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Kalam’s banana republic

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Science is rational, transparent business. It should be open to competition and peer review. Wrap it in the tricolour, and you legitimise mediocrity.

To be fair to Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, it is possible that the same gig could be spun around his predecessor or, possibly, about his successors as well. ‘‘Why,’’ goes the question, ‘‘Is Dr Kalam’s DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) a banana republic?’’

‘‘Because whenever the armed forces ask for a new weapon system, he and the DRDO say, humko yeh banana hai, humne yeh banaya hai, hum yeh bana sakte hain (we should make this, we have already made this, we can make this) and so on…’’

Then, the armed forces can wait on forever while the DRDO carries on merrily, a banana republic thriving on ‘‘banana hai-banayenge’’ promises, accountable to none and hailed as a great national reservoir of scientific achievement by a media that doesn’t know its backside from its elbow and politicians who couldn’t care less. Two of the biggest weapons development projects undertaken by the DRDO, Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) and Main Battle Tank (MBT) are at least a decade adrift. And even if you do not judge the DRDO by its performance on these two, please replay the tapes of the past year’s Republic Day parade and see which weapon systems displayed have the DRDO patent. Then you will know what the armed forces are complaining about.

There are some achievements, the sonar which the navy loves, a new communication network, a limited series of radars, Lakshya, the target drone and, of course, the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) which, though rather lowly on international technology scale, is vital because this particular sector has been so throttled by sanctions for more than a decade. But overall, for a scientific establishment that consumes 5.6 per cent of the overall defence budget, this success list is like, well, a few miserable bananas.

That figure of 5.6 per cent too is fallacious. Since our armed forces support a huge and wasteful establishment what is left for modernisation after paying salaries, overheads and operational costs is no more than 30 per cent. The DRDO’s Rs 3,200 crore-plus is a neat 15 per cent of this. The forces say all they get for sparing so much is a few prototypes of system this-or-that and some minor systems that actually function. Further that, because the DRDO keeps saying they can/will make this or that it becomes impossible to import essentially needed systems in time, leaving the forces inadequate, if not vulnerable, in crucial areas. The instances they quote are the MBT, attack helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), ECMs and ECCMs (electronic counter measures and electronic counter-counter measures), shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and so on. On each one, the DRDO has an argument. But the fact is that the armed forces haven’t got any of these in time, leading to skewed planning, cost overruns, budgetary allocations being returned unused (last year the defence forces returned Rs 4,000 crore, in the past they have even invested in public sector bonds money they could not utilise for modernisation).

Above all, it results in dangerous technology gaps vis-a-vis the smaller, swifter and more pragmatic rivals. Both, the air force and the army today acknowledge that the Pakistanis have an edge over them in jamming, electronic counter measures, radar coverage and anti-aircraft missiles. Even their individual soldiers are better armed — better helmets, boots, kit-bags, personal weapons, wireless sets and so on. I am not betraying any secrets by speaking the truth because this is exactly what so many responsible generals and air marshals have been saying since Kargil. In most cases, armed forces say, they knew what they wanted, even had the budget, but were held back as the DRDO said the systems could be developed indigenously. Once that claim is put forward, no one dares to question it.

In these ‘jai vigyan’ days, when re-engineering of the 1950s generation liquid-fuel missiles is passed off as breakthrough rocket science, anybody who doesn’t salute the swadeshi scientist runs the risk of being called an import lobbyist, a foreign-stooge, anti-national. In public, therefore, every chief swears by indigenisation. In private, he bitches and whines about not being able to import ‘‘what I need, today’’. Take the more obvious case of MBT and LCA. In the past 15 years I haven’t met a single army or IAF chief who privately expressed any faith in the systems. Most actually speak of these derisively. Yet, in public, each one has held forth proudly, hailing these ‘achievements’ and saying how keenly the forces are looking forward to inducting these. The uncharitable corollary obviously is that each one knows it is not going to happen in his time, so why risk questioning popular wisdom?

The scientists have some valid arguments. The armed forces keep on changing their qualitative requirements each time the chief changes. The forces say, what can they do if battlefield technologies and doctrines change so rapidly? Can they accept a system they asked for a decade earlier?

Scientists say sanctions block their access to crucial components, chips, even hardware so they cannot hybridise quickly. Why, then, not be realistic, and develop only what you can? Further, that we are too impatient in India with our investments in research. We want our returns too quickly whereas Pfizer and Dupont invest in a hundred projects and if a Viagra or a Kevlar works out, it pays back several times over. But are our defence scientists doing such original breakthrough research? If you are only developing a tank or a gun to internationally current specifications it cannot be confused with original research, its failure rates and payback in case you stumble upon a Viagra. Finally, the scientists complain that the country’s engineering/science base is very, very poor. Our industry has a woeful record on R&D. It is caught in the licenced-production trap. It has not even designed an original moped engine. How can you then expect us to work wonders so quickly? Why, then, is DRDO spending crores trying to design engines for the MBT and the LCA? Why can’t it be realistic, and focus in areas of indigenous strengths like metallurgy and electronics? The engines for both systems, in any case, are being bought.

The problem is, DRDO can never say no. And the reason it cannot is rooted in a great, phoney national tradition of confusing science with nationalism that goes back to Nehru. Pokharan, then, is called a great scientific achievement rather than a demonstration of national resolve to assert nuclear weapons power status, boldly defying the threat of sanctions. The launch of one GSLV which places one crooked satellite about as close to its orbit as a DTC bus comes to its stop is supposed to make us a world space power.

This week the army announced it was phasing out the ‘indigenous’ Vijayanta after three decades of ‘glorious’ service. My reading of military history may be hazy but if the Vijayanta fought any glorious battles or even figured in any frontline strike formations ever, I am willing to be corrected. The cutting edge of our armour was still the Soviet T-series tanks (T-54/55/72 which included some reconditioned, second-hand imports from Poland) while we issued postage stamps on the Vijyanta which, too, was a licenced production from Vickers! The great national, political consensus on science is as self-delusory as it is illiterate. We must learn to question it now. Just as we are no longer squeamish vis-a-vis the farce called Nehruvian socialism.

Science is rational, transparent business. It should be open to competition and peer review. It can only work that way. Wrap it in the tricolour, and you legitimise mediocrity and lack of accountability. Politicians love this. Every scientific ‘achievement’ is painted as a national success story. Then they issue commemorative stamps, make emotional speeches, hand out national honours. We are, not surprisingly, a remarkable country which has given so few mainstream national honours to original scientific researchers while almost anybody who has been anything in our space, nuclear and defence research establishments has a shelf loaded with these. How many Padma Bhushans have we given to fellow Indians for winning worldwide patents? But we give higher honours by the rote for defence, space and nuclear ‘research’. We consciously confuse development or reverse engineering of standard weapons systems with science. Then we are surprised if the best of our ‘original’ scientists refuse to join DRDO and go to work overseas. Of course, that never stopped us from painting even their American passports in the tricolour once they win their Nobels.

Postscript: The forces have always had jokes about DRDO. When V.S. Arunachalam (now running a famous metallurgy lab at Carnegie-Mellon) headed DRDO, the LCA, was sometimes called Last Chance for Arunachalam. Hopefully, the acronym won’t return to haunt Kalam’s successor now, V.K. Atre.

This article was originally published on April 28, 2001.

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  1. Outstanding article indeed though biased !!
    1.Seeing the high”Exchange Rates”,High prices of imported Military equipment…..and DRDO developed and delayed equipment,a better choice would be to import limited quantities for testing under Indian climate conditions, training of personnel and military use on the border(s).
    2.IIT/NIT/CSIR should determine their key strengths where they have ‘core competencies” and learn accurate “costing and pricing and inflation”,project management and should also need to procure “patents” and “specialized materials” worldwide for commercial use.
    3.New Indian StartUps’ should be encouraged for design and development of 3-5 “prototypes” each.These “building blocks “should be deployed in Army/Airforce/Navy/Coast Guard wherever possible so as to bring down the cost per unit. GST should be zero on these prototype ,research,design and manufacture to keep costs competitive.
    4.Regardless of human ego or scientific temper,one should understand that new research and development projects have a poor success rate or %. internationally .It is a matter of fact.It is also true,that Defence personnel have poor knowledge of “costing,pricing,value of equipment”
    Focus,pooling of resources,technical personnel,patents,reward for timely delivery and punishment for unjustified delays…needs to be ensured. Too much of imaginary secrecy and confidentiality without even completing the projects is foolhardy. Now at least Army has started e- procurement which helps cut procurement costs by 20% !

  2. It would also be appropriate for Mr Gupta to put upfront his knowledge and expertise and experience in design, development and systems integration of , at least any product , let alone a complex engineering solution like mil products, before he leaps on to claim that products developed by DRDO like agni(igmdp) missiles are below par in quality and tejas and arjun are duds. And interviews with service chiefs who basically know nothing about such complex engineering tasks and a service that looks down on iterartive development – which is the way all the lockheeds and sukhois reached current maturity in tech – shouldn’t even count as qualification enough to even make a suggestion of that what is being pushed down the throat of a reader as authoritative analysis in this article. As usual Mr Gupta stoops to such a low level, dealing in a matter of which he knows virtually nothing about other than biased views of some official either in service or not that he gathered from some interviews granted to him. Such a pity . As a nation with opinion makers like Mr Gupta who peddle falsehoods and half truths to deride the developers of indigenous tech, the future of this nation is certainly doomed. Also kindly do acknowledge, that there is virtually no importance given in indian education and academic systems to explore and invent. None of the shining stars of the much vaunted India Inc is doing/producing original works. All are engaged in license production or assembly. With such an industry it goes on to show the common attitude of Indians is to buy and use rather than develop them for oneself. When an agency is trying to swim against the current, journalist like this author prop up to stymie the effort in its infancy

    • I dont understand the article. Is it a reprint of a 2001 article, in which case Shekar Gupta is proved wrong. because Dr. Apj Abdul Kalam was celebrated not just by India but the Chinese, the Europeans etc. If it is a new article then he has just lost connect with reality. Today Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam inpires kids to take up science and scientific thinking and the inventive and innovative mindsets in students. Shekar Gupta is just a hopeless person who wants to throw muck at Dr. APJ Abdul kalam. I have lost any sense of respect that i had for shekar gupta. unfortunately though.

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