Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Defence Research Laboratory, Tezpur: The DRDO’s most unusual lab

(Concluding part of a two-part article on the DRDO in the northeast)

by Ajai Shukla
Dateline: Tezpur, Assam

During the Second World War, Field Marshall William Slim, the commander of the 14th Army in Burma discovered that the anopheles mosquito was causing more casualties to his men than the Japanese. Ruthlessly practical, he decreed that catching malaria was a disciplinary offence, punishable by imprisonment in a military prison. Today’s Indian Army, still serving in the mosquito-ridden jungles of the northeast, continues Slim’s dictat: sleeves must be rolled down after sunset; mosquito nets are compulsory at night.

Now, however, the jawans have a formidable ally: the Defence Research Laboratory (DRL) Tezpur. While other Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) laboratories focus on weapons and sensors, DRL tackles problems that concern every citizen of the northeast: malaria; the pestilent dim-dam fly; water-purification in remote areas; and power generation from bio-resources.

Such projects are far removed from the glamorous end of defence R&D. But Business Standard learned during a visit to DRL Tezpur that, measured in terms of intellectual property, this is the DRDO’s most successful laboratory. Four months ago DRL’s Molecular Biology Facility became the first Indian institution to file, with the World Gene Bank, the detailed structure of the gene that provides mosquitoes with resistance to insecticides. This gene sequence is now available internationally for research against the mosquito.

And in just the last two years, DRL has filed for eight Indian patents and an international patent for an herbal anti-malarial.

DRL’s success rests on a simple method: tapping into local tribal knowledge of herbs and plants that repel mosquitoes, leeches and other pests and provide relief from their attacks. DRL scientists in Tezpur then use modern laboratory techniques to identify the active ingredient in these local herbs. These ingredients are then packaged into convenient dispensers for soldiers as well as civilians.

DRL’s Director, Dr RB Srivastava, shows us a sheaf of letters from private companies requesting Transfer of Technology (ToT) for his products. During May 09, DRL will hand over technology for the commercial production of five anti-mosquito products, including an herbal anti-malarial that replaces Good Knight; and a bio-larvicide that feeds on mosquito larvae.

DRDO keeps the ToT fee nominal, to encourage as much manufacture as possible. Malaria, points out the DRL Director, can only be tackled at a broad societal level. Only half in jest he says, “Mosquitoes have developed the technology for flying across cantonment walls. We can’t confine ourselves to the military in dealing with issues like malaria.”

But why, I ask, is a defence laboratory researching malaria, an area better left to hospitals, academic research institutions and the Ministry of Health? Dr Srivastava explains that DRL scientists collaborate with the National Institute of Malaria Research (NIMR) for technical training and analytical assistance. But there is a marked reluctance within central institutions for working and researching in the difficult border areas of the northeast.

The northeastern state governments turn to DRL as frequently as the military does. DRL is Arunachal Pradesh’s referral institute for water quality studies After DRL’s malarial applications won first prize in a Tripura government science exhibition, shutting out competitors like the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the Tripura government has turned to DRL for an anti-malaria programme.

DRL’s bold charter criss-crosses the dividing line between civil and military. A great success is its one-week mushroom farming training programme, run for batches of 25-30 local youths. DRL estimates that each graduate who opens a mushroom farming unit employs about 30 locals, bringing them into the national mainstream and narrowing the extremists’ recruitment base.

The Naga Chilli: Spicing up DRDO research

(Part I of a two-part article on defence R&D in the northeast)

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 4th May 09
Tezpur, Assam

The Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) offers intellectual challenges, but not an adventurous image. A DRDO director is perceived as a man in a white coat working in a laboratory or gazing at computer monitors. But the Defence Research Laboratory (DRL) in Tezpur, tucked away in the northeast, is far removed from these stereotypes. DRL’s Director, Dr RB Srivastava, will spend time next month sitting in the jungle on a machaan, observing how rampaging elephants react to his revolutionary new weapon: the Naga chilli, or bhoot jolokia, which DRL had proclaimed in 2001 as the hottest chilli in the world.

Chilli power is measured in Scofield Heat Units (SHUs); a spicy Indian green chilli logs in at about 100,000 SHUs. Most people, even Indians, would be reduced to tears by eating anything above 200,000 SHUs. The Naga chilli, DRL discovered, measured 855,000 SHUs, far higher than the reigning champion, the 577,000 SHU Californian Red Savina chilli. When the sceptical Chilli Pepper Institute in the USA examined this claim in 2005, they found the DRL had underestimated. The Naga chilli actually measured over a million SHU.

DRL, Tezpur is harnessing all this spice into military applications, such as high-effectiveness tear gas. Meanwhile the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) asked DRL to explore the possibility of using Naga chilli to keep wild elephants away from villages and fields. The DRL’s solution --- a nylon rope coated with Naga chilli placed across paths leading towards human habitation --- will be tested in May and June.

Dr Srivastava laughed as he told Business Standard, “The WWF says I will have to be on the machaan when we test the chilli garland. I told them, God knows how the elephants will behave!”

DRL is also experimenting whether Naga chilli, as a food supplement, might help soldiers in coping with high altitude environments? The laboratory is also working out ideal cultivation practices --- how much water, how much shade, etc --- that will add more zing to this chilli.

What makes DRL Tezpur different from every other DRDO laboratory is its sharp focus on the specific problems of northeast India. And for jawans deployed here, few issues are as important as the provision of clean drinking water in remote posts separated from each other by days of marching across mountains and jungles.

Water in the northeast suffers from a chronically high iron content. In most places it is 10-20 parts per million (ppm), going up to 30-40 ppm in many areas. DRL took on the challenge of bringing this down to the World Health Organisation (WHO) permissible limit of 0.3 ppm.

DRL’s first developed a portable water testing kit, with which soldiers could test water wherever they moved. The kit monitored 11 parameters, including P-h level, hardness, and iron content. Initially it lacked an arsenic detector; that was developed and patented last year. The technology for the water testing kit was transferred to three private companies. It proved highly effective during the floods around Nasik last year.

Next, DRL’s Water Chemistry Division developed the simplest of technologies --- using sand, marbles etc --- to bring down the iron level to 0.3 ppm. The Iron Removal Units (IRUs), which cost just Rs 30,000/- each, purify 300 litres per hour without using electricity. The commercial alternative was ceramic-based filters, costing Rs 3-4 lakhs each, which could only reduce iron to 5 ppm.

Even as the army orders IRUs by the hundred, DRL has just put out an improved Mark II version. Using fibre-reinforced plastic (FRP) technology from the Light Combat Aircraft programme, this weighs just half of the earlier steel IRU. The army has accorded its ultimate accolade, fitting three of these filters in the Tezpur Inspection Bungalow for visiting VIPs. A hundred more are on order.

By 2012, DRL plans to develop a portable filter that jawans can carry in their haversacks. This will bring down iron content to safe levels, as well as arsenic, fluoride and manganese contents, all chronic problems in the northeast.

(Tomorrow: Part II: DRL’s major success: a gene sequence identified)

India set to build Medium Combat Aircraft

(Photo: courtesy Ajai Shukla)

The Tejas Light Combat Aircraft aerobatics display at Aero India 09 in Bangalore in Feb 09. The LCA is now set to be followed by an Indian-developed Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA).

by Ajai Shukla
Bangalore, India
Business Standard

With India’s home-built Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) --- the Tejas --- flying successfully through its testing process, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has now signed up for an indigenous Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA). Within days, the IAF and a team of aircraft designers will formally set up a joint committee to frame the specifications for India’s own MCA, which will be built largely in Bangalore.

The MCA’s design team will centre on the agencies that have built the LCA: the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA); the National Aeronautics Laboratory (NAL); Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL); and a host of Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) laboratories that will develop futuristic sensors and systems for the MCA.

The Director of ADA, Dr PS Subramaniam, confirmed to Business Standard, “The joint committee is likely to be formed within two or three weeks. This committee will finalise what will go into the MCA, as well as the budget and development schedule.”

According to Dr Subramaniam, the programme will aim to develop the MCA and build 5-6 prototypes at a cost of Rs 5000 crores. That is approximately the same amount that has gone into the LCA programme.

With this, Indian aeronautical designers will be working in all the fighter categories. In the light fighter category (10-11 tons), the Tejas LCA is expected to get operational clearance in 2011; the MCA will be India’s first foray into the medium fighter category (14-15 tons); and in the heavy fighter category (20 tons plus), currently ruled by the Russian Sukhoi-30MKI, Indian designers plan to partner their Russian counterparts in developing the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA).

Interestingly, the decision to develop an indigenous MCA comes alongside the overseas procurement of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) for an estimated Rs 50,000 crores. Senior IAF planners point out that the MMRCA procurement is unavoidable for replacing the MiG-29s and Mirage-2000s that will become obsolete while the MCA is still being developed.

By 2020, when the IAF’s current fleet would have been largely phased out, MoD planners forecast a requirement for at least 250 medium fighters. This has raised hopes amongst the MMRCA contenders (the US F/A-18 and F-16, Russia’s Mig-35; the Eurofighter Typhoon; and the Swedish Gripen) that the winner could end up supplying twice as many fighters as the current tender. But a successful Indian MCA programme would cap the MMRCA procurement at 126 fighters. After that, the MCA production will kick in.

The MCA designers plan to pursue technologies superior to anything currently on offer. The ADA Director points out, “None of the MMRCA contenders will be state-of-the-art in 2015-2017. But the MCA will; it will incorporate the technologies of the future, which currently feature only on the US Air Force’s F-22 Raptor.”

India’s aeronautical designers see the MCA programme as crucial for taking forward the expertise that has been painstakingly accumulated in the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme. The IAF is in agreement; and the Rama Rao Committee, set up for restructuring the DRDO, has recommended that programmes must be created to provide continuity for designers.

Says a senior MoD official: “With great difficulty we have built up a team that can design a complete combat aircraft. After a couple of years, when the LCA goes into production, there will be no design work left. Without another aircraft programme to work on, we will lose this team, having attained this level.”

Friday, 17 April 2009

Tawang votes under China's shadow

by Ajai Shukla

Business Standard

Tawang (Arunachal Pradesh)

April 17, 2009

It is voting day at the magnificent Tawang Gompa, or monastery, which looms over this border town, perched at 10,000 feet, high on the China border. At 10.30 a.m. 171 of the 265 monks eligible to vote have already cast their ballots. Others wait in their crimson and ochre robes, while polling officers send off a first time voter to fetch proof of his identity.

It is unclear which way the lama vote is going; the Rimpoche (Head Abbot) of the gompa emphasises the monks have no directive. What seems clear, though, is that each vote cast in Tawang is a vote for India. Under Tibetan control until as recently as 1951, and claimed now with growing stridency by China, the Tawang area remains staunchly Indian. The local inhabitants, the Buddhist Monpa tribe, reject China and communism as antithetical to religion.

China, however, remains uncompromising on Tawang. Insiders familiar with the Sino-Indian dialogue say Tawang is the only impasse that is holding up an agreement. There is growing local concern here that India could barter away Tawang for the sake of peace with China. Such fears are fanned by events that are barely noticed in New Delhi: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh leaving Tawang out of his itinerary during his 2008 visit to Arunachal Pradesh; and the recent last-minute cancellation — under foreign ministry pressure — of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang, scheduled for March 16.

The Dalai Lama was visiting Tawang to commemorate his dramatic escape from Tibet half a century ago, when he entered India right here in Tawang. But China, determined to deny separatist Tibetans a high-profile 50th anniversary celebration of the 1959 anti-China uprising, pressured New Delhi to stop the visit.

There is widespread frustration in and around Tawang at New Delhi’s reluctance to anger Beijing. The Rimpoche (Abbott) of the Tawang Gompa, told Business Standard, “I don’t understand why the Indian government does not claim Tawang in more forceful words. The people of Tawang want to hear New Delhi say, ‘Tawang is ours. We will never give it away to China’. Until they hear that, they will be insecure.”

Even though this is a general election, the Tawang vote is important for Arunachal Pradesh’s Chief Minister, Dorjee Khandu, of the Congress Party. This is his constituency and a heavy win would not just demonstrate his continuing clout, but also work to topple the sitting West Arunachal Pradesh MP, Kiren Rijuju of the BJP. Rijuju has made waves in Parliament with a high-profile campaign against China’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh.

The results of the general election could have dramatic fallout in Arunachal Pradesh. Traditionally, the state government has switched parties en masse to whichever party forms the central government. Currently, there is no opposition in the state; all 60 MLAs belong to the Congress (I), the bulk of them having switched over from the BJP in 2004. If the Congress fails to return to power in this general election, Arunachal Pradesh could well see another mass migration to whichever party forms the next government.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Project 15-A: Ukrainian fiasco; Russian bailout

(Photos: courtesy Ajai Shukla)

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 1st April, 2009
Mazagon Dock Limited, Mumbai

To comprehend the size of a 6,800-tonne warship, one really needs to see it out of water. In Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL), we stare awestruck at two such vessels being built side by side, towering hulks of steel that are being welded and hammered into frontline destroyers for the Indian Navy. Then we are shown their eventual form at a nearby slipway, where INS Kolkata, the first destroyer of Project 15-A, is being kitted out for its commissioning next year.

MDL is fighting to deliver this Rs 11,000 crore project on time. Holding it back is a default by a Ukrainian shipyard in delivering the propellers that drive these warships and the shafting that delivers power from the engines to the propellers. After three years of waiting fruitlessly for the equipment to arrive from Ukraine, MDL placed the order with a Russian shipyard.

Ukrainian shipbuilders, set up in the Black Sea by the erstwhile Soviet Union navy, have been an important source of components for Indian warships. Each of the three Project 15-A destroyers will be powered by four Zorya reversible gas turbines from Ukraine, which have already been delivered. But they can only be installed after Russia delivers the shafting.

MDL Chairman, Vice Admiral HS Malhi told Business Standard, “The Ukrainian shipbuilding industry is a mature one, but we have this problem of non-delivery. The answer is only to increase the level of indigenisation, and to develop and cultivate our own vendor base. As long as we are dependent upon foreign vendors, late delivery will remain a risk.”

Business Standard has already reported on 6th March 09 on the delay to India’s Project 17 stealth frigate, INS Shivalik, because General Electric (GE) failed to get permission from the US government to install its gas turbine engines on the warship.

Russia is assisting Project 15-A not only with shafting and propellers, but also the know-how for pontoon-assisted launches. Conventionally, a ship is “launched” into water once its hull is completed, after which the superstructure — the upper decks and masts that together weigh several thousand tonne — is fitted on in deeper water. The shallow water near the slipways, where warships are built, cannot accommodate fully built warships, which require a deeper draught.

The INS Kolkata, for example, was under 3,000 tonnes when it was launched into water just 4.5 metres deep. But the next two Project 15-A vessels will weigh over 4,000 tonnes at launch because they will have pontoons — steel compartments welded outside the deck — that will lift the ship in the water like inflatable armbands do to swimmers. The pontoons are removed once the ship reaches deeper water.

Explains Commander HC Dhamija, project superintendent of Project 15-A, “This will provide added buoyancy, which will allow us to launch the ship into shallower water. There are a greater number of days when the tide provides us with 4.5 metres, so that makes planning a launch easier. If, for some reason, you miss the date with the highest tide, you are still left with some options.”

Russia has also provided the warship-grade steel for Project 15-A. Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) now makes warship-grade steel, but the manufacture of these destroyers began before SAIL production ramped up. SAIL’s current production is barely enough for the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) being constructed at Cochin Shipyard Ltd, Kochi.

The first Kolkata class destroyer is to be delivered in May 2010. The next two are scheduled for delivery at one year intervals, i.e. May 2011 and May 2012, respectively.