya.org/

[12] https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-tonga-two-places-where-under-five-more-girls-die-than-boys-5428226/

[13] https://www.iisc.ac.in/

[14] https://www.ncbs.res.in/

[15] http://www.cense.iisc.ac.in/news/nanotechnology-india-current-status-and-future-prospects

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