The Indian Science Congress in MU: A trailer of the Act East Policy

Prof Homendra Naorem *

The front entrance for Manipur University  at Canchipur in August 2014
The front entrance for Manipur University at Canchipur in August 2014 :: Pix - Deepak Oinam

Who has not heard of the much talked about 'Look or Act East Policy' in Manipur? When a catchy phrase like 'Look East Policy' was coined and thrust upon the people of the north east, everyone in Manipur was in fact looking not towards the east but westward to the Central Government's concern about the north eastern part of the country.

The Look East Policy has since been thoroughly dissected and discussed in every possible forum in the state only to find that the it is more like an intent or policy at the conceptual level without any formal documentation or detailed program. While people in Manipur continue looking, watching and perhaps searching for something exceptional or concrete in the policy, it suddenly got metamorphosed as 'Act East Policy' with the change of regime at the Center.

This has temporarily kindled, once again, the withered hope of the people of Manipur who for historical reasons look optimistically forward to the proverbial 'Nongpok Thong Hangba' which roughly translates into 'opening the eastern frontiers' of the state believing that the Act East Policy would perhaps be in congruence with it. However, not to be once bitten twice shy, people of Manipur who have become very skeptical in their outlook but are still hoping that the new Government at the Center would, for a change, walk the talk and not end up (play) acting the Act East Policy itself for the sake of petty political mileage.

But the genuine concern especially for the people of Manipur continues to be about their would-be fate under the policy what would be the benefits and what roles they have to adopt or adapt to? What would be the overall impact of the policy in the state of Manipur?

At present, the forecast for the future of the general public of Manipur under the policy is rather gloomy leaving very little or no chance to be within the comfort zone! The pertinent question, therefore, in everyone's mindis, 'are we going to end up being a part of the labor-work force, road side vender, small part time hoteliers, touts for human flesh trade, etc. while million and millions of dollar would ply and fly everyday right before our own eyes?'

What kind of major economic boom or growth can we expect from the policy in absence of any foreign trade related economic or commercial center worth its name here in Manipur? Chances of development of any major manufacturing hub or happening place in strategic locations in the state in the near future are no more than finding life on Mars? This surely reminds us of the erstwhile policy of pumping crude oil out of Assam to another state for refining only to sell the refined oil back to Assam!

One wonders why the refinery unit was not set up in Assam itself right from the beginning. Will similar bloomer be made obligatory to Manipur under the Act East Policy? Assam has since learnt its lessons and is on a clear road map to capitalizing the benefits under the Act East Policy by claiming itself as the economic gateway (and hub) to the Southeast Asia while the gateway to the Southeast Asia undoubtedly is in Manipur. Why should the major benefits under the policy squarely rest at a place more than 700 km away from the actual gateway, defying any logic or rationale?

While people of Manipur continue to debate on the pros and cons of the policy, the problems and the prospects the Act East Policy throws open to the state of Manipur, another tsunami like wave rocked the state of Manipur on Dec 28, 2017 when it was made public that the Indian Science Congress would be held in Manipur University! Though the Indian Science Congress is relatively less known or popular in Manipur as compared to the Act East Policy, it is nevertheless the biggest science congregation in the country much like the National Sports in terms of sporting events, if you like, except that Indian Science Congress is regularly held at the beginning of each calendar year.

The official announcement by Indian Science Congress Association that the 105th edition of its flagship program 'Indian Science Congress' would be held at Manipur University during Mar 16-20, 2018 actually came like a bolt from the blue. Though the event was to have been held at the Osmania University, Hyderabad during Jan 3-7, 2018, in an unprecedented and equally historic manner, the science congress was postponed at the last minute along with a change of the host institute.

Tradition has it that the Indian Science Congress is the first public function the Prime Minister addressed in the calendar year since the days of the first Prime Minister (PM) Jawaharlal Nehru. Though the PM Modi would in all likelihood be addressing the Indian Science Congress (as per the tradition), it obviously will not be the first public function of the calendar year for the PM Modi marking a clear departure from the earlier tradition.

Whatever be the reasons, it is indeed a boon in disguise for the state of Manipur in general and Manipur University in particular that such an important scientific gathering would be held in the ambience of Manipur University, by default or design. Keeping in view the inadequate infrastructure and support systems, it would have taken more than a decade before the University could rightfully claim to play host to the Indian Science Congress. This is definitely not in pejorative sense trying to undermine the competency, expertise or the experience of the University in the organization of such a gathering.

In fact, many seminars and conferences at national as well as international levels are regularly held in the University. But the dimension and the magnitude of the Indian Science Congress is impertinently different from such national or international conferences. For example, unlike the regular conferences we organized in a particular subject or theme, the Science Congress will broadly cover all the main disciplines of science like physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology, biochemistry, etc. with as many, if not more, sub-disciplines requiring more than a dozen parallel sessions to simultaneously take place.

With regard to the nature of the participants, no scientist of international repute or standing has ever attended any of the conferences held in Manipur University so far, let alone any Nobel laurates, whereas some Nobel laurates have always participated in almost all the other editions of the Indian Science Congress. In fact, we can enthusiastically look forward to some exciting talks on the most challenging areas of science by some Nobel laurates at least in this edition of the science congress.

While the number of (outside) participants of about 100 is considered a big number in any of the national or international conference held in the University, the average participants in the Indian Science Congress is about 10,000 (ten thousand) one hundred times the big number of 100! However, this time perhaps due to the sudden change in the time and venue of the science congress, we can expect about five thousand participants only from all over the country still an astronomical figure for the Manipur University.

It is in the backdrop of such very challenging circumstances that Manipur University authority have courageously taken the onus of hosting the biggest science congregation of the country in the premises of the University keeping in view (presumably) the larger interest of the people of the state. We all should appreciate and stand by the bold decision taken by the University.

Though the preparation for organization of the Indian Science Congress generally takes about one year on an average, Manipur University has a little more than two months' time at its disposal for the preparation of the congress. The challenges before it, therefore, is undoubtedly intimidating but still do-able, if so determined. Fortunately the 105th Indian Science Congress has come like a ready-to have fast food pack everything have already been planned, designed and so packaged leaving very little role for the University in the strategic planning and policy matters of the congress except opening a tiny window for the local students to be included in the poster sessions only.

We, therefore, have only to unpack it and put it in their respective places. And for that, the University will have to make the campus ready for the congress to be unfolded here and of course decent arrangement for the local hospitality within this short interval of time. This does not require much scientific or intellectual inputs but good managerial and organizational skills with good logistics support facilities and systems. That obviously calls for much larger work force consisting of both semi-skilled and unskilled workers.

The sudden increase of influx of tobacco-scented migrant workers inside the campus perhaps indicates that Manipur still does not have enough number of unskilled or semi-skilled workers compelling to borrow from other parts of the country oblivious of its detrimental consequences in the long run! Or otherwise, the local workers though available aplenty are not as dependable as their counterparts from other states, a kind of racism practiced on them in their own land!

It is one thing when people from the north east are subjected to racism in one form or the other in every metropolitan city of the country but it is altogether a different issue when the same is still made obligatory on them in their own land typical example of being an alien in one's own land!

On the other hand, despite their enthusiasm and willingness to participate and extend every possible help by contributing their mites and might as well, towards successful organization of science congress, most of the teachers and the taught are wondering if they would end up standing by the roadside like 'all dress up and nowhere to go' situation resigning to their own fate save the few included in the elite coterie group. The talks doing the rounds, believe it or not, is that one only needs to forge oneself into the coterie group or committee and the one with the best innovative idea of forgery likely to be at the helm of the show!

It is precisely in the milieu of the Indian Science Congress to be held in Manipur University that people of Manipur need even more serious cogitation on the fate of the average citizen of Manipur under the Act East Policy. Since the Indian Science Congress has come to Manipur University in the form of block-factorizable matrix (in mathematical sense), the major role and the task of the University is to somehow make it happen seamlessly in its ambience with the best of the local hospitalities the role of an event manager and roadside vender!

The science congress will be here for a few days only and hence its impact will be transitory (not the scientific deliberations and its outcome) unlike the Look East Policy which will have an everlasting impact. This surely cast a very disturbing future of Manipur if the Policy, like the present science congress, also comes in the same block-factorizable matrix form in one go or in installments. The only role for us then will be rearrangement of the blocks unpacking and re-packing them to their respective destination, which is a labor intensive process requiring good number of semi-skilled workers.

If the labor force in the state is inadequate, influx of migrant laborer would naturally increase until the time when the local laborers would have to fight and compete with their counterparts from other states! A very alarming situation indeed! By any chance, if you have been under the impression that life under the Act East Policy will be like that of a dog with two tails, its high time you wake up to the bitter reality the only tail the dog now has may get shortened or hewed even!

Let the Indian Science Congress in Manipur University not be in any way a trailer of the Act East Policy. We deserve much better deal than being event organizers, roadside vendors or part of the labor work force!

* Prof Homendra Naorem wrote this article for The Sangai Express
Prof Homendra Naorem works at Department of Chemistry, Manipur University
This article was posted on 08 March, 2018 .

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