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Is there a message in DRDO chief's exit?

By removing Avinash Chander last week, the government has chosen to sacrifice the organisation's most potent symbol of success

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

Avinash Chander (right) talking to visitors about the Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems developed by DRDO at the Bahrain International Air Show in 2014
Avinash Chander (right) talking to visitors about the Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems developed by DRDO at the Bahrain International Air Show in 2014

In November, while accompanying Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Nepal, Special Protection Group chief Durga Prasad learned of his unceremonious exit from his job of providing personal security to the leader he was travelling with.

In much the same vein last week, Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) chief Avinash Chander, at the fag end of a trip to Pune with Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, learned that he was being removed from his job. The information came from journalists who had read a notification (hastily taken down later) on the website of the government's department of personnel and training. Since nobody bothered to inform Chander, he went to office the next morning as if nothing had happened, until Parrikar told the media that the accomplished missile scientist was being removed to make way for "someone good from the DRDO, who has the urge for development." Parrikar said he wanted someone young as DRDO chief; a retired employee, hired on contract, should not hold the job.

Parrikar did not explain why his own ministry had, just 45 days earlier, on November 28, 2014, granted Chander an 18-month extension to head DRDO till May 31, 2016. The most charitable explanation could be that Parrikar had taken over as defence minister just 18 days before that and had signed off on Chander's extension without considering it properly. Yet, that does not explain why Chander was removed so peremptorily without even the dignity of an advance warning. If Parrikar was signalling to the DRDO that failure was no longer an option, he chose for a sacrificial lamb the organisation's most potent symbol of success.

Hasty farewell
It was an unceremonious end to the distinguished career of a child from a refugee family from Mirpur, now in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Recounting his personal story to Business Standard after taking over as DRDO chief in June 2013, Chander described his family's harrowing journey to India and a childhood in a one-room home in Old Delhi. After a succession of government schools, Chander was selected to join IIT Delhi, from where he went straight to DRDO in 1972. His MTech and PhD came later in his career.

Those were heady days for a fledgling organisation that was building ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear bombs to targets hundreds of kilometres away. After India's "peaceful nuclear experiment" on May 18, 1974 - codenamed "Smiling Buddha" and conducted on Buddha Jayanti - international technology sanctions forced DRDO to build everything from scratch. Fortunately, they had the men for the job. Chander quickly emerged as leader of the team that designed navigation systems; another youngster, Vijay Kumar Saraswat, who joined DRDO just 10 days before Chander, masterminded the development of propulsion systems.

The band of young scientists who coalesced around these two were taken under the wing of DRDO legend APJ Abdul Kalam - later India's president. Kalam's Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme was successful from the start, even as DRDO struggled on other technology fronts. The liquid-fuelled Prithvi missile was developed in the 1980s and 1990s, followed by the Agni series, culminating in the Agni-4 and Agni-5 missiles that - with ranges of 4,000-5,500 kilometres - provide India the ballistic missile capability it needs to deter China. Chander and Saraswat also delivered the underwater-launched K-15 missile, which allows nuclear-powered Arihant-class submarines to fire nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, completing India's nuclear triad. This is now being developed into the 4,000-kilometre range K-4 missile.

Given the almost unalloyed career success of both these scientists and the wide respect they enjoyed within the organisation, it was hardly surprising that both rose to head the DRDO - first Saraswat in 2009-2013, succeeded by Chander on June 1, 2013. Far more remarkable is the contrasting fortunes of these two after achieving that pinnacle. Last week, Saraswat was appointed full-time member of the NITI Aayog, the revamped planning commission, with the rank of minister of state. This week, Chander lost his job.

Conspiracy theorists have been quick to conclude that Saraswat somehow engineered Chander's exit. In fact, the two have been close friends and colleagues for decades. In his interaction with Business Standard in 2013, Chander warmly described his relationship with Saraswat thus: "We have been good, close friends from the beginning."

The reality is that the hard-driving Saraswat was temperamentally inclined towards the Bharatiya Janata Party, joining a technology think-tank associated with the Sangh Parivar-linked Vivekananda International Foundation, which served as his springboard into the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. The laid-back Chander, as technologically gifted but visibly an appointment of the United Progressive Alliance government, found himself in the firing line. He was particularly vulnerable being a contract employee. While he had been appointed on June 1, 2013 for a three-year tenure as DRDO chief, his regular employment terminated in November 2014 when he became 64 years old - the age of retirement of scientists with the Central government. For the next 18 months, he would have had to serve on contract.

Since May, when the NDA government came to power, it was whispered that Chander would not be retained on contract when he superannuated in November. The rumours became more persistent after Modi, at the DRDO's annual awards ceremony on August 20, appeared underwhelmed by the organisation's achievements. While it was widely reported that the Prime Minister criticised DRDO's "chalta hai", or easy-going, attitude, he had actually referred to a nationwide lackadaisicalness. Modi's more trenchant criticism centred on the disconnect between DRDO and the military ("Has the jawan ever seen the rishi who has laboured in a laboratory for 15 years? When this happens, it will be very good"). The Prime Minister also implicitly criticised DRDO's focus on high-tech equipment while jawans hankered for better personal kit, including lighter boots and water bottles. In a statement that resonated after Chander's termination, Modi proposed empowering younger scientists by manning five of the 52 DRDO laboratories exclusively with scientists under 35. "We need labs in India that utilise raw talent, that employ people only below the age of 35. Let us allow these young scientists full decision-making power," Modi had said.

There is a dispute over whether junior DRDO scientists believe they are stifled and denied growth opportunities. Some argue that junior-and-mid-level DRDO scientists look to quit the organisation because promotion avenues are blocked by service extensions routinely granted to top officials. The counter-argument is that few DRDO scientists wish to leave a top military research establishment that provides both cutting-edge technological challenges and an annual budget of about Rs 15,000 crore (2014-15). Figures presented in Parliament on December 9, 2013, support the latter argument. In the five years from 2008 to 2013 (excluding December 2013), just 487 of the DRDO's 7,500 scientists resigned, a remarkably low annual attrition rate of about 1.3 per cent per year.

The elusive young head
Even so, following Modi's comments, rumours swirled about a government "search committee" that was looking for a successor, with Sekhar Basu of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) believed to be the outsider chosen to revitalise the moribund DRDO. The rumours held that Chander would not be put out to pasture. Instead, the three posts that he held - secretary (defence R&D), director general of the DRDO (being upgraded to chairman, DRDO); and scientific advisor to the Raksha Mantri- would be split. Basu would take over as director general of DRDO, while Chander would continue as scientific adviser to the defence minister. One of them would additionally hold the post of secretary (defence R&D).

All this appeared to be water under the bridge when on November 28, two days before Chander was to superannuate, the defence ministry granted him an 18-month contract from December 1, 2014 to May 31, 2016, under the same terms and conditions that he enjoyed as secretary (defence R&D). The matter seemed settled; Chander apparently enjoyed the government's confidence.

Parrikar's media statements on Wednesday have confused the speculations. The defence minister says he wants someone from DRDO, while Basu is an outsider from the Department of Atomic Energy. Nor is Basu young by any reckoning; he is already on a two-year extension after having retired at the age of 60.

Within DRDO, shocked senior scientists are also looking around them warily for the man who might succeed Chander (there are no women in the running). The seniormost after Chander is S Tamilmani, the aeronautics chief, who is closely associated with the Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) programme. Yet Tamilmani, who is nearing 62 years, has already received one extension. This is also the case with the next in line, the brilliant VG Sekaran who has long been a key mastermind of DRDO's Agni missile programmes and currently oversees all missile projects. Further down in seniority is another hot contender, radar specialist S Christopher, who heads the project to develop an Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft, a flying command post from where the air force battle would be controlled. Christopher turns 60 in mid-2015.

Those who believe that the political leadership might carry out "deep selection" of a relatively young scientist who would bring a brand new perspective and serve a long tenure as chief, are placing their money on Satheesh Reddy, who currently heads the missile electronics laboratory, Research Centre Imarat, in Hyderabad. Elected last year as a fellow of the UK's Royal Aeronautical Society, Reddy is internationally recognised for his work in navigation systems. Missile scientists like Sekaran and Reddy benefit from their roots in DRDO's most successful vertical, one that still consumes most of the organisation's budget.

While DRDO scientists lick their wounds after Chander's contract termination, several believe that he remains in the picture. Top defence ministry officials confirm they are still examining the proposal to split the three positions traditionally held by the DRDO chief. That could see the organisation headed by a new, young chief, while Chander continues as the adviser to the minister. That would only be justice for a scientist whose name would feature prominently in anyone's history of the DRDO.

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First Published: Mon, January 19 2015. 22:30 IST