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Remembering Kalam: 'When a problem arises, become the captain of the problem and defeat it!'

Last updated on: July 27, 2016 10:19 IST

APJ Abdul Kalam


Dr Abdul Kalam passed away on July 27, last year while delivering a lecture at the IIM-Shillong in Meghalaya remembers a great and wonderful Indian with this interview in which he spoke of India becoming a developed country by 2020-2022, the heroes he admired, how 90 per cent of India's space programme is intended for the people and the individual's potential to become unique.

Once, during his Presidency, President A P J Abdul Kalam received a letter from a student shocked with his Class 12th mark-sheet.

He had secured 10 per cent in Maths and Physics, whereas throughout his school career, he had always scored 90 per cent and above.

In utter dismay, he wrote to the President of India, asking for his help.

President Kalam referred his case to the authorities and two weeks later got a reply that indeed there was a mistake in the evaluation and a rectification had been done.

In the last 15 years, President Kalam -- arguably India's most popular President and among the founders of the country's space programme -- has interacted with 18 million young Indians, face-to-face, through e-mail and over Facebook.

He receives 300 e-mails everyday.

Some of these letters have been turned into his latest book Forge Your Future, which provides an insight into the issues which concern and engage the minds of young Indians today. President Kalam's replies are based on his personal experiences, his reading and his interactions with political and spiritual leaders.

The title of the book was selected after an online public vote.

In his quiet bungalow in Lutyens' Delhi, President Kalam speaks to Archana Masih/

Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/

Dr Kalam, please can you tell me a little about your daily schedule? What's it like?

The garden here has a 107-year old tree. Edwin Lutyens himself built and stayed in this house -- so he maybe somewhere here (laughs).

His relatives had come to see this building.

The 107-year-old tree is beautiful. Parrots and various other birds live at the top and at the bottom live peacocks. Every year there are baby peacocks. I have a very bioactive tree.

I walk for 1 hour and 15 minutes every day. I spend time in my library.

In a month, I spend 15 days travelling in India. For ten days in a year, I go abroad. I am an honorary professor at the University of Beijing.

Every month, I meet a minimum of 100,000 young people. A million people in a year. So far I have met 18 million young people below the age of 25 in my country.

You get 300 e-mails everyday and spend two hours answering them. When did this process begin? When did you start actively engaging with young people?

It all started when I wrote Wings of Fire, in which I conveyed my life, how I had lived it, how I got myself educated, how I started meeting youth...

I was also teaching at Anna University at that time. After my work as scientific advisor, then projector director SLV 3, programme director AGNI -- after all that I went in 2001 to Anna University as a professor.

I also get some handwritten letters. I consider them very important and I love to reply to them because they come from people from the grassroots who do not have access to the Internet. They come with unique questions and I have to give unique answers.

APJ Abdul Kalam

You mention what President Mandela told you about courage in your book -- who are some of the most inspiring world leaders you have met?

Two world leaders exclusively come to my mind -- Mahatma Gandhi and his unique life. Similarly, Nelson Mandela. I went to the prison where Mandela lived.

Where there is righteousness in the heart, there is beauty in the character. That's the example of Mahatma Gandhi throughout his life.

In 2006, I travelled in the same kind of train with a steam engine from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. I could imagine the courage which Gandhiji showed in that cold winter.

Ahimsa dharma came after the battle of Kalinga. It transformed King Ashoka. The second time ahimsa dharma was put into action was by Mahatma Gandhi at Pietermaritzburg.

This book gives three messages. First: You can become a unique personality. Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were unique.

The other important thing about this book is about continuously acquiring knowledge. Thirdly, when the problem arises -- become the captain of the problem and defeat it.

You envisioned a growth plan for India called Vision 2020. How close are we to achieving that vision, in view of that deadline being six years away?

Actually India 2020 is a vision for an economically developed India by 2020. Up to 2008 our GDP was 8 to 9 per cent. Then there was a problem across the Atlantic Ocean, and our GDP crashed to 6 to 7 per cent, then to 5.5 and then to 5 per cent.

So in the 2008-2014 period, we had a slack in our development programme.

Six years is a long period in a nation like India with 600 million youth, nowhere in the democratic world there exists this strength.

We also have a natural way of life. Our agriculture is doing well. We have 250 to 260 million tons of food. Our IT, small scale and pharma industries are doing very well.

Of course, we have to do lots in the development of the rural area. We have 600,000 villages where 700 million people live. We have to Provide Urban Amenities to Rural Areas (PURA). Seven thousand PURAS are needed to lift 600,000 villages.

Even now it is not too late. Fortunately, I understand the present government is taking a priority for PURAS. If they push it along with small scale industry and smart waterways, then definitely 2020 -- plus or minus 2 years -- we can get there.

So you are confident by 2022, that we may be able to do it?

We can do it, provided we have a national vision.

Do we have that national vision?

From 1930 to 1947, we wanted Freedom. Our caste system vanished, our religions vanished, our differences vanished and we were fighting only for Independence. I call that the first mission that India had.

The second vision: Economic development. If you work like that and declare that mission in Parliament and people and government work for it, irrespective of whichever party they belong to, it is possible. Because our resources are youth power and our natural resources.

The Book Cover

Image: President Kalam's latest book Forge Your Future

In your book, you say 'The orientation must turn from the past to the future and focus on how India can become a developed nation. The real issue is that we are not to see ourselves as a nation and because of that there is no national vision.'

Why do you think we have not been able to see ourselves as a nation?

When we see the types of conflicts all around -- religious conflict, caste system, language problems -- any big nation will have such types of problems but the nation can be united for a big cause.

Independence was a big cause that united us. That's why I am pushing this idea that the tool for India Vision 2020 is Providing Urban Amenities to Rural Areas. This way we can enhance village development. I have talked about all this in my book.

Independence was a common goal that united people, but some would say that India today is more divided than what it was then.

Any nation goes through a number of problems in various decades, but India has the experience of bringing together people on a big cause.

I am a believer.

The second great movement that India needs is India 2020 Vision and this will make people come together. Plus if the economic programme grows, the poverty level will come down.

Only a national vision can lift 300 million -- that's one third of the population -- below the poverty line out of poverty.

As one of the co-founders of India's space programme, you must be very proud of our Mars achievement. But at the same time when you say that we have to lift the large masses that remain poor, should not basic needs like healthcare, education, infrastructure precede loftier goals or at least go hand in hand?

The space programme is targeted at uplifting the people. In geosynchronised orbit, more than 200 transponders are communicating to the Indian earth station.

These transponders transmit communication, weather reports, 24 hour TV broadcast, the path of cyclones.

All the recent major cyclones have been forecast by various satellites. 90 per cent of the space programme is for remote sensing and communication. You can remote sense what is the kind of wealth we have on earth like water, minerals etc -- so it is intended for the people. 90 per cent of the space programme is intended for the people. It is a people's programme.

You asked about the Moon and Mars programme. We are spending less than 10 per cent of our space programme for finding and research on Moon and Mars so that we are partners in the research and no one can claim that it belongs to them. I don't want to see Moon and Mars as the property of some other nation. It should be international property.

Ours is the lowest cost of going to the Moon or Mars and we found trace of water also on the moon. From Mars we don't know... some revolutionary ideas will come from our Mars programme.

What kind of a leader was Vikram Sarabhai, the founder of India's Space programme?

When you read this book Forge Your Future, you will know how to become a unique person. It contains the experience of great thinkers and doers. Dr Vikram Sarabhai was a unique personality.

He was a visionary. In 1970 he gave a report about what the nation's space programme should be for the next 20 years.

What according to you are India's greatest strengths?

One is our farmer community. Whatever weather condition, whatever shortfall -- they will give us 200 million tones of food.

Hats off to our farmers and our agriculture scientists!

Second is youth power. No other democratic nation has 600 million youth. The ignited mind of the youth is the most powerful resource -- on the earth, above the earth, under the earth -- and we have that.

Third, just like every family asks the government for an economically developed nation; every family has the responsibility to give a great citizen to the nation.

We have 200 million families. Parents have the responsibility to make their children righteous -- where there is righteousness in the heart, there is beauty in the character.

Only three people can give a good citizen before s/he turns 17. Father, mother, the spiritual environment and the primary school teacher.

You mention women like Marie Curie and Sister Antonia as role models. Who are some contemporary Indian women role models you admire?

I have great respect for Dr V Shanta, for her contribution towards cancer diagnosis, treatment and teaching how to avoid cancer. I admire the mission of Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women's Association of India and, of course my favourite, whom I respect because I like Carnatic music -- M S Subbulakshmi. I love her music.

When she was alive, I used to go to her music festival.

President A P J Abdul Kalam

You say in the book that India needs to cast off its inferiority complex vis-a-vis China and work towards coming together to become a master civilisation because together they constitute 37% of the world's population.

How can this be achieved in the background of the tension, hostility and border incursions?

I remember in April 2007, I addressed the European Parliament. There were around 800 parliament members from 23 nations.

I told them when I see you all -- for hundreds of years you were fighting each other and you generated two World Wars, so a billion Indian people congratulate you. Forgetting all your wars, forgetting the difference of society, you formed a European Union for prosperity and peace.

This should be an example. I had composed a poem and recited it there. They gave a standing ovation.

That is not the issue, the issue is that such nations that created World War I and II, when they came together, we -- China and India -- are a people of great civilisation, in spite of all the differences, there are some great philosophy that is common.

Buddha and Confucius are common to us.

I believe we have to have a great mission. I suggested when the Chinese president came here that we have a World Knowledge Platform. I teach at the University of Beijing, I told them the time has come that both nations should combine our core competence, our 60 billion dollar business, should become 250 billion dollars.

The border issue we should sort out once for all. People of the European Union fought for hundreds of years, a people who generated two World Wars and Hitler and lost millions of people are a union today for economic growth and peace and it happened in front of our eyes.

So for me the differences between nations can be solved by mutual discussions.

Both sides should decide what we can give and what we cannot. It should be an intensive one month discussion with experts and we should sort it out. I hope the present governments in India and China will do that.

What are your thoughts on the present government?

We are getting into politics, next question!

I just asked your thoughts...

Any elected government will perform in five years. We have to give time.

You believe social media affected the results in 30 to 40 per cent Lok Sabha constituencies. How will social media and the Internet affect future elections?

Social media and the type of information flow should have credibility. It reaches fast. It connects people. It is one of the important mediums for putting forth ideas, thoughts and discussing problems.

In India, we also need contact on the ground, but in the future I see that you can sit in your home with a biometric signature and security approved and you can vote. That way you will have 100 per cent voting. It is a long way off, but I visualise it.

Selection of the candidates will also follow an electronic process -- to determine if s/he is a good or bad candidate, how many cases s/he has etc. This will happen, it is only a question of time. 

Archana Masih in New Delhi