New Delhi

A proposal by the Indian government to encourage universities to teach astrology has sparked a storm of protest among scientists.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) has offered to fund fully fledged departments of astrology with five teaching posts, a library, computer laboratory and horoscope bank. To be called Jyotir Vigyan ('astrological science' in Sanskrit), the departments are to be set up for the 2001–2002 academic year. They will offer bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees.

The proposal is the brainchild of science minister Murli Manohar Joshi, who is also minister for education and a powerful figure in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Joshi, a physicist, believes that all answers sought by scientists are buried in the ancient Sanskrit writings called Vedas and Upanishads.

Leading researchers have condemned the move as an attempt to legitimize pseudo-science and superstition, and some have said that it undermines India's scientific credibility. The National Science Academy has expressed strong opposition. But there is no sign of the government relenting.

Meanwhile, 35 of India's roughly 200 universities have sought permission to set up courses, with more expected to follow.

“At a time when research in fields of pure science is being affected for want of funds, there is no justification in spending huge amounts on pseudoscience called Vedic astrology,” said Pushpa Bhargava, founding director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad.

Defending the move, UGC chairman Hari Gautam said that astrology qualifies as a science, which he defined as “a subject that needs probing, investigation and research”.

Two prominent UGC members — S. K. Joshi, a physicist and former director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, and Sipra Guha-Mukherjee, a plant molecular biologist from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi — seem to have consented to the move. And some researchers, including Vijay Bhatkar, who developed India's first supercomputer, have publicly backed it.

“There is no doubt that the move is tantamount to giving [a] certain amount of formal recognition to astrology as a science,” said Valangiman Ramamurthi, secretary to the Department of Science and Technology. “I do not want to comment whether it is right or wrong, but if anyone comes to me with a research proposal on astrology we will evaluate it to see if it makes sense scientifically before funding it.”