Narender Sehgal: India's science popularisation crusader

Kinkini Dasgupta Misra*

doi:10.1038/nindia.2020.138 Published online 9 September 2020

Narender K Sehgal (1940-2020)
Narender Kumar Sehgal, who passed away on 7 September 2020 at the age of 79, was widely recognised as the doyen of science communication and popularisation in India.

His pioneering role in institutionalising communication and building robust national networks to take science to the people made him a trailblazer and a mentor to successive generations of science communicators.

A particle physicist by training, Sehgal worked in theoretical reactor physics and taught at the Somali National University in Mogadishu , Somalia (East Africa) before returning to India in 1978. Sehgal worked at the Indian Space Research Organisation in Ahmedabad before joining DST in 1981. 

India founded a National Council of Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC) in the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and chose Sehgal to head it. In 1989, he founded Vigyan Prasar, a national level autonomous institution of DST mandated for science communication and popularisation.

His social experiments with science popularisation were massive in scale, considering they had to be rolled in a country the size of India. For instance, in 1987 with the "Bharat Jana Vigyan Jatha", and then the “Bharat Jana Gyan Vigyan Jatha” in 1992, he reached science to over 10 million people; conceived the annual National Children’s Science Congress in 1993; and harnessed the reach and power of national television for science popularisation.

Indian listeners fondly remember the radio serials ‘Vigyan Vidhi’ (Method of Science) and ‘Manav ka Vikas’ (Human Evolution), which he conceived in 16 Indian languages. The television serials ‘Kyon Aur Kaise’ (Why and How?) and ‘Kudrat Nama’ are also considered as ground breaking efforts in reaching science to the masses.

Sehgal was instrumental in envisioning a National Science Day for India on 28 February, to mark the discovery of the Raman Effect by Indian physicist C. V. Raman. In 1988, he created the NCSTC network as people's science movement in India.

He founded and edited a quarterly journal Scientific Opinion between 1972 and 1976 for serious discussions on issues and problems relating to science, technology, education, society and development. It was among the earliest journals for science communication in India. Sehgal also contributed to the international science weekly Nature during this time.

His multi-pronged science outreach activities earned him the UNESCO Kalinga Prize for Science Popularisation (jointly with Romanian Radu Iftimovici) in 1991. For his popular science writings, he also received an inaugural fellowship of the Indian Science Writers’ Association in 1993.

With his erudition, foresight, and trendsetting leadership, Sehgal left a strong imprint in the minds of all those for whom he made science a little more accessible and understandable.

(*Kinkini Dasgupta Misra is with Vigyan Prasar, Department of Science and Technology, Government of India.)