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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 36, August 29, 2015

Tribute: Ordinary Indian Extraordinaire — People’s President Abdul Kalam

Monday 31 August 2015, by A V V S K Rao

“If I am asked who is the greatest man?
I answer the best;
And if I am required to say who is the best?
I reply he that has deserved most of his fellow creatures.” —Sir William Jones

India is fortunate to have two great men as its Presidents—one is Plato’s philosopher king ideal, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a great philosopher from Oxford in the 20th century (our second President), and the other Archimedes personifi-cation Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a defence scientist in the 21st century, as our 11th President.

Former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, known as “India’s Missile Man”, was in the IIM Shillong (Meghalaya) on July 27, 2015 to address students on the theme “Making a Livable Planet” in the evening hours when he collapsed. That pheno-menal flight of a soul that took wings from humble beginnings to the country’s highest office through a distinguished and ardous path of astonishing achievements as a scientist and technologist is now on a transcendental orbit.

Early Life

Born into a large boatman’s family in the ancient pilgrim island of Rameswaram of South Tamil Nadu on October 15, 1931, for Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, it was adversity from the very beginning. Kalam had shown an early penchant for mathematics and physics. He used to get up early morning at 4 am, go for his maths class and then to town to distribute the morning newspaper. After completing his Matriculation in Ramanatha-puram, Kalam graduated in 1954 from St. Joseph’s College, Tiruchirapalli, affiliated to the University of Madras, in Physics. Kalam later moved to Madras town (now Chennai) in 1955 to study Aeronautical Engineering at the Madras Institute of Technology (MIT).

Professional Life

After graduating from the MIT, it was by quirk of fate that young Kalam joined the Aeronautical Development Establishment of the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) in 1960, and began his career by designing a small helicopter for the Indian Army. Kalam was invited by Raja Ramanna to witness the country’s first nuclear test ‘Smiling Buddha’, even though he had not participated in its development. In the 1970s, Kalam also directed two projects, ‘Project Devil’ and ‘Project Valiant’, which sought to develop ballistic missiles from the technology of the successful SLV programme. However, the real turning-point came when Kalam came into contact with the renowned space scientist, Dr Vikram Sarabhai. This was a crucial point in young Kalam’s personal and professional life. In 1969 Kalam was transferred to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

Dr Kalam, under Sarabhai’s inspiration and encouragement, made significant contributions as the Project Director to develop India’s first indigenous Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV-III), which successfully injected the Rohini satellite in the near earth orbit in July 1980 and made India an exclusive member of the space club. Kalam was responsible for the evolution of the ISRO’s Launch Vehicle Programme, particularly the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) configuration. After working for two decades in ISRO and mastering launch vehicle technologies, Kalam took up the responsibility of developing guided missiles at the DRDO (Hyderabad) as the chief executive of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) in 1982. Kalam played a crucial role in building indigenous capability in critical technologies collaborating with multiple institutions.

He was responsible for the development and operationalisation of the “Agni” and “Prithvi” missiles. Dr Abdul Kalam was the Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister and Secretary, DRDO from July 1992 to December 1995. He was the man behind the weaponistion of the strategic missile systems and the Pokharan-II nuclear tests (1998) in collaboration with the DAE during Atal Behari Vajpayee’s time that made India a nuclear state. He was instrumental in forging India’s collaboration with Russia to build the world’s first supersonic cruise missile called ‘BrahMos’.

Dr Kalam served as the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India from November 1999 to November 2001, responsible for policies, strategies and missions for many development applications. The Missile Man was awarded the Padma Bhushan (1981) and the Padma Vibhushan (1990) and the highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna (1997).

Public Life

In 2002, when the NDA Government was looking for a leading personality as the presidential candidate, it was the AP Chief Minister, N. Chandrababu Naidu, who broached the idea of inviting A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to that coveted position with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Vajpayee, a true nationalist, imme-diately agreed. So also Sonia Gandhi of the Congress. It was Dr Abdul Kalam’s reputation that made it impossible for the leaders of these two major groups not to agree to his candi-dature. Dr Kalam won the presidential election handsomely.

The most remarkable thing about him was his scientific temper and simple way of life. The very setting and architecture of the President’s abode—its British Viceroy’s residence—seems to forbid any connection with the masses. But breaking through that, and making the presidency a continual conversation with India, that was the special Kalam signature. If the huge, stately mansion breathed a hyper-royal air, Kalam ensured he was the ordinary Indian extraordinaire. A Gandhian simplicity of living was his calling card, as much as his fondness for children.

Having heard about Kalam’s reputation, once Prince Charles of England came to India and visited Rashtrapati Bhavan. After the usual formalities Kalam took the Prince to the Mughal Gardens and made Prince Charles repeat the names of rare plants there. His biggest asset for a changing India was that he was an outsider in politics, someone who opened Rashtrapathi Bhavan to the public. In fact, he did to the Indian presidency what Princess Diana to some extent did to the British monarchy (albeit far less controversially). He demystified it, while making himself a feel-good First Citizen, as if his moral purpose lay not in ceremonial matters of state but among students. Unmoved by the trappings of power, he kept travelling, meeting the young and sharing ideas even after leaving the presidency. Kalam was the third President of India to have been honoured with a Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour, before becoming the President. Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1954) and Dr Zakir Hussain (1963) were the earlier recipients of the Bharat Ratna who became Presidents of India.

He was equal to the task of handling complex political issues, though he was extremely saddened on two occasions. The first was in 2005, when he signed an order placing the Bihar Assembly under suspended animation while on a visit to Moscow. He had been told by the government that the Governor, Buta Singh, had recommended that no government could be formed in the State, and the Union Cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, had endorsed that report. But when the Opposition made an issue that the Samata Party-BJP combine was denied a chance to form the government, he was upset. The matter went to the Supreme Court, which rebuked the Governor in strong terms. But there were no adverse remarks against the President. The second occasion came in 2006, when the Manmohan Singh Government got a Bill passed in Parliament to amend the Office of Profit Act., following the controversy that Sonia Gandhi had violated the Act by accepting the chairpersonship of the National Advisory Council, a position with Cabinet rank. Kalam resisted the demand of the government to sign the amendment into law and relented only when his suggestion that the Office of Profit should not be given freely to MPs was accepted. He was sad that the government failed to stick to the commitment, because of pressure from most political parties.

Another controversy surfaced in 2004: that Kalam was reluctant to swear in Sonia Gandhi as the Prime Minister, despite her bring elected the leader by Congress Parliamentary Party and supported by other parties which joined the ruling United Progressive Alliance. Then the Congress party had to choose Manmohan Singh as the Congress Parliamentary Party leader. Kalam was not cowed down in this instance and counselled Sonia Gandhi taking note of her dual citizenship.

Kalam’s Vision for India

Though the Cold War has ended, Dr Kalam was of the opinion that selective tactics were still continuing for ensuring the military and economic dominance of the developed countries. Various types of technology-denial regimes were still being enforced and these are now being mainly targeted against developing countries like India. Growth of indigenous technology and self-reliance are the only answer to the problem.

During the 20th century up to about 1990, warfare was weapons-driven. The weapons used were guns, tanks, aircraft, ships, submarines and the nuclear weapons deployed on land/sea /air; and also there were reconnaissance space-craft, proliferation of conventional, nuclear, and biological weapons owing to competition between the superpowers.

The next phase, in a new form, started from 1990 onwards. The world graduated into economic warfare. The means used is controlling the market forces through high technology. The participating nations, apart from the USA, are Japan, the UK, France, Germany and certain South-East Asian countries. For Kalam, the driving force was the generation of wealth with certain types of economic doctrine.

The urgent issue that Indians need to address collectively as a nation is: how to handle the tactics of economic and military dominance in this new form coming from the back door? Today technology is the main driver of economic development at the national level. Therefore, India has to develop indigenous technologies to enhance its competitive edge to generate national wealth in all segments of the economy. Kalam’s advice is therefore, simple and direct: the need of the hour is to arm India with technology.

Networking the Rivers

Kalam was a ‘veena’ enthusiast and also a man brimming with ideas. The river-linking project was one such that he championed. But his visions were always offered in and oriented towards the practical situation. After a horrific spell of rains in Mumbai in 2005, when the Mithi river overflowed, every other leader expressed the usual statement of regret. But Kalam made a trip to Mumbai to understand the problem and give a plan of action. Unfortunately it was never worked upon.

Today with a global population of six billion, at least three billion have access to limited or perhaps abundant supply of water. But by 2025, with the world population reaching eight billion, it is painful to know that only one billion would have similar access to fresh water. Lack of sanitation, which affects two billion people today, will affect five billion in the next one decade due to lack of water.

Kalam knew that rivers had great mythic signifi-cance for Indians. However, water resources were not treated with the care they deserve. The need for water for agriculture, industry, and personal consumption was understood by all, especially when big cities and rural area reeled under water shortages in summer. There was much greater need for networking of rivers to overcome these problems. It would help distribute water from areas of excess to those that are deficient. It is known that there are emotional and political issues involved. But as a nation marching towards a developed country status, people should also learn how to share resources amongst themselves and evolve an efficient water-management policy. Widespread promotion of rain water harvesting in both rural and urban areas is also called for. About natural wealth Dr Kalam strongly felt that now what people have to aim at is creating more wealth and prosperity to share, and not reduce themselves to petty squabbling over distributing poverty and cornering a few privileges.

Integrated action for Developed India*

Dr Abdul Kalam, a visionary and man of action, had identified five areas, based on India’s core competence, for integrated action:

1. Agriculture and Agro-food Processing: a target of 360 million tonnes of food and agricultural production has been aimed at. Agriculture and agro-food processing would bring prosperity to the rural people and speed up economic growth. India is poised for a second Green Revolution using the advantage of biotechnology, appropriate seed selection, soil characterisation, post-harvest management, food processing and marketing. Better storage facilities are required to avoid the loss.

2. Education and Health Care: Education is the pillar of a strong and developed nation. In the knowledge society intellectual capacity will dominate. Therefore, education must become a thrust area, aimed at 100 per cent literacy. This is the key for employment. Women’s education is particularly important to bring societal transformation, including small family, higher education and better health care for children.

3. Information and Communication Techno-logy: This area can be used effectively to promote education in remote areas and also to create national wealth. It is one of the core areas where India has expertise and a competitive edge. The significant contribution of India’s economic growth comes from this sector. North America (the USA and Canada) (68 per cent), Europe (21 per cent) and Japan (2.0 per cent) taken together account for 91 per cent of India’s IT software exports. The IT sector now accounts for 35 per cent Indian exports, contributing to 7.5 per cent of the GDP.

4. Infrastructure, including electric power: Infrastructure is crucial for all areas which include agriculture, Information Technology, health care and strategic industries. For economic prosperity, stress needs to be provided on rural infrastructure as there is a disparity between the facilities existing in urban and rural areas. It has been estimated that the soaring demand for power will necessitate a tripling of installed generation capacity from 100,000 MW to over 300,000 MW by 2020. Nearly 80,000 villages are yet to get electricity connections. In rural areas, non-conventional energy sources like biomass, wind and solar power need to be adopted.

5. Strategic Industries and Critical Techno-logies: India has emerged as a strong nation in the area of strategic industries in spite of the sanctions and control regimes like the Missile Technology Control Regime. Achievements have come in the form of space missions like Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), Strategic and Cruise Missiles, Aeronautical systems like Light Combat Aircraft (Tejas), Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT), Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH). Major programmes were undertaken during the last two decades by the Defence Research and Development Organisation like Main Battle Tank (MBT) Arjun, Missiles Prithvi, Agni and ‘Brahmos’, Pilot-less Target Aircraft Lakshya, and many others. Due to the various aerospace programmes several technologies were developed; notable among them include computational fluid dynamics, development of silicon and gallium arsenide foundries for VLSI and MMIC components, solid and liquid propulsion in the case of space, missile and LCA programmes, and digital fly-by-wire control system in the case of the LCA. In the sphere of composite technology the carbon-carbon nose-tip of Agni, low loss radomes and composite wings of the LCA were significant developments. The technologies so developed in the strategic sectors have the capabilities to augment the technological strengths in other industries, thus leading to economic prosperity.

The sectors discussed, that is, education and healthcare, agriculture and agro-food processing, Information Technology, infrastructure and strategic industries can together lead to the strengthening of the economy and the nation’s security. With integrated actions in the above areas it is expected that the GDP growth rate will climb up from six per cent to more than 10 per cent, and the people below the poverty line to almost zero.

Providing Urban Amenities in Rural  Areas (Pura)

India lives in the villages, but because of the lack of proper education, employment, healthcare and infrastructure people migrate to cities due to better living conditions. Because of this rush to the city, the Indian cities are getting congested without sufficient place for living, and without water and power. The PURA model envisages a habitat designed to improve the quality of life in the rural areas and also makes special suggestions to remove urban congestion. Naturally, our most demanding urban problem is that of removal of congestion. Also, efficient supply of water and effective waste disposal in every locality are paramount civic needs. There is a minimum size below which a habitat is not viable and not competitive within the existing congested city. At the same time, the existing congested city is not economical compared to a new town once the minimum size of expansion is crossed.

Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, ever since he became the President of India, had been advocating his Vision 2020, and, to eradicate poverty from India, he had been laying emphasis on the adoption of PURA (Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas). In his address to the Food Security Summit on February 5, 2004, he outlined the concept and strategy of PURA as the lever of economic upliftment of the villages. India currently has 360 million people living below the poverty line. The GDP growth has been on the average six per cent per annum during the last decade. It has to be gradually increased up to 10 per cent and this must be sustained for several years. Only then is it possible for India to get the status of a developed nation. To achieve this, the roadmap involves integrated action on the five areas outlined above.

All these areas have to be developed into missions such as networking of rivers, availability of high quality uninterrupted power, providing urban amenities in rural areas (PURA), second Green Revolution, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) trans-forming into knowledge products, and tourism. The PURA model involves four connectivities: physical, electronic, knowledge and thereby leading to economic connectivity to enhance the prosperity of the cluster of villages in the rural areas.

There is no doubt that the planning process did make an effort to develop the villages through community development projects. Irrigation facilities were enlarged and the Green Revolution did provide an opportunity to the rural people to increase their share in national and per capita income, but still the rural-urban divide continues and there is a migration of the population from the rural to urban areas. The urban population, which was 17.3 per cent of the total in 1951, has increased to 27.8 per cent in 2001; in absolute terms, as against 62 million persons living in the urban areas in 1951, the numbers crowding in them have shot up to 377 million which is 31 per cent of the total population. This has created problems of congestion and growth of slums,

The objective of PURA is to propel economic development without population transfers. To put it in the words of late Prof A.M. Khusro, instead of moving human beings where infra-structure exists, it is better to take infrastructure to villages where human beings live. The PURA concept is the response to the need for creating social and economic infrastructure which can ensure a conducive climate for investment by the private sector in the rural areas.

The ongoing programmes of rural develop-ment can be reoriented so that roads, electricity, and water are made available. Once the social overheads are created, it will be possible to attract private sector investment. It is abun-dantly clear that private sector invests only in areas and projects which yield a high rate of return. It will not, unless the government provides necessary infrastructural support and some incentives for the purpose.

The major impediment to the PURA mission will be on the demand side. This can be overcome by undertaking such activities which create wage employment and thus enlarge the demand potential of the rural population. If PURA can become the catalyst for another Green Revo-lution in the backward rural areas in the less prosperous States, the Vision 2020 of Kalam to achieve a food production of 400 million tonnes can be achieved. For this purpose, it is necessary to develop synergy among the different consti-tuents in the fulfilment of the PURA mission. Only then can we have the dream of develop-ment of rural India without population transfers realised.

Although PURA draws its inspiration from the Gandhian model of development which emphasises rural development as a fundamental postulate, yet in the prescription it is neo-Gandhian in the sense that it intends to bring rural regeneration with the avowed objective of taking modern technology and modern amenities to the rural areas. In this sense it does not enter into the controversy of labour-intensive versus capital-intensive measures. However, it does stress on the enlargement of employment as the sole objective to make use of rural manpower in various development activities. In this sense, it does not think of a second grade status for the rural citizens and can thus become more acceptable to them. In other words, the PURA model attempts reconciliation between the objectives of employment and GDP growth.

Targets for People’s Representatives

Kalam set five targets for the people’s represen-tatives:

1. The people’s representative from a consti-tuency should assess per capita income of people in that constituency. Before completing his term he should work for making it go up by three times. Information related to per capita income can be obtained from the panchayats or District Collectors. All political parties should strive towards this end.

2. What should be the level of literacy after five years? It should be decided by the people’s representative. If the literacy rate is, say, 65 per cent, he should find ways to increase it to 80 to 85 per cent.

3. Similarly representatives of the people should concentrate on protecting water resources available in that constituency. Recycling of water and water conservation are critical components in village development. Tanks and lakes should be reclaimed and restored. It should be realised that for development water resources are highly essential.

4. The important resources in an area should be known and assessed. In certain places agriculture is the main occupation; elsewhere commercial crops; again in some regions fisheries. So each constituency exhibits a special character; in five years the capacities and capabilities should be enhanced.

5. People’s representatives should also strive for reducing the child mortality rate. The media can highlight the major problems of 543 consti-tuencies in the country to know about income, water resources, literacy and child mortality rates etc. which will also help the government agencies as well as NGOs

Kalam — A Humanist

Lightweight callipers and Kalam-Raju stent, perhaps the country’s first fully indigenised and affordable stent for heart patients, were two innovations dear to Dr Kalam.

Noted cardiologist Raju (from Hyderabad) collaborated with the late President to develop the lowest-cost coronary stent named the ‘Kalam-Raju Stent’ in 1998. The vast experience of the defence scientist and cardiologist could make it possible, because Kalam’s vision to provide affordable medical care was very clear. At that time the stent cost ranged from Rs 80,000 to Rs 100,000 but they did it for just Rs 10,000.

Likewise, Dr Kalam was instrumental in developing lightweight callipers made of glass filled polypropylene which weighed just 300 grams while in those days polio patients used to wear callipers that weighed around four kg.

The cost of traditional leather and metal callipers at the time was between Rs 3500 and Rs 4000 but the new innovation is available for just Rs 500. Nearly 50,000 people (mostly children) have benefited from the project. Similarly, Kalam-Raju in 2012 designed an indigenous rugged tablet computer for health care workers in primary health centres in the rural areas, and anganwadi workers with a ‘rugged tablet’ capable of performing a host of medical processes in villages.

A Token of Reverence

Kalam embodied the new India story. He rose by sheer force of education and conviction to become a driving force behind India’s space and missile programmes. Long after he had left Rashtrapati Bhavan, he remained high on every popularity poll. In the US, he would have been called a “Rockstar”. To a new aspirational India he was a President refreshingly free of political affiliation, a genial figure who embodied the joy and adventure of science, whose messages were so attractive to the young precisely because they were so simple and straight forward.

Dr Kamal was a scientist, a technocrat, a humanist and known to every Indian for his simplicity; above all he was a dreamer, visionary and a man of action. There were fifteen books written by him. Kalam’s 79th birthday was recognised as the World Student Day by the United Nations. In 2005, Switzerland declared May 26 as the Science Day to commemorate Kalam’s visit to that country.

After leaving office, Dr Kalam became a distinguished professor to many top institutions /universities like the IIM, Ahmadabad, IIS, Bangalore, Anna University (Tamilnadu) and Benaras Hindu University.

He also received honorary doctorates from 40 universities, chief among them being the Edin-burgh University, (UK), University of Waterloo (UK), Carnegie Mellon University (USA). His major awards including King Charles II Medal Royal Society Award (UK), Veer Saverkar Award (GOI), Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration (INC).

Dr Kalam, was a born genius who was a source of inspiration to all, particularly the educated young. He was the man credited with the task of taking India to new heights in science and technology. He served as the President of India from 2002 to 2007 and was the first vegetarian bachelor to occupy Rashtrapathi Bhavan.

To Kalam, religion, caste, language and other criteria that divided Indians and placed them in pigeon-holes were unacceptable. He was an Indian first and Indian last. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was a human being par excellence. Kalam’s life was a mission—telling every youth of the country to dream big, to have high aims, to think and to translate that thought into action with hard work and perseverance. Like Napoleon, he believed that nothing was impossible.

“I will not be presumptuous enough to say that my life can be a role model for anybody; but some poor child living in an obscure place in an under-privileged social setting may find a little solace in the way my destiny has been shaped. It could perhaps help such children liberate themselves from the bondage of their illusory backwardness and hopelessness.” —A.P.J. Abdul Kalam: October 1931 — July 2015)

Notes and References

1. The Hindu, July 28, 2015.

2. The New Indian Express, July 28, 2015.

3. The Times of India, July 28, 2015.

4. Deccan Chronicle, July 28, 2015.

5. Abdul Kalam, A.P.J. : India, 2020: A Vision for the New Millennium, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2002.

6. Abdul Kalam, A.P.J., Sivathanu Pillai, A. : Envisioning an Empowered Nation—Technology for Societal Trans-formation, Tata Mc Graw-Hill Pub. Co. Ltd, New Delhi, 2004.

7. The Week, August 9, 2015.

Prof Rao is an economist and analyst. He was formerly a Senior Professor and the Head, Department of Economics, Osmania University, Hyderabad.