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President Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam


"Dreams float on an impatient wind, A wind that wants to create a new order. An order of strength and thundering of fire." -- from a poem written by Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam

Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is the undisputed father of India's missile program. He has breathed life into ballistic missiles like the Agni and Prithvi, which put China and Pakistan well under India's missile range. It is too exhausting to track Dr Abdul Kalam's achievements to date. In the '60s and '70s he was a trail blazer in the space department. In the '80s he transformed the moribund Defence Research and Development Laboratory in Hyderabad into a highly motivated team. By the '90s Kalam emerged as the czar of Indian science and technology and was awarded the Bharat Ratna. His life and mission is a vindication of what a determined person can achieve against extraordinary odds. Even at 71, he is indefatigable and dreams of making India into a technological superpower. More importantly, he is still capable of acting on it.

Born on 15th October 1931 at Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu, Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam studied at Schwartz High School in Ramanathapuram. After graduating in science from St. Joseph's College in Tiruchi, he did his DMIT in Aeronautical Engineering at the MIT, Madras, during 1954-57.

After completing his third year at MIT, Kalam joined Hindustan Aeronautics Limited(HAL), Bangalore as a trainee. Here, he worked on piston and turbine engines examining as part of a team. He also received training on radial engine-cum-drum operations. Here he also learnt how to check a crankshaft for wear and tear, and a connecting rod and crankshaft for twist.

In 1958, when he came out of HAL as a graduate of aeronautical engineering, he had his long-standing dream of flying, as two alternative opportunities for employment. One was the job at Directorate of Technical Development and Production(DTD&P) of the Ministry of Defence and another was a career in the Indian Air Force. He applied at both the places, and the interview calls came simultaneously from both.

He went to Delhi for an interview with DTD&P, which did not challenge his knowledge of the subject. Then he went to Dehra Dun for interview with the Air Force Selection Board. Here too, the interview was more on personality test, rather than testing his knowledge. He stood ninth in the batch of 25, and eight officers were selected to be commissioned in the Air Force. Kalam could feel the opportunity to join the Air Force slipping from his hands.

Dissapointed at his rejection by the IAF, Kalam visited Rishikesh where he bathed in the Ganga and met Swami Sivananda "a man who looked like Buddha". He introduced himself to the Swamiji, who did not react to his Muslim identity. He asked Kalam about the reason for his sorrow. Kalam told him about his unsuccessful attempt to join the Indian Air Force and his long-cherished desire to fly. Sivananda guided him saying: "Accept your destiny and go ahead with your life. You are not destined to become an Air Force pilot. What you are destined to become is not revealed now but it is predetermined. Forget this failure, as it was essential to lead you to your destined path. Search, instead, for the true purpose of your existence. Become one with yourself, my son! Surrender yourself to the wish of God."

After returning to Delhi, Kalam received an appointment letter from DTD&P. On the next day he joined as Senior Scientific Assistant, with a basic salary of Rs. 250/- per month. Here, he was posted at the Technical Center(Civil Aviation). He lost his resentment of failure, thinking he would be able to make aeroplanes airworthy if not fly aeroplanes. During his first year in the Directorate, he carried out a design assignment on supersonic target aircraft with the help of his officer-in-charge, R. Varadharajan, and won praise from the Director, Dr Neelakantan. Then he was sent to the Aircraft and Armament Testing Unit(A & ATU) at Kanpur to get shop-floor exposure to aircraft maintenance.

Upon his return to Delhi, he was informed that the design of a DART target had been taken up at the DTD&P and he was included in the design team. After that, he undertook a preliminary design study on Human Centrifuge. He designed and developed a vertical takeoff and landing platform, and Hot Cockpit. Three years later, the Aeronautical Development Establishment(ADE) was formed in Bangalore and he was posted there.

At ADE, Kalam served as a senior scientific assistant, heading a small team that developed a prototype hovercraft. Defence Minister Krishna Menon rode in India's first indigenous hovercraft with Kalam at the controls. But for reasons never explained, the project which would have been a considerable international achievement in those days, was not encouraged. This was probably one of the reasons why he moved out of ADE in 1962 and joined India's space program.

During 1963-82, he served the Indian Space Research Organisation(ISRO) in various capacities. Here Kalam initiated Fibre Reinforced Plastics(FRP) activities, then after a stint with the aerodynamics and design group, he joined the satellite launch vehicle team at Thumba, near Trivandram and soon became Project Director for SLV-3. As Project Director, he was responsible for carrying out the design, development, qualification and flight testing of 44 major sub systems. The project managed to put Rohini, a scientific satellite, into orbit in July 1980. He was honoured with a Padma Bhushan in 1981.

Agni intermediate range ballistic missile

In 1982, as Director of DRDO, Kalam was entrusted with the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme(IGMDP), India's most successful military research task to date. The programme constituted of 5 major projects for meeting the requirements of the defence services and for establishing re-entry technology.

The 5 projects were scheduled to be completed in a time frame of only 10 years and consisted of:

(1) Nag - an anti-tank guided missile

(2) Prithvi - a surface-to-surface battlefield missile

(3) Akash - a swift, medium-range surface-to-air missile

(4) Trishul - a quick-reaction surface-to-air missile with a shorter range

(5) Agni - an intermediate range ballistic missile, the mightiest of them all

From his SLV-3 experience, Kalam had learned the advantages of team work and of sharing the tasks with partners in private and public sector industries. In the new management structure of the missile program, Kalam, as the Chairman of the Programme Management Board, delegated almost all executive and financial powers to five carefully selected Project Directors and kept himself free to address the core technology issues. His task was to inspire and monitor over 20 institutions and partners outside - ranging from large public and private sector suppliers to small specialist firms that needed seed money to take up the precision tasks.

The naval version of Trishul launched from INS Dronacharya

The missiles went up more or less on schedule: Trishul in 1985, Prithvi in 1988, Agni in 1989 and the others in 1990. The development and successful flight test of Prithvi, Trishul, Akash, Nag, and Agni established the indigeneous capability towards self reliance in defence preparedness. The successful launching of 'Agni' surface-to-surface missile was a unique achievement which made India a member of an exclusive club of highly developed countries. The Trishul has the unique distinction of being capable of serving all three services.

The establishment of the Research Centre Imarat(RCI), a campus 8km from DRDL, in 1988 was perhaps the most satisfying achievement for Kalam during the missile years. He received generous funding from the Government to build the futuristic centre, which is totally geared for work in advanced missile technologies. Its state-of-the-art facilities are set in a unique ambience and the level of comfort accorded to the individual worker is matched by few R&D institutions. And Kalam's interest in the environment saw RCI emerge as an oasis in a rocky wasteland. It has a small farm that meets the food requirements of those who stay in the RCI quarters. Kalam was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1990.

Dr Kalam and Defence Minister G. Fernandes at the Agni II missile launch in 1999

On 25th November 1997, in appreciation of his contributions to Indian defence and science, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was awarded India's highest civilian honour- the "Bharat Ratna". In October 1998, he bagged the prestigious Indira Gandhi award for national integration(for 1997).

After 10 years in DRDL, he went to New Delhi to take over from Arunachalam as Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister - reluctantly, many in DRDL felt. But the system created by Kalam had taken a firm hold in that decade and the missile programme passed on smoothly into its final phase of production and induction.

In Delhi, Kalam as head of the DRDO had to deliver other prestigious projects, such as the Arjun MBT and the Light Combat Aircraft(LCA) projects. "Strength respects strength", this is Kalam's usual response to the question why India needs its own missiles or a battle tank or a combat aircraft. While management practices he adopted for the missile program have inevitably rubbed off on these projects, there are no miracles to be had in strategic development areas. There have been technical problems. Even in the missile program, work on the SAMs and the ATM is slower than anticipated. But Trishul's recent multiple test flights have demonstrated that the system Kalam put in place has inherent strengths.

Kalam is by no means a miracle man. As the head of a vast network of laboratories - whose products include avalanche-controlling structures in Kashmir, water desalination kits for the Thar desert, a world class sonar submarine finder for the latest warship - INS Delhi, and infra-red night vision goggles for the Indian Army - Kalam's attention is necessarily a bit diffused. His self-effacing persona cloaks a formidable catalyst who can make people work.

Army General V.P. Malik with Dr Abdul Kalam at the launch of INS Delhi

Kalam is happiest at the drawing board, in discussion with his scientists on how their dreams for the next millennium can be fulfilled. The projects envisaged include an air breathing hyperplane spacecraft that draws oxygen from the atmosphere rather than carry it all the way from the ground, reusable missiles and stealth technology. Kalam has shown that with adequate funding, freedom from procedural holdups and a people-oriented management, India can make products of internationally acceptable technical standards in a demanding arena like defence.

Science, according to Kalam, is a global phenomenon. He feels there are a few areas where India can develop its core competence. These areas are software engineering, computer products and design, agriculture and food, aviation, defence research and space technology and chemical engineering. "This will lead to a highly beneficial economic and social progress for the nation."

Kalam's advice to the youngsters of the nation is to "dream, dream and dream and convert these into thoughts and later into actions." Also to "think big". "We are a nation of a billion people and we must think like a nation of a billion people. Only then can we become big."

On 25th November 1999, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was appointed Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India and accorded the rank of a Cabinet Minister. His role was to advise on overall scientific development in the country on issues relating to scientific and technical policy in different sectors. Kalam also advised on matters relating to achieving technological self-reliance and foreign collaboration.

On December 8, 2000, the Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission, Shri K.C. Pant conferred the "Life-time Contribution Award in Engineering 2000" on Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam at the annual function of the Indian National Academy of Engineering in New Delhi. Speaking on the occasion, Kalam said that Engineering and technology should be used for the upliftment of the people living below the poverty line.

Kalam(left) with the award

On November 10, 2001, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam quit as principal scientific advisor to the government. Sources close to Kalam, said he quit because of "lack of executive authority". However Kalam had been for quite some time keen on pursuing academic interests and helping scientists across the country in developing their research capabilities. Thats why after quitting he took over the job as distinguished professor at Anna University.

Dr Kalam has spent the past few years developing the concept of "India Millennium Missions 2020" - a blueprint for transforming India into a developed nation. He calls it "the second vision of the nation" and says he wants to focus on the children of India to ignite in their minds a love for science and the nation's mission: a developed India.

On July 25, 2002, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was sworn in as the 11th President of India by Chief Justice of India B.N. Kirpal in the Central Hall of Parliament at an impressive function telecast live across the country. Kalam took the oath in the name of God as a 21-gun salute boomed in the background.

Kalam reviews an honour guard accompanied by bodyguards during his swearing-in-ceremony in New Delhi.
(pic: Hindustan Times)

Salaam Kalam Interview with Kalam 1 2


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