Interview with Dr. Anil Kakodkar

The Fifth Estate had a stimulating talk with Dr. Anil Kakodkar – nuclear physicist, Padma Vibhushan awardee and former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India. He was hosted by the Extra Mural Lectures team of IIT Madras and delivered a lecture titled ‘Time to Raise Our Ambition in Nuclear Energy’. Considered one of the core architects of India’s peaceful nuclear tests of 1974 and 1998, Dr. Kakodkar champions India’s self-reliance in clean nuclear energy. This detailed interview maps out his life in the values he has inculcated and the values he wants to impart to the younger generation. 

What values were inculcated in your childhood (school or home) that helped you in the future? Since your parents were Gandhian freedom fighters, how did it shape your growing years?

Values are never inculcated through giving lectures. If parents give you sermons every day, that does not automatically instill values in you. Values are inculcated by perceiving a way of life. While pursuing a way of life in a particular pattern, you understand how to respond in different scenarios. Otherwise, theoretically learning values can enable you to write a good essay at best. In my case, my parents were engaged in the freedom struggle, and we lived in an old building in Bombay. This was a center for several Gandhian freedom fighters and they had the tasks of distributing leaflets, mobilizing the people, and operating the radio station in our house. These freedom fighters used to move around during the day in disguise and congregate at our house at night. In 1946, when it became clear that India would gain freedom, my father decided to move to Goa, as it was yet to be liberated. He, along with Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia, Hegde, and others was arrested in Goa by the Portuguese. Dr. Lohia and the others were ‘Indians’, in the sense that they did not belong to Goa or Portuguese territory, but since my father was a Goan, he came under the Portuguese territory and was deported to Portugal for nine years. So the responsibility of raising me fell on my mother, as my father returned only by 1955-56. My mother had just finished matriculation and was in search of a job to earn a livelihood. She decided to pursue early child education and curated a program, some parts of which were under the direct supervision of Dr. Maria Montessori. She opened a Montessori school in Madhya Pradesh, where I was brought up. She had an amalgamation of Gandhian values and sound awareness of how a child should be brought up. Of course, I was the first student at her new school. She put me through different experiences rather than dictating my actions. 

There is always a form and substance to everything. The substance is more important, and I’ve been put through a way of life that was full of substance, no form. So I am a non-conformist (smiles).   

It was easy for you to settle abroad after higher education there. Why did you choose to come back and work in India? What was your motivation for it? Looking back, do you have any regrets about it?

I went abroad for a one-year Master’s course at Nottingham University, and my professor there tried to persuade me to stay back. But I refused. The economic conditions in my household were very precarious and my mother’s health was failing as well. It was an uphill task for her to run a primary education institution in a small, conservative town with pre-conditioned minds and old traditions. Preparing the people’s mindset to send children to learn was a private effort of hers; government aid came later. So, I had to start earning as soon as possible. I could not delay being a responsible, earning member of the family any further. In a sense, I was duty-bound to return. My professor told me that if I didn’t become an equivalent of a professor by the age of 28 years, I was always welcome to come back, and he would offer me a professorship. But I knew I wouldn’t come back, as I was also deputed by the Indian Government. Staying in England for one year taught me a very essential lesson – you are always better off among your people. You can go anywhere, and enhance your skills and capabilities; but in the end, you are better off in your homeland. I did not find the people there happy, although they were equipped with all the amenities. They used to come and talk to me about their depression. And this depression was all because they had chosen to stay away from their roots. When you leave your roots, they keep calling you back. 

Sitting in India, you will think that foreigners are superior, or better than us. Once you go there, you get to know that they are no different than us. We are just as good as them, or even better. So I had no attraction to settle there. I have traveled all over the world, but not with the intention of staying or working. The belief that people who earn more are happier is a myth. There has to be a purpose in life, and one’s happiness comes the extent to which one is true to that purpose. This is the first step. How successful one is in realizing that purpose provides a higher level of happiness. Of course, money is important for survival, but there are many other essential things as well. For me, there was never a conflict. About whether I would make the same decision again, I am honestly not sure. It all depends on the purpose at that time. You have to realize the circumstances around you. You also have to work hard to position yourself in whatever you wish to do. The thing of ultimate importance is your purpose in life. 

How was your journey in college and your work experience in the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC)? 

Let me put it this way – I studied in Khargaon, Madhya Pradesh, and I had to move out soon as the education facilities available there were only up to the school level. I came to Mumbai, with the sole ambition of pursuing higher studies. As I had a special interest in science and mathematics, getting a BSc degree was my ambition. In Mumbai, college admissions begin as soon as the SSLC results are out, but my matriculation results had not come yet. I narrated my difficulties to the vice-principal, who granted me provisional admission on the condition that I pass with at least a First Class. It was he who pushed me to pursue engineering. And this is how I landed at VJTI (Veermanat Jijabai Technological Institute), Mumbai. The job market was thriving in those days, so I used to get offer letters from different companies. I got many job opportunities easily, but they were primarily in Industrial Engineering or Marketing, which I had zero interest in. I wanted a job that did not have repetitive work and a workplace where I would be able to do new things every day. While searching for a job profile similar to my interests, I came across BARC and applied there. BARC has a system wherein whoever tops their training school gets a placement of their choice, regardless of whether a vacancy is available there. So I could have chosen anything. I was interested in reactors at the time, so I was posted in the reactor engineering division with six others. There was a design section, where I wanted to work. Mr. Subramaniam, a great mentor to me, was the temporary Divisional Head. He guided me to pursue research and development. Since then, my journey in research began at BARC. After that, there was no stopping. I worked on the Dhruva reactor, heavy water reactors, and others. Having told you this long-winded story, my entry into BARC was accidental (smiles).  

The peaceful nuclear tests of 1974 and 1998 were stepping stones for India’s forage into nuclear energy usage. How was the experience of being a part of the core team working on this project?

‘74 and ‘98 were important events for India to assert herself as a nuclear weapons state, a nuclear power in the military sense, but the programs at BARC have always been comprehensive. BARC has been working on all applications of atomic energy right from the beginning, including electricity production, agriculture, healthcare (cancer management), food preservation, etc., harnessing nuclear energy. The security of the country is just one dimension of nuclear energy usage, and a sensitive area nonetheless. Other countries would not like you to be equipped with that, so there was no international cooperation. Subsequently, if you develop security technology against their wishes, they (other countries) will not cooperate in other domains. So India has always been looked at with suspicion because we were striving to build a comprehensive nuclear program. When the ‘74 test happened, restrictions were imposed immediately, and after the ‘98 test, they were made more stringent. The next step was to work towards getting rid of the restrictions. Today, the country is both a nuclear weapon state and an advanced nation in terms of civilian nuclear energy usage. I think this became possible because Dr. Bhabha had emphasized self-reliance right from the beginning. For example, in anything that we aspire to work on, be it in terms of research or equipment, the mindset is to import it from outside if we want to have better quality. Of course, things are better now, and reliance on other countries has reduced, but there is only a slight change in the mindset. For us, if we wanted to import any equipment, he (Dr. Bhabha) would ask us, ‘Why can’t you make it yourself?’ Just like I was brought up with values in childhood, in professional life, Dr. Bhabha inculcated these values of self-dependency and contemplation in me. ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ has come only now, but he had emphasized self-reliance a long time ago. Equipped with self-reliance, one can defy all restrictions imposed. This just underscores the importance of values, not only in our personal lives but in our professional lives as well. 

We as IITians, and/or students of the current generation in general, primarily aspire to go abroad for higher education and work. So, is ‘brain drain’ a real problem? Which structural lacunae should be addressed to retain the talent pool in India?

I will call it a ‘brain drain’ if you go abroad and change thoroughly. You might have come across people whose accent changes within 6 months of going abroad, and they start imitating the people there. There is also a (maybe unconscious) change in mindset that one will have a better life only abroad. But just going abroad for higher education or gaining some experience, providing your mind remains Indian, I think is a good thing. Particularly talking about research, you have to pose the question, ‘How do countries become big?’ Take into consideration 5-6 major nations of the world- the United States, France, Russia, Germany, etc – to some extent, you can say they have become big because they possess natural resources, but so does India. But look at Japan, there are no natural resources, it is a small country. While natural resources, wealth and others are important parameters, countries become big because they build new technologies. Building on technologies that other countries have developed prior is also essential; this way the money is retained in the country, but if you advance novel technologies ahead of other nations, you get special market and military advantages. That is the key to a country’s wealth and power. How is this facilitated? Through research and development. Research flourishes through collaboration. Of course, the mindset ‘I’ll collaborate only with foreign laboratories and not here’ is bad; wherever there are opportunities to collaborate, you must collaborate. 

An example I would like to cite here is of you IITians. The number of aspirants is huge, and thoroughly mismatched with the number of students getting a seat. So sometimes it might happen that getting admission to a university abroad is easier than getting admitted into an IIT. If one can afford to go, he/she should definitely go. Going abroad for higher education or collaboration is not bad at all, but changing your mindset to become alienated from your motherland is unacceptable. 

I often give an example, that whenever something sold in the market is described as being of ‘export quality’, it is considered to be a stamp of excellence. Now, India has tremendous youth potential for us to be proud of. Some of them can find higher education or job opportunities abroad. I think one should not take such a narrow, myopic vision about this. Coming back to your first question, what matters in the end is the mindset and the values that are developed and inculcated which are to be preserved.           

What are some current social and nuclear energy technology challenges for India?

First of all, India has huge challenges, in the sense that we are still a developing country. You talk about the younger generation wanting to go abroad, and rural people wishing to migrate to cities; sitting in Chennai you think you have better opportunities abroad, sitting in a village they think they will have better opportunities in the city. This migration is causing dense urbanisation, which is not only restricted to India but is a global phenomenon. There are people who feel that this urbanisation is inevitable, and agriculture cannot support so many people, so they think of developing smart cities. Our cities have to be smart, no doubt, but the mindset of allowing conditions where people feel compelled to migrate is not a healthy practice. This is an industrial-era manifestation. Also, just because people migrate to cities or move abroad does not mean that they automatically become happy. 

More importantly, wealth getting concentrated in the top rungs of society fosters economic growth (this is the scenario in most countries including India), but we need a model where wealth generation is equally distributed in the society. Principally (I mean, this is not the case in reality), I think there are greater opportunities in villages. Agriculture is the forte there, work can be contributed to the service sector from any place, and even a fair part of the manufacturing sector can be outsourced to the villages. So if we reorganise our societies right, I think one can actually assure that there are higher opportunities in villages. People from the villages can come to the cities, learn and go back; but the basic education framework of the villages must be strengthened. There should be a connect between livelihood activities in the villages and the primary education structure. There should be a connection between skill requirements, available local resources, and technologies needed. This is what India requires. Today, the income of the villages equals half of that of the cities. If what I’m hypothesising becomes a reality, there will be a spike in India’s economic growth, along with a more harmonious, less disparate society. The demographic dividend will also help in economic growth. Today’s youth is more open to exploring new avenues, but the country is still embedded in the old mindset. 

Talking about atomic energy, today we are all in the climate change era, hounded with climate emergencies. All the countries have ‘net-zero’ targets, which is a global need. But at the same time, we have to increase our quality of life comparable to the West. Quality of life and energy are closely interrelated factors. We have to increase our access to energy. There is a growing de-emphasis on carbon dioxide emissions and fossil fuels and an emphasis on renewable energy (solar, wind, hydro) and transition to clean energies. However, the amount of energy needed to have a quality of life comparable to the West cannot be fulfilled by renewable energy sources. So to get a balance between development and sustainability, enhanced use of nuclear energy is a must.       

Any words of advice for the students to navigate their future and career?

Human beings, because of their superior thinking faculties, have tried to understand their surroundings, and more importantly, have evolved a way of life and society superior to the rest. Humans have values whereas the rest of the animal kingdom has instincts. Because of unique human thinking, you also develop the power of knowledge, helpful in domination. Dominance is not necessarily bad, but when it takes the shape of exploitation, it is harmful. When you talk about the evolution of human societies and leveraging science and technology to facilitate this evolution, you must think about how this can empower everyone, and equally important, exploit none. Just acquiring knowledge and being capable through science and technology is not enough; learning how to put that to best use is more essential. You can do it in your own ways, as you move up in life. See what best you can do for humanity by way of new technology and research. See how best you can leverage whatever you learn and make yourself capable of enriching humanity. 

We thank the EML team for facilitating this interview.

Soniya Kute

I am a Second Year student of Humanities and Social Sciences Department, pursuing Integrated MA in English Studies. I dabble in journaling, doodling, poetry and football. Huge fan of classics. Can't survive without coffee.

Soniya Kute

I am a Second Year student of Humanities and Social Sciences Department, pursuing Integrated MA in English Studies. I dabble in journaling, doodling, poetry and football. Huge fan of classics. Can't survive without coffee.

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