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This article was first published 10 years ago

Meet the nuclear physicist who builds ports

September 18, 2013 14:00 IST

Photographs: Courtesy, Meka Group A Ganesh Nadar

If you are proud of your birthplace you will be happy. Though I studied in the US I chose to come back here. What I love about India is the beautiful mixture of all cultures, Vijay Papparao, the founder of Meka group, tells A Ganesh Nadar. 

Developing world-class infrastructure is the need of the hour for India, says Vijay Papparao, bottom, left, a nuclear physicist who, instead of dabbling with nuclear power (because it’s too dangerous), decided to build ports! In a candid chat over a leisurely South Indian breakfast with A Ganesh Nadar, the quintessentially low-profile tycoon said that since India is blessed with miles and miles of coastline, and shipping is the cheapest mode for transporting goods, it makes sense to build ports.

Paparao founded the Meka Group in 1978. The group spans various businesses from marine construction, dredging and reclamation, pipelines, to shipyards, ports, real estate and information technology. At the moment he is busy building the third port of Mumbai (at Rewas).

When will the port at Rewas receive its first ship?

We will be ready to receive the first ship in 18 months. We have received all permissions and licences and now construction will start. 

That is fast…

Not really! At Nava Sheva and Karaikal we achieved it in 12 months. Here a lot of dredging is involved and so the extra six months.

How do you dredge the sea?

It’s an intricate design. You have to decide on the best way to dredge and the way the ships will enter. You have to ensure that the tide flows along the channel, so it will flush out the sand as it flows. But if the tide flows across the channel then it will dump sand.

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Meet the nuclear physicist who builds ports

Photographs: Fabian Bimmer/Reuters

Will the port be completed in 18 months?

It will be ready to receive its first ship in that time. After that we will build to bring in bigger ships. It’s a continuous process and will take a long time. 

You have been building ports all your life, how has the experience been?

Building ports is a wonderful experience as it’s a green field project. Interestingly, when we embark on building ports locals either support or oppose. There are no neutral views.

When we built Nava Sheva local goons beat up our workers once and another time threw them in the sea. When Rewas was in the planning stage we had a public meeting in the collector’s office. In a room meant for 150, twice the number turned up. Most of the locals wanted jobs. Others enquired if the environment will be affected. But it was a positive crowd.

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Meet the nuclear physicist who builds ports

Photographs: Sean Gardner/Reuters

You are a nuclear physicist but your business is civil engineering. Why have you not used your knowledge about nuclear physics while choosing your career?

One is construction for destruction, the other is destruction for construction. In those days all the Nobel prize winners were nuclear physicists. So I decided to study nuclear physics and win a Nobel.

I sat for the entrance exams of Indian Institute of Technology and stood 25th in the country. After graduating in mechanical engineering from IIT Madras I went to Illinois to study nuclear engineering and plasma physics. I went there as they gave me a scholarship.

While I was studying there they showed us a movie on an explosion in a billion-dollar nuclear reactor in Idaho and how two people were fossilised. What was shocking was the reason behind this explosion.

Actually, it was no accident. One of the dead men suspected the other of having an illegal relationship with his wife. The suicidal explosion killed both. Human emotion was behind it and I did not want to be part of a project where one man’s emotion could blow up our hard work.

I realised we could take precaution against every failure except human. I also knew that nuclear waste which is buried can come back to haunt us decades later.

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Meet the nuclear physicist who builds ports

Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

As a nuclear physicist would you say that Koodankulam is a safe project?

All nuclear plants which use fusion technology share the same risks. Human error or failure of any of the safety systems will be deadly. The standards of safety devices in the West are much higher compared to India.

Even if we manage to vastly improve our safety standards, we still have to deal with the problem of nuclear waste.

How difficult was building ports 20 years back?

I am using the same technology that we used in 1982. Only now, piling has become hydraulic and pneumatic, and excavators are bigger.

You always build the core of the port, and the rest of the construction you leave to majors like L&T. Why?

I concentrate on marine works. Underwater is my forte. There are only six companies in India who can do this. For construction work above the water there are 200,000 companies. I specialise in and stick to that because the margins are good. I also have a good reputation in that field.

BOT is fine but does the government give you any tax relaxation when you are building and operating?

Mine is BOOST, not BOT, it is build, operate, share and transfer. The concession is that per tonne in a new port you pay the government X amount of rupees. In an old port you have to pay three times. That is the concession.

At the end of the period there will be a tender saying this port is available for takeover, please give your best offer. I can pay half the ‘best offer’ to the government and take over the port myself. I get the first option to pay or decline, in which case I will get half the sale money.

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Meet the nuclear physicist who builds ports

Image: Vijay Papparao with the hovercraft he built while in IIT Madras

Most businessmen in India say that the government is a hindrance, what has been your experience?

If the government wants to do something it can do wonders. Some states are doing wonders, others are not. In a democracy you don’t get punished if you don’t work. If you don’t punish you don’t get results.

Accountability is not there because of democracy.

Tell me about this hovercraft you built in college.

I saw a Dean Martin movie where I saw them chase each other in hovercrafts. So I decided to build one. At IIT, in the final year, we get Rs 1,000 for our project. The cost for the hovercraft was pegged at Rs 11,000.

My professor B S Murthy supported me. I had an extra room to try out my experiments. One Murali Krishnan gave me two Sherpa engines. It had to be made with plywood and I designed it.

The head of aeronautical department refused to help. So we met K Ramachandran, the director of IIT. He sanctioned the money on the promise that I would complete it before leaving for the United States.

We built it in three months and it worked. We tried it out on the runway at the Meenambakkam airport. When the then President, Varahagiri Venkata Giri, came for our inauguration, I wanted to give him a ride but the SPG (Special Protection Group) refused.

How long is your working day?

I wake up at 6 am and call it a day at 9 pm. If there is a party I take half an hour’s nap at 9 pm, wake up and then go to the party. I go for a walk in the morning. In business I look after important issues, and the office stuff is taken care of by my son.

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Meet the nuclear physicist who builds ports

Image: Vijay Papparao with his son Hemant

Is it true that you told your son, 'either you appear on Page 3 or you do business'?

Yes! I did tell him and now he has realised it himself. There is nothing wrong with page 3 but the point is, nobody takes you seriously.

How do you relax?

Read books, meet friends, Discovery Channel and comedy channels.

How’s the experience of being married to a judge?

It’s not about being married to a judge but to be married to a wonderful person. She is an MBA and an MS in advertising. She is an extrovert. She is going to give a pepper spray bottle to every Indian woman, free.

If you had to live your life again would you choose this one or… ?

I have no regrets. Everyone enjoys life in their own way, from the poorest to the richest. Happiness is in your state of mind. Nothing is permanent. I would live this life again with no changes.

The Tatas and Birlas started out during the British Raj. But those who launched their businesses in Independent India have to know crooked ways -- do you agree?

Your statement is correct. However, goodness gets you goodwill and business in the long run. Look at the Mahindras. They follow high ethics and are growing by leaps and bounds.

What do you love the most about India and why?

If you are proud of your birthplace you will be happy. Though I studied in the US I chose to come back here. What I love about India is the beautiful mixture of all cultures.

The variety gives you problems and solutions.

When software companies became the new rajas of business, were you tempted?

No! Never.