Dateline July 2012. Just a couple of months back we launched RISAT satellite. I was visiting US State Department in Washington DC as part of Indo US dialogue on space. During the “samosa break”, I mean snack break offering Samosa to participants, Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator, took me aside and asked me in hushed tone – “Tapan, did you really build the RISAT SAR at such a ridiculous cost? The number I hear, is it right?”. I said -“Yes. What you heard is correct”. Bolden expressed his desire to visit the lab where SAR payload could be built at such a low cost. He visited the lab in Ahmedabad after one year. For the first time ever NASA Administrator visited any ISRO lab. That visit led to confirmation of joint NASA ISRO SAR programme – NISAR.
Radar imaging arrived in India after three decades of the launch of optical imaging in ISRO. Somehow we felt that the technology is beyond our reach and the perceived cost was beyond our budget. The delay was an outcome of collective self-diffidence, somehow ingrained in our psyche. It was a boon in disguise. There was not much interference in innovation and risk taking by careerist scientists in RISAT programme as odds against success was very high.
RISAT was a watershed moment of building a state of the art SAR,l – yes, no exaggeration, made in India, 98% components built in India. At a 10% cost of similar systems, quoted internationally. Probably the most complex electronics, ever built in India, with 1400 subsystems, 314 onboard computers, 5000 connectors, around 20 km long wiring and above all – Made in India. This payload not only broke new grounds, it set new standards and concepts that became de facto standards for rest of the SAR systems built afterwards, globally. We also added scores of patents and copyrights on the way.
The SAR system called for repetitive production of many subsystems with stringent qualification and calibration rigour, beyond the capacity of ISRO. We nurtured many greenhorns to take up the challenges as established ones shied away. I will take two examples.
Government of India established MMIC facility GAETECH in Hyderabad, which had no takers as somehow the news spread – see, it does not meet international standards. We adopted the fab, built all the MMICs, 7000 in number, three very different fab processes. And none failed in space in entire life-time of RISAT.
We built our patented Near Field antenna test facility to test the RISAT Active Antenna over its complete bandwidth – built for the first time ever. All commercially available antenna test facilities, available globally in that time frame, were only capable of measuring the pattern in single frequency. The test facility was in loop with payload, meaning the payload was testing and calibrating itself.
We encouraged one nascent CNC manufacturer, oddly titled Bombay Machine but situated in Bangalore, to build the Near Field scanner. He quoted a throwaway price, one fifth of global quote. It was the first major job by Girish Hosmani, the owner, who just had taken VRS from CMTI to establish his factory in a ramshackle shed in Peenya, more akin to a Bombay slum get up. He executed his job marvelously, though he had to mortgage his own house to execute this order. I am indebted to him.
Similar situation came when we developed High Throughput Satellite GSAT 11 payload. When I took over SAC, the payload was moving at snail’s pace for years. Ostensibly we had what was less than confidence in building the complex HTS payload. Also there were inclinations to import as safer option, though the quote was astronomical. I gave it a pace and we built it even before we received final quote of imported one. I recollect, once a file came across to me for approval of ferrite switch matrix for this payload. Seeing the cost of a couple of tens of crore, I quizzed. Looked like everybody else in the world uses this switch. I suggested PIN diode switch matrix, preceded and followed by suitable amplifiers. And the cost was next to nothing in comparison to that of the original choice. GSAT 11 was finally launched, with a lot of drama. I have no regret in standing up to push Made in India. I lost my position but not my reputation and respectability.
Way back in 1998. We were developing microwave radiometer for Oceansat – 1. For testing this payload, a group of specialists were chasing a purchase order for importing black body targets from UK Met office, at exorbitant price, along with training proposal. Actually nobody in India was ready to build such sophisticated cryogenic black body. Dr. George Joseph, then Director scrapped the file and asked me to build it. I was crestfallen as I had no idea of head and tail of such a system. Finally we built it by buying copper plates and copper tubings from Dilli Darwaja, strip heaters from Mumbai and controllers from Bangalore. Dr. Kanhialal, who resigned from NPL to build a microwave company in Ghaziabad innovated a process of coating graphite mixed Araldide on machined copper pyramids to make the absorber. He was in a hands to mouth situation. He once entertained me by making chapatis and sabji (vegetable preparation) in his house. I learnt how to bend copper tube without cracking, how to implement second order control on a high inertia thermal system. And the project was a resounding success. Our payload was the only radiometer whose calibration parameters was not required to be updated after launch. And cost differential? Don’t ask.
When we embarked on millimetre wave payload, there was a requirement of machining with 10 micron accuracy, almost one order better than our facility could offer. When we got the quote for imported machine, not only we were supposed to pay through the nose, but also we were required to house it in a temperature controlled, vibration isolated lab. I called my friends in mechanical engineering. I understood that for building CNC machine, you need three separate expertise in mechanical, electrical and software engineering and they do not talk to each other and errors due to individual fields remain uncorrected, building up inaccuracy. I put three boys to build a machine where all the mechanical and electrical drive non-linearities were calibrated and mapped back in software. We got a 6 micron accuracy machine, still operational, at very low cost, housed in normal shop floor and without requiring very big paraphernalia.
I can go on and on, from my experiences, to illustrate my conviction that given a chance and encouragement, Indians are capable of doing wonders. Why do I need to narrate these stories? In Atmanirbhar Programme GOI has mandated that for all tenders up to Rs. 200 Cr, only Indian parties manufacturing their products in India will be considered. A great move to force Government servants to source from India majority of the requirement. This single policy initiative, in consonance with other fiscal, industrial, labour and agriculture initiatives, has a potential for ushering in deluge of innovations, ambitious start ups and flourishing MSME sector.
Somehow this important aspect has not got focus. I am sure, Made in India product will be equivalent to almost five times costly Made in Foreign product. Specially in capital goods, heavy machinery, robots, semiconductor fabs, medical equipment and many other sophisticated products. Indirectly, the same tax payer’s money will be able bring more services to populace.
I am sure, clever scientists, babus, engineers, doctors will discover many arguments and loopholes to introduce many discretions in the indent procedure. They may even see to it that indigenous products are made a failure. Normal strategies for derailing Indian products and services are many, like introducing contradictory specifications, changing goal posts on the way or making specification 10 times stringent for best of similar products world wide. Then it will be proven that no Indian can produce good products and hence we should import. I call it “Failure is Success” strategy, perfected by many of our fertile minds. Even the responsible persons, pushing for Made in India product will be relegated to back benches, to hang them as scare crow to frighten other people daring to push indigenous approach. I would look for protection and encouragement from leadership and management, pursuing for Made in India product. India’s Atmanirbhar Programme can be a game changer for our economy and also for employment generation, provided bottlenecks are taken care of expeditiously. Without shackles, Indians can do wonder, given the slightest of opportunity.
The author, Tapan Misra, is a distinguished scientist. He is an advisor in the Department of Space, Government of India