How Overwork Took Its Toll on Vikram Sarabhai

Vikram Sarabhai with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when she visited the Experimental Satellite Communication Earth Station, Ahmedabad, in 1967. The man to Sarabhai’s left is ESCES director Wg. Cdr. Rao. The man with the spectacles couldn’t be identified. Photo: Space Application Centre, ISRO

  • After Homi Bhabha died in 1966, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi picked Sarabhai to helm India’s atomic energy establishment.
  • Contrary to Sarabhai’s intentions, most senior people of the establishment were eager to demonstrate India’s ability to design and test a nuclear weapon.
  • At one point, Sarabhai was working for 17-18 hours a day, shuttling between Ahmedabad, Bombay, New Delhi, Trivandrum and Madras, and attending international conferences.

It is widely known that Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai was the father of the Indian space programme. But the Indian Space Research Organisation was only one of his contributions to national development. Others include the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad; India’s first textile research group, the Ahmedabad Textile Research Association; the first Indian Institute of Management (IIM-A); the Darpana Academy for Performing Arts; and the first market research group, called Operations Research Group. In addition, Sarabhai also successfully managed a pharmaceutical firm.

The nation celebrated the birth centenary of Sarabhai last year (August 2020 to July 2021). In this article, I trace the events that eventually led to his death.

Globally networked

Even in the early 1960s, when there were no mobile phones, no computers and no internet, Sarabhai was globally networked. He could lift a phone and call anyone who mattered. It, of course, helped that he came from a very wealthy and cultured family of businessmen and freedom fighters. The Sarabhais played host to Rabinranath Tagore, and Mahatma Gandhi was a personal friend.

In 1961, Vikram got equipment from NASA to receive telemetry signals from the American satellite Explorer II. He thus became the first Indian to receive live signals from a satellite.

When Sarabhai, with support from his mentor Homi Bhabha, approached Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with a proposal to launch a space programme, the situation in the country was grim. No one had any experience in any branch of space technology (space science was a different matter); there was no relevant industrial infrastructure; people and policymakers were equally sceptical about the practical benefits of space technology; and the general mood of the people was one of despair, caused by food shortages and a humiliating border clash with China.

The situation was best described in the words of Oscar Wilde: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Yes, Nehru, Bhabha and Sarabhai were looking at the stars, so that, decades later, India could actually reach the stars with its Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan missions. Any person of lesser stature than Nehru as the prime minister would have dismissed the Bhabha-Sarabhai proposal as an unaffordable luxury for a country struggling to keep its integrity and sovereignty intact. It is revealing to note that Nehru was a Hindu Kashmiri Pundit, Bhabha a Parsi and Sarabhai a Jain.

Twin tragedies

New Year 1966 started ominously for India. Lal Bahadur Shastri, who had succeeded Nehru as the prime minister in 1964, died under mysterious circumstances on January 11, soon after signing a peace treaty with Ayub Khan of Pakistan, in Tashkent (then in the USSR).

Within two weeks of Shastri’s death came the shocking news that Homi Bhabha, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and secretary, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), had died in a plane crash on Mont Blanc, of the Alps, on January 24.

On the same day, Indira Gandhi was sworn in as the prime minister of India. She picked Sarabhai to succeed Bhabha.

Unlike the space programme, which at that time was still being managed by a committee (the Indian National Committee for Space Research) with Sarabhai as the chairman, the AEC and the DAE were well-organised entities created as early as in 1948.

Furthermore, Sarabhai was an outsider to the Atomic Energy Establishment (AEE), though Bhabha had made him a member of the AEC. The senior scientists and engineers who had been working for Bhabha for a long time were greatly disappointed with Mrs Gandhi’s choice.

In particular, the seniormost engineer, Homi Sethna, was openly hostile to Sarabhai, making even routine meetings a nightmare. Sethna seemed to question the credentials of Sarabhai to lead the nuclear programme. Sarabhai tried to cajole Sethna but to no avail.

What made things more difficult for Sarabhai was the “bomb”. Most senior people of the AEE were eager to demonstrate India’s capability to design, develop and test the atom bomb. But Sarabhai was a pacifist and even attended the Pugwash Conferences, whose main objective was to gather support for abolishing nuclear weapons.

But there were powerful forces, both within AEE and the political circles, pressing for the bomb. Indira Gandhi, who was once very close to Sarabhai, seemed to drift away from him towards the hawks. Sarabhai tried for a compromise but his heart was with peace.

At this time, Sarabhai was working for 17-18 hours a day, shuttling between Ahmedabad, Bombay, New Delhi, Trivandrum and Madras, as well as attending international conferences. His punishing schedules started telling on his health. C.V.Raman warned Sarabhai saying, “Vikram, you are burning both ends of the candle” – as did Mrs Gandhi. But he would not listen.

People who had attended meetings with him recall Sarabhai suddenly saying, “I will take a power nap and be back in 15 minutes.” He did come back refreshed after such naps, but the die had been cast.

On December 28, 1971, Sarabhai came to Trivandrum to review progress in the space programme. His meetings on December 29 with senior people working for the space programme went well into midnight, after which Sarabhai retired to his room in the Halcyon Castle, once a Royal Palace in Kovalam. He never woke up.

No post mortem was conducted. Was there any foul play? We can never know. But overwork and exhaustion took their toll on him. The Japanese even have a word for it: karoshi.

P.V. Manoranjan Rao retired in 1996 from the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (ISRO) as group director. In collaboration with former colleagues, he has published five books related to the history of ISRO. The most recent was a coffee table book entitled Ever Upwards: ISRO in Images, published by the Universities Press, Hyderabad, in 2019.

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