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In the service of the country

Published : Dec 13, 1997 00:00 IST



A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who masterminded India's successful missile programme, has been honoured with the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian award.


THE call usually came late in the evening. "Kalam here," it always began, followed by the standard question, "What's happening?" One never knew how to respond, for a day's work at the missile-test bed, on the periphery of Hyderabad, meant a hectic 10 hours with everything seeming to go wrong. After preliminary queries came the real business: a key report had to be sent to the Government the next day. "Eat your dinner in peace and come after you have finished," Kalam always hastened to add. He himself had not yet left the laboratory for the day.

This was how Kalam rounded up the "usual suspects", an informal group of scientists and engineers, when some crucial work was at hand. It might be a no-holds-barred session to thrash out some issues of navigation and guidance before a CCPA (Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs) paper emerged, or to solve a problem dogging the elaborate quality assurance testing cycle to which a key missile component was being subjected.

The sessions were always held at a small round table - a table without a head, for protocol-free discussion. Sometimes the sessions would last till the next morning. For discussions during earthly hours, there was a bigger room across the corridor. But here too, failure to reach a decision was not a recognised option.

Kalam attracted fierce loyalties from all those who came into contact with him. He was able to instil a sense of participation at every level, from the shop floor to the high-tech laboratory. His legion of admirers include some children to whose lives he added a special touch. For nine-year-old Swarna, a polio victim from birth, the Composites Production Centre of the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL) designed an ultra lightweight, prosthetic foot support. A primary school student whose model of the Prithvi missile won the first prize in a contest in Secunderabad was taken to DRDL in Kalam's staff car so that he could see the real Prithvi being assembled.

A.P.J. ABDUL KALAM, who was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian honour, on November 25, was born on October 15, 1931 in the temple town of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu. Kalam went to the Schwartz High School, Ramanathapuram. After graduating in science from St. Joseph's College, Tiruchi, he took a diploma in aeronautical engineering from the Madras Institute of Technology in the mid-1950s. The then Director of MIT, Prof. K.A.V. Pandalai (whom Kalam acknowledged recently as one of his valued teachers, the other being his schoolteacher, Siva Subramani Iyer), gave fascinating details about this phase in Kalam's life in a letter to The Hindu (March 15, 1994).

Kalam joined the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) in 1958 and served as a senior scientific assistant, heading a small team that developed a prototype hovercraft. Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon rode in India's first indigenous hovercraft with Kalam at the controls. But for reasons never explained, the project, which would have been a considerable international achievement in those days, was not encouraged. This was probably one of the reasons why he moved out of DRDO in 1962 and joined the Indian space programme.

At the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Kalam initiated Fibre Reinforced Plastics (FRP) activities; after a stint with the aerodynamics and design group, he joined the satellite launch vehicle team at Thumba, near Thiruvananthapuram, and soon became Project Director for SLV-3. The SLV-3 project culminated in putting the scientific satellite Rohini into orbit in July 1980. He was honoured with a Padma Bhushan in 1981.

Kalam was something of a curiosity at Thumba. A bachelor, his spartan lifestyle as a vegetarian and teetotaller who lived in a single room in a lodge in Thiruvananthapuram earned him the nickname Kalam Iyer.

Kalam then moved back into the Defence Research Complex at Kanchanbagh, on the periphery of Hyderabad's Old City, as Director of DRDL. He came to Hyderabad at a time when morale was low at the laboratory as a result of the foreclosure of its ambitious missile project, codenamed 'Devil'. He brought a whiff of ISRO informality to a laboratory that was used to an Army atmosphere. He refused to move into the bungalow allotted to the Director, preferring to stay in one of the eight suites in the Defence Labs Mess. The suite, with a small study and a tiny bedroom, was his home for the next decade.

Kalam was instrumental in the re-emergence of the DRDL. This was made possible, as Kalam and the then Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, Dr. V.S. Arunachalam (who brought him back to defence research), have always acknowledged, by the crucial role played by R. Venkataraman, who was Defence Minister. Kalam was asked to prepare a blueprint to make India a missile nation. After working with DRDL veterans for over six months, followed by consultations with Arunachalam, Kalam gave a proposal to Venkataraman. It was a staggered scheme under which five missile development programmes were to be taken up one after the other. "Take it back!" said Venkataraman who, though unfamiliar with the technical nitty gritty, had an instinctive feel for larger strategic issues. The Minister suggested that Kalam and Arunachalam recast the plan in such a way as to develop all five missile types under one programme. They did it, as they now admit, by adding "zeroes all over the place."

Kalam's immediate concern was that he would have to tell his colleagues back in Hyderabad that he had committed them to five formidable tasks instead of one. And the time-frame was 10 years.

Out of this audacious initiative was born the guided missile programme, India's most successful military research task to date. Kalam's codenames for the programme's five components were: Prithvi, a surface-to-surface battlefield missile; Nag, an anti-tank missile (ATM); Akash, a swift, medium-range surface-to-air missile (SAM); Trishul, a quick-reaction SAM with a shorter range; and Agni, an intermediate range ballistic missile, the mightiest of them all. Trishul has the unique distinction of being capable of serving all three services.

From his SLV-3 experience, Kalam had learned the advantages of team work and of sharing the tasks with partners in private and public sector industries. In the new management structure of the Missile Programme, Kalam, as the Chairman of the Programme Management Board, delegated almost all executive and financial powers to five carefully selected Project Directors and kept himself free to address the core technology issues. His task was to inspire and monitor over 20 institutions and partners outside - ranging from large public and private sector suppliers to small specialist firms that needed seed money to take up the precision tasks.

Kalam's contribution in this scheme has been acknowledged by all who worked with him. He set for himself a gruelling schedule. The first half hour of the day was reserved for what was called the morning meeting, where administrative heads met him to take decisions on routine functions. During this period any employee could walk in and discuss administrative problems, which were usually sorted out the same day. The rest of the day was devoted to hands-on interaction with project teams working on a campus spread over 40 hectares.

The missiles went up more or less on schedule: Trishul in 1985, Prithvi in 1988, Agni in 1989 and the others in 1990. And the Kalam legend had grown. He is well-versed in Tamil and has written poetry. Seventeen of his poems were translated into English by Manidarshi, and published as a book titled My Journey in 1994.

The establishment of the Research Centre Imarat (RCI), a campus 8 km from DRDL, in 1988 was perhaps the most satisfying achievement for Kalam during the missile years. He received generous funding from the Government to build the futuristic centre, which is totally geared for work in advanced missile technologies. Its state-of-the-art facilities are set in a unique ambience and the level of comfort accorded to the individual worker is matched by few R&D institutions. And Kalam's interest in the environment saw Imarat emerge as an oasis in a rocky wasteland. It has a small orchard and a farm that meets the food requirements of those who stay in the RCI quarters.

Kalam was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1990. After 10 years in DRDL, he went to Delhi to take over from Arunachalam as Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister - reluctantly, many in DRDL felt. But the system created by Kalam had taken a firm hold in that decade and the missile programme passed on smoothly into its final phase of production and induction. In Delhi, Kalam as head of the DRDO had to "deliver" other prestigious projects, such as the Main Battle Tank (MBT) Arjun and the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) projects. While management practices he adopted for the missile programme have inevitably rubbed off on these projects, there are no miracles to be had in strategic development areas. There have been technical problems. Even within the missile programme, work on the SAMs and the ATM is slower than anticipated. But the recent multiple flights of Trishul demonstrate that the system Kalam put in place has inherent strengths. As Arunachalam put it, "We are now mature: we learn from mistakes and push on ahead."

"Strength respects strength." This is Kalam's usual response to the question why India needs its own missiles or a battle tank or a combat aircraft. But Kalam is a technocrat. Although there are suggestions that he should use his status, which has been enhanced by the award of Bharat Ratna, to push for the active induction of Agni, it would be uncharacteristic of him to press his view too much in geopolitical matters.

He is the happiest at the drawing board, in discussion with his scientists on how their dreams for the next millennium can be fulfilled. The projects envisaged include: a terminal guidance system for Agni so that it can be precision-targeted; an "air breathing" hyperplane spacecraft that draws oxygen from the atmosphere rather than carry it all the way from the ground; "reusable" missiles; and stealth technology. Kalam has shown that with adequate funding, freedom from procedural holdups and a people-oriented management, India can make products of internationally acceptable technical standards in a demanding arena like defence.

Kalam is no miracle man. As the head of a vast network of laboratories - whose products include avalanche-controlling structures in Kashmir, water desalination kits for the Thar desert; a world class "Sonar" submarine finder for the new warship INS Delhi, and infra-red night vision goggles for the Army - Kalam's attention is necessarily a bit diffused. His self-effacing persona cloaks a formidable catalyst who can make people work.

Anand Parthasarathy is a scientist who worked with A.P.J. Abdul Kalam on the Indian missile programme.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Dec 13, 1997.)



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