Remembering  Prof. Yashpal
Remembering Prof. Yashpal

Remembering Prof. Yashpal

T.K Thomas

A cartoon is worth a thousand words! As one opened the Sunday Express [July 30] and the weekly Rough Cut of E.P.Unni, the cartoon said it all. It was on the recent spate of building collapses in Mumbai and Kolkata in which a number of people had died. There is a hoarding in the cartoon with the lines, ”GRAND NEW COMPLEX FITTED WITH ULTRA-SAFETY ANTI GRAVITY DEVICES”. Then, the sentences in the last balloon read, “People will believe anything. Anyone left who can talk simple science?” Below that is an epitaph “Prof.Yashpal[1926-2017]”.These words in Unni’s cartoon articulate his tribute to Prof. Yashpal who passed away last Monday.

Prof. Yashpal had this uncanny knack to communicate very complicated scientific facts and theories in very simple and in ordinary man’s language. To children in the 1980s when there was a renewed interest in promoting scientific temperament, ushering in computerization and telecom revolution, Prof. Yashpal was like an encyclopedia for thousands of young inquisitive Indian children who tuned into “Turning Point” a programme presented by the professor himself on Doordarshan. Week after week he explained to children serious scientific concepts in simple and comprehensible language. The number of letters received from children every week was phenomenal,a testimony for Prof. Yashpal’s passion in explaining the mysteries of science to children.

He had an illustrious career ever since he returned to India from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT] after his studies in High Energy Physics and joined the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research[TIFR]. After a rather long tenure as the Director of the Space Application Centre, Ahmedabad, he was chief consultant to the now defunct Planning Commission, Secretary, Ministry of Science and Technology, Chairman, University Grants Commission and Vice Chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University.Over a decade after he left as the Chairman of the UGCin 2002, Prof. Yashpal along with a resident of Chattisgarh petitioned the Supreme Court that sections of that government’s NijiKshetraVishwavidyalayaAdhiniyam,2002 [Private Universities Act ] should be declared ultra vires and should be quashed. The Supreme Court ordered de-recognition of112 private universities. This shows how he was against indiscriminate privatization of higher education.

In the passing away of Prof. Yashpal, not only Indian science and academia but also Indian broadcasting lost a person who popularized science and promoted scientific temperament. It was sometime in 1989 that one met him at his residence to invite him for a seminar on ‘Autonomy for the Electronic Media’. A national debate was on at that time, on the Varghese Committee report submitted during the Janata Partygovernment with L K Advanias the Minister for Information and Broadcasting.Autonomy for the electronic media was one of the main points in the nascent Party’s election manifesto. It had taken many years for the various political combinations that came to power after the Janata experiment failed to initiate a national debate on a report submitted by B G Varghese and the committee in February,1978.

The celebrated physicist when we visited him was the Chairman of the University Grants Commission[ U G C ]. He received us with warmth and made us absolutely comfortable with his avuncular attitude. He was in his trademark ‘kurta’ and fluffy, silvery disheveled hair. We tried to brief him on the purpose of our seminar. Before we could explain what we were planning to do for the seminar, Prof. Yashpal enthusiastically started on his views onthe whole concept of autonomy. Referring to his tenure as the Director of the Space Application Centre, Ahemedabad [1973-1981] he said, ”even in the dark days of the Emergency, when I was working in Ahmedabad with P.V.Krishnamurthi in the SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment) Programme ,the only thing that we did not have responsibility for was news. But in regard to practically everything else, whether it was making a series on exploitation, rural development, problems of people being brought to the administration, investigating murders, looking at deficiencies in support systems, I can say with assurance that there was hardly any interference”.

Incidentally, the SITE Programme was a pioneering effort of Doordarshan, inaugurated on August 1,1975 used satellite for the first time to broadcast television programmes simultaneously to 2400 villages in the states of Rajasthan, Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. National Aeronautical Space Agency[NASA]of the U.S made their Applications Technology Satellite -6 available and the Indian Space Research Organization [ISRO] had full responsibility for the ground segment of the programme.

Prof. Yashpal as Director of the Space Application centre in Ahmedabad worked in tandem with Doordarshan’s P V Krishnamurthi [ he later became the first Director General of Doordarshanon April 1,1976]in the programming. Prof. Yashpal turned nostalgic as he told us about their professional camaraderie in working towards the resounding success of the yearlong SITE programme which ended on July 31, 1976.

Always wanted to use broadcasting as an essential component in development. He told us, ”In 1983, I had some agitated discussions about these questions [development communication and use of broadcasting] with Mrs. Indira Gandhi and I said we should have a communication policy and she asked me to draft it. Some of these aspects of mandating were put in it.” He then fished out a stapled set of papers from a heap of papers on his table. What he handed over to us was a copy of the 11 point policy which he prepared for Indira Gandhi. That Policy statement is still relevant, of course for public service broadcasting. In its preamble he stated,” We are in the midst of a communication revolution. Therapidexpansion of the television network, the accelerating growth of telecommunication, the steady spread of radio receivers and the recent boom in video equipment have already made electronic communication an important sector of national economy.” He was prophetic. Some of the points in his communication policyare still very relevant for policy planners, communication experts, development agencies today even though development communication is an academic subject confined to universities. Here are some of the points in Prof. Yashpal ‘s Development Communication policy given to Indira Gandhi in 1983. As India continues to face the vagaries of nature and the resultant agrarian crisis, his words need to be taken as guiding principles by the government:-

“Communication is the nervous system of society. Its growing range and versatility can be used creatively for economic development,national integration, social change and the spread of education. It will therefore be a priority sector.

While the communication system must serve all segments of society, it will be developed to accord special priority to the rural people and the deprived sections. In specific terms, telecommunications and broadcasting, for example, will give priority to connecting, covering, serving and providing access to, rural areas.

Special efforts will be made to provide reliable communication system for disaster warning and emergency operations during calamities like floods, cyclones etc. Systems for dissemination of timely meteorological information and agro-meteorological advice will be given a high priority….”

Well, a lot has been done since 1983. Following at least some of the eleven points in Prof.Yashpal’s development communication policy will be a fitting tribute to this legendary science communicator.

One recalls Prof. Yashpal’serudite comments on television when an astronomical phenomenon like solar or lunar eclipse occurred. According to him there are number of myths and irrational beliefs like not looking at eclipse directly. He explained that there will be ultra violet rays which can damage the naked eyes. He answered tricky questions linked to superstitious beliefs without hurting sentiments yet straight and convincing. At a time when the gap between faith and superstition appear to have narrowed we need to go back to men of science like Prof. Yashpal for bringing in a semblance of rationality.

The last major television appearance of Prof. Yashpal was probably when ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission known as Mangalyan entered the Mars orbit on September 14, 2014. He was watching the landmark launch from Bengaluru with the Prime Minister of India.