"Lunch with Business Standard" at Avinash Chander's office. A cup of tomato soup...
...followed by a tiffin lunch. Usually, subjects for this profile choose a tony hotel or restaurant.
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 8th June 13
The new chief of the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO), Dr Avinash Chander, has time only for quick office lunches. So I wend my way to DRDO Bhavan, the elegant headquarters of an organization that will spend Rs 10,610 crore this year on developing military equipment, especially weaponry that cannot be bought for love or money: inter-continental ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines, and encryption codes that protect the country’s most vital secrets.
DRDO Bhavan is a striking edifice, its soaring portico and two-tone Dholpur – Agra Sandstone exterior putting to shame the grubby façade of Army Headquarters next door. The contrast generates much acrimonious humour, with the scientists scoffing at the army’s ineptitude and the soldiers countering that the DRDO should focus on weaponry, not buildings.
Avinash Chander welcomes me into his office, a generously proportioned room that looks out at South Block. A bronze bust of S Ramanujan stands in a corner; bouquets are strewn across the conference table; commemorative models of DRDO-developed missiles adorn the tables. We seat ourselves on a corner sofa.
Chander, trim and slight, looks a decade younger than his 62 years. Like his ebullient predecessor, Dr VK Saraswat, the more taciturn Chander made his reputation building missiles. He tells me that Saraswat and he joined DRDO together four decades ago, Saraswat just ten days before him.
We are served cups of hot tomato soup, simple but tasty. Sipping it, Chander reminisces about the Prithvi missile project that they pursued together through tight international sanctions (after the 1974 “peaceful” nuclear test). Within three years of their joining, Saraswat was leading the development of a propulsion system while Chander was in charge of navigation system development. The Prithvi was soon a success, says Chander and “since then we have been serious players in the missile game.”
“Saraswat was a natural leader,” he recalls, self effacingly. I observe that they must have competed throughout their careers for the same honours. “Ours is a very good friendship and a very fulfilling one, both at the personal and at the professional levels,” Chander replies. Their contemporaries confirm this is true.
Is Chander the first Punjabi chief in the 55-year history of an organization that has been predominantly Bengali and Tamilian, I ask? He laughs away the question, but his PR head confirms that. Chander recounts a typical refugee story: his family made the harrowing journey from Mirpur, now in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, to India after partition. They washed up in a one-room tenement in Old Delhi where Chander was born in 1950. After a succession of government schools, he graduated from IIT Delhi. At 22, he was a DRDO scientist.
I ask him why the DRDO’s missile programmes have enjoyed greater success than other projects like the Tejas fighter and the Arjun tank. Chander looks back over four decades of history before giving me three reasons: Firstly, after Indira Gandhi ordered a focused effort in the early 1970s to develop delivery systems for a nuclear warhead, the DRDO recruited over a hundred young scientists from excellent engineering institutions like the IITs and Jadhavpur University, who were given the creative freedom to develop innovative technological solutions. Secondly, outstanding managers like Dr APJ Abdul Kalam created the structures needed for effective functioning --- review mechanisms, and laboratory clusters working as integrated teams.
“We were imbued with a work culture, thought processes and the confidence that we could do anything. Since international sanctions denied us all foreign technology, we built everything from scratch. In hindsight, technology denial might have been the biggest benefit to our missile programme. We had no choice but to do everything ourselves,” says Chander.
I ask him what he hopes to achieve as DRDO chief. Chander is clear that the lack of trust between the military and the DRDO --- a poisonous legacy of the 1980s and 1990s when the DRDO over-promised and under-delivered --- is something that needs to be buried quickly.
“The government has given me three years in the job. This is a crucial time for the DRDO, since a large number of major programmes are lined up for delivery. There is the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, which the Raksha Mantri has directed must (be completed) by next year. The Agni-4 and Agni-5 missiles have to be inducted into service, which is a major challenge since we have never before inducted two missiles simultaneously in such a short time. The Long Range Surface to Air Missile (LR-SAM) has to be produced and the first naval warship equipped with it by 2014-15. And the Arjun Mark II tank is going through its final stage of trials.”
“We must make sure that all these deliveries happen, and that the systems perform well. Giving the military a reliable, rugged system will change their perceptions about the DRDO. Already, that has happened with radars; when the IAF wants a radar, it looks to us first. There is equal confidence in our strategic missiles. We would like the military to be as confident in our other systems too. That is why these two or three years are vital,” says Chander.
Lunch is laid in a small anteroom. The DRDO chief’s lunch, which he brought along from the DRDO guesthouse where he stays in Delhi (his family is in Hyderabad) consists of dal and lauki ki sabzi served in two small tiffin box metal vessels. Mine has come from the DRDO Bhavan cafeteria: paneer curry and kaali dal. His tiffin looks more appetising and I dig in when he invites me to share.
I broach the growing belief that the DRDO is leaving no space for the private sector to build defence systems. Shouldn’t the DRDO focus on basic research, while the private sector, along with the defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs) translate DRDO-developed technologies into weapons systems?
Chander considers carefully before responding that the DRDO’s standing policy has been to stay off anything that can be done by industry. Missile components, for example, are built 85 per cent by industry.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think industry is ready to build full-fledged weapons systems. I would be the happiest person if our industry grew to the levels of Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing or Dassault, which have their own R&D and system design capabilities. That would give me a tremendous base and spare me the need to develop every small sub-system.”
“But industry has little interest in low-volume production. It wants to do low-tech, high-volume, well-defined production But when I want a navigation system, or a gyroscope, no industry will give me that,” he says.
I point out that it is unfair to expect the private sector, which is answerable to shareholders, to sink large sums into defence R&D, especially given the MoD’s penchant for turning its back on acquisition programmes. Chander insists that private sector companies would have to invest initially; once they had built competence, the MoD would place orders for weapons systems and fund R&D for that. The “Make” category of acquisition, he says, explicitly provides for that.
I push further, trying to corner Chander on the wisdom of letting the DRDO range across the entire R&D chain, from basic research, to innovations, to product development. But Chander is steeped in traditional DRDO culture, which has long believed that production agencies --- whether private or public sector --- do not yet have the capability to design weapons systems.
“We must understand that the DRDO is in the business of developing systems for the military. We are a product-oriented organisation, which translates knowledge into technology; and technology into products. Each one of them requires research, innovation, application.”
“Ten years back we did not have composite rocket motors. But we have done the fundamental research, developed the materials, the processes and the various tools and machines needed to build those. That is the role of DRDO: to convert knowledge into systems.”
Chander acknowledges that the defence field is too vast for the DRDO to straddle the entire spectrum. The DRDO, he says, will do “directed basic reseach” towards an end product like, say, a robotic soldier. Then it would work backwards, identifying the technologies that would be needed for that system and focusing development on those.
And where are the scientists who will do all this, I ask? Chander says that the DRDO’s growing list of successes, for example the Agni-5 missile last year, is attracting the people it needs. “Last year, we inducted about a hundred students from premier institutions like the IITs. Attracting talent is a function of our image; and if we offer challenging assignments, that is appreciated by recruits. Over the last three years, our attrition rate has been less than 2 per cent,” says Chander.
Over dessert --- a small cafeteria gulab jamun each --- Chander explains how the DRDO is partnering academic institutions in establishing a network of technology centres. These would allow DRDO scientists, academics and research students to work in community, developing far-reaching technologies that would be “transplanted” onto DRDO laboratories. After “maturing” these, the DRDO would then transplant them on to industry.
As we shake hands after the meal, my mind goes back five years to my first meeting with Avinash Chander, then developing the Agni-3 missile as director of the Advanced Systems Laboratory, Hyderabad. I believed after that first meeting that he would head DRDO some day. Now that he has the job, his leadership over the next three years --- and particularly the relationship he strikes with the military and the private sector --- will do much to determine the direction of Indian defence.