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The Uncertainty and Obsolescence Vikram Sarabhai Saw in India’s Future

The Uncertainty and Obsolescence Vikram Sarabhai Saw in India’s Future

Indian Space Research Organisation, ISRO, Vikram Sarabhai, Homi Jehangir Bhabha, Department of Atomic Energy, INCOSPAR, Physical Research Laboratory, Mrinalini Sarabhai, All India Radio, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Trombay, Kalpakkam nuclear power plant, Atomic Energy Commission, Kailasavadivoo Sivan, UR Rao, AS Kiran Kumar,

Today marks the birth centenary of Vikram Sarabhai, the celebrated industrialist and innovator popularly considered to be the father of the Indian space programme.

Sarabhai founded the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad in 1947. Three years later, the Government of India set up the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) under the aegis of Homi J. Bhabha. The two organisations subsequently undertook research on atmospheric and space science and spaceflight as well as supported similar efforts around the country. In 1962, Sarabhai set up the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) with Bhabha’s support. INCOSPAR assumed responsibility for space-related studies and activities that the DAE had until then overseen. Seven years later, it was supplanted by a larger institution called the Indian Space Research Organisation, marking the start of India’s formalised spaceflight programme.

Apart from shaping ISRO in its formative years, he also established the Indian Institute of Management, a community science centre and, with his wife Mrinalini, the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, all in Ahmedabad. Sarabhai was famously committed to pressing the applications of science and technology to the needs of the nation, and contributed to national efforts in nuclear power generation, industrial organisation, market research and physical science research as well. He passed away on December 30, 1971.

By way of commemoration, the text of Sarabhai’s convocation address delivered at IIT Madras on August 1, 1965, is presented in full below.


Things have changed a great deal during the last five years. Jawaharlal Nehru, Kennedy and Khrushchev are gone from the international scene. Nations already armed to the teeth have continued to engage in a spiralling arm s race and bombs rain every day from the skies over North and South Vietnam. Violence is rampant the world over. There is disenchantment with aid and with military alliances. Manned exploration of the moon and, in this country, the pursuit of engineering studies do not have the same glamour as before. Political life in Red China, in the United States and in India is chaotic and social goals perceived with cynicism. What is happening around us? Has the uncertain world come to stay with us?

The affliction is not peculiar to us; rich nations and poor ones, large and small, powerful and weak, those in military alliances, the nonaligned and the neutral, all manifest the same symptoms. The scenario is different, in France, in the United States, in Poland, in Japan and in India. And so are the methods by which societies try to deal with these problems. But a common thread runs through all these. I wish today to share with you some of my thinking, for, I believe that the present is particularly threatening to those like you who embark on a professional career for the first time.

Everyone here is undoubtedly familiar with the expression ‘three raised to the power of eighteen’. It is a large number: 38,74,20,489, thirty-eight crore, seventy-four lakh, twenty thousand, four hundred and eighty-nine. What it means in dynamic terms is quite dramatic. If a person spreads gossip to just three others and the same is passed on by each of them to three others, and so on in succession, in just eighteen steps almost the entire population of India would share the spicy story. Note that if each step takes one hour, 90% of the people hear the gossip for the first time only during the seventeenth and the eighteenth hours. Indeed, during the whole of the first 80% of the time, the process affects merely 11% of the population. Even though each individual is partaking in the chain reaction exactly like all the others, who preceded him, that is, he receives information from one person and passes it on to three others, the social impact at a late stage of development hits like an avalanche.

Villa Sarabhai in Ahmedabad, 1951-1955
Villa Sarabhai in Ahmedabad, 1951-1955

When we have a new infection, initially it is barely perceptible, but as a biological organism multiplies through successive generations, at a certain moment it suddenly permeates through the whole system. You can observe this fascinating phenomenon in making dahi or yoghurt, or thayir as you call it here. In the same way, information, knowledge, innovation, people and things diverge rapidly and their collective effects appear suddenly even though the basic process in each case has proceeded over a long time span.

When considering the social implications of technological change, one usually mentions the effects of the machine age on society through automation and imposed conformity. But these are trivial compared to the wider social implications of innovative man, who with curiosity, ingenuity and ambition, tries to reach out from his natural environment, and starts divergent processes. In nature, left to itself, control is maintained through an ecological balance. Order is not imposed from above, but arises through the interaction of each unit with its environment in a dynamic equilibrium. On the other hand, inherent in a programme of accelerated development, there is a suppression of some of the natural constraints which prevent divergence. And as the rate of innovation, of discovery and of everything else in the world gets faster and faster, so does the obsolescence of people and things become ever more acute. In contrast, biological development continues at its own pace. The child still requires nine months to develop in the womb. His life cycle of learning, of adolescence, as a house-holder and as an elder, who lays down the law, remains essentially unchanged.

Also read: A Wreath of White Roses Over the Ruins of Mehrangir, Homi Bhabha’s Home

The situation is aggravated because of the increase in the life span of the human being. The contradiction between desired longevity and a world of increasing change is obvious. An inevitable result of all this is the disillusionment of the young concerning the understanding and behaviour of the middle aged and the old. Equally serious is the inability of those who wield power and influence over world affairs to adopt values and behaviour, inherent in an order where accelerating change, rather than stability, is dominant. I suggest that today we witness a crisis of obsolescence.

An undated photograph of Vikram and Mrinalini Sarabhai with their son Karthikeya. Credit: Mid-Day

The qualitative change which has occurred in the last decade with the development of atomic energy, with the exploration and use of space, with the advent of electronics and computer sciences, is a manifestation of the divergent human function which has suddenly overtaken the world. What we have witnessed so far, dramatic as it is, is probably pedestrian compared to what we can expect in the future.

We have heard of the feasibility of areas of Earth’s surface illuminated during the night with sunlight through giant reflectors attached to satellites. We have also heard of weather modification, by increasing precipitation of rain in certain regions through artificially seeding clouds. There has been a suggestion of putting into orbit a belt of dust particles over the equator such that it would change the distribution of solar energy penetrating to different regions of the earth. It is claimed that such a belt could reduce the heat in the tropics and scatter more to high latitudes, providing a temperate climate even in the polar regions. This has many frightening possibilities because the level of the oceans would rise and submerge many inhabited areas.

New leads in biology and genetics pursued relentlessly are creating situations with implications few have thought through. Population control using the pill has tied up into knots theologists, wishing to interpret the sayings of the holy books in terms of current needs of society and new concepts of life. Just as doctors are faced with the problem of determining what death is before spare parts surgery would be justified, international lawyers rack their brains to determine an objective criterion for identifying where air space ends and outer space begins in which national sovereignty does not exist.

Affairs in the 1960s are largely in the hands of those who were already grown up when the Second World War broke out. Their learning experience and their theoretical knowledge relates principally to a period when the world was qualitatively different. The concepts of national sovereignty, of international spheres of influence, and power politics of the classical type have hardly changed even though we are constantly watched from satellites in outer space above us, and our security is threatened not merely by hostile neighbours, but by the actions and indiscretions of distant powers. What is the relevance of foreign bases in the context of long range missiles and nuclear submarines lurking unseen and silent on ocean floors? Is the Indian Ocean Indian any longer? How shall we preserve democratic states where the media of mass communications provide means of instantly reaching downwards from centres of authority, but, short of public agitation, there is no authorised channel for the reverse feedback for controlling the political system between elections?

ISRO chief K. Sivan during an event to mark Vikram Sarabhai's birth centenary. Credit: PTI
ISRO chief K. Sivan during an event to mark Vikram Sarabhai’s birth centenary. Credit: PTI

What should be the goals of education in a world of obsolescence? We find ourselves largely unprepared to meet the new situation. In real life, it makes a lot of difference how we view these occurrences. We have the situation in India, in comm on with many other countries, of students challenging the authority of universities and of the establishment. Those who assume that the students are indisciplined and wayward suggest that getting them involved in some activity such as the NCC would set matters right. On the other hand, if one regards protests of students at Columbia, at the Sorbonne and at Banaras as manifestations of a deeper malaise of society, the powers that be would introspect rather than preach. There is no easy solution.

Also read: Are ISRO and India Willing to Do What It Takes to Make It in Space?

But there is, I believe, much that we can learn from an analogue that we find in the peaceful applications of atomic energy more precisely, in the technique of extracting energy liberated in the fission of uranium. As is well-known, when an atom of the [uranium-235 isotope] is hit by neutrons, it has a tendency to split into two lighter atoms, the combined weight of the splinters being less than the weight of the original atom. In the process of fission, not only is the difference of m ass liberated as energy, but additional neutrons are released. When these neutrons hit other fissile atoms, a chain reaction occurs and the process can continue like the divergent spread of gossip.

We require a critical mass of uranium before the chain can be self-sustaining and indeed, when there is no other control device, the mass explodes through the sudden liberation of a large amount of energy on reaching criticality. This is what constitutes an atom bomb based on fission. When we wish to extract useful power out of the self-sustaining chain reaction of fission, we have to prevent the divergent release of neutrons, and of energy in the mass of the system.

This needs the establishment of a large number of control loops which constantly and simultaneously sample the level of the reaction at various points of the reacting volume and sensitively adjust the position of neutron absorbers, strategically placed at various positions in the core of the reactor. Divergent trends are almost instantly compensated. An operator can shut down the reactor by pushing neutron absorbers into the core. But no reactor can be maintained in a steady state of self-sustained activity, necessary for providing useful energy, on the basis of exclusive reliance on gross controls operated with imperfect feedback loops. Indeed, the control of potentially divergent systems relies on sensitive information loops which operate quickly in response to minute changes of activity.

Vikram Sarabhai was featured on a commemorative stamp the Government of India issued in 1972. Credit: India Post
Vikram Sarabhai was featured on a commemorative stamp the Government of India issued in 1972. Credit: India Post

What can we learn from this analogue in the social context? That control of the divergent human function cannot be maintained through the macro system of a super government. We need a system which perm its an infinite number of micro control loops spread through the fabric of society. An authoritative regime can inhibit the divergent human function, but only at the cost of inhibiting development itself. Ironically, free societies are the ones which are most prone to the social impact of run away divergencies. It is in such free societies that the power of the super state, the super authority in education and for developmental tasks, is most difficult to sustain.

I am intrigued by how closely this line of thinking brings us to Vinaobaji’s and Jayaprakash’s ideas on social and political organisation. We are faced with the problem of the divergent human function manifesting itself on the world scene, while in India we are still trying to shake ourselves free from poverty. We have, I believe, to create a social system and a pattern of development which is based not on monolithic organisations operating impersonally at an all-India level or even at the level of the states but in units where the feedback loop has high fidelity communication and a quick response.

Also read: U.R. Rao, ISRO Chairman Who Helped India’s Space Programme Settle Down

I am convinced, for instance, that our education system would immeasurably benefit if it were liberated from the monopolistic privileges under which universities take hold of all educational matters at a certain level in allotted territories. There is no way in which a University Grants Commission or an affiliating university can ensure educational standards. In the ultimate analysis, it is only the teacher in the classroom that can do anything in the matter. He has to be provided the freedom to innovate in education in a changing world and, for this innovation, he has to receive the trust of those who back him up. I would suggest that the most effective development of education can take place only when the teacher, the student, his parents and the outside environment can interact with one another, in a series of feedback loops, free from regimentation and irrelevant theories and principles preached from the top.

U.R. Rao inaugurates a bust of Vikram Sarabhai at Antariksh Bhavan, the ISRO HQ, New Delhi, 2004. Credit: ISRO
U.R. Rao inaugurates a bust of Vikram Sarabhai at Antariksh Bhavan, the ISRO HQ, New Delhi, 2004. Credit: ISRO

Engineers look forward to play a meaningful role in society. We are nationally poised to formulate a new Five Year Plan for development. Economists in the past have been prone to equate investments in hard facilities as necessary for economic growth. This is often true, but in the present context, it is largely fallacious. Twenty years after independence, w e find ourselves with a broad infra-structure of plants and facilities in the engineering industries which are largely under-utilised. We also find a number of well-established laboratories, without clear-cut developmental tasks which are meaningful in terms of national priorities. What is needed now is a major investment in design and developmental effort directed at indigenous capability for carefully chosen tasks, which are important to us.

As an example, I might cite a good transportation system: providing an inexpensive scooter or a cheap car; a mass communication system which brings television to every village in a decade; inexpensive power through the countryside based on optimisation of grids, with a combination of hydroelectric, atomic and thermal units; a defence system based largely on hardware related to our own strategic needs rather than one which is reliant on what our friends overseas choose to sell us, gift to us or help produce under their know-how. We can identify subsystems under each of these major tasks and we can create design and development groups which can operate with a wide measure of autonomy. They will require trust to be able to innovate.

All this is not a pipe dream. I hope we have the good fortune of realising these programmes before divergent functions in our society blow asunder all that we cherish.

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