Portrait of a multifaceted genius
N. GOPAL RAJ
This biography provides interesting insights into the man behind the name
VIKRAM SARABHAI A Life: Amrita Shah; Pub. by Penguin/Viking, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 425.
When Vikram Sarabhai took the first steps towards establishing India's space programme in the early 1960s, it was an act of faith faith in the band of young men he had gathered around him. Their lack of experience in rocketry, the limited industrial capability within the country at the time, nor the tight purse-strings deterred him. In an efflorescence of enthusiasm, Sarabhai surged ahead with visions of India being able to design, build, and launch its own satellites. His dreams have become a reality and India is today one of the few countries with a vibrant space programme.
This biography of Sarabhai by journalist and writer Amrita Shah provides interesting insights into the man behind the name. He was born on August 12, 1919, with a silver spoon in his mouth into a Dasa Srimali Jain family that owned textile mills. His parents, Ambalal and Sarla Devi, went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the best possible upbringing for their eight offsprings they even started a school on the Montessori pattern of education at their palatial house in Ahmedabad.
Sarabhai's love affair with science began in his school days. He studied at the University of Cambridge in Britain and received a tripos in natural sciences. After the Second World War broke out, his father insisted on his return. Back in India, Sarabhai did postgraduate research under the supervision of C.V.Raman at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. He went to England again in 1945 to complete Cambridge University's requirements for a Ph.D. In 1947, the year of India's independence, he and his wife Mrinalini, returned to India.
Sarabhai played a pivotal role in starting the Ahmedabad Textile Industry's Research Association (ATIRA); began the Physical Research Laboratory; and was instrumental in getting the Indian Institute of Management established in the city. He became chairman of Sarabhai Chemicals, the family's Baroda-based pharmaceutical concern, and promptly set about strengthening its research base.
Sarabhai was, quintessentially, a man who could draw the best from others and inspire loyalty not just to himself but to the organisation as well. As this biography points out, "Most people who started out with ATIRA were to stay till retirement, a pattern that was to be found in all of Vikram's enterprises." But his charm seems to have fallen on stony ground when he became chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission following the death of Homi Bhabha in an air crash in January 1966. For one thing, there were personality clashes, especially with Homi Sethna who occupied a senior position in the Department of Atomic Energy. "On Bhabha's death, Sethna, convinced that he was the rightful successsor to the late chairman, jockeyed arduously for the position," according to this biography. "Failing in his efforts he turned his disappointment into a battle against the new chairman [Sarabhai]."
On nuclear issue
Matters were exacerbated by policy disagreements, especially on the issue of whether India ought to build an atomic bomb. In the book, Amrita Shah quotes the transcript of a press conference Sarabhai addressed after assuming chairmanship. Responding to questions, Sarabhai said that a prototype nuclear bomb was only a "paper tiger" and "paper tigers do not provide security". He drew attention to what full nuclear weaponisation would involve and pointed out that the real question was whether the country should spend national resources, which could be used for productive purposes and social well being, on such weaponisation. Sarabhai firmly believed that the country ought to concentrate on its economic and social development.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was "persuaded by her advisers to hive off the space programme from the DAE (Department of Atomic Energy) and make it independent," writes Amrita Shah. The plan was that Sarabhai would be asked to choose which of the two he wished to head; his tremendous workload would be given as the reason for the bifurcation. Whether this plan was carried out is, however, not clear. According to this biograpby, T.N. Seshan, who as an IAS officer had worked closely with Sarabhai, believes that Indira Gandhi did ask him to choose and that "it broke his heart to make a choice".
These tensions may well have contributed to the tragic denouement. Vikram Sarabhai was found dead in his guesthouse room at Kovalam, now a major beach resort near Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, on the morning of December 30, 1971. The day before had been spent in hectic discussions with the people connected with the space programme. Despite his untimely demise, the space programme continued to grow and, by its success, became the enduring symbol of his legacy.
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