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ISRO: The fault line and the siege within

Lalit Shastri

The seniority of two distinguished ISRO scientists has been bypassed to appoint P. Kunhikrishnan as a Member of the Space Commission.

Kunnikrishnan is Director UR Rao Satellite center. Chandrayaan-2 was made there.

Kunhikrishnan’s appointment order was issued this past Wednesday in a hush-hush manner. Since ISRO chairman K Sivan is on extension and on the verge of retirement, all focus now is on who would be the next ISRO chief. In the normal course, the ISRO chairman should be selected from a panel of the senior-most distinguished scientists within the organisation.

Till now, two distinguished scientists Tapan Misra, Advisor to the ISRO Chairman and S Somnath, Director Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), who have a brilliant track record, were in the reckoning for the top ISRO post. Kunhikrishnan is junior to both of them.

In the second fortnight of December 2019, Somnath was even promoted to the Apex Scale equivalent to the post of Secretary in Government of India duly sanctioned by the Government. Obviously therefore the selection process for the top ISRO post anytime this year would have revolved around Tapan Misra and S Somnath. Now this would not be the case as Kunhikrishnan has been elevated as Member Space Commission.

Those in knowledgeable circles are viewing this development as a coup and a backdoor entry for a relatively junior distinguished scientist, who could not been promoted to the apex scale as only one Apex Scale equivalent to the post of Secretary, besides the post of Chairman ISRO, has been been sanctioned by Government of India. It is being pointed out by sources that another scientist has been elevated as Member of Space Commission only to bring him within the realm of consideration for the top ISRO post which will soon fall vacant.

Eyebrows are being raised and it is being asked in knowledgeable circles whether or not the Prime Minister, who holds the portfolio of the Department of Space has been briefed properly in this matter.

Leaf from the past

The Government has committed a blunder in not extending Kiran Kumar’s tenure and doing a wider search for a successor. The excessive hurry in this matter, it appears, was to keep a major contender out of reckoning and to promote a rank junior so that he could be within sniffing distance of the Chairman’s post when it falls vacant the next time. The government would do well to split the post of Secretary Department of Space and Chairman ISRO between a bureaucrat and a scientist to prevent concentration and misuse of power.

Lalit Shastri, Decline of ISRO, August 3, 2018 (Newsroom24x7.com)

The game is being played by bringing P Kunhikrishnan, a launch vehicle man, to the U R Rao Satellite Centre (URSC) and then by elevating him to the Apex scale, it will be shown that he is senior to others whereas the fact is to the contrary. The exposure to Launch vehicles is to pad up his CV. This has made the role of the Senior Staff Review Committee, comprising of retired scientists, suspect. Most of the retired scientists lean heavily on the incumbent Chairman for their perks, travel, honorariums, awards and security at the expense of the tax payers. No wonder such advisory bodies are not independent but mere rubber stamps. It is hoped that the Government will sit up and take note before incalculable harm is done to ISRO. In fact all the Scientists who have been shunted out to innocuous paper pushing posts from the Satellite Center are senior to the new Director. They include the first lady Project Director for satellites.

Lalit Shastri, Decline of ISRO, August 3, 2018 (Newsroom24x7.com)

Dr Sivan had crossed 60 years of age and was on an extension. By granting a non-sanctioned apex scale, a myth is sought to be perpetuated that he was already in the Secretary’s scale and that it was not a promotion. The same myth was perpetuated for his two predecessors…..

What prevents this august organisation (ISRO) from seeking a Cabinet sanction for say a number of Apex scale posts and promoting all their Center Directors to that scale and then making a fair and equal selection? Accelerated pushes are taken care of in the Merit Promotion Scheme in place which rewards outstanding contributions through a process of peer reviews. To manipulate it at the top reeks of favoritism, nepotism and a subversion of laid down procedures. This is what Newsroom24x7 has been highlighting rather than belittling ISRO’s achievements. If the community is so sensitive to criticism, it should have the capacity to introspect when mistakes are done and order mid-course corrections.

Lalit Shastri, What prevents ISRO to seek Cabinet approval for more Apex scale posts, (Newsroom24x7.com, August 6, 2018)

Postscript: Kunhikrishnan has had a career in quality inspection – an important but routine job. Next he was moved to assembly and operation of PSLV, already a proven vehicle, also more of a routine job. Normally, a suitable incumbent holding the Chairman’s position should be an inspiring figure, with a track record of original and internationally acclaimed contribution, like indigenous SAR technology development. From Radhakrishnan onwards, during successive selection for the post of ISRO Chairman, the original contribution criteria was ignored and emphasis was on routine operational experience with hardly any inspiring careers to back up the final choice. This led to degradation in ISRO culture, leading to many failures, sub-optimal performance of satellites and increase in internal politics.

2 Comments »

  1. It is rumoured in scientific and journalist community that an unfortunate and shameful incident has occurred in ISRO. All the intrigues and politicking in ISRO, as witnessed in ISRO in last two years, are related to suppressing the incident and safeguarding former and present ISRO leadership from future investigations.

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  2. Department of Space had killed the Scientific temper and ethos of the Scientists and Engineers, long back. After Prof. S.C.Dhavan, Dr. V. R. Gowarikar should have become the Chairman of ISRO; but UR RAO, using his politics glut became the chairman and killed all the research and development work in ISRO. He was always for buying technology from Russia. He closed down the indigenous development of the Cryogenic Engine and started buying each and every component from Russia; they were also happily sold all the junk scrapped after the race towards moon ended. This turned the vigorous and enthusiastic Scientist and Engineers of ISRO from wild animals hunting for food in wild junkles (thriving for knowledge and research) into the zoo animals expecting food from others. The 5th Central Pay Commission added insult to the injury. It downgraded their pay scales. To overcome the injustice, Dr. A.P. J. Abdul Kalam, when he was the Secretary for the Department of Defence Research and Development, made a proposal to the Government to add an additional two INCREMENTS to the Scientists and Engineers, after their Normal Pay fixation and got it approved by the Government. The Cabinet Secretariat Note No. 49/CM/98(I) dated 29 October 1998 wasn’t released by the Government Departments and its implementation was not done by the departments correctly, even after High Court Judgement, which were upheld by the Supreme Court. Now all decisions are made depending on the Geo Political Considerations ONLY.
    I request you to publish the Cabinet Secretariat Note No. 49/CM/98(I) dated 29 October 1998 and all the related communication from DOS, DOPT and Ministry of Finance. You could believe that the Moon Lander of CHANDRAYAAN 2 had committed Suicide by dropping down from just 340 meter hight on Moon’s surface, after SUCCESSFULLY traveling for 3,85,000 km from Earth and descending 100 km, without any flaws,

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