A man and his mission

Print edition : September 12, 1998
Interview with A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, is passionate about one mission: to transform India into a developed country by the year 2020. "If you have a vision - that India should become a developed country - it penetrates all minds," he says. This vision is more important than any group of people or States. "A developed India," Kalam says, "needs three important tools or three important systems." He identifies these as a strong economy, a self-reliant national security system and a standing in the world as an important power.

Abdul Kalam, 66, is also Director-General, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and Secretary, Department of Defence Research and Development. In 1997, he became the only scientist to be honoured with the country's highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna. He was conferred the Padma Bushan in 1981 and the Padma Vibushan in 1990.

Kalam sat down for an interview with T.S. Subramanian in Chennai on August 29, around 11.30 p.m., after a long day. With him was V.S. Rajan, Executive Director of Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC) of which Kalam is the Chairman. Kalam recently co-authored with Rajan the book, India 2020, A Vision for the New Millennium (Viking-Penguin India). During the interview, Kalam passed some of the questions to Rajan, 55, who was associated with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and subsequently with the Department of Space, and has contributed to the communications satellite and remote-sensing programmes.

Kalam answered a wide range of questions, which included the post-Pokhran-II situation, minimum nuclear deterrence, the issue of whether India will accede to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), and the Cauvery engine for the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). He described India's five nuclear tests in May as the "culmination" of simulation, design, verification and a host of laboratory experiments. He said: "It gives, what I can call, a database for our future development and verifications." Excerpts from the interview:

You began your career with ISRO. You were the Project Director of the first successful SLV-3 flight from Sriharikota, in July 1980. Then you joined the DRDO. Recently you took part in the activities of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) related to the five nuclear explosions at Pokhran in May. What are your experiences in each of these departments?

When I worked at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, Rajan worked at the ISRO headquarters (Bangalore), and he also worked at the VSSC. We were in the Physical Research Laboratory also... I started my career in the VSSC and worked there for nearly 20 years - from 1962 to 1982. One of the major projects I was assigned then was to design, develop and build a satellite launch vehicle called SLV-3 to put the Rohini satellite into low earth orbit. This was India's first satellite. I had a fantastic team. It was called the SLV-3 team, and many technology groups at the VSSC, at the Sriharikota (SHAR) centre and the ISRO Satellite Centre (Bangalore) were all partners in this great mission. What we learnt when I put the satellite successfully into orbit in July 1980 was that in any task we do, the mission is greater than the individuals and organisations.

Rajan (interjecting): Or the vision is greater than the individuals.

Kalam: That brought together many partners from research and development organisations, industries and various laboratories. This was one of the major experiences. This continued with me wherever I went. In 1982, when I joined the DRDO, one of the major programmes we evolved was the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme. This programme, comprising many missiles, came out of the intensive partnership between the DRDO laboratories - the prime laboratory at that time was the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation), and its Research Centre at Imarat, Hyderabad - and the defence industries, the armed forces and public and private sector industries. So, one is (the fact that the) mission (is) greater (than the individuals). Another is partnership. In both ISRO and the DRDO, when I was working there, thousands of engineers, scientists and staff (members) participated.

Now the recent effort - a major mission that has been accomplished with the partnership of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), the DRDO and the Army - was the completion of five underground nuclear tests. I would attribute the success of this mission, as my friend Dr. R. Chidambaram, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, put it, to the "synergy" between the DAE and the DRDO. This has brought about a very important technological breakthrough. So the net result is the (joint) experience of three major scientific departments - ISRO, the DRDO and the DAE. India has the best of minds, creative minds. Any mission dreamt of can be accomplished.

You, along with Rajan, have written the book India 2020, A Vision for the New Millennium. What motivated you to write that book?

Kalam: India had a great vision, the seeds of which were sown in 1857. It was that India needed freedom. That was a vision for the nation. It took 90 years of hard work by the best of our leaders to achieve that freedom. Now we need a second vision for the nation.

Rajan: The second vision is brought out in the book: to make India a developed nation. India has many, many attributes. One is the large size of its economy. Several aspects of national security, self-reliance in them; then economic security, food security; also many other social indicators relating to the well-being of the people, their health care, their nutritional security and so on. Many of these are discussed in the book with illustrative examples.

Another thing that Dr. Kalam has mentioned is the strength of our country. In (our) earlier exercises - Dr. Kalam as Chairman (of TIFAC) and myself as its executive director - we interacted with many people. India is one of the few countries which can generate a massive amount of information from its institutes, experts and industries. Later, Dr. Kalam and I went to several places. He has delivered lectures in educational institutions, industries and so on. One thing that emerges everywhere is that there is an urge. At the end of one of Kalam's lectures, a young girl came to him for his autograph. She was 10 years old. Dr. Kalam asked her, "Young lady, what do you want to become?"

Kalam: No. "What is your goal? What is your dream?"

Rajan: She quickly answered, "I want to live in a developed India." Our book is dedicated to her and several thousands of youth who, like her, should dream to be in a developed India.

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.-K. PICHUMANI

Kalam: And also participate in the adventure of transforming a developing India into a developed India.

In your book, you explain how Tipu Sultan used rockets in the two battles of Seringapattam and how you wanted to see them displayed at the Rotunda Museum at Woolwich, near London. You have pointed out that it was the first ever military use of rockets anywhere in the world, and that the British studied these rockets and improved upon them for use in their battles in Europe. How did we fail to build upon the foundation of rocketry laid by Tipu? Robert Goddard in the United States, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in Russia and William Congreve in England laid the foundations for rocketry in those countries. We missed the bus, in the case of Industrial Revolution too.

Kalam: In Tipu's time, the world's first war rocket was built and used. In the first battle, the British were defeated. In the second, Tipu was defeated. So we had the 'rocket sense'. We had the capability to make a rocket towards the end of the 18th century. In the 1960s, the rocket technology received a big thrust through Professor Vikram Sarabhai at the Space Department and through Dr. Nag Chaudhri at the Defence (Department). These two persons propelled the rocket technology in India, one for space and another for defence.

On the post-Pokhran situation, you said: "When nuclear technology and defence technology meet, they get transformed into nuclear weapons technology. This is what the nation witnessed on May 11 and 13..."

Kalam: All these things, the President of India put beautifully on August 15. After what he said about the national statement... the Prime Minister also said that India is a nuclear weapon state. For security reasons, it has built all these things, as proclaimed by our leaders.

You said, "The process of nuclear weaponisation is complete." How can the process be completed with just five tests?

Kalam: It is not just five tests. You can say the five tests marked the culmination of... experiments. Before that, there is simulation, design, verification, and there are many laboratory experiments. There are so many (steps). So it is a culmination. It gives, what I may call, a database for our future development and verifications.

India has declared itself a nuclear weapon state. You are the father of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme. Unless it converts technology into missiles, aircraft delivery systems and warheads, can it declare itself a nuclear weapon state?

Kalam: Missiles can carry any type of weapons. It can carry a conventional weapon, a nuclear weapon. It is only a set of weight, size and performance requirements that will decide... As far as a missile is concerned, it is designed to carry any type of warheads. So when India is called a nuclear weapon state, it means it has a carrier. An aircraft can be a carrier or a missile can be a carrier.

After India conducted the five tests, you said, "The nuclear threat has been vacated." Could you elaborate?

Kalam: That is the strength. What it means is that once you build the capability, no adventurism is possible from any quarter.

When P.V. Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister, India co-sponsored the resolution on the CTBT. In fact, Jawaharlal Nehru was one of the first to propound the CTBT. Later, India changed its mind...

Kalam: We have always been consistent. From Nehru's time, we advocated total disarmament. Total. We said we don't want five countries to have nuclear weapons when other countries don't have them. There should not be any discrimination. This policy has continued from (the time of) Nehru. Our Prime Minister also has put forth the same policy.

But after the five nuclear tests, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee has made contradictory statements on signing the CTBT. He indicated in Parliament recently that India might sign the CTBT. Brajesh Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, said on May 11: "India will be prepared to consider being an adherent of some of the undertakings in the CTBT. But this cannot be obviously done in a vacuum. It...would depend on a number of reciprocal activities."

Kalam: There is a negotiation already going on between India and the U.S. on the future course of action. Any action taken will be to the advantage of our country.

Do you think India is swinging from nuclear adventurism to surrender on the CTBT?

Kalam: No. There is nothing like that. As long as we declare ourselves a nuclear weapon state, that stands. What is important is that India is against a few countries dominating others as exclusive nuclear weapon states. That is the real discrimination. So India wants total disarmament. From Nehru's time onwards, we want disarmament. So that stands.

Will India join the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT)? The core of the FMCT is...

Kalam: There is a discussion going on. The core of the FMCT...

Kalam: Everything will be done to the advantage of our country.

There is a fear that once India accedes to the FMCT, its nuclear facilities will come under safeguards because the core of the FMCT is verification.

Kalam: Whether the FMCT or the CTBT, any decision taken by the Government will be to the advantage of the people, to the advantage of the nation.

How have the five nuclear tests removed India's objections to signing the CTBT or the FMCT?

Kalam: We have built our capability. If you have built your capability, you don't need to test.

Will India's nuclear deterrence guarantee its security? Will it be a deterrent aimed at Pakistan or China? Pakistan is no match for India and China is much stronger than India.

Kalam: That question is already answered. See, it is a deterrent. I would only say that the minimum deterrent required is that which deters our adversaries the maximum.

Could you say something about Agni-II? What is the present stage of its development? How much progress has been made in propelling it with liquid fuel?

Kalam: What technology you have, whether solid or liquid propellant, is not the issue. The Minister has said that the Government has approved the next phase of Agni.

What will be its range? Kalam: It will be beyond 2,000 km.

You said in Bangalore on August 19 that the LCA would be inducted into the Indian Air Force by A.D. 2003 despite the sanctions imposed by the U.S. What is the status of development of the indigenous Cauvery engine for it?

Kalam: Five Cauvery engines are on the test-bed and they are being run round-the-clock. They have logged hundreds of hours. We will continue (running the engine). One engine is under the high altitude test. The realising of the engine is very close. It will come out at the right time for the LCA.

What happened to the development of the indigenous engine for the Main Battle Tank (MBT) Arjun at the Combat Vehicles Research and Development Establishment (CVRDE)? The work has been going on for a long time. Meanwhile India imported MTU (Motor Turbine and Union) engines for the tank from Germany.

Kalam: The MBT has now been accepted for production.

But these MBTs have imported engines. At what stage is the development of the indigenous engine?

Kalam: We are developing our own engine. We have already developed a 1,000 horsepower engine. It is going for summer trials.

In your book, you have said that India's "...young people are prepared to rough it out. That is where our hope lies for the realisation of the Second Vision." In the 1960s and 1970s, students and youth took part in political movements with great enthusiasm - in the Nav Nirman movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan, for instance. But in the 1980s and 1990s students and youth did not take part in any such major movement and they do not seem to be interested in social and political issues and developments. Is this because the students have become grossly career-oriented?

V.S. Rajan.-K. PICHUMANI

Kalam: My view is that if you have a vision that India should become a developed country, it penetrates all minds. This urge to become a developed India is a vision that is greater than any group of people or any group of States. Everybody wants a vision driven by a mission and a goal. That is why we call it a second vision for the nation - of transforming India into a developed India. Once the vision comes, everybody feels that we have to be a developed India, a prosperous India. Then the tendency (on the part of the youth) of not participating in movements - it is because there is no programme that is greater than individuals or groups - will vanish. So, the vision is one of the biggest elements that will trigger young minds.

You have stated in the book that India is rich in bioresources and that "If only we could capture the wealth of these biological resources through the assiduous application of technology, we could easily become an economic power to reckon with." How do we marry these two, resources and technology?

Rajan: If you have noticed, natural products such as turmeric, neem, tamarind and herbal products are increasingly used these days. What does this mean? You take what is considered ancient (traditional) items and apply to them newer knowledge and technology. This is not confined to four or five items I mentioned but to many other living things and plants. The reason why people prefer natural products is that they tend to be cleaner.

Kalam: Also native.

Rajan: Unless you use the best of modern technologies, biotechnology, instrumentation, advanced sensors, modern processing methods and so on, all that is the best in these natural products cannot be brought out. That requires a lot of technology. So these two get married, synergised to reach a newer dimension in many products, whether they are pesticides, new medicines, new chemical processes and so on...India is rich in these resources. India has good competence in core technologies. Marry these together and you can create great wealth.

What do you see as economic security?

Kalam: Developed India needs three important tools or three important systems. One is a strong economy. It should be one of, say, four or five (top) nations in economic strength. You can call it economic security linked to food security. The second one is a self-reliant national security system. And the third, India should have a standing in the world. For a developing India, all these three will not be there. Economically, you are not a strong nation. For national security, you have to depend on somebody else. The third is, you have no standing in the world as an important power.

So our dream should be that we have to work towards becoming a developed India in order to achieve these. The book talks about it - how to reach it. Finally, we have said in the book, "We therefore have a dream. Our dream is that both the Houses of our Parliament would adopt a resolution for the second vision of a great nation: 'India will transform into a developed nation before the year 2020'. A billion people are our resource for this national transformation."

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