Higher Education, India

#8. Kalam | India’s search for scientific self-sufficiency

Technology, unlike science, is a group activity. It is not based on individual intelligence, but on the interacting intelligence of many….If someone asks me about my personal achievements in Indian rocketry, I would pin it down to having created an environment in which teams of young people could put their heart and soul into their missions.

APJ Abdul Kalam, Ex-president of India

The bell couldn’t have tolled for the visionary scholar in any better setting. The Ex-President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam bit the dust in a ripe age of 84 while addressing a crowd of students at Indian Institute of Management, Shillong. The death of glory the workaholic deserved.

Today, the youth of a nation having the highest illiterate population in the world is mourning the death of a curly-haired scientist who spent his life working with ballistic missiles and satellite launching. Puzzling, isn’t it?

The entire world observed with cynicism when India walked into the path of her 1st democratic elections in 1951 ; they smirked that democratic elections were not suited to a caste-ridden, multi-religious, illiterate and backward society and the only effective political solution is a benevolent dictatorship. We survived the test with flying colours and despite our own share of problems as a developing nation, external and internal threats, the democratic roots penetrated further and today we hold our ground strongly in a political ring of fire- a chain of chaotic, volatile nations.

When India went on to launch her ambitious moon mission ‘Chandrayan’ in 2008 and later announced the Mars Orbiter mission (MOM) in 2013 she was similarly ridiculed on spending billions of money on space voyage and not using it to alleviate poverty; these kind of statements were passed by nations who spend taxpayer money to fund search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Nonetheless, we reached Mars orbit as only the 4th in the world to do so after US, Soviet Russia and European space agency at a pittance of $73 million, a cost equivalent to less than a single bus ride for each of India’s population of 1.2 billion! This was a feat of unique innovation in terms of design. It was established that as a nation we were self-sufficient to leverage our human resource and home-grown technologies to fulfil our scientific aspirations.


These ambitious interplanetary missions stood on years of the country’s toil put to space research and development of projectile technology which started with the technological vision of Jawharlal Nehru, India’s 1st prime minister and physicist Vikram Sarabhai, who was entrusted with giving wings to his dreams. Kalam received the mentorship of Sarabhai for starters and later played a pivotal role along with his colleagues.

APJ Abdul Kalam was truly the ‘poster boy’ of India’s indigenous technology. He was the project director of India’s first satellite launch vehicle, served as the chief executive of Integrated Guided Missiles Development Program (IGMDP) and played a strategic role in orchestration of Pokhran-II, India’s 2nd phase of nuclear tests. However, it would be a historical blunder to remember him just as the ‘missile man’. His profound experience as a rocket scientist and as a scientific co-ordinator working in close collaboration with polity made him realize the importance of self-reliance in critical technologies which if properly leveraged can be lead to food, economic and national security. In his years as the President and in the following years, he made us dream of seeing India as a ‘knowledge superpower’. He inspired us to use our creative potential to forge our own destiny. He gave courage and belief to the youth of the nation who either felt ashamed about their present or looked for glory in its past heritage. We rallied behind his vision 2020, an inspiration for the future ahead.

It’s our misfortune that among our policy makers people like him are a rare exception, not a rule.

Take me to the magic of the moment on a glory night
Where the children of tomorrow dream away in the wind of change

-The Scorpions, Wind of Change