by T V Venkateswaran
In August 1996, P Ramar Pillai, a high school dropout, astounded the world when he demonstrated under the gaze of TV cameras, journalists and curious public the production of ’mooligai (herbal) petrol’ by just boiling certain "secret" herbs in plain water. The fuel, being lighter than water, was floating at the top, and when separated by filtering yielded a combustible liquid that smelt and burned like kerosene. The media went into an immediate tizzy. "Imagine growing your own fuel in your backyard", screamed a news headline.Hailed as `peasant-genius’, politicians cheered that now India can thumb its nose at the Saudis. Amidst all-round applause, the state government made a request to the Centre asking for the grant of a patent to Ramar Pillai, and allotted him 10 acres of land in his native village, Idaiyankulam, near Rajapalayam, for setting up a pilot plant with a capacity to produce 50 litres of herbal petrol a day .
When Ramar Pillai claimed he was abducted by a gang and tortured and burned with cigarette butts, all with an aim to wrest his secret recipe, the media alleged a conspiracy by oil companies and foreign governments to stifle a revolutionary discovery that could save the earth.
Talk was that powerful ministers and industrialists had sought partnership in his business. Not to be left out, even some `scientists’ joined the cheering crowd and offered an explanation to the mystery of how 10 gm of plant matter can produce five gm of fuel; perhaps the herb can suck carbon dioxide from the air and convert it into hydrocarbons! Many other scientists chose to keep mum, afraid of public backlash.
Petroleum ministry officials emphatically denounced the magic herb. They said the whole aim of the scam was to legitimise the sale of stolen petrol and diesel from tankers of oil companies in Rajapalayam. But this was tucked away in one corner of newspapers.
An observant scientist from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras pointed out that the real ’secret’ of mooligai petrol was a cheap trick. The stirrer used in the demonstration was filled with fuel, and when the mixture was heated up, a wax plug at the end of the stick melted, liberating the fuel to the boiling water. Some suspected foul play and alleged that he was being victimised by the English-speaking elite, and scientists were trying to tarnish an innocent genius out of professional pique.
The public’s sympathetic reaction towards Ramar Pillai and against scientific institutions is, on the one hand, a telling commentary on the remarkable conservatism and establishmentarianism of organised science and, on the other, the vulnerability of the secularism project in India. The Ramar Pillai episode shows that time and again we allow our faith-based beliefs in the validity of traditions such as herbal cures to overshadow rational scientific approach.
Indian scientific institutes are not seen to be upholding the spirit of scientific temper nor investigating independently, without political interference, issues of environment, public health and public safety. When the scientific community remains a mute spectator at a senior physics professor at a university who makes a ludicrous claim, that applying a coat of cow dung will prevent nuclear radiation, how do we expect people not to mistrust the Indian scientific establishment?
The traditional Chinese practice of acupuncture gained acceptance in modern medicine when it was convincingly shown that inserting needles at specific points in the body elicited the release of endorphins and opioid-type peptides that modulated the activity of the central nervous system. These findings have engendered further studies in the area of molecular and cellular medicine. Many similar instances of gainful obtaining of valid knowledge from traditional ancient claims are numerous and well known. So are many that are patently false; like the flat earth conception of Hindu myths.
When traditional Ayurveda is not seen as an outcome of village healers trying to identify herbs that could cure illness or relieve ailments but as obtained by rishis through intense tapasya and `revelation’ then it becomes an article of faith.
Faith then prevails over rational examination and re-examination through experimentation and investigation. Such vainglorious views of tradition substitute belief in place of evidence and reason.
(The author is a scientist at Vigyan Prasar, New Delhi)