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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 34 August 15, 2015

Tribute: Mourning Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam

Saturday 15 August 2015, by S G Vombatkere

The death of Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam has been widely condoled. He was a person with unusual qualities, perhaps the most prominent of which is largely missing from contemporary public life, namely, simple living and honesty. His staff and associates when he was with DRDO, and others who had interacted with him during his presidency and after, have genuine high praise for his simplicity, humility and approachability.

Some writers have opined that the whole nation mourns the death of Dr Kalam. Without a doubt, Dr Kalam was the darling of the middle classes, especially because he rose to his eminence from humble personal beginnings. But he was barely known among the really poor (the less-than Rs 20-per-day), and even those who knew of him did not have much to speak of what he had done for them in specifics for their “today”.

The UNO has just honoured Dr Kalam by naming his birthday, October 15, as the World Students Day as, according to one commentator: “... he was an inspiration to students and youth of the country. Perhaps rightly, his last conscious moments was spent in front of students at IIM Shillong. His was a life largely spent on learning and teaching.” He undoubtedly made strenous efforts to communicate personally with school students, but the students whom he met were mostly from schools which had adequate infrastructure, not poor students from corporation or government schools, if media reports are to be believed. However, this fact does not detract from the honour accorded to Dr Kalam by the UNO, or the value of his interactions with students.

Dr Kalam was hailed as a scientist during his lifetime and also in obituaries. The fact is that he was an engineer, not a scientist. He did not care to correct people who ascribed a (Ph.D) doctorate to him, even before he was awarded his first honorary doctorate in 2007. Some would argue that a person need not possess a qualification in science to be a scientist. But then, such a person would need to have a scientific approach to matters with which he deals, especially in accepting cogent questioning of his beliefs and arguments.

Dr Kalam was also undoubtedly approachable, a rare and admirable quality among people in high office. Indeed in 2004, this writer along with five others, were easily able to obtain an appointment to meet him in Rashtrapati Bhavan, to discuss the interlinking of rivers (ILR) project, which he was actively promoting, to communicate our serious reservations. And he was generous enough to give us nearly 40 minutes of his time. However, so involved was he in promoting ILR, that he spoke for most of the time and we hardly got real opportunity to place our concerns before him.

Dr Kalam promoted ILR on the basis of the appealing concept that ILR would convey the surplus flood waters from northern rivers to the drought-prone areas in peninsular India, to relieve flood and drought at the same time. The ILR project, which seeks to link 30 major rivers by means of canals, is an amazingly complex problem with its inter-connected technical, economic, environmental/ecological and political ramifi-cations. Its design and execution cannot be based on simplistic premises which are easily shown to be questionable, even faulty. Without going into great detail, the maximum flood relief that a canal can provide is just four per cent of the flood flow, negligible in real terms, and the four per cent flood water, thus diverted, cannot flow by gravity to areas which suffer from drought in peninsular India. Dr Kalam side-stepped this argument by telling us not to be negative, but to suggest how ILR should be successfully implemented. Dr Kalam’s contention is exemplified in H.L. Mencken’s words: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” Such an approach to the ILR concept, that too from the highest office in the country, is not merely unscientific but also shows unbecoming disdain for opposing views.

Dr Kalam’s views on nuclear power were also predictably, perhaps also unthinkingly, pro-establishment. The people living in the area surrounding the Russian-constructed Kudan-kulam nuclear power plant (NPP) had been objecting to the NPP principally for reasons of safety, especially following the Fukushima NPP failure. But instead of the nuclear authorities responding to the people’s fears, they made use of Dr Kalam, who was induced to make an inspection round of the NPP for a couple of hours, and then declare that it was safe. This did not speak well for the scientific temper of one who has held high office. What angered the people was the fact that Dr Kalam, hailing from the same region, went away without bothering to meet them after his cursory inspection. The “People’s President” somehow failed to meet his people.

Dr Kalam was doubtless an unusual person, who rose to nationally and internationally accepted greatness by dint of his hard work, and was awarded India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna. The critical comments offered above do not detract from the essential simplicity and honesty of this son of India who came from the deep south to sit at the commanding heights of the nation, and charm many of its millions, nor detract from the genuine mourning of his death by many people.

Major General S.G. Vombatkere, VSM, retired in 1996 as Additional DG Discipline and Vigilance in Army HQ AG’s Branch. With over 440 published papers in national and international journals and seminars, his areas of interest are strategic and development-related issues.