The prime motivator

Published : Jun 22, 2002 00:00 IST

Retracing the trajectory of India's best-known scientist from humble origins in a small Tamil Nadu town, through two key strategic arenas, and now to Rashtrapati Bhavan.

IN the conference room of the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL) in Hyderabad, the bi-monthly board meeting of the Prithvi surface-to-surface missile project is on. It has been a 'hot' discussion for over three hours now. Some members steal a look at their watches, wondering when Project Director V.J. Sundaram would announce a break for lunch.

Just then the DRDL's Director and the working head of India's Guided Missile Development Programme, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, walks in asking familiarly, "what's happening?" Within minutes he is deeply involved in the knotty problem and the mood in the room has changed palpably. Agencies that were explaining why they could not deliver this or that sub-assembly on schedule begin trying to rework their schedules around minor hitches. A key engineer from a Bangalore-based public sector is required to help with some fabrication, but his "boss" would not spare him - until Kalam makes a personal call and explains the urgency. It is well past lunch time when the meeting ends, but 'Prithvi' moved forward, motivated by Kalam.

As the members begin to leave, Kalam flourishes the day's copy of a local newspaper. "Did you see this?" he asks V.K. Saraswat, Prithvi project deputy, pointing to a photograph of a papier-mache model of Prithvi made by a 10-year-old schoolgirl from Secunderabad. Saraswat explains that the student had requested some details of the missile's shape and size and he had supplied them. "She has done a great job, Sir," he adds.

"Then why don't you invite her here," suggests Kalam. "Let her see the real Prithvi... she will be your guest for one day." A few days later, a staff car picks up the child from her home and takes her to the spanking new Research Centre Imarat (RCI), the main research facility of the Indian missile programme. She is taken around the hangar where Prithvi is assembled - and even gets to touch it. She shares lunch with Prithvi scientists in the staff canteen and, to round off her day, is taken to Kalam's office where he breaks off from a meeting to spend a few minutes enquiring about her school, her parents and her hobbies.

IT was just another working day for Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, but it explains why he has been not just India's best-known, but its most popular and most respected scientific figure for nearly two decades, and why his nomination for the highest office in the land has been overwhelmingly welcomed by common citizens. He is the unspoken hope of millions of Indians.

And it is the end of a long journey for the son of a humble boat-owner in the temple town of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, who was propelled by a fond family and farsighted teachers into a career that took him to the top of two professionally demanding arenas - space and defence - before he returned last December to Chennai to be a teacher, to "talk to 100,000 children," the role he loved best.

Born on October 15, 1931, Kalam was brought up in a secular tradition. It seemed perfectly natural to the young Kalam that the closest friend of his father, Jainulabdeen, was the high priest of the Rameswaram temple, Pakshi Lakshmana Sastry, or that his constant companion and schoolmate was the priest's son, Ramanadha Sastry. When a schoolteacher, sensitive to the social nuances of the day, tried to separate the two boys who shared a front bench in the class, it was Lakshmana Sastry who stormed into school, to protest and restore the two friends to their shared bench. As the Second World War broke out, nine-year-old Kalam collected tamarind seeds - earning one anna a day - and then caught the daily bundle of newspapers flung out of the Dhanushkodi Express for another anna.

The Schwartz Higher Secondary School in Ramanathapuram today sports a proud plaque: "Here studied the Father of our country's Space Science and Ballistic Missile Programme..." In the early 1940s, it was Iyadurai Solomon who took Kalam under his wing and encouraged him to pursue graduate studies at St. Joseph's College, Tiruchy. In 1990, Kalam, visited Madurai Kamaraj University to deliver the convocation address. On learning that his old teacher, now a priest, had settled down in Madurai, Kalam traced his house. At the convocation, University Chancellor and Tamil Nadu Governor Dr. P.C. Alexander invited the 80-year-old Solomon to share the dais with his old student. At St. Joseph's, Kalam was the secretary of the vegetarian mess: he remains to this day a strict vegetarian, a non-smoker and a teetotaller.

Engineering was his ambition. After graduation he got admission to the aeronautical engineering course at the Madras Institute of Technology (MIT), Chennai (then Madras). His sister Zohara pawned her gold bangles to pay his admission fee. Kalam has often acknowledged the debt he owed to Prof. K.A.V. Pandalai at the MIT.

The MIT became part of Anna University, and a happy turn of events saw the 'old boy' return six months ago to his alma mater as Professor, Technology and Societal Transformation, holding the T. Muthian Chair, a post that has enabled him to fulfil his long-stated ambition to interact with students and work on socially relevant technology projects - studying if computers can help overcome brain disabilities, digitising ancient palm leaf manuscripts, developing an implant for aurally challenged children, and so on. He has worked since January with just one doctoral student - Father A.K. George - whom he has assured he will continue to guide even after he shifts to Rashtrapati Bhavan.

For Kalam, his first stint in the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) was not particularly memorable. The fresh DMIT served as a trainee at the Hindusthan Aircraft Ltd. (HAL) in Bangalore (now Hindustan Aeronautics Limited), overhauling aero engines. This encouraged him to apply for two career options, both linked to aerospace. He was turned down by the Selection Board for the Indian Air Force but was selected as a Senior Scientific Assistant by the DRDO's Directorate of Technical Development and Production (Air) in Kanpur. When the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) was created, Kalam was posted to the new entity in Bangalore. But there was a glass ceiling: an SSA with new ideas was not encouraged, even if the idea was as revolutionary as an air cushion vehicle christened "Nandi". The project was abandoned. Till today India has not manufactured an indigenous hovercraft.

One visitor who took a ride in Nandi with Kalam was, however, impressed. That was Prof. M.G.K. Menon, director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, who was looking for engineers to form a core team for India's venture into space research. With Menon, during Kalam's subsequent interview in Mumbai, for the post of a rocket engineer, was Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, who later became one of Kalam's mentors.

In 1962, Kalam took a train to Thiruvanantha-puram to join the newly created Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) at the coastal village of Thumba. It was the beginning of the first of two professional challenges in Kalam's life - the two decades when he honed his technical and managerial skills, which culminated in the design and development and finally the launch of the satellite launch vehicle SLV-3, from Sriharikota on July 18, 1980, placing in orbit, the Rohini satellite. Kalam has always acknowledged the debt he owed to three key scientists with whom he worked during his years with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which he characterises in all his public speeches as the 'vision' of Vikram Sarabhai, the single-minded 'mission' of Satish Dhawan, and the pure 'technology' of Brahm Prakash, the Director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) at Thumba. As the Project Manager for the SLV project and later Mission Director for SLV-3, Kalam had his first experience of collaborative development. The SLV programme had its moments of failure - and Kalam was to recall with admiration how Dhawan taught him to handle disappointments with dignity and grace, how to learn from mistakes and press on.

In his forties, Kalam remained single, staying in a small lodge on Gandhariamman Koil Street in Thiruvananthapuram, and patronising a nearby kiosk which provided 'kanji' and 'kappa' - rice gruel and tapioca. That was when he acquired the sobriquet "Kalam Iyer", for his spartan lifestyle. Even today he quotes as easily from the Gita and Thirukkural as from the Koran and composes poems in Tamil whenever something moves him. Those who have known him personally or professionally for any length of time agree that he is so transparently secular that it never occurs to anyone to look for bias of any kind in any of his actions. When a delegation of Arabs visited the DRDL, Kalam courteously joined them on the prayer mat at their noon namaaz. But his personal staff had standing instructions to send all honoraria he received for the many lectures he delivered to a charity that he had been supporting for decades - an orphanage run by the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt.

Kalam's success as the leader of SLV-3, brought swift recognition - he was conferred the Padma Bhushan in 1981 and was called to take on other challenges. Dr. Raja Ramanna, the then head of the DRDO, persuaded him to join the DRDL as its Director.

When Kalam joined as the Director in June 1982, the morale at the DRDL was rather low. A series of failures had almost brought about the end of the "Devil" missile project. There was media speculation that the DRDL might be closed down. What was needed was a new smack of firm purpose. Kalam sat down with key technologists to frame a new agenda. Together with metallurgist Dr. V.S. Arunachalam, who had replaced Ramanna as the DRDO head, Kalam briefed Defence Minister R. Venkataraman on their phased plan for a full slate of missiles to be developed indigenously over a decade.

Both Kalam and Arunachalam have credited Venkataraman with the inspired suggestion that instead of taking up the planned missiles, one by one, they recast their proposal as a comprehensive plan, during the implementation of which the DRDO would launch simultaneously the development of a quiverful of missiles, covering a full range of applications. As Arunachalam admitted to this correspondent, "Kalam and I added a few zeroes all over the place and submitted a revised financial proposal the next day." Unawed by the figure of Rs.388 crores, Venkataraman obtained the Union Cabinet's approval - and the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP), India's most complex and challenging technological project until then, was born. Kalam personally codenamed the five "asthras" that would hopefully transform the nation's defence muscle: the twisting and turning anti-tank weapon "Nag"; the short-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) Trishul that would serve all three arms of the defence services; the longer range multi-target SAM, "Akash"; the tactical surface-to-surface missile Prithvi and the biggest leviathan of all: the Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) christened Agni, which would go out of the earth's atmosphere before making a fiery re-entry.

As Kalam, blooded on the SLV programme, knew, this was a task too big to be handled by any one laboratory - it called for a certain level of national cooperation. At its peak in the early 1990s, Kalam was overseeing a programme that encompassed 78 partners - 36 technical and 41 production units, including DRDO laboratories, ordnance factories, public sector undertakings, private sector giants, small-scale units, and dozens of academic institutions. It has been fashionable in some scientific circles to pooh-pooh Kalam's personal contribution to realise India's missile ambitions, dismissing him as a good motivator rather than a brilliant engineer. Indeed he did bring into the staid and rarefied environment of defence laboratories, a new garam hava of professionalism in project management. But those who have worked with him know Kalam has an instinctive engineering mind capable of levelling with multiple disciplines. But more important, he is a prime motivator. At the DRDL, for those of us who had to work closely with him on the five-pronged missile programme, Kalam's gruelling pace was tough to emulate - but it was an exciting roller-coaster.

Egoless collaboration on multi-disciplined projects was the single biggest legacy that those who worked on a Kalam programme carried away. Then there is the realisation that even the most brilliant scientist has some responsibilities towards society. Long before environment became a fashionable buzz word, Kalam encouraged his colleagues to help create a green tomorrow. "Green Teams" were set up in all units which would decide if ever a tree needed to be cut - and how many should be planted to replace it. On the launch pad in Chandipur on the eve of the first Agni test flight in May 1989, Defence Minister K.C. Pant, taking an evening stroll with Kalam and Arunachalam, asked: "What would you like me to do, Kalam, to celebrate the Agni success tomorrow?"

"We need one lakh saplings to plant in the RCI," Kalam replied.

"You are buying the blessings of Mother Earth for Agni," Pant quipped. "We will succeed tomorrow".

He was right, Agni took off on a perfect flight at dawn on May 22.

Kalam was rewarded with the Padma Vibhushan for the Agni triumph. But he was not alone. Arunachalam was also honoured with the Padma Vibhushan and Agni's Project Director R.N. Agarwal and the flight control specialist J.C. Bhattacharya received the Padma Shri. Kalam has always been a stickler for sharing credit which is perhaps why no one grudges him any of the honours he has received, including 25 honorary doctorates.

Kalam left the DRDL in 1992 to succeed Arunachalam as the head of the DRDO. For the 60-year-old Kalam it was a simple move from the single room of the mess block in Hyderabad's Kanchanbagh to a single room in Delhi's Asiad Guest House. His personal life changed only marginally. He could not continue his veena lessons in Delhi and the surroundings of the Nehru Stadium were not quite as pleasant for a morning walk as the tree-lined avenues he helped create in Hyderabad. The lunch brought to his room at the DRDL from the staff canteen - two chapathis, some dal and a cup of curd - remained the same in Delhi, even if the source was now the Indian Coffee House in South Block.

But away from the sharply focussed, time-bound challenges of the missile programme, Kalam in his stint as Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and head of the DRDO's 50-odd laboratories, seemed a mite less effective. The Bharat Ratna was conferred on him in 1997 even as he was putting together a blueprint for a truly developed India by 2020. In an interview to Frontline (December 26, 1997) he told this correspondent: "We are now a missile power - we do not have to import strategic missiles... But when I asked a little girl who came to me for my autograph two days ago, 'What is your dream?', she said: 'Uncle, I want to live in a developed country'."

He added: "We are a nation of one billion - but when shall we be recognised as a developed nation? I say, we can do it in 20 years." A year later Kalam collaborated with an old associate from his ISRO days, Y.S. Rajan, to produce a precise blueprint, with detailed road maps for key technologies: India 2020: Vision for a New Millennium (Penguin Books India, Rs.395).

With the nuclear tests of May 11 and 13, 1998, the old collaborative skills were again in play as three key agencies, the Army, the Department of Atomic Energy and the DRDO, worked together to realise Pokhran-II. For no particular fault of Kalam, he has come to be identified as the prime mover of India's new macho post-Pokhran stance. His personal rationalisation for creating a strong missile defence has been "Strength respects strength".

Anand Parthasarathy has served with Kalam as a scientist on India's missile programme.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment