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Archive for November, 2006

How Technology is Socially Constructed

Lecturing at IIT Madras earlier this week

I posed a question to a gathering of students and faculty at IIT Madras recently:

In the early part of the 19th century faced with a steep increase in demand for natural indigo dye, British and Indian landlords in Bengal and Bihar  ( Rabindranath Tagore’s grandfather Dwaraknath was one such landlord) sought to meet this demand by expanding the acreage growing indigo. 

The response in England and Germany to the same indigo demand was different. They  enlisted science to find a synthetic substitute which finally William Perkins did in 1856 by synthesising mauve aniline from coal tar. German scientists followed up on this and the synthetic dye industry was founded.

The advent of synthetic indigo made the price of indigo drop drastically.  All that the landowners of Bengal and Bihar could do was respond with ever more repressive measures. Among other measures, they influenced the British Raj government into enacting laws that made their tenants mandatorily grow indigo in at least 3/20th of the area leased to them. The peasants rose in revolt and a young lawyer recently returned from South Africa took up their cause. It was in negotiating a lower tax for these poor indigo farmers  Mahatma Gandhi’s first came to national prominence.

The trajectory that the German synthetic indigo took was different. In attempting to synthesise indigo they unravelled the benzene ring and founded the science of organic chemistry. In trying to reduce the cost of production they invented the unit processes of chemical engineering. Both of these plus the demand for chemistry graduates that their endeavours created stood the Germans in good stead when one of the dyes they experimented with was found to have bactericidal properties which lead to the founding in Germany of another giant industry- pharmaceutucals.

The question I posed to the IIT audience was this- why did India and Germany take these two different  trajectories faced with the same indigo demand issue?

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Thanking Shabana

I am glad to hear about Shabana Azmi getting the International Gandhi Peace Prize for her social activism. Those of us who live in the Colaba area of Bombay are specially thankful for her role in the 1980′s for supporting the local fisherfolk who were being threatened with eviction from the seafront at Cuffe Parade. As you can see in the picture which I captured last week, the activities of these fisherfolk are the only spot of genuine colour in a landscape filled with dreary skyscrapers.

At that time, government officials made the case that these fisherfolk were illegally squatting on public land;Shabana and other activists said that you cannot deprive fisherfolk of using an area that they have using for centuries in the name of property rights. The activists, lead by Shabana, physically prevented the police from eviciting the fisherfolk. I was in the fringes of the crowd that day watching all this happen not sure what the right stand on this ought to be.

Time has proven Shabana and other activists right- not only have the fisherfolk’s presence made this corner of Colaba picturesque, it turns out ,the very bureaucrats who tried to evict them have goneand allotted themelves public landat very nominal prices to buildapartments for themselves! These apartments are to the right and just out of the picture. The buildings in the far corner are offices at Nariman Point, the main office area of downtown Bombay, so you can imagine what these flats are worth now.

Shabana richly deserves the award.

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