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Make or buy?
'Kalam has been promoting himself, not self-reliance'
Avul Pakir Jainulabeen Abdul Kalam, who headed DRDO for years, is credited with drawing up the blueprint for India's entry into the league of developed nations. He is the protagonist of the government's grand plans to make indigenisation of defence products a reality.
If he could transform DRDO from a moribund, bureaucratic government organisation to an establishment that fights for self-reliance in defence production, will Kalam's effort to build aircraft, war machines and missiles on the Indian soil bear fruit?
Many acknowledge that despite technology denials and control regimes enforced by the developed countries, Kalam imbibed a high-end research and development initiative in DRDO laboratories that the government, academic institutions and the industry now look at him in awe.
Thanks to Kalam, DRDO now has a leading role in generating technologies and secure systems in the field of information technology which could change the quality of life in defence forces. Under his stewardship, the organisation created the critical components and devices that will be the backbone of state-of-the-art electronic systems in defence.
Many claim Kalam's discovery has been a turning point in India's history and national security. But these days the boat owner's son from Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu is setting sail on just one massive project -- take India to self reliance in defence production at least 70 per cent by 2005.
It is because of Kalam that India can now boast of the ambitious indigenisation Plan 2005. Plan 2005 is not just about making weapons indigenously. It is the symbol of national pride.
Years after it professed the indigenisation mantra, the government sheepishly admitted last year that only 30 per cent of Indian weapons were of domestic origin. The realisation prompted it to turn to Kalam. It then immediately created a Self-Reliance Implementation Council headed by Kalam that will implement Plan 2005.
Is DRDO's aim to achieve 70 per cent indigenisation in the defence system realistic in the wake of unaccomplished high profile projects like the Light Combat Aircraft, Arjun main battle tank, the missile and nuclear submarine programmes? But can Kalam deliver?
Not many believe that Kalam will accomplish 70 per cent self-reliance by 2005. The task us gigantic. More than one-third of the budget for the missile programme, the Arjun MBT and the LCA has gone into imports of critical components. More imports are to follow as DRDO's indigenous engine programme, especially for the LCA, is on the verge of collapse.
"Indigenisation is a hoax. Kalam is spreading it boasting that he will attain self-reliance in defence equipment in five years time. Indigenisation should have been the DRDO motto when it was established in the 1950s, not in 2000," says an army officer.
Many within the army, the air force and the navy, who have been waiting in vain for DRDO-developed defence equipment and electronic warfare systems, claim Kalam has been promoting himself, and not self-reliance.
"Both DRDO and Kalam have failed to win over the armed forces because many of their projects have become serious stumbling blocks for the forces' modernisation," the army officer adds.
The accusations against Kalam are three -- that he did not create a good research and development culture in DRDO, that his relationship with the armed forces has been rocky and that he did not embark on any plan to stem the brain drain from DRDO.
Designing and developing defence weapons is perhaps the toughest engineering task. But experts claim DRDO suffers from a poor research and development culture thanks to Kalam.
"DRDO under Kalam has done more on public relations than on proper research and development. That is the reason why many of our projects like LCA are terribly lagging behind in schedules," says Shankar Sen Chaudhury, an independent technical analyst based in Hyderabad.
"The structural environment in DRDO labs have to change if effective results in indigenisation is to take place," he adds.
Another problem is the rocky relationship that Kalam has with the armed forces. He and his colleagues argue that the forces do not have any specialists who understand the design and development concepts of DRDO. "Therefore, the armed forces always interfere in our projects halfway through," a DRDO scientist says.
Many say this messy relationship between DRDO, "the seller" and the three armed forces, "the buyers", should be blamed on both sides. "Kalam was a marketing man. He wanted to hard-sell his half-baked DRDO products to us, like the Arjun tank," says an army officer.
But DRDO asks: When the forces induct imported products without any trails, why can't they rely on indigenous products? DRDO officials say the only reason for this is that the army does not have the experience to induct an indigenous weapon system.
DRDO has been mouthing the politically correct mantra of indigenisation because a number of disgruntled scientists in the organisation charge, "Dr Kalam is a politician."
His critics say the problem is that India's defence programmes is a one-man show. "Only Kalam is recognised and acknowledged. It is ridiculous that thousands of us are working there, and only one man is framed in a glass house. That is the precise reason for the high rate of brain drain from DRDO," a disgruntled DRDO engineer said.
The rate at which scientists and engineers are leaving the laboratories is a cause for grave concern. According to a survey, more than 3 per cent of scientists and engineers leave the organisation every year in search of attractive salaries and perks.
"We have been demanding better salary packages and service conditions. But neither Kalam nor the government has listened," says the engineer.
A section of DRDO scientists are now happy that the organisation is no longer under Kalam. Ever since the new chief, Dr Vasudev K Aatre, took over in December, things are looking up. One of the his first decisions was to initiate a university interactive programme for DRDO scientists. Now, professors of premier science institutes like the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore will spend time with DRDO scientists on specific research projects.
Dr Aatre is also taking a few radical decisions -- he is on the verge of dropping some projects that the organisation has failed to execute in many years.
TOMORROW: 'DRDO is like the Indian cricket team'
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