Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Auto emission norms India

Business India, May 31-June 13, 1999

Clearing up emissions

Thanks to the Supreme Court, Indian consumers will see a major leap in automotive technology and fuel quality

Shivanand Kanavi

By the stroke of a pen, the Supreme Court pushed the Indian auto industry into a technological leap. Since then, the media has been filled with smog about Euro-I and Euro-II for almost two weeks. But what are these norms and more importantly what are the factors responsible for the high levels of auto emissions and what are the technologies available for mitigating them? Which of these technologies are likely to be brought into India to meet the new norms? These are some of the questions that Business India looked into.

Not that the technologies involved in abating auto-emissions are of the cutting edge variety, but Indian consumers have been denied them for two reasons. First of all, they need further investments in automotive engines, catalytic converters, and oil refineries and secondly they would push up the price of an automobile by about 10 per cent in a highly price sensitive market.

But the increasing awareness about the health hazards posed by constituents of auto exhaust like smoke (particulate matter), nitrogen oxides (NOX), carbon monoxide (CO), benzene, unburnt fuel (HC), lead and so on, especially in highly congested Indian cities, has been steadily forcing the government and the auto industry to gear up to cut the emissions. Accordingly, the government brought in unleaded petrol in 1996 in the metro cities and brought in new emission norms into force the same year.

The ministry of surface transport moved to notify India 2000 norms in August 1997. These norms were derived from the Euro-I norms (see table). They required lower sulphur levels and the refineries were advised to invest in hydro-desulphurisation to reduce sulphur content in diesel to 0.25 per cent.

It is important to understand that the emissions from an engine depend on how the engine is driven. How frequently do you brake? How frequently do you shift gears? What are your cruising speeds? What is your top speed? Do you check the emissions after the engine is warmed up or from a cold start? What about emissions due to evaporation of fuel from the automobile? And so on and so forth. A detailed study of the actual driving conditions: road conditions, traffic conditions, rush hour, off rush hour etc. has to be made. Then one arrives at what auto engineers call, the driving cycle. Then there are two ways of testing the vehicles: the engine dynamometer test and the chassis dynamometer test.

Thus Euro norms are not just some figures for various constituents of exhaust but also they per force specify the European Driving Cycle. Thus our table is a highly simplified version of the norms and does not cover two-three wheelers. Developing the driving cycle is a long drawn out affair and the data needs to be continuously updated as traffic conditions and road conditions change. So, for pragmatic reasons, the European Driving Cycle has been adopted with some modifications, like the top speed of 120 kmph has been reduced to 90 kmph.

The industry was gearing up to meet the Euro-I norms by 1 April 2000 in terms of vendor development, engine improvement, etc, and so were the refiners gearing up to improve fuel quality. There was also discussion going on about further cutting down emissions by 2005, which would be more in consonance with the Euro-II norms. However the increasing pollution in Delhi, (though polluting vehicles are not the only culprits) led the Supreme Court to bring forward the deadline for India-2000 norms to 1 June 1999, instead of 1 April 2000, as far as Delhi is concerned. The government was also directed to notify the equivalent of Euro-II norms with utmost speed and bring them into effect from 1 April 2000 - a five-year leap. The move naturally sent the automobile manufacturers into a tizzy. Though the order pertains to the National Capital Region around Delhi - which has the dubious distinction of being the fourth most polluted city in the world - it is clear that this might soon be extended all over India.

Despite a battery of the best and brightest lawyers arguing for extension of the deadlines on behalf of the auto manufacturers the court stuck to its guns. Now, work has to be taken up on a war footing on several fronts to achieve
these laudable objectives. First of all, the government has to quickly notify the Euro-II norms (for want of a better term). The Automobile Research Association of India (ARAI), an industry funded organisation that is affiliated to the industry ministry, has to gear itself up for quick certification of various models that are going to pour into its labs. S.R. Puranik, director of the lab, says the institute has already certified nearly seven petrol driven models and 11 diesel driven models for India 2000. He pointed out that once the Euro-I1 norms are notified ARAI can do the emission tests in two-three days per model and the detailed certification under Central Motor Vehicle Regulation which requires noise and safety tests along with emission tests in two-three weeks per model.

Another important issue is the quality of fuel required to meet the Euro-II norms. The question of fuel quality has to be addressed very seriously since the new norms will require not 0.25 per cent of sulphur but 0.05 per cent. So far only Reliance has said that it will be able to supply such fuel from July 1999, when its giant 27 million-tonne refinery goes on stream. Others are still working out the consequences of these norms. A.K. Jain and K.K. Gandhi, scientists at the Indian Institute of Petroleum, Dehradun, point out that the fuel required to satisfy lower emission norms has to satisfy several criteria. For example, the sulphur content of petrol has to be brought down as well. Moreover, benzene and aromatic content has to brought down, volatility of the fuel has to be controlled carefully as it influences' the warm up time and evaporative emissions, oxygenated blend components to reduce co and HC emissions have to be added, multifunctional additives to control deposit formation within the engine have to be added and so on. Similarly, according to Jain and Gandhi, the diesel required has to not only have 0.05 per cent sulphur but also a lower density, lower boiling point (from 370 celsius to 340 celsius) higher cetane number (from 45 to 49-53 low aromatics, good oxidation stability and lesser amount of heavy cuts blended.

While the refiners upgrade themselves to meet these requirements, auto component manufacturers and auto makers have a lot of work to do. Automobile engines, be they petrol fuelled or diesel fuelled, are powered by burning fuel inside the engine in an explosive fashion. In a petrol engine, a mixture of petrol and air is compressed and is ignited by a spark from the spark plug. The combustion, however, takes place best when the air to fuel ratio is 14.7. However, even the most sophisticated carburettors rarely achieve this ratio and definitely not under all driving conditions. A multi point fuel injection (MPFI) system, which is controlled by a micro chip called electronic control unit (ECU) can achieve much less emissions and better fuel efficiency in petrol engines. Better combustion lowers HC and co emissions but can lead to higher NOX emissions. Improved catalytic converters like pre-heated or dose loop ones can take care of most of the noxious matter.

In the case of diesel engines, turbo charging inter-cooling, exhaust gas re-circulation, de-Nox catalytic converters, higher injection pressures, particulate traps and so on can similarly ensure that Euro-II norms are met. The technologies likely to be brought into India at the moment are multi point fuel injection with electronic control unit (not the state of the art engine management system), better catalytic converters, higher injection pressures for diesel engines and at least' soft' turbo charging - that is turbo charging to cut emissions but not for increasing the power since that will require major changes in the drive train. It is estimated that the new technologies can cost up to 10 per cent of the present vehicle price.

These are all proven technologies; though none of them are cutting edge the issue is: can changes in mass production be made within the stipulated time at the lowest cost to consumers? The coming months will prove as to who among the various vehicle makers is up to the task.

Process Engineering, de-bottlencking, Chemical Industry

Business India, December 28-January 10, 1999
More from less

Debottlenecking has become a mantra to help chemical companies stay a float during hard times

Shivanand Kanavi

For years, M.M. Sharma, FRS, the doyen of Indian chemical engineers, used tacky slogans in every chemical industry meet to propagate the importance of clever R&D for healthy bottom lines. "More from less!", "Convert liabilities into assets!", "Knowledge engineering!" were some of them. The response was mixed. Protected markets and lack of serious domestic competition due to licensing were hardly the ideal conditions to breed lean and mean companies. However, the current hard times have more than convinced many businessmen of the wisdom of these words. In smart companies, these slogans have led the effort in intensive debottleneckrng, leading to tangible benefits. The list of 'smart' companies is long. It includes giants like Reliance, IPCL, the psu oil refineries engaged in commodity chemical business as well as midsize players like Arti Organics, Herdillia Chemicals, Excel, Bombay Oil, Hindustan Organic Chemicals, Atul and Alkyl Amines who have a mixed portfolio of commodity and specialty chemicals or purely specialty chemical players in the pharmaceutical industry like Ranbaxy.

It is not that the tongue twister, "debottlenecking" is new to the chemical industry. In fact, under the licence raj many companies used to report that they debottlenecked and increased the capacity at an incremental cost, as soon as the government increased their licensed capacity. This made their claims largely suspect. It was assumed that the declared capacity was understated in the first place. With liberalisation, there is no incentive to understate capacity. Now, chemical imports are pushing the price level down, export markets are under great pressure, most greenfield projects are being shelved, profit margins are thin and any incremental innovation is welcomed. Thus, debottlenecking is turning into a fine art.

The word "debottlenecking", though it does not occur in any dictionary, means removing the bottlenecks in a process. The exercise consists of identifying the bottlenecks and then removing them one by one. There are many levels at which the process works. The more pedestrian level is of making a physical analysis of the equipment in the plant like pumps, compressors and distillation columns. This can lead to clues to increasing the capacity of particular compressors, pumps, etc, leading to higher throughput. This can be called level one debottlenecking. Due to overdesign by plant designers (as they have to give guaranteed performance in terms of throughput, quality, etc) there is always scope to increase the plant rough put by 25 per cent with hardly ny additional investment. A more thor ugh analysis and some marginal investment can readily yield 50-60 per cent increase. For example, Reliance is currently manufacturing about 250,000 tonnes of PT A from a 180,000-tpa plant at Patalganga near Mumbai. There are reasons to believe that soon it may go up to even 300,000 tonnes. The lessons learnt here are being readily applied in the larger plants at Hazira, where two 350,000-tonne PTA plants are being fine-tuned to yield 500,000 tonnes each. Some RIL engineers believe that this can be further increased to 600,000 tonnes each. In fact, ICI plants in Wilton, UK were debottlenecked after learning from the experience at Reliance.

The second level consists of improving the design of equipment like columns, heat exchangers and reactors. -Por example, using appropriate packing in a distillation column, changing the contact surface, etc, can change the throughput. Similarly, studying impeller design in the reactor, or in plain English, "stirring the brew properly" can increase reaction rates. "The first thing is to find out what are the factors limiting the reaction rate in a plant," says Prof. J.B. Joshi of the University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT), Mumbai, one of the busiest industry consultants. Without mentioning names of companies, for confidentiality reasons, Joshi reels out example after example, of benefits from applying scientific methods to debottlenecking. In fact, he derives great intellectual satisfaction from these exercises. As a result of his extensive research into reactor design, using hitech tools like laser dopplerimetry, and vast consulting experience, he teaches a course on multiphase reactor design at UDCT, only one of its kind in world.

"One needs to do just about 40-50 laboratory experiments in a small one- litre capacity reactor to understand the process," Joshi claims. He has developed new methods involving Gamma Ray Tomography to study running plants without disturbing them. The results have been so fantastic that he is one of the most sought after consultants by even international giants like ICI. For example, his work has improved the process developed by the Indian Institute of Petroleum, Dehradun, for cracking heavy petroleum residue in a refinery (vis breaking) to get more diesel and kerosene.The non-invasive Gamma Ray Tomography technique is being applied to "vis breaking" at the IOC refinery, near Baroda, which can yield a 10 per cent increase in the middle distillates (diesel, kerosene, naphtha). In plants of millions of tonnes of capacity, this can be a substantial gain. In fact, this is an example of advanced debottlenecking where quality and composition of the products can be changed without any significant addition of equipment. The end is achieved purely through better reactor and process design. Another striking example of this is the way Reliance has understood the PVC process. The result: a PVC plant designed to produce 180,000 tpa is today producing nearly 300,000 tpa, thereby amazing even the licensors - Geon. Reliance consistently beats financial analysts’ projections by seating it plants, turning into reality Sharma's catch phrase, "more from less".

Joshi points out such work can give " better quality products with lower impurity profile, higher selectivity and lesser load on the environment Contrary to common perception, both Joshi and Sharma emphasise the fact that debottlenecking is not just for large commodity chemical companies but will yield even higher returns for specialty chemical companies. Joshi cites the case of a company which was making a specialty chemical with a market price of about Rs200 a kg. The detailed analysis of the process led to a 20 per cent increase in the yield almost increasing the profit margin by Rs40 a kg. This is a win-win exercise. Not only does the company benefit through better margins but the quantum of effluents, as in the case of dyes and pharma companies, can also be greatly reduced through better conversion. "In many cases a 100 per cent material balance can be established," claims Joshi. Practically nothing will be wasted. This is what Sharma calls "converting liabilities into assets".

Rajeev Pandia, managing director, Herdillia Chemicals, who applied some of Sharma's recipes, concurs: "Some of the waste products which we were burning were converted into fumaric acid, and there were even times when the price of fumaric acid in the market was higher than that of the primary product, pthalic anhydride," he adds.

The next level of debottlenecking is termed knowledge engineering by Sharma. This might involve development of new and better catalysts with higher selectivity, etc. At times the developments have already occurred elsewhere in the world and one needs to understand them and change the catalysts.

"All these steps require a certain willingness on the part of the management to take risks," says Joshi and this he claims to have found in plenty in mid-sized companies with Rs100-500 crore turnover. The returns to companies too have been handsome.

"There are other side benefits of this debottlenecking exercise", claims Pandia. "The multidisciplinary engineering team from technical services, R&D, operations, etc, which gets involved, gets so charged by this process, that it has very good HRD benefits," he adds. A senior Grasim executive confirms this. He claims that debottlenecking is a highly creative process and he greatly enjoyed it when he was a plant R&D engineer.

When the exports are under severe pressure and there is heavy competition from crisis-hit Asian countries, one way to ensure you don't lose your markets is to supply products of premium quality consistently. Debottlenecking helps in achieving this, claims Joshi, and cites the success in exports of Arti Organics, Alkyl Amines, Herdillia Chemicals and so on.

Observers of East Asia claim that many companies there are becoming leaner and meaner during the present crisis and might come out with even more vigour internationally at the end of the crisis. Complacent Indian companies who take shelter in the fact that the crisis in India is not so severe might thus be jolted out of their wits in a couple of years. However, the industrial downturn has definitely made some Indian companies smarter and more productive. Realising its importance, the Indian Chemical Manufacturers Association is planning a workshop on debottlenecking for the benefit of its members. The unpronounceable word is obviously yielding pronounced results.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

UDCT, Indian Chemical industry

Business India, March 14-27, 1994

Catalyst without compare
The University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT), Bombay, is justifiably described as the brain behind the Indian chemical industry
Shivanand Kanavi



Wandering the corridors, the labora­tories and library at the University Department of Chemical Technology one encounters some unusual sights for an academic institution. You might find Dr Gharda of Gharda Chemicals poring over the latest chemical abstracts in the library, or Rajeev Pandia, managing director, Herdillia Chemcials, lecturing in a classroom or, some other industrialist conferring with UDCT director, Prof M.M. Sharma, fishing for ideas for new projects. All testimony, if any were needed, to the fact that UDCT truly qualifies to be called the brain of the Indian chem­ical industry.

The UDCT, housed in an innocuous grey sand­stone building in Matunga, a suburb of Bombay famous for its Udipi restaurants, is a truly world class centre of excellence in chemi­cal engineering. It has provided technical man­power to industry, spawned entrepreneurs, provided highly valued industrial consultancy" while at the same time actively participating in the formulation of government policy on the chemical industry. Besides, it does world-class research.

If this sounds like an exaggeration, then a visit to UDCT and a session with Prof Sharma would dispel that impres­sion. Prof Sharma, a product of UDCT and Cambridge, an international author­ity in chemical engineering and the first Indian engineer to be made a fellow of the Royal Society of the UK, typifies the UDCT spirit. Having been on umpteen corporate boards, he speaks eloquently about the problems and prospects of the Indian chemical industry. With equal felicity he speaks of global trends; after his stint at Du Pont, US, as a consultant for a year, the company was so dazzled, That they admitted to another well-known Indian chemical engineer that they needed several specialists to comprehend all that Prof Sharma talks about.

Prof Sharma pioneered the study of multi phase chemical reactions, that is solid-liquid, liquid-gas, solid-liquid-gas and so on, leading to scientific reactor design. The two volumes on the subject he co-authored have become standard ref­erences internationally. His work on microphases is one of the few genuine Indian contributions to chemical engi­neering. He has been on a number of com­mittees to advise the government on policy matters for the last 30 years.

Set up in the thirties to assist the textile industry, UDCT became a unique centre for the study of chemical engineering at a time when the field was not even taught in Europe. Today, besides imparting world class training in chemical engineering, UDCT has very active departments in food and fermentation technology, dyestuffs and intermediates, paints, plas­tics and polymers, textile chemistry and fibres, oils and fats, flavours and per­fumery, pharmaceutical technology and pharmacy, besides science departments.

Its graduates, post-graduates and PhDs occupy key positions in the Indian chemical industry and a large number are to be found in international chemical giants like Dow, Du Pont, Shell, Mon­santo, Merck, Amoco, etc. Due to its pio­neering nature and reputation as a centre of excellence, UDCT has had consider­able autonomy of operation. But being formally tied to Bombay University slows down the pace of curriculum change, which is essential if it must keep up with industry's rapidly evolving requirements. Now moves are afoot in the University to make the department for­mally autonomous, which would quicken the pace of change.

The most exciting frontline work being done at the department of chemical engineering is in Prof J.B. Joshi’s laboratory. He has been studying what goes on inside a chemi­cal reactor using lasers. For a chemical reaction to take place fast enough and give good yields the critical fac­tors are the concentra­tion of reactants, pressure, temperature and the catalyst. How­ever, what is important for a chemical engineer involved in reactor design is the way the reactants come in contact with each other or, in lay terms, the way they are mixed. Normally in a liquid-liquid or solid-liquid reaction, mechanical mixers called agita­tors or impellers are used. In liquid-gas and liquid-liquid reactions one can also be sprayed into another. Another tech­nique used in gas-liquid and gas-liquid-­solid reactions is 'sparging' or bubbling the gas.

The mixing is limited by factors like actual surface area of contact between reactants, which needs to be increased while suspension of the catalyst has to be critically controlled. Too little suspension of the catalyst may slow down the reac­tion while too much agitation can lead to loss of expensive catalysts. One also needs to have more or less homogenous mixing to avoid hydrodynamic stresses. This requires precise knowledge of turbulence caused by any particular type of mixing. Normally a large part of impeller design is done by conventional wisdom developed through trial and error.

Prof. Joshi, how­ever, constructs scaled down glass reactors of 25 to 100 litre capacity in his lab. When the mixing is going on he shoots a laser beam that is split optically to produce two coherent sources. They are then focused at a point within the reactor. The normal pattern of interference fringes formed by the beams is disturbed due to motion of the fluid at the point. If the interference pattern and the scattered light is studied then there will be frequency shifts in the scattered light depending on the velocity of the fluid at the point due to the well-known Doppler effect. This technique is called Laser Doppler Anemometry.

By knowing the distribution of turbu­lence all over the reactor and studying it as a function of impeller design, he comes up with the appropriate design for any particular process. The study of turbu­lence using lasers has led to a rich exper­tise in Joshi's team and newly designed reactors have been installed in Bombay Oil Industries, Chemo Pharma Labs, Indian Organic Chemicals, Hico Prod­ucts, Jaysynth Oil Mills, etc, and the tech­nology has been transferred to Reliance Heal Transfer for manufacture. This expertise along with the computer soft­ware developed is unique and sought after internationally. Soon he has plans to develop a total package for reactor impeller design.

His team has also developed a number of extremely useful technologies that reduce pollution drastically and produce valuable products from distillery waste, cyanide waste, nitrogen oxide wastes, etc. His work fetched him the prestigious S.S. Bhatnagar award for engineering sci­ences in 1992.

While many drug manufacturers have been worried about the effect of the prod­uct patent regime in the post-Dunkel era, Prof V.M. Kulkarni in the pharmaceutical technology division is unfazed. Operat­ing under a soft patent regime, the Indian drug industry has not invested in the dis­covery of new drug molecules. Thus he did not find many takers for his passion for drug designing. But now things have changed and money is pouring in. Dr Reddy's Laboratories have given him sophisticated computers and expensive software worth nearly Rs.30 lakh to design new drugs. He is extremely confi­dent about the prospects of India becom­ing a major player in drug designing due to the availability of highly skilled and inexpensive manpower. There are many such technology stories in UDCT's rather modest labs.

Prof. Sharma has no time for controver­sies over basic vs. applied science. His method of work seems to be to take up problems relevant to industry, look at the more basic aspects of the problem, solve them at a high theoretical level, generate ideas, check them out on a laboratory scale and then advise the industry. There is a culture in UDCT of faculty members doing academic work of a very high stan­dard while solving problems relevant to the industry.

For example, Prof J.B. Joshi has been doing internationally acclaimed research work even while earning the highest con­sultancy fees in Bombay University. When asked about the rationale of a ceil­ing of Rs.4.5 lakh on consultancy fees imposed by the University when a third of it goes to the cash-starved University, Joshi says, "It is prudent to have some sort of ceiling because after all my first commitment as a teacher is to my students Also, rightly, we cannot use university facilities like labs, etc, for consul­tancy work. After all if my sole aim was making money, then I would not have joined academia!”

Unlike most other insti­tutions UDCT seems to suffer from a problem of plenty in consultancy.
While IITs are now walking up to the idea of con­sultancy and industrial research. consultancy has been a professional norm for the UDCT faculty for nearly 40 year, A large number of companies like Herdillia, Tata Chemicals, Bombay Oil, Indian Organics, Gharda Chemicals, Hindustan Lever, Amar Dye Chem, Indian Dyestuffs Industries, Asian Paints, Nocil, PIL, Reliance Heat Transfer, Industrial Per­fumes, Dharamsi Morarji, Tata Pharma, Lakme, National Rayon Corp, RCF, Alkyl Amines, Western Pacques, Poly­chem, Dr Reddy's Research Foundation, CIPLA, Lupin - a virtual who's-who of the chemical industry - besides scores of small scale industries, have had the benefit of the expertise available at UDCT.

With this kind of utilitarian culture it is not surprising that many of UDCT"s alumni and even ex-faculty members arc successful businessmen. Dr Keki Gharda of Gharda Chemicals, Dr Anji Reddy of Dr Reddy's Labs, Mukesh Ambani of Reliance, I.A. Modi of Cadilla, the three Parekh brothers of Pidilite, R.M.Kedia of Kedia Chemicals, Dr K.V. Mariwala of Bombay Oil Industries, Nikhil Meswani of Reliance Petro, Dr Atma Gupta of Armour Polymers, V.G. Rajadhyaksha of Hindustan Lever, and J.M. Nadkarni of Bombay Paints are just a few names that come to mind. The full list is extremely impressive and also includes a large num­ber of small scale industrialists. The alumni have also been generous towards their alma mater in cash, chemical sup­plies, scholarships and endowments. No wonder, UDCT's diamond jubilee this year will be proudly celebrated by the Indian chemical industry.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Indian S&T 1947-97

Business India, August 11-24, 1997

Prisoner of autarky

Indian S&T is yet to recover from the fallout of autarkic policies and the Pokharan nuclear explosion

Shivanand Kanavi

Along with the rise of the modern nationalist movement and an attendant intellectual renaissance, the first quarter of the 20th century saw the rise of a few brilliant scientists like S. Ramanujan, C.V. Raman, S.N. Bose and M.N. Saha. They won worldwide acclaim for their work in number theory, molecular physics, quantum statistics and astrophysics. Although Europe was the seat of high science at that time, they did not emigrate and instead continued their pursuit of science in India despite the paucity of funds and poor educational and research infrastructure. In the process they also trained a few young researchers. The research groups pre-Independence were centred around these individuals in the mould of guru shishya parampara.

Institutional science
Then came Independence and along with Nehru and his brand of modernisation, a new breed of scientists like Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai and Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar took over as science administrators. Having studied in Europe, Bhabha and Sarabhai saw the rise of organised science in the period between the two World Wars, and they tried to repeat the experience in India by building government-funded R&D institutes outside the university system. The era of institutional science began.

Their access to Nehru and prominent industrial houses helped Bhabha and Sarabhai in raising new institutions like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and the Atomic Energy Establishment (now called the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre) at Mumbai and Physical Research laboratory (PRL), at Ahmedabad ..

Bhabha attracted a large number of talented scientists and engineers from India and abroad to work at the institutes. He understood that Indian science would gain only through international contact. He not only sent a large number of young scientists abroad for higher studies but also ensured that a large number of distinguished scientists including Nobel Laureates visited TIFR to give lectures. He modeled TIFR after the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton and encouraged the development of first rate groups in mathematics and physics. Expertise in many emerging fields like nuclear physics, electronics, computers, radio astronomy, and elementary particle physics was developed here.

Under Sarabhai's leadership the PRL at Ahmedabad, with its emphasis on cosmic rays and radio physics, became the birth place for Indian expertise in space sciences. Besides being excellent basic research centres, TIFR and PRL were the cradles for the nuclear, and space programmes that took off later.

Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar wanted to develop the more mundane industrial technologies. A council to encourage industrial research had been set up by the colonial government in 1942. The idea was developed by Bhatnagar with Nehru's active encouragement and a network of laboratories starting with the National Physical Laboratory, (Delhi) and the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL, Pune) were built in 1950. From this grew the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) which at present is the largest chain of publicly funded research laboratories in the world comprising over 40 laboratories.

Within a decade of the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1948, India became the first Asian country to build its own research reactor-Apsara in 1957 at Trombay. The problem that worried Bhabha was how to use India's limited resources of uranium to produce electricity without enriching uranium and more importantly how to use the vast reserves of thorium on the beaches of Kerala. The Canadians came forward with an answer with their Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor technology. India adopted this, while at the same time buying conventional reactors from General Electric Company of USA to gain experience in nuclear power. As a result, Tarapur Atomic Power Station was built on conventional grounds and a contract was signed with the Canadians to build the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station.

While the Trombay group went ahead in acquiring expertise in nuclear physics, the PRL Group under Sarabhai started the space programme, modestly. Sarabhai negotiated with the Bishop of an old church at Thumba (near Thiruvananthapuram) to use the premises to fabricate the first sounding rockets in 1963. Since everything in the field of rocketry had to be learnt from scratch, Sarabhai used his contacts in NASA, and among the scientists involved in the French and Russian space programmes to get as much information as possible. After Bhabha's death in an Air-India crash near Geneva in 1966, Sarabhai took over the leadership of both space and nuclear programmes. However, matters changed drastically for the nuclear programmes after Sarabhai's death in 1972. To the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, atoms were an instrument of power. Within a short while, she reoriented the programme towards generating a bomb.

Pokharan fallout
The underground nuclear explosion at Pokharan in the Thar desert in 1974 changed the course not only of the nuclear programme but of Indian science in general. Till-today, Indian R&D institutions and technology programmes cannot import a state-of-the-art CNC lathe or a special purpose pump much less hi-tech electronics and supercomputers, thanks to the embargoes. In fact, Canada abandoned the Rajasthan nuclear power project mid-way.

The wisdom that flowed from the PMO at this time was self reliance and import substitution. Nobody asked the question 'Is it cost-effective, original or globally competitive?’ as long as the science mandarins claimed it was a breakthrough in indigenous import substitution. The darkage of post-Independent S&T began. From which we have yet to recover.

With great difficulty; nuclear engineers have today managed to grasp the Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor technology, but in the process, are left with obsolete technology. A latecomer like South Korea with S&T infrastructure hardly comparable to India's, today produces 10,316 MW of nuclear power with 11 nuclear reactors, while India has an installed capacity of only 1,700 MW from 10 nuclear reactors.

Moreover, the transparency of the nuclear programme during. Bhabha and Sarabhai's time, later turned into extreme intolerance towards critics. Today there are serious questions to be raised about the money spent on atomic energy and the returns on it.

However Satish Dhawan, who took over the leadership of space programme in 1972, retained the openness and informality required for the cutting edge in science and engineering. Even though the technology embargoes were forcing Indian Space Research Organisation too to reinvent the wheel, he used the build-or-buy choice intelligently. Solid fuelled rocket technology had obvious applications in missiles and hence- no one was ready to give it. So Dhawan concentrated on developing it at Thiruvananthapuram.

Liquid fuelled rocket engines, which are the more efficient and necessary components of satellite launching technology, were a different cup of tea. Using his excellent personal contacts, Dhawan convinced the French to transfer the liquid fuelled rocket technology. He also formulated a well charted road map to reach the goal of satellite launching capability. Another group concentrated on learning the intricacies of remote sensing and communication satellites. When they did not get an electronic component from the US they either built it themselves or bought it -from the Europeans or Japanese. Dhawan also negotiated for free launches from the French and the Russians. Today the space programme stands out as one of the few publicly funded initiatives in India that has achieved world class standards.

With the gradual opening up and liberalisation in trade in the 1980s, a new initiative to focus on certain technologies was taken by the then PM, Rajiv Gandhi. Operating "on a mission mode", where a multidisciplinary group comes together to achieve a target and is then disbanded without creating bureaucracies, became the new paradigm. Sam Pitroda and his team in the telecom technology mission came to the fore. Belatedly India decided to enter the era of digital telecommunications. The result was the switch designed by the Centre for Development Of Telematics (C-DOT) meant for small exchanges. However before C-DOT could deliver the large switch it suffered a setback. In an increasingly fractured and revengeful polity Pitroda's closeness to Rajiv Gandhi was the excuse used by the succeeding government to cripple the telecom mission. So in the 1990s, when worldwide, telecom is undergoing fast technological changes, India once again lags miserably.

In the last ten years, successive governments have been busy fighting for survival and the initiative for the development of S&T has fallen to an extent on lower level R&D managers. Many science administrators have
created bureaucratic fiefdoms while a few have used the opportunity to reform.

For example R.A.Mashelkar, director of NCL, used the opportunity to make his colleagues aware of their intellectual property rights and pushed them towards proactive global technology marketing. NCL today has emerged as a world class centre in catalysis and polymer science. As the director general of CSIR, Mashelkar now has the task of converting his slogan of 'research as business' into reality.

At cross roads
Research in the private sector has been a joke so far. Equipment and wages of personnel involved in routine quality control, which is part of the manufacturing activity, listed by the industry as R&D expenditure to avail of the tax breaks. However the new GATT regime and the pressure on India to change, its patent laws is forcing a handful of domestic pharmaceutical companies to invest in new drug research.

If the state of bio-technology is poor due to the indolence of the private sector the fate of the other major technology of the 21st century-infotech- has been sealed by a luddite attitude towards computers. As a result there is hardly a domestic base for information technology without which no real software industry can come into being. The software industry requires the installation of a large number of computers in the government, financial sector and the corporate sector who then drive the market for application packages. However due to flawed policies that looked at computers not as an opportunity to increase productivity and create new jobs but as villains that would take away jobs India today has a pitifully small number of computers, hardly a quarter of those installed in China, leave alone other advanced countries. In the circumstances, Indians have developed core competency in customized solutions and software services for corporate clients abroad. This sector is growing at an impressive 50 percent growth rate. Software product development with higher margins and visibility has started only in the 1990s, that too on a low key. As an observer said: "What software industry do we have, we have not produced even a video game.”

To sum up, in the last 50 years Indian S&T has gone through a series of periods characterised by brilliant scientists before Independence, institutional science in the 1950s and 1960s, autarky and bureaucratisation in the 1970s and 1980s and opening up and the chance to leverage ourselves in knowledge based industries in the1990s.

Will our government, science satraps and entrepreneurs seize the hour or will we keep marking time, hearing inanities about the “third biggest pool of scientific power”?

M M Sharma, Indian Chemical industry, UDCT

Business India, February 10-23, 1997

The chemistry of industry
Prof M.M. Sharma, FRS, was the first Indian engineer to be made Fellow of Royal Society of London. Recently he was awarded the Leverhulme Medal established on the occasion of the tercentenary of the Royal Society “in recognition of his work on the dynamics of mu1ti-phase chemical reactions in industrial processes”. The medal has been awarded to only five other chemists and engineers since 1960.

He has made significant contributions in making the University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT), Mumbai, of which he is the director, into a world class centre of excellence in chemical engineering. He spoke to
Shivanand Kanavi on industry-academia interaction.


How did you acquire the mindset of doing basic research of very high value and at the same time being concerned about commer­cialisation of scientific results?
The answer to your question on my interest in interaction with indus­try goes back to the roots of the organisation (UDCT). There is no family history of business or great academic work. The desire to link practical problems with academic work is a later development.

Early faculty members at UDCT, like Professors Venkatra­man, G.P. Kane, G.M. Nabar, N.R. Kamath thought that UDCT should have organic links with industry in a professional way and not in terms of lip service.

As soon as India became inde­pendent, there was a vacuum. Who will advise textile mills in textile processing? The industry knew only spinning and weaving. After the Second World War, BIOS reports became available, to pro­vide the guidelines for organic chemical industry. Thus, a mutually beneficial relationship could be sustained.

From my Cambridge days, I had been publishing papers in Faraday Society Transactions, etc, but I was working on a problem which had links with industry even in the puritan atmosphere of Cam­bridge. In fact, those days, I was lucky to have an idea patented in my name and sell it to Shell International. My original con­viction became terribly strengthened with this exercise.
I would say that the monograph that I wrote with my mentor, the late Professor P.Y. Dankwerts, FRS, GC, in Cambridge, on 'Absorption of carbon dioxide in amines and alkalies', gave me great satis­faction. I think it became a sort of classic in chemical engineering where we explained how from the very first principles you go to the design of final industrial equipment.

What led to your celebrated work on 'microphases'?
At UDCT from the beginning, we had taken up problems, which were very heavily idea-centred because we had no budget. A problem of making precipi­tated calcium carbonate (which goes into toothpaste, etc), came to us. On the face of it, it was very simple. Calcium oxide plus water gives calcium hydrox­ide, which, with carbon dioxide, gives calcium carbonate.

At that time an idea came to us about the role of 'microphases', a phrase that we used much later. Microphase is a phase where the characteristic dimension is less than the diffusion path. In simple language, particles, which are sub-micron to few microns in size - it could be a small bubble, a small liquid droplet, solid particle - constitute the microphase. The microphase changes the dynamics of the process. For example, when you hydrate calcium oxide you get particles within micron range with­out expenditure of energy. Therefore, you see how real life problems are the harbingers of problems of great the­oretical interest!
It is a great pleasure for an applied scientist, when his idea works, and he can demonstrate its academic purity by way of research publication. It gives you a kind of thrill, which has a powerful catalytic action.

You mentioned the BIOS reports. Can you explain what they were and how the war triggered applied research in UDCT?
After the German defeat in World War II, teams were formed with experts from allied forces to visit every German chemical plant and other plants and find out all the details about their manufacturing processes. German dyestuff industry and textile aux­illiaries were well known. The mother company was IG Farben from which Bayer. Hoechst and BASF were later born. The British Intelligence Office pro­duced these reports. Every detail of the manufacturing process was given in these reports.

They were then the starting point for entrepreneurs in India to start industries, we at UDCT had access to these reports and they were a fantastic source of infor­mation. The entire recipe was given in detail. Indians had to learn textile pro­cessing. Our textile-processing course was immensely helpful. It provided trained manpower when British experts had left.

Textile and sugar are mother indus­tries in India. They gave impetus to many things. All the original chemical compa­nies in India were textile houses ­Mafatlals, Sarabhais, Srirams in DCM, Jaikrishna Harivallabhdas. Ambika Mills, Atul. etc. From textiles to dyes and bulk chemicals is how we developed in India. Plastics and synthetic fibres, which dominate the chemical industry today came into the scene much later, in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Your advice is sought by almost the entire Indian chemical industry, Why not develop technology and licence it rather than be a consultant?Licencing is a complicated business. To advise industry on how to get more from existing assets is the most rewarding experience in terms of relationship between an academic and industry. Industry gets benefit immediately: more profits, less load on effluents, much more throughput out of existing equipment. The academic gets the benefit of seeing his ideas work and gets emboldened. It also buttresses his income. The student gets tremendous advantage because the quality of lectures he gets improves.

There is lot of talk in India about uni­versity-industry interaction, but it is only talk. People never put it into practice.

Consultancy by faculty members should have a wider base. If one person is involved in a faculty of 20, the spread fac­tor is very limited. At least one-third of the faculty should be involved.

Last year we generated Rs.43lakh through consultancy. Bombay University got one-third of it. This year will we be able to do it? Was it a freak year? No. by all indications we will make it this year also.

Lawyers, chartered accountants, doc­tors etc. practice consultancy, why not engi­neers? Of course, a high level of professional integrity is required. One black sheep can give a bad name to the institute. Any underhand dealing will get exposed - sooner rather than later.
Intellectual curiosity is also satisfied along with material needs and we have a greater chance of retaining a good per­son. This is important; after all an acade­mic's salary is nowhere near corporate salaries.

What do you think about sending teachers to industry on a sabbatical? Or about academics being on the boards of companies?
We have practiced these things very rig­orously. In the beginning, instead of sending a faculty member for a whole year, we see them on vacation place­ment so that he does not have to take leave and worry about continuity in service etc. A number of people have been on the board of companies and even many companies simultaneously. We encouraged it.
We have created as number of visiting professorship through private endowment, for persons from industry. We have not left any stone unturned.
Industry is realizing that their engineers need to upgrade and retrain. So they are requesting us to design refresher courses of 2-3 weeks’ duration.
Being science-based, the chemical industry is receptive to new ideas. If -you see Department of Science and Tech­nology's booklet on R&D in Indian indus­try, it is the chemical industry which leads; largely domestic companies and especially the technocrat-driven companies. 'The big C in their capital is technology and they have to be superior to be competitive nationally and internationally.
Of course, in India there is horizontal pilferage of technology because of Which the industry has acutely suffered in the last 20 years. The cost of innovation is high while that of pilferage is zero.

What is your view on the IPR controversy?Let us be very objective. When the cost of development is abnormally high and that too based on private money, it will be I treated as property. After a drug or agro­chemical molecule has been found, anybody can improve the technology and sell at a lower cost because the developmental costs have been borne by someone else. Why are we feeling diffident that we can­not generate ideas of that calibre?

I will give an example of missed oppor­tunities from chemistry. N.R. Iyengar had a brilliant idea to make an intermediate for rubber chemicals. He published that paper in Tetrahedron Letters. If he had the awareness, he would have patented it. Two or three years later there was a patent from Monsanto where the first paper referred to was N.R. Iyengar's! Based on that idea a commercial plant can be put up which costs less and is less polluting. A known product but made by a better route. I am just giving an example. If he had patented it, it is quite likely that Monsanto would have bid for it. He could also have then published it.

The debate on what can be patented and what cannot be, goes on all the time. An obvious thing cannot be patented but there is too much sensationalism in India ­"neem is being patented, tulsi is being patented.” etc. Something, which we know in everyday life, cannot be patented.

With the increasing integration of the Indian economy with the world econ­omy, there is a fear that Indian R&D will suffer. What is your view?I am convinced that globalisation will give a big boost to indigenous R&D and that it will get recognition internationally. The cost of research is so much lower in India than anywhere else. Talent is in reasonable abundance. All said and done I here is a worldwide trend against sharing technology. Therefore, the desire to come out with alternate technology, which is superior and patentable, will get a boost. Even in this liberalised atmosphere, many are not able to put up plants because nobody is ready to sell the technology to them. This will continue, because the developed nations perceive India as a potential competitor

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Genetic Engineering, Bt Cotton

Business India, December 14-27, 1998

To terminate or not to…………

Violent agitators want the farm experiments on genetically engineered cotton to be terminated. Business India examines the issues involved

Shivanand Kanavi

Professor Nanjundaswamy and his followers in the Karnataka Rajya Raita Sangha (State Farmers’ Association) are very angry; in recent weeks they have been uprooting and burning boll worm resistant cotton plants, from experimental farms in Bellary and Raichur in Karnataka. Others have engaged in similar vandalism in Andhra Pradesh. Taken by surprise, farmers who had volunteered for the experiments have opposed these attacks and asked for police protection. The agitators allege "Terminator technology is being tried on unsuspecting third world farmers by the multinational seed company Monsanto." Some ministers in Andhra Pradesh too have fallen prey to agitators' propaganda and asked for banning of the experiments. Dr P.K. Ghosh, advisor to the Department of Biotechnology, has however deplored these attacks, clarifying that the experiments have nothing to do with the terminator gene and are about boll worm resistant cotton. Moreover, they are being conducted under the strict supervision of various agencies of the Central government. But no one is listening.

Comparison between Luddites and the crusaders against experiments in genetically engineered cotton ends with their violent methods. Luddites were manual textile workers displaced by the advent of machinery in early 19th century England, who went about expressing anger against their misery by smashing up machinery. They saw machines as the cause of their condition. The current agitators claim to be farmer's representatives and well-wishers but are preventing farmers from being voluntary participants in experiments whose successful outcome would lead to a better cotton crop, with lesser use of insecticides.

It is patent disinformation to say that current experiments are to do with the "terminator gene.” The experiments are to do with cotton that is genetically engineered to resist boll worm attack. It has been known for almost a century that a particular type of soil bacteria produces proteins that are toxic to some common pests attacking cotton, corn and potato. A German scientist, Ernst Berliner, who rediscovered it in 1915, in Thuringen, named the microorganism, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Since then this bacterial culture has been used as a commercial insecticide.

Monsanto's biotechnologists patented in March 1996 (US patent No: 5,500,365) an ingenious way to take out the genes from Bt, that are responsible for the production of toxic protein that has insecticidal properties. They then implanted these genes into cotton seeds. Such genetically engineered cotton seeds produce the toxin that will kill boll worms - a major pest that attacks the cotton boll. If a boll worm larvae eats a leaf or any part of the cotton plant, then the toxin attacks its gut, leading to its death much .before it can harm the crop. Monsanto sells this technology under the trademark Bollgard.

Several seed companies have been licensed the Bollgard technology in the US. After completing all the regulatory trials, checking for toxic effects on human beings, birds which eat the insects etc, the technology has been commercialised. Over 2.2 milllon acres of cotton growing area, that is 22 per cent of the cotton growing area in US, was planted with Bollgard cotton seed in 1997. It was found that 60 per cent of Bollgard cotton was not attacked by boll worms at all, and others applied anti-boll worm insecticide only once as compared to four to six applications in conventional cotton. It is also being planted in Australia and China.

India is the world's largest producer of cotton (32 per cent in 1995-96). However, due to the threat of boll worm, cotton requires one of the most intensive insecticide application. It is estimated that agrochemicals worth Rs.1,590 crore were used by Indian cotton farmers in 1995-96 alone. Thus, one would assume that Bollgard technology, if proven in Indian conditions, would be a boon to cotton growers and the environment alike.

Terminator gene
Terminator gene the villain in the agitator’s plot is the name given to a concept patent obtained by Delta & Pine Land and the US Department of Agriculture by its opponents. It has nothing to do with the experiments being conducted under strict government supervision.

In March 1998, Delta & Pine Land, the largest cotton seed seller in the US, was granted a concept patent along with the US Department of Agriculture (US Patent No: 5,723, 765, control of plant gene expression, Inventors: M.J. Oliver, J.E. Quisenberry, N.L.G. Trolinder and D.L. Keim). The concept, when further developed and implemented, can lead to seeds that will yield normal crops, though the second generation seeds will be rendered sterile. If successful this technology can stop the farmer from saving high yielding seed incorporation this technology, for the next sowing. They will be all sterlile, this will force him to go back to the seed company. This has been termed “terminator gene” technology by Pat Mooney of Canada-based Raral Advancement Foundation International, and organisation that campaigns against seed companies like Monsanto (see http://www. rafi.ca).

The technology is highly complex and requires all such seeds to be soaked in the antibiotic tetracycline before sale. The cost of technology and tetracycline are going to make such seeds extremely expensive. Thus, if any farmer were to buy them it can only be for extraordinary yields and other benefits. Moreover, ad for as hybrids go, the farmers is used to buying seeds every year since the hybrid vigour diminishes by almost 50per cent in the second generation seeds. Thus the commercial necessity and viability of this technology is under question.

Biologists like Martha Crouch of Indian University, and several NGOs have expressed the fear that such seeds, if ever produced, can render other plants of the same species grown nearby also sterile through what is called outcrossing, they also warn against possible toxic effects on insects and birds. Naturally, the terminator seeds have to be thoroughly tested before approval. Moreover , even if the regulatory authorities US approve such seeds, other countries need not follow suit. Even under WTO agreements on Intellectual Property Rights and other related agreements regarding plant varieties, individual countries can disallow certain varieties as inimical to public good, good security, environmental concerns etc. under a sui generis system.

Terminator technology is only confined to Delta & Pine Land’s labs and no seed using this concept has yet been produced for rigorous regulatory trials , leave alone commercial production. The technology has remained and important scientific feat in terms of genetic engineering, but of no real world consequences yet. A parallel can be drawn in the closing of sheep Dolly, by scientists in Scotland last year. A great achievement in life science. But if one were to start a campaign against it on ethical grounds saying this can lead to human cloning, Nazi eugenics and so on, then it would be highly premature and sensationalist. That is what the preset agitation against Bollgard experiments, is all about!

Monsanto, which has been on an acquiring spree, has made a friendly bid to buy out the controlling share in Delta & Pine Land, the world’s largest cottonseed company. At present, it owns only 7 per cent of the stock, the takeover is expected to be sooth according to Monsanto sources. To claim however, as the agitators do, that Monsanto will acquire terminator gene technology in future and use it in conjunction with its highly successful bioengineered seeds and hence any experiments using Monsanto’s present technology, even if they are beneficial to the Indian farmer, should be terminated, is highly convoluted, to say the least.


Biotech revolution
Mahyco, the leading cotton seed company in India, hence tied up with Monsanto in a joint venture, Mahyco Monsanto Biotech India Pvt. Ltd. to implement Bollgard technology in its own best -selling varieties. After all, Bollgard seeds of any other country cannot be used in India. So Mahyco has done considerable research leading to absorption of Bollgard in 10 of its varieties. It is these varieties that are being field-tested in 40 centres all over India under different agro-climatic conditions. Many of them are Mahyco's own research farms. However, some of them belong to private cotton growers. The tests are being conducted under the strict supervision of the Department of Biotechnology of the Central government. Due to the sensitive nature of biotechnology, over half a dozen committees working under the biotechnology and environmental departments are reviewing the results. When the trials were almost complete came these sudden attacks, causing dismay among scientists.

Mark Wells, national marketing manager of Monsanto in India says: "Genetically engineered crops are being scrutinised and tried under the strictest of conditions like any drug meant for human use. And rightly so. We find that highly competent Indian scientists are monitoring the tests. Monsanto will not provide any technology that will adversely impact the environment, current agricultural practices or force farmers to use our technology. New products and technology and must increase farmers’ income otherwise they will be rejected by them.”

Indian agricultural scientists have had more than three decades of experience in breeding hybrids and high yielding varieties. In fact, much of the enthusiasm for cotton in the past 20 years among farmers is due to the introduction of new high yielding varieties by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Agricultural Universities. It is however strange that the network of agricultural universities, with vast experience in in situ experiments, are not involved in the current trials. Vijay Kumar Gidnavar, deputy director of research, University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad says; “we are looking forward to the results of the experiments. Bollagard is a major achievement in plant biotechnology and its success will give a fillip to biotech work among Indian scientists as well. In fact, we do have several biotech projects going on at the laboratory level already”

Let us not miss it
Biotechnology can yield a number of benefits for farmers. In fact, the report of the World Bank panel on transgenic crops, authored by eight internationally renowned scientists, including M.S.Swaminathan, states: “Transgenic crops are not in principle more injurious to the environment than traditionally bred crops. Transgenic crops that are developed and used widely can be very helpful, and may prove essential, to world food production and agricultural sustainability. Biotechnology can certainly be an ally to those developing integrated pest management and crop management systems.”

For example, potato impregnated with another gene from Bt has proven resistant to the potato beetle. Similarly, protection from corn borer for maize has been provided by another gene from Bt Besides insect protection, biotech can lead to better weed management, thereby increasing the yields. A major development has been the production of genetically engineered soybean, maize and rape seed that are resistant to herbicides. A broad spectrum herbicide like glyphosate kills most of the weeds and the crop as well, since it inhibits ESPSP synthase, an enzyme essential to plant growth. But biotechnology has enabled scientists to develop seeds thereby making weed control a simple matter of spraying glyphosate. Research is on to develop genetically engineered varieties that are resistant to various fungi and viruses as well.

In fact, mimicking the famous Moore’s law (Gordon Moore, founder of Intel) in micro electronics which states that “computing power of silicon chips will double every 18-24 months”, Monsanto has coined its own ‘Monsanto Law’, which states, “the ability to identify and use genetic information will double every 12-24 months.”

Should Indian agriculture miss this biotech revolution. When it is clear that environmentally friendly intensive agriculture is the only solution to the problem of feeding a billion Indians? One can understand the Frankenstein syndrome- fear of tampering with nature to produce an uncontrollable monster. But then, is not agriculture itself an artifice?

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Men behind India's Space Programme

Business India, November 21-December 4, 1994

Those magnificent men...

The Indian space programme spanning 40 years is the story of remarkable men and their amazing deeds


Shivanand Kanavi

After seeing the giant Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), as tall as a 15-storeyed building, take off flawlessly on 15 October this year, it is hard to believe that it all started with a metre-long rocket, a little bigger than a Diwali firework. The Indian space pro­gramme today is acknowledged the world over as one of the top six. We have the capability to build state-of-the-art remote sensing and communication satellites and now with the success of PSLV, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has demonstrated mastery over complex technologies in rocketry, capable of putting satellites into precise predetermined orbits. How did it leap to these heights from its humble beginnings? Who are our prominent space men? What makes them tick? In the barrage of num­bers on payload capability, orbit charac­teristics, specific impulses, etc. the story of the programme and the people who made it possible tends to get obscured. Business India visited several ISRO cen­tres in Bangalore, Trivandrum, Valia­mala, Mahendragiri and Sriharikota to meet some of these elusive folk.

'A church where space is worshipped' sounds like a corny ad line or something from the fiction of an Isaac Asimov or an Arthur C. Clark novel. But it is a fact that the Indian space programme actually started in 1963 in a church and the adjoin­ing bishop's house. The premises were graciously offered to the cause by the local Christian community at Thumba, near Trivandrum. The scientists led by Dr Vikram Sarabhai worked in the bishop's house and the metre-long sounding rock­ets were assembled in the anteroom of the church and fired from a launch pad on the beach.

Pramod Kale, who retired on 2 November from his post of director of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), carried out the traditional countdown for the first launch. Today the church with a history dating back to 1544 AD has thou­sands of youthful 'worshippers' visiting everyday. It has been turned into the most comprehensive space mu­seum in India. Dr P. Manoranjan Rao of the Pro­gramme Planning and Evalu­ation Group at VSSC remarks wistfully, "I hope our politi­cians learn something from this space museum and apply it in Ayodhya - that would be one more spin-off from India's space programme!”

'The space programme will help upgrade the technology level of the country of the country'

Dr K. Kasturirangan, secretary to the Department of Space, who is also chairman of the Space Commission, in conversation with Shivanand Kanavi

Congratulations on the successful launch of the PSLV. For you per­sonally, what has been the most chal­lenging and satisfying project?

Thank you. If you ask me personally, the design and development of the first oper­ational remote sensing satellite IRS-1A was the most exciting. Over a period of almost six years, we built a state-of-the-­art satellite. So many technologies had to be developed. We certainly had difficul­ties all through the developmental stage in structural testing, thermal design, developing new systems, etc.

Two aspects were that we were devel­oping these technologies for the first time and that since it was going to be an opera­tional system everything had to be reli­able. We were targeting for a life of three years for our satellite, whereas the corre­sponding French satellite, SPOT, had only a two-year life. Today, the IRS-1A has completed six years and is still work­ing. It was a sort of a national project, with the involvement of large number of centres. Those six years were a period of intense learning and innovation.

You are a physicist and, in fact, spe­cialised in the esoteric high energy astronomy. How did you make the switch to an engineering project like that?

I started my research career at the Physi­cal Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, with Dr Vikram Sarabhai. I had to develop the balloon-bound payload for X-­ray astronomy. For that I had to build my own electronic circuits, power supplies, logic circuits and even ground station equipment. It was an experience in mechanical, electronic and system engi­neering. That period of PhD work provided me a very good base for conceptualising a system and integrating individual sub-systems, making it opera­tional, etc.

It also provided me with capability to think originally and in new ways. This does not come about unless you do research. I emphasise this point because a lot of people today jump into careers after satellite centre say, now we should go in B Tech or M Tech. But if you want to be a for the next generation of satellites of successful manager, team leader, heavier class, direct broadcasting sys­ designer, innovator or anything where originality of thinking is involved, then it needs a background in research.

When I had just completed my PhD in ­1970, Dr. Sarabhai called me to his room and encouraged me to join the scientific satellite project. I told him that I did not know the technology component of satellites. But he gave me the confidence that a physicist can play an important role in systems engineering. Then I worked hard and learnt satellite technology and found that of an Asian Space Consortium, that it was not very difficult.

How are you trying to retain the excitement and team spirit in ISRO?


One excellent trend has been set in this department and that is sitting down with Compounding the issue is the users; departments of telecom, ocean level of development of countries in this development, forestry, geology, agriculture, I&B, civil aviation, etc. They tell us what they are looking for in, terms of further support and services. Then we translate them into programmes and projects.

The technology options are worked out by various levels of people. Second level, third and even fourth. They come out with ideas. An important thing about the culture of this organisation is that irre­spective of who the person is, he is heard with respect and given due weightage. ­That makes everybody get involved. These 30 years have been well directed.

Has thinking begun already on the post-GSLV technologies?

We have not decided anything yet. Once the PSLV comes to fruition and GSLV ­moves fast then we will start worrying about the first decade of the 21st century. Several engineers are very busy looking ­at various things. Every day somebody comes and they want to do air- breathing engines, somebody else on single- stage orbit transfer, etc. and they point to the new technologies to-order sate needed for these systems. People at satellite centre say, now we should go in for the nest generation of satellites of heavier class, direct broadcasting systems, etc. Ideas are perpetually bubbling in the minds of peoples here. We have to review them, convert them into concrete projects looking at their economic viability, feasibility of accomplishing the goal in a certain time-fame, etc. At ISRO we have always operated at the cutting edge of technology and we would like to maintain that pre-eminent position in the years to come.

One of the ideas being tossed around is that of an Asian Space Consortium, like the eminently successful European Space Agency…..

This idea has been floated but there has been no concrete exchange of ideas. Compounding the issue is the fact that the region is not uniform. In Europe you have 13-14 member states who can industrially and technologically contribute. We need to address these issues, so far the programme has been national and co-operation has been on a bilateral basis.

Leaving aside the political issues involved in such a venture, it makes sense economically. If you want to competed in the growing Asian Satellite market it would be easier to get contracts if various states in the region have stake in the programme. Otherwise, they would be awarded to Hughes or TRW or someone else.

You are quite right. But we need to address some of the problems and have the region. So that each country can contribute the best they can.

There is one basic question that is often raised. Indonesia built a satellite communication system much before us without a satellite or launch vehicle development programme. So, in today’s condition, why should one go in for these programmes, when made to-order satellites are available as also commercial launch programmes.

The situation is not that simple. India is a country with about 3.2 million sq km land and the second largest population with large resources, not just in materials but also scientific. That is why right from the time of Independence self-reliance in cer­tain vital areas, like communications, meteorology, earth resources through remote sensing, etc. has been one of the national goals.

In these areas we have to provide the nation assured-services which are timely and cost-effective. Another important thing is that it generally upgrades the technological level of the country. It per­colates down to various levels of the economy. In fact the objective of the Swedish space programme is general upgradation of the country's technologi­cal capability. With our vast country and diverse needs, which we can meet with our own technological capability, why should we go and buy it from someone else. Moreover, we can launch our own satellites with our own launch vehicle most cost-effectively.

Technically speaking, if we have access to a booster like the first stage of PSLV, which is the third largest in the world, then India can construct ICBMs if it wants. What is your reaction?

We have not configured this vehicle for any military application. Right from the beginning the PSLV has been designed as an optimised solution to launch 1-tonne class remote sensing satellites into polar orbits. Then the question was what are the technologies that we have so far in liquid and solid propulsion and how can we combine them in an optimal way in this vehicle. So, none of the requirements of a missile have been kept in mind for this vehicle.

Is it that critical what the end use of the vehicle is?

Certainly, Configuration and other details are quite different.

What about the PSLVS ability to launch low earth orbit reconnaissance satellites?

Nowadays remote sensing applications are demanding more and more resolu­tion up to even two metres. Some com­panies abroad are openly.announcing high resolutions for civilian purposes which were earlier considered to be in the domain of reconnaissance. Capabilities, which were restricted to an aircraft-based survey are now being built into the space­craft itself. The PSLV will be a vehicle which will be used for these kinds of mappings.

If the PSLV can actually launch a much higher payload but for the complicated yaw manoeuvre to avoid Sri Lanka then can't we have another launch site for it?

It is an expensive proposition to set up an alternative launch site and we have made considerable investments in Sriharikota. Let me also point out that most of the launch sites in the world today are not that well optimised. Either they will have deficiency for the equatorial mode or for the polar mode because of various constraints like nearby land masses, safety zones, nearness to the equator, etc. So, one has to live with the non­-optional situation. Our loca­tion for launching geostationary communication satellites is very good, being at 13° N latitude. The only thing better than that is the French site at Kouru islands in French Guyana which is at 7° S latitude.

Right now ISRO just builds satellites and operates them but the department of telecom decides how the transponders are used by whom. Can ISRO on its own launch a satellite and lease out the transponders to whoever wants to use it, be it domestic private users or foreign governments or companies like Asi­asat, Arabsat or Apstar?

We can't rule out this possibility. It needs to be pursued. Right now I am unable to answer the question.

Since we are getting seven flight-quali­fied cryogenic engines from Russia, are we going to start flying operational communication satellites from the GSLV-l?


No the first flight will be experimental and then as and when the need arises we will use them to launch comsats. Mean­while, before the end of this decade we want, to develop our own cryogenic engine whose, parallel development will go on.

Today, with inspiring suc­cesses in satellite building and in rocketry, it is easy for a young man with stars in his eyes to join ISRO. But what was it like in the 1960s? Then all one had was the exciting news of the Soviet-American space race and the prospect of emigrating and joining NASA. It would have been considered daydreaming of the highest order for an Indian to think of an Indian rocket inject­ing an Indian satellite into orbit. So what attracted our would-be space men to join Vikram Sarabhai in his dreams?

"I was an undergraduate studying physics when the Soviets launched the, Sputnik. I made up my mind to join the space programme, though it did not exist then. Soon after my BSc honours, I went to Ahmedabad and met Dr Sarabhai. He asked me to come to Ahmedabad, finish post-graduation and then join him in the Physical Research Laboratory," recounts Kale. After two more years of waiting and an MSc, Kale became one of the first to be roped into the space programme. He moved to Trivandrum, to the nascent Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station. That was the time of the church and the bishop's house. The unassuming Kale is regarded with great respect in ISRO and his early retirement is seen a great loss. "We wish he would change his mind," says Dr Manoranjan Rao.

Kale started his work in satellite sys­tems quite early and is today one of the authorities on the subject. Besides his in-depth knowledge of satellite tech­nology, he is a systems man. Nearly- 20 years back his work in systems analysis and management was recognised. And eight months back, when he was trans­ferred to vssc at Trivandrum, it was not only another home coming for Kale but also a challenging opportunity in project management for the PSLv launch preparation.

Within a short time he brought in advanced project management tech­niques. "We had to deal with about 12,000 activities and 18 networks. It was a mind-boggling exercise in project man­agement. We prepared project evaluation and review technique charts with about 500 elements and tried to find which are the optimal, normal and critical paths," says R.A.D. Pillai, one of the project managers. In such a complex project some activities can go on in parallel, as they don't depend on others till they reach a certain stage while others deal with inte­gration of these sub-assemblies. The lat­ter kind are heavily sequential - that is they depend on whether other systems are ready at the right time, and can only be carried out in a sequence of steps. If a step is not completed then a bottleneck is created and the integration gets held up. Anticipating trouble involves finding all such critical paths.

Normally one finds only one critical path, but, since there are a number of fac­tors which depend on chance, the natural choice is the ‘Monte Carlo technique'. This technique derives its name from the infamous gambling dens of Monte Carlo and using 'game theory' estimates all possible critical paths. When Kale used these techniques for the PSLV, he found more than one critical path and that helped. "But there is no substitute for actually visiting any division or centre which is critical and finding solutions together with the people there. Software can only act as a pointer, it is not a substi­tute for leadership in the field," Kale rightly points out.

Richard Feynman, the brilliant Nobel prize-winning physicist who played a pivotal role in identifying the cause of the Challenger space shuttle disaster, wrote incisively in his eminently readable book, Who cares what other people think?, that the excitement and problem-solving atmosphere in NASA vanished after the Moon mission. The top people started developing shuttle-type of projects with exaggerated claims about spin-offs to perpetuate the space programme. Worse still, the team spirit vanished and the top guns stopped listening to the field­men. The thing to worry about is, has something similar set into the Indian space programme, now into its fourth decade?

Does the open atmosphere and excite­ment that prevailed in the early years still exist in ISRO? Kale vehemently asserts it does. "The only change I see is that people are getting a bit bogged down in places and the earlier spirit to go wherever problems exist is decreasing. Other than that, it is a very transparent organisation. All technical matters are thrashed out collectively. Who says something does not matter as much as what he says."

"One of the main reasons we are still highly motivated in ISRO is that for nearly three decades we have had good leader­ship with clear cut goals," says Dr. K.Kas­turirangan, the incumbent chairman of ISRO. "When Dr Sarabhai passed away, he had already defined four broad areas of work: development of a satellite, devel­opment of a launch vehicle, remote sens­ing experiments using data from the American Landsat and even a sociologi­cal experiment in satellite communica­tion in education, like SITE."

"Then the equally illustrious Prof Satish Dhawan took over," recalls Kasturirangan. "He made sure that these things are translated into reality by build­ing the core organisation to realise these goals. He set new goals like building the Aryabhata satellite, experimental remote sensing satellites Bhaskara I & II, first experimental communication satellite APPLE and intensive attention towards the development of the SLV-3. When he left the scene, Aryabhata, Bhaskara, APPLE were completed. The SLV-3 had successfully launched the Rohini class of satellites and even operationalised the first generation communication systems, the INSAT-l series. Then he led us in working out the profile for the next ten years: development of the augmented satellite launch vehicle (ASLV), the PSLV. and the IRS class of remote sensing satel­lites and the indigenous INSAT-2 series," he says.

"Prof. U.R. Rao strengthened the insti­tutions, promoted applications in remote sensing and carried forward with vigour the realisation of these goals," he adds. But what about the future? "We worry today about what we have to do five to ten years later. Once the activities regarding PSLv development come to fruition and the GSLV moves fast, we will start worry­ing about the first decade of the 21st century. One excellent trend has been set in this department and that is sitting down with users, like the departments of tele­com, ocean development, forestry, geol­ogy, agriculture, I&B, civil aviation, etc, who tell us what they are looking for in terms of further support and services. Then we translate them into programmes and projects. This loop is continuously on," says Kasturirangan.

Any number of ISRO personnel vouch for this. No wonder the space programme has been one of the few success stories authored by the government. People too have stuck around despite low govern­ment salaries and lucrative offers from multinationals. The essential cement has been the open atmosphere at ISRO and the excitement of breaking new ground all on one's own.

A very Indian characteristic of ISRO is the penchant for improvisation with what one has. For example, today Indian remote sensing has come of age and its IRS data and the expertise are in demand globally. But 25 years back it did not exist. In fact, remote sensing itself was then just emerging from the war-torn jun­gles of Indo-China, where it was devel­oped by the US to locate camouflaged Vietcong guerrilla positions. The moment an opportunity came along to learn remote sensing in the US with the Earth Resources Technology Satellite project, Sarabhai sent Kale, P. R. Pisharoty, C. Dakshinamurthy and B. Krishnamurthy for the same.

India at that time did not have remote sensing cameras and much less IRS satel­lites. So on their return the four began small. In Kerala, a common scourge affecting the coconut trees is 'coconut wilt' that only affects the crown of the tree and cannot be seen from the ground, thereby defying damage estimation. These scientists managed to hitch a ride on a helicopter, and using a camera with a roll of infrared sensitive film took pic­tures of coconut plantations. From this modest experiment followed by decades of painstaking work, India has today become one of the global leaders in all aspects of remote sensing.

When it came to launch vehicle tech­nology things; however, became very dif­ficult. The US refused to part with even the most elementary technologies, instead saying, 'buy our sounding rock­ets'. The French were more helpful. They sold the propellant technology for small solid-fuelled sounding rockets; though it was a far cry from the indigenously devel­oped, sophisticated ammonium perchlo­rate-hydroxyl-terminated poly-butadiene technology that is now used in the first stage of the PSLV, which makes it the third most powerful booster rocket in the world.

In the mid-1970s, France once again offered to share the liquid propulsion technology in exchange for Indian collab­oration in developing the same. The Indi­ans were supposed to develop the pressure transducers for the Viking liquid engines under development. While these transducers are hi-tech products, they are only a small component of the liquid engine. Moreover, there are so many design complexities that the 'know why' is absolutely essential to build an engine. The ‘know how' in terms of drawings are not enough. Why a particular thing is machined to one micron precision and not two? Why a certain kind of gasket or an O-ring has to be used and not any other, etc, can make or break an engine. The French, probably never expected Indians to acquire the full technology. Hence the contract was signed at a throwaway price.

The 50-odd team that went to France between 1978 and 1980 was made up of the cream of young ISRO engineers. Every day they brainstormed and sought solutions to complex design problems of the Viking, while maintaining a 'dumb' exterior to their French counterparts. Two years later they returned to India and claimed that they could build a 6O-tonne liquid engine using nitrogen tetroxide and unsymmetrical di-methyl hydrazine (UDMH), chemical compounds which were not even available in India then! "We asked for only Rs40 lakh (to fund the project)," recounts S. Nambina­rayanan, presently director, Cryogenic Propulsion, who lead the team to France. "Prof Dhawan was crazy enough to accede to this cocky request. If I write my memoirs some day, it will sound like a thriller," he laughs.

Two years later they built a model and in 1984 built an engine ready for test. But, then India did not have the present test facilities at Mahendragiri which, inci­dentally, being just ten years old is the most modem in the world. So the engine had to be taken all the way to France and Rs. l crore paid as testing fee. The French asked, "So you have brought an engine. Is this your prototype? Do you have a manufacturing programme?" and when answered in the negative, they could not believe it. They thought 'these Indians are crazy', Nambinarayanan recollects.

"The engine was tested and, to the jubi­lation of the Indians and the horror of the French the engine fired beautifully. Today's Vikas liquid engine is bigger than the French. Viking engine. And thereby hangs a tale of ISRO ingenuity and team work. It is this track record that gives the confidence to ISRO when they talk about developing cryogenic engines an order of magnitude more complex.

ISRO is not made up of just engineers who get their high from technology. There are also those who are worrying about costs,' markets, competitiveness and commercialisation. The hyperactive N. Sampath, executive director, Antric Corp, is one of them. In his characteristic rapid-fire style, he answers questions on commercial spin-offs with counter-ques­tions. "Why are we being asked about the commercialisation of the space pro­gramme? Can you show me one country in the world, which started the space programme to make money out of it? Then why pick on us?" This is not to say that he and his team are not looking at the highly competitive global space market, but he considers it as a spin-off rather than the main objective of the space programme.

"Our major problem in entering the global market is that we are only a five-satellite-old company, whereas there are companies which are 40 to 50 satel­lites old. So even though we can offer extremely competitive prices, the user goes for track record. However, due to fierce international competition, the big satellite companies are looking. at us as a source of sub-systems. So for some time we may not get any orders for complete satellites but make an equal amount of money by supplying sub-systems to, say, ten satellites," says Sampath.

The tie-up between Antrix and Eosat Corporation of the US, which has a turnover of about $40 million, is another deal that excites Sampath. "It is a step in gaining international credibility for Indian space products. It is a win-win situation. Eosat gets IRS data at highly competitive prices, which is moreover as good as and compatible with the Landsat (US) data that Eosat distributes to its cus­tomers. The imminent demise of Landsat 5 and the loss of Landsat-6 makes alternative arrangement a must. Here IRS data scores over the French SPOT data. Meanwhile, Antrix gains global market acceptability without spending a cent on expensive marketing,” Sampath exults.

Kasturirangan, Pramod Kale, Nambi­narayanan and Sampath are a small but representative sample of our space men. There are a whole host of others like Dr A.E. Muthunayagam, R. Aravamudan, S. Srinivasan, G. Madhavan Nair, K.V. Venkatachari, and Dr George Joseph. Behind payloads, orbits and engine char­acteristics it is these space men who, alongwith their thousands of colleagues, are propelling India into space. That is why the septugenarian doyen of our space men, Prof Dhawan said after the PSLV launch, "I wish I were a B Tech joining ISRO afresh !"