Saturday, June 30, 2007

DRDO's VK Aatre: Then and Now

Frontier India has done an interview with Dr VK Aatre, former DRDO chief, on the current state of affairs in the organization and its relationship with other agencies. Very readable piece. Problem is, when you start out with your mind already made up about something, chances are you’ll end up doing what P. Chacko Joseph has done – tailor the product to suit your biases and needs. Either way, it’s a good read, though it doesn’t really put up any new defences. To his credit, Aatre isn't an apologist for mediocrity, and was known to frequently accept hard questions. Unfortunately Chacko doesn't ask any. Aatre’s sole rejoinder to the “DRDO bashing” (the phrase has even spawned a blog all unto itself) is that while criticizing DRDO, reports do not recognize the successes. Sure, Aatre was part of one of the more successful departments and laboratories at DRDO, but that was his work. Mr Joseph has been creative enough to refer to the Express series of last year (Delayed Research Derailed Organisation) as the “recent media attack”, inadvertently giving it more space in the discourse than certainly I had imagined possible. Anyway a few months ago, Dr Aatre himself was kind enough to contribute to the closing piece of the Express series last year. And here it is in full:

Advice From ex-Chief: Accountability Absolute Must


DRDO should definitely be held more accountable for its work and it should stop saying it can do everything under the sun.

Coming from Dr Vasudev K Aatre, who headed the organisation between 2000-04, this could be the luxury of hindsight but yet, a painfully candid admission to the need for reform.

Now a professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Aatre has responded to this newspaper’s investigative series on DRDO’s dismal record (for the previous seven parts, visit “I have been honest about our delays, I could not hide our shortcomings. There is a need to break certain cycles as the series in The Indian Express has shown. It is crucial that DRDO is a dictator of its own destiny.”

For that to happen, Aatre prescribes a five-point programme fundamental to which is, what he calls, “the absolute must for accountability.” And, two, the brisk introduction of the private sector into the fold of defence R&D to take away the burden of prototype production.

Calling for the immediate implementation of the incentive list for scientists — from sharing royalty to increased travel allowances — Aatre says the “Damocles’ Sword of imports” should not be allowed to hang over scientists engaged in fundamental research. Finally, and probably most importantly, “DRDO should stop making exaggerated promises.”

The aspect of talent retention is severely underestimated. Even President A P J Abdul Kalam, who headed DRDO through the ‘90s and saw first-hand the initial exodus of scientists to the newly booming IT sector — over 1400 have left in the last decade — said on November 11 in Ahmedabad: “We should work for the creation of a science cadre, with a clear mission and goal, well-defined growth path, and attractive salaries.”

But better remuneration is just one side of an intricate polygon of reform that DRDO admitted in June to be working on. The other crucial aspect is DRDO’s involvement with the services. The Navy, the smallest of the three armed forces, has the best depth of relations with DRDO but the less said about the Army and IAF, the better.

Experience has shown that programmes in which the agenda is set by senior serving officers, as in Navy’s avionics and sonars, have always performed with the greatest prudence — delivering on time, and cutting away losses when viability was severely undermined.

In June, as a start, the Standing Committee on Defence directed the DRDO to draw up a list of unviable projects that could be terminated.

But there is a consensus that synergy with the services is one way out of the present mess. Says Gen Shankar Roy Choudhary, former Army chief and member of the Standing Committee on Defence: “Coordination and interaction need a great deal of improvement. DRDO should make sure that officers from the services are part of design teams, and not looked upon as outsiders. Even today, they are accepted very reluctantly. I tried to do my bit in my time as Chief, but somehow it did not work out. This should be an immediate area of reform.”

Choudhary’s recommendation is an echo of what was officially proposed by the Defence Ministry’s Task Force on the “Reorganization of Higher Defence Planning”: a three-star serving officer should head the steering committee of DRDO programmes and the Armed forces personnel embedded with these programmes be recognised as integral members of the DRDO design team. None of this has been implemented yet.

New Defence Minister A K Antony, who received a three-and-a-half hour presentation on the DRDO on October 29, five days into office, told The Sunday Express, “In the few weeks that I have been here, I have realized the need for big changes. We need comprehensive reforms in this area to keep with changing situations. Over the next few weeks, I will be looking at this aspect in great detail.”

Consider what one of emerging India’s pioneers in industrial R&D, Biocon chairperson Kiran Mazumdar Shaw has to say about DRDO: “Every research establishment in the country needs to be reformed. Defence is one area where we need a high level of innovation. Enough is not being done and the DRDO is no exception to this. There is no modern approach at all,” she told The Sunday Express. “They should be focusing on every emerging technology and the application of new technology. At present, there seems to be only imitative effort. A lot of the research is ineffective. We need reforms in defence research that capitalise on innovation. Good talent needs to be attracted to these organisations.”

In DRDO’s journey from its fetters, it cannot ignore the private sector. The total volume of work undertaken by the private sector since May 2001 amounts to Rs 6,976 crore out of total capital acquisitions worth Rs 95,145.28 crore. Private sector potential in defence R&D is therefore enormous and mostly untapped.

On September 19, members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee received a compilation of the capabilities of just two private companies. Their capabilities officially declared as everything from weapon-launch systems, sea mines, submarines, fire-control systems and special materials to deep water technology, tracking radars, even space applications.

Atul Kirloskar, chairman of the CII’s National Committee on Defence, which played an integral advisory role to the Vijay Kelkar Committee on reforming self-reliance and procurement, told The Sunday Express: “With DRDO, there is a large opportunity to work on technological issues. Raksha Udyog Ratnas, or private sector systems integrators will be certified next year and will be able to make quotes. The new procurement procedure also includes a Make category. There are opportunities waiting.”

In a sense, few would know this better than Lt Gen S S Mehta, formerly Western Army commander and now Director General of CII. He said, “With growing similarities between civilian and military R&D, it is essential that Defence R&D evolve a collaborative structure which adapts to the rapidly changing technology eco-system.”

The journey to a weapons development system like in the US or Europe is still, quite certainly, decades away. But with shifting paradigms, the blurring of technological boundaries and a whole new element to the meaning of self-reliance, the essence of DRDO’s revitalization will be in accepting that the past is just that. The past.


Anonymous said...

Does'nt bode well for the man who took the DRDO by horns to involve in petty fight with another colleague.

Shiv..let accept the mistake wherever and whoever done it. If Chacko can be blamed for "tailoring the product" same can be levied on Shiv/Amitav combo for the express series. Dr. Aatre is spot on in saying the recent series(whether it is express or other media) doesnt talk about any success of DRDO and for the cynical attitude of the media agaist DRDO, he quoted an example of how ISRO was similarly targeted during SLV failure.(here, he indirectly mentioned that DRDO will be successful denying the sorry state painted by the media)

In fact, i too share the same feeling of what Dr. Aatre expressed. Dont want to be an apologist but I can't digest the aparthied acts carried out by the media including the express on DRDO.

If Chacko can be blamed for saying only good things about DRDO, others should be blamed for concentrating only on the negative side.Let accept the mistake and move forward.


Teews said...

Joe, I can't agree with you more here.

I once said here that Chacko and Shiv among others are the different sides of the same coin. Only that they represent the extreme sides of that spectrum. The truth as they say lies in the middle somewhere. But people won't bring it up because of their agendas.

rajan said...

jo and teews, the express series had one part on drdo successes which if i remember correcelty covered npol and dare and mentioned a few others. a whole part dedicated to drdo successes. that definitely brought in the semblance of balance IMHO.


Anonymous said...

Aroor, what is shown by this is what a petulant prima donna b!tch that you can be. Chacko Joseph went ahead and conducted an interview with Atre which is free wheeling and comes out with a far greater level of detail than you have..unlike you, he has not tailored his questions only to criticize the DRDO..btw your IE colleagues know how you tailored the arjun piece and what u didnt publish

Shiv Aroor said...

anon: so in that case, stop being a shitkicker, and come out and tell us all what was left out of the arjun report! be a piece in the jigsaw instead of being anon, idiot.

Abhiman said...

Mr. Aroor it may be unfortunate that your blog invites abuses and obscene language from unwanted elements. I may suggest that you introduce moderation of posts, and disallow anonymous posts (as in Mr. Ajai Shukla's blog). It is saddening to see such kind of posts in your informative blog.

On another point, I too agree that I was unduly harsh in words on the IE which was your former employer. I duly feel apologetic for that. I admit that I got "carried away" by the site which I posted, but in no way was it meant to be an "attack" on you.


Zero said...

Queenie Aroor,

Thats how an interview is conducted. Free wheeling.

AMITAV RANJAN & SHIV AROOR combined couldn't come out with such a master piece.

Its a cool narration. IMO It has nothing to do with attacking any of the publications or Army or Air Force. It has to do with indeginisation.

Kudos Chacko Joseph!Kudos Dr. Atre!

May god bless you both!

Zero said...

I did not have the chance to work with Dr. Atre, but as the whole DRDO knows it, he was/is a very conservatively spoken person.If he has come out hard on the issue, it must is a genuine thing.

In some days time, when I join my lab back, I will be happy as atleast one of the DRDO personnel spoke defending us.

Anonymous said...

rajan said...
jo and teews, the express series had one part on drdo successes which if i remember correcelty covered npol and dare and mentioned a few others. a whole part dedicated to drdo successes. that definitely brought in the semblance of balance IMHO.


Is it Amitav Rajan? Nice to see u here.

Success is a subjective term as well as relative one. I hope you agree with me.

If none of Indian companies, be it ecconomically brimming IT companies ( still we dont have Microsoft/Oracle types even after so much success, leave alone the hardware section)or age old manufacturing ones like TATA are not comparable to western ones, how one can expect DRDO an Indian organisation to made equal to all the comparison made with western products and their success rates.

In science, music or arts, when Indians aped the west; try to catch with them, how you except DRDO to be different.

when a disabled person participated in the marathon competing with other able bodied person, this participation alone can be termed as success by any scale. Am i right?

In that way, I should say DRDO willingness to take up the challenge to compete with the western counterparts in cutting edge technologies in Defence is a success compared to negative stand taken by Indian companies for the same project. And they achieved success even though delayed.

The point is it is not that no one is willing to see the difficulties or the failures of the DRDO. Give context to the success we are discussing. When Railways, Air India/Indian Airlies, EB and other Gov Institutions were all incurring losses, being Indian, how you see the growth path of the DRDO. It has both success and failure. In fact i can vouch that the success in DRDO projects is more phenomenal comapred with the resources constraints, technology denials, sanctions etc it faced.

What would be my expectation as a reader from a defence journ's on this matter is a well balanced report, i.e. instead of passing comments like "Arjun is dud", it should have given thorough analysis. But i should say the express series had started many introspective questions(in postive and negative way) both within the MoD/DRDO and the outside.