A.P. J. Abdul Kalam: Reminiscences

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on August 24th, 2015 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment


Rajesh Kochhar


Former President Abdul Kalam’s academic credentials were rather modest. Although ‘Dr’ is commonly prefixed to his name, all his doctorates were honorary. He obtained his B. Sc. degree from Madras University and followed it up with a Diploma from Madras Institute of Technology. Taken together, they were considered equivalent to a B. Tech. It is creditable for the Indian strategic science system to have recognized Kalam’s worth and given him increasingly higher responsibilities. Such a thing would be unthinkable in the university system.


Kalam’s professional abilities were matched by his personal courage and leadership qualities. When a rocket was being test fired from Thumba and there was a possibility of its failing to take off, Kalam boldly came to the base and stood with his staff so that if it fell, it would be on ‘us’ and not ‘them’


A life-long bachelor, even as director of Hyderabad-based defence laboratory, he stayed in a room in the guest house. Every morning the canteen boy brought readymade tea  for all the occupants, in a large kettle with the cups dangling from his fingers. Many directors would have insisted on being served tea ‘properly’ in a tray, but most unselfconsciously, Kalam accepted the proffered cup.


A civil servant who came to appreciate Kalam’s capabilities and dedication was the then Defence Secretary, N. N. Vohra who had no hesitation in making a large ad-hoc grant available to Kalam. Years later, Vohra acted as Kalam’s counselor. Kalam was offered a cabinet post in the Vajpayee government. On Vohra’s advice, Kalam declined it and instead accepted cabinet-rank advisor’s post. Remarkably, when he felt irrelevant, he simply resigned and walked away. Many of his ilk would have been enamoured of the frills a cabinet rank carried, but not Kalam.


The mainstream science establishment of the country kept him at bay. The only exception was Satish Dhawan who acted as his mentor and got him elected as a fellow of the Bangalore-based Indian Academy of Sciences. He however never became a member of the ‘official’ Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi.


In 1991, Kalam, then at Hyderabad, was invited to deliver a commemorative lecture at Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, for which I was the convenor. Since no reply was received, I was asked to contact him. Since a postal strike was going on in the city he had not received the letter. We had not met before, but he recognized my name from a recent article I had written for The Indian Express. Those were the days when DRDO’s Agni missiles were doing well, but ISRO’s Rohini rockets were facing problems. I placed the phenomenon in a larger context by pointing out that throughout history fear of the enemy had been a greater driving force than the love of stars. Kalam had cut out the article and displayed it on the laboratory notice board. ( Years later, I learnt from unauthorized sources, that I was awarded a Jawaharlal Nehru fellowship in 1995 on his recommendation.)


He came from Hyderabad for his lecture in Bangalore, but did not want to freshen up or take a cup of tea. Instead, he wanted to sit in the auditorium and arrange his slides. After the lecture, he wanted to go back. Since there was no flight to Hyderabad at that time, he instead took a flight to Madras and spent the night there so that he could be in office the very next morning. His lecture was brilliant. He took questions, answered some of them while the others he refused to entertain because of strategic reasons. His talk was direct and so were the questions he handled. If a question was worded in a convoluted or a ‘scholarly’ manner, he failed to grasp it.



As is well known, he loved to interact with students. No doubt, he had great faith in the power of the youth and knew of his ability to inspire them. But, I think, there was another reason at work as well. He was rather socially awkward. He abhorred small talk and got visibly put off  by focus on trivialities. When he was the DRDO chief, at a major scientific function, he wanted to know from me the relative historical contribution of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. Our host, partly out of graciousness and partly with a view to disrupting the conversation, warmly invited Kalam to eat something. Doing away with niceties, Kalam said rather impatiently that he would prefer to continue the conversation.


Kalam had great fascination for technology, with the result that many of his solutions, like desalination of sea water or inter-linking of rivers became rather simplistic.


When Mulayam Singh took over as the defence minister, he greeted Kalam by saying that at last he would be able to talk to somebody in Urdu. Kalam told him that he knew only English and Tamil.


For the sake of future historians, a comment may be made on his personal life. In his younger days, he would have liked to marry a girl of the same faith but from a social stratum considered higher than Kalam’s. Guided by such considerations, the girl’s father refused to yield and the matter ended there.


Kalam’s induction into Indian strategic science machinery, his accomplishments and rise, his elevation as the head of the state, and his impact on the society, especially the students, is a remarkable phenomenon. Naming roads and institutions after him or installing his busts and statues would be the surest way of disowning him. The greatest tribute to him would be to imbibe some of the values he stood for.


(The writer is a former professor, Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, and former director, National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, New Delhi.)








Lousy science and growth

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on May 19th, 2015 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Arunabha Bagchi

Published in The Statesman, Kolkata, 15 May 2015

Western industry and academia, with their huge financial resources, are waiting in the wings to grab our trained scientists free of cost in an uneven playing field. Even more concentrated scientific establishments in India of the highest international standard would only make the job of western recruiters easier.

There he went again! Our best known “in-house” scientist and a Bharat Ratna, Professor CNR Rao, hit the headlines with his scathing attack on the “lousy” quality of science in India. “If India has to have a future, it has to improve in quality. Our Prime Minister says development with quality improvement because with the lousy quality we have, it is difficult to have development,” he asserted.
Read more at http://www.thestatesman.com/news/opinion/lousy-science-and-growth/63360.html#Av6DWU5jz2FVMAWx.99


Twisting tradition: The curious case of a seedy medicine

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on May 9th, 2015 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Rajesh Kochhar and Ramesh Kapoor



Recently, Sh. K. C. Tyagi, a Rajya Sabha MP, speaking in the House, protested against an Ayurvedic medicine, Putrajeevak Beej, on the ground that it promoted gender discrimination. Responding to the charge, Swami Ramdev, who is associated with the Hardwar-based Divya Pharmacy that manufactures the medicine, stated that the medicine was named after ‘the scientific name of the herb Putranjiva roxburghii’.

The argument is fallacious. The species is a tree which was inducted into modern botany by a British naturalist, William Roxburgh, who has placed on record his reasons for the nomenclature. Roxburgh wrote in 1826 that in Madras, the parents bought the seeds of the so-named tree some cases, families have preserved some trady in the bazaar, strung them, and put them ‘round the necks of their children, to preserve them in health’. It is ironical that the mere latinization of a Sanskrit term denoting ornamental use of a tree is being invoked to claim scientific validation for  its supposed medicinal properties.


The term Putrajeevak Beej is misleading. The correct usage would have been Putrajeevi Vriksh ke Beej ( that is the seeds of a tree called the Putrajeevi). By using Putrajeevak as a qualifier for Beej, an impression is being created that the seeds have a son-related attribute. The impression is strengthened in the minds of people by the circumstance that planting the seed has the popular connotation of impregnating a woman.


Demands have been made that the name of the medicine be changed. The issues involved however are more fundamental than mere name-change. The label describes the drug as Ayurvedic Proprietary Medicine. The Drugs and Cosmetics Act 1940 (as amended from time to time) makes a clear distinction between the traditional and the proprietary in the context of Ayurveda.  A traditional medicine consists of standard ingredients, combined in strict accordance with the classical texts (example: Chyavanprash). Proprietary medicine also contains only standard ingredients, but now combined in a novel manner, based on personal experience and research (Example” Liv-52). It can be manufactured only after receiving a license. Putrajeevak Beej consists of a single naturally occurring ingredient. There is no question of any novelty here.


Categorization of an Ayurvedic medicine as proprietary implies controlled experiments and clinical trials. In such a case, the manufacturer  should  make a clear and unambiguous statement on the indications, benefits, side effects, etc. of the medicine. In the case at hand, however, the benefits claimed to be obtainable from the medicine vary from packet to packet, or from batch to batch, as if they were no more than marketing slogans.


The licensing authorities should explain how a simple natural produce which has not been processed even to the extent of being powdered has come to be classified as proprietary medicine implying scientific research and development.


(The first author has been professor of pharmaceutical heritage at National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research, Mohali, while the second author has published original research on Ayurvedic system of medicine.)