Space, Technology, and Institutions: Interview with Dr. Y. S Rajan

Dr. Y. S Rajan is an Indian professor, scientist and administrator. An Honorary Distinguished Professor at ISRO, he has made major contributions to various aspects of management of science, technology and innovation. In 2012, he was awarded the Padma Shri for his contribution in Science and Engineering. He has worked closely with many prominent scientists, including Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam.

Sharayu Shejale sits down for a chat with the eminent professor during his visit to IIT Madras for an EML.

One of your most well-known works is India 2020. We’re just two years away; how accurate were your predictions? Would you revise some of your predictions, and do you have a vision for India 2025 or 2030 now?

First of all, that type of document cannot be measured in terms of accuracy because there are no specifically measurable parameters. That was not the intent. Of course, there are of some measurable parameters. For example, our agriculture can be increased to 350 million tonnes or so – provided certain things are done. Similarly, India can grow in the manufacturing sector. But it is not a vision per se. So many people think that this work was only between Kalam and me. But one has to learn to ask the right questions. Often times, this is what happens in India, they’ll ask ‘can India become a developed country?’ One can’t answer in terms of yes and no. We consulted experts from specific sectors, who know the subject. So we had 70 working groups, desegregated into many sectors. We had to do a lot of scenario writing by experts, then the questions are formed. Then it is sent to about 15000 fellows from different sectors. We got around 5000 answers – those formed the base. Then this is seen by a group of 500, who go through it and give it to 25 others. So in some sectors the growth is less, some its more. There is a variety of reasons for it. And the growth hasn’t exactly happened exactly how we had suggested, but the growth is indicative instead. For example, telecom grew much faster than what we said it would. But our consensus was because of government control by one industry – Department of Telecom and the ITI. So when this control was removed, the industry grew. Indigenous manufacture wasn’t factored in. We suggested a number of variables, but they were not adopted – that is not in our control.

So, we have assessed it with a number of methods. When we worked on the book in 1995-96, Google was not around. Now we have so much of information available, which was wasn’t there then. This collection and analysis of information is the work between Kalam and me. Now Dr. Kalam also wrote a very important work after that – Beyond 2020. Less than a year after, he passed away. In this work, we have analysed every sector to get a glimpse of what was done what was not done and so on.

You have had a significant collaboration and professional relationship with Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam – you’ve even co-authored a book. How was that experience?

Very good. Excellent. I’m extremely proud to have been associated with him. But one should understand, this has to be seen in the backdrop of something – we weren’t just two people. It is the institutions in which we grew. I’m saying this without undermining the great achievements by Dr. Kalam. I talk of Professor Dhawan and Brahm Prakash the same way too. This SLV3 – this is where many of us started off. So most people think there is one person who thinks up and makes SLV3. That is not true – there’s a team. In the same way, Kalam and Rajan work on the vision, then another 500 condense it. The person who is responsible for India’s propellers and launch vehicles is Prof Vasant Gowarikar. He had a team too – people in liquid propulsion, electronics. So we always have a team put together. It is a very complex set of teams of people who make it possible. My association with Dr. Kalam has to be seen in this backdrop. He left after the SLV3, and went on to work at DRDO. ISRO has done a lot of social applications in which he was not directly involved – he was a launch vehicle man. My role turned out to be, in addition to overseeing all this, was remote sensing and so on. As a result, I was involved in the social and economic sector. We have used the best of individuals from institutions – we have drawn from IIT also – and made TIFAC, which was meant to diffuse technologies. So we got top industry people from the different sectors, and Dr. Kalam became chairman. So this is how our relationship was. Many of my poems are on him, and our families are also close. He was a very nice person, but you have to see it in the backdrop of institutions and individuals. Without that, all of us would have been fruitless.

In your lecture, you talked about grassroot change in the educational sector. How do national educational institutions such as IITs embrace this change? Is this change purely institutional or is there something us students can do?

Everybody can do something. By change, I didn’t mean a free licence for the institutions. It doesn’t mean don’t ask them questions. But these questions need to be asked by knowledgeable people. For instance, in ISRO we have reviews, and there are many items in which Dr. Dhawan won’t interfere. A self regulatory system should exist like biology – different body parts do different jobs independently. This should be systemic. The totality of the education system needs to be drastically changed. See many of you are bright, but for coming here, you are shut off from 9thstandard onwards by parents, relatives, peers. Only JEE is not the way. Then it becomes a monoculture, becomes narrow. You should have multiple channels of application of intellect. Only medical, only IIT does not mean you have achieved success. That’s not life. What has happened to all these IIT toppers? What has come out of their life? We have to study this. They could not do anything significant because they were not creative. They need to be allowed the space to be creative. We have to look beyond the three Rs – rules, regulation, and rote. Let institutions decide which students they want to take in. The measurement error in marks cannot define a student’s ability. If the cutoff marks are so close – they start looking at the age, name and so on. These are baseless. Instead, leave it to the institutions. These are the changes that can be made.

As far as students are concerned, unfortunately, if you don’t pass those fixed roadblocks you’ll not get anywhere. I tell many young people, students, that they have to remember that this is not true. It doesn’t match with the existing reality – not only in India, but the rest of the world. Leave that aside, and start learning – whatever you’re interested in. Take out time specifically to learn. Learn how the modern world is developing. When you have to interact in actual life, when you get a job, there strengthen and discover your skills. That would be more real. Start learning now. Your 8.5 CGPA is not going to help in life. You need learning and skills. You need to learn to solve problems – you may be humanities, commerce, or science. People want solutions. The people who joined and made ISRO are not from elite institutions. Kalam was a B.Sc. from DMYT. I’m not saying don’t take that route. Just that it’s not the only route to success. The educational system has to recognise this right from the start, then it will work.

With respect to the synthesis of the sciences and the humanities- should there be institutionalisation of such interdisciplinary study? And if so, how?

I am for people learning many things. But what happens in our system is that it is forced. Someone will say that humanities should be integrated, so the government will money to set up a humanities department. But this and the other departments don’t mix at all. Nobody bothers. So it is not organic. This approach doesn’t count. Every student should not be forced to do this so-called multidisciplinary thing. One has to see the innate abilities of the student. That’s what it should be like. Unfortunately, we try to copy the Western system. While they may be suited for that kind of system, we may not be. Humanities, I believe, has to be rooted in the soil. That is why I put emphasis on languages. Every student should be proficient in one Indian language of their choice. Literature should be enjoyed. That Einstein quote, “imagination is more important than knowledge,” is true. But if you force the integration, it’s useless. However, the people who do economics should know a little bit of science. They should know the technology processes. The data should not be downloaded – field work is necessary. You have to have a little mix, which is not narrow. Nothing should be forced. If that is done, it is good. We need every skill we can develop. What we should focus on is skills, and what people have done.

What’s the next big thing for the Indian Space Programme according to you? For instance, is India likely to go in the direction of a militarised space force? Why or why not?

If you look at the history of space programme, you cannot decouple the military and defence systems. People yelling peace is not going to achieve it. You can’t have peace unless you have the strength to back it up. Dr. Kalam used to say, ‘strength respects strength’. We have certain deterrence capability and will continue to do so. Space has a lot of military dimensions. It was there at the time when I was active at ISRO, but we don’t talk about in public – there is a denial problem and all. And it will continue to be there, so we can’t ignore that part. In fact, we’re not doing enough. We can’t leave everything to DRDO. We have to create a lot of industries around this, because somebody has to manufacture them. Manufacturing can be done best by industry. Space has several dimensions – communications, remote sensing, navigation, meteorology, service industries also. One of these dimensions is military, deterrence. National security is an important part of any scientific, technological endeavour. And one should not be ashamed of it. A lot of young people should go in this field also.

What is you take on the privatization of space programmes such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX? Is a state agency better? Is privatization the future?

Privatize? These are all words which have no meaning. Production has to be done. Privatization does not mean that India has lost everything. Meaningless. For me, public and private sectors have no difference. We have used both. But the public sector has this oppressive bureaucracy, which is not necessary. It is not even constitutional. Industry has certain business processes, that have to be applied to mature sectors – whether it is space, biomedical, machine making or anything. When something is beyond the innovation curve, it needs to be taken over by industry – whatever name you want to call it, joint sector, or even foreign fellows. The question is what needs to be done. Only then it will expand. This is applicable to space, to atomic energy, to everybody. Even missile making. It can be done by anybody. Of course, there will be security protocols, but apart from that it can be open.

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