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Professor Yash Pal, An Unconventional Icon of Indian Science

He used space technology in particular, and science in general to touch the lives of millions of Indians.

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It is a sad coincidence that this week, Indian science lost two of its leading figures – Prof UR Rao and Prof Yash Pal. Both were space scientists and contemporaries – one built satellites and the other worked on applications of satellite technology. While Prof Rao remained dedicated to space technology till the end, Prof Yash Pal used space technology, in particular and science, in general, to touch the lives of millions of Indians.

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The Unconventional Scientist

Yash Pal was not a conventional scientist. He did not remain confined to the so-called Ivory Tower of high science.

His personality was a rare combination of many elements – he was a first-class physicist in his early career, became a space scientist as well as science manager in the 1970s, donned the hat of an educationist as head of the University Grants Commission in the 1980s and emerged as an iconic communicator of science in the 1990s. In each of these roles, he excelled, raised the bar, and came up with radical ideas.

His Contribution to SITE Will Always Be Remembered

Perhaps the biggest contribution of Yash Pal was his role in execution of the SITE project – Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) during 1975-76. It was a pioneering experiment in mass communication, direct-to-home satellite broadcasting and educational television globally. Vikram Sarabhai, founder of India’s space programme and Yashpal’s mentor, had envisioned that space technology must be used for the welfare of people and national development. SITE was a result of this thinking. It demonstrated that satellite broadcasting can be used for education. It brought satellite television to 2,400 villages at a time when terrestrial broadcasting was a rarity even in urban India. Yashpal worked on communication technologies, such as the first indigenously developed satellite earth station, that made it possible.

SITE was not just a technology demonstrator but a sociological experiment which brought scientists, sociologists, communication experts, meteorologists, agriculture scientists, film makers and television producers on one platform to work collaboratively. The Space Applications Centre, which Yashpal founded at the behest of ISRO chief Satish Dhawan, became the cradle for new ideas and innovative solutions.

Developing science programmes for children in villages which did not even have proper schools was a challenge, as part of SITE.

Yash Pal tackled it this way:

You must have experiments and you must do things to learn science properly. But in villages there were one or two-room schools, with no equipment; some did not even have a blackboard. If we had to make science programmes for them what were they going to do? Then I wrote down a credo, which was that the objective of the science programmes would be to help children realise that science is everywhere. Science is in the kitchen, science is in the village pond, science is in the bicycle, science is in the flora and fauna, science is everywhere. Having done that I prepared some briefs and worked with producers.
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Yash Pal’s Radical Ideas About Education

As chairman of the University Grants Commission, he proposed an outlandish idea – close down all colleges and universities for one year so that both students and teachers could go out and explore the country, learn about it and then develop courses based on this knowledge.

In a letter to all universities, he questioned the relevance of the education system when the country had high illiteracy. “Why don’t we shut down all colleges and universities for a year? Shut down not to go on a holiday, but to venture out to interact with people, prepare entirely new courses, write diaries, and come back refreshed. And with this new course material you begin,” Yash Pal wrote.

The idea, as expected, had few takers.

Yash Pal was also concerned with the growing weight of the school bag. He saw it as symbolic of the problems school education faces in the country. He was also against the idea of medical, engineering or science universities. His idea of university was that it should be all encompassing and inter-disciplinary because “new knowledge and new insights have often originated at the boundaries of disciplines.” The recommendations he made for reforming the education system remain a landmark.

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(The writer is a journalist, author and columnist based in New Delhi. He can be reached @dineshcsharma. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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