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06 February, 2012

Scientists under the scanner

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The government’s decision to blacklist four former officials of the Indian Space Research Organisation for their role in the signing of a contract with a private company has turned the spotlight on the working of a sequestered establishment.

The blacklisted ISRO personnel are former chairman G Madhavan Nair, former scientific secretary K Bhaskaranarayana, former managing director of ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix KR Sridharamurthi, and former ISRO satellite centre director KN Shankara.

As a result of the government decision they stand barred from holding any position in establishments under its control. Accordingly, Madhavan Nair has relinquished the chairmanship of the governing body of the Indian Institute of Technology, Patna.

Under the contract, signed in 2005, Antrix undertook to provide Devas Multimedia Private Limited, Bangalore, 70 megahertz of S band wavelength by leasing out 90 per cent of the transponders in two satellites, GSAT-6 and GSAT 6A, which ISRO was to launch, for a payment of $300 million spread over 12 years.

ISRO later obtained the government’s sanction for launch of these satellites. Last year, ahead of the launch, the government annulled the contract following allegations that scarce spectrum, which could fetch a fortune, had been given to Devas at a throwaway price.

Two key officials of Devas, Chairman MG Chandrasekhar and chief technology officer D Venugopal, are former ISRO officials. Chandrasekhar had quit as ISRO’s scientific secretary in 1997 to join WorldSpace, a US-based satellite radio operator. Venugopal joined him in WorldSpace the following year. Both have been with Devas since its founding in 2004.

Soon after Madhavan Nair’s retirement, K Radhakrishnan, who succeeded him as ISRO chairman, instituted an inquiry into the Devas deal by a committee headed by former Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre director BN Suresh. It was asked to look into complaints about the way the deal was concluded and being operationalised.

Last year the Prime Minister’s office set up another committee with former Cabinet Secretary BK Chaturvedi and aerospace expert Roddam Narasimha as members to study the matter. Still later a five-member committee headed by former Chief Vigilance Commissioner Pratyush Sinha was set up to examine acts of commission in the deal.

The deal was scrapped after the first committee reported that it was not made in a transparent manner. The blacklisting came after the third committee’s report which said there had been “serious administrative and procedural lapses” and “suggestion of collusive behaviour on the part of certain individuals.”

The findings of all the committees were made public on Saturday after Madhavan Nair sought information about them under the Right to Information Act.

Like Army chief VK Singh, whose dispute with the government over the determination of his age is now before the Supreme Court, Madhavan Nair views the issue as one of personal honour. He is a highly decorated scientist. He had received the prestigious Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan awards in recognition of his role in the country’s space programmes, including a successful moon probe.

Madhavan Nair’s case, like Gen Singh’s, illustrates the ham-handed manner in which the political executive handles issues relating to high functionaries who are not part of the bureaucratic establishment. It also exposes the personal rivalries and jealousies in the science and technology sector.

Most of the retired space scientists have made common cause with Madhavan Nair, raising the issue to one of the honour of the entire scientific community. Narasimha, who was a member of the second committee, has disapproved of attempts to damn Madhavan Nair.

The issue is also getting politicised. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has decided to use it against the government when Parliament reassembles.

Vital questions about the working of the scientific establishment, which has little original contribution to its credit, are not being raised. The highly acclaimed achievements of Indian science are mere replication or adaptation of foreign technology.

The Global Research Report, published by Thomson Reuters in October 2009, had pointed out that India lagged behind not only the West but also its BRIC partners in research investment and output. What’s more, availability of researchers did not keep pace with rise in investment.

Decades ago eminent scientist JBS Haldane, who left Britain in protest against the presence of US troops and made India his home, had identified scientists’ lack of professionalism, undue emphasis on academic degrees and subservience to political masters as impediments to the growth of science in the country. These maladies remain. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 6, 2012

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