We have arrived – naysayers excuse us

Tapan Misra

The author (left) at his alma mater, Ramakrishna Mission High School, on Teacher’s Day in 2019

We are our own hindrances

In 1972, I was a student of class five in Shibnath High School, on the banks of river Hoogly in the northern outskirts of Kolkata. Tumultuous time in Bengal – Naxalite movement was in peak. Starry eyed, idealistic young people were angry with everything. Staccato of guns, leftovers of Bangladesh War in 1971, would pierce through stillness of night for no reason. Occasional deaths of young people in gun battles used to remove for ever, one or two smiling, argumentative faces from animated discussions in the road corners. All the walls of the classes were scribbled with quotes from Mao Zedong and Lin Biao. The quotes conveyed a meaningless gravity to young minds. No classes were there. Except one teacher, an old man, Baidyanath Babu daring to defy all the surrounding madness. He was religious in taking maths classes for a handful of students like me, who were bored without schools and roaming around nook and corners of locality, chasing pigeons, wheeling a defunct, rickety cycle tyre, playing card games with cards made from used cigarette packets.

In December 1972, my sister forced me to take entrance examination for class six in Ramakrishna Mission High School in our locality. It had day scholars, boarders and a sizeable orphans as students. I just could not make head or tail of Bengali and English question papers. Too tough for a student who almost missed schooling that year. To my surprise, I got selected. Headmaster Samir Maharaj, who is no more, called my father and told him that his ward was selected for scoring full marks in math paper, though I scored neat zeroes in language papers. When I look back, my selection carried very important message which all educationists and parents must grasp : I was selected for what I was, not for what I should have been.

From subsequent experiences for over three decades, I feel there are two major issues in our present day culture which are preventing us to realise our own potentials.

A. Parental pressure is degenerating our children

There lies folly of our education and parental culture. Parents want to force children to live the parents’ own dreams instead of children’s. They want to dictate what the children should opt for. Parents and teachers seem to know everything about the children, forgetting that children are going to live and adjust to a world which will probably be completely different from what their parents and teachers are experiencing. They confuse coaching classes with schooling. Scoring in IIT or engineering entrance examination is regarded as the highest achievement. There is a hierarchy of subjects which are assumed important to shine in life. Medical, Engineering, Science, Commerce, Humanities in the descending orders of preference. Children are constantly bombarded in prestigious colleges and homes – ultimate aim in life is to live abroad. You are taught and conditioned to resent yourself, apolegetic of India and Indianness. We are producing a set of of students, who are not proud of themselves. They are made to feel that they are lesser mortals.

I have been Chairing ISRO’s interview board for long. We have two steps process, we screen first through written examination. Then final selection is based on viva voce. We observed that the typical screening ratio in written examination of boys to girls is 70:30, commensurate with existing gender ratios in engineering. Surprise sprang up in viva voce. Almost 50% of girls were selected vis-a-vis boys to the tune of 30 to 35%. This reversal puzzled us.

When I analysed, I could understand that Indian parents don’t spend much on daughters, don’t send them to expensive coaching centres. Generally they are sent to nearby, not so known, colleges to reduce expenditure. Parents want their sons to be successful at any cost, sending them to costly tuition centres, faraway expensive colleges. In essence boys lose touch of their originality whereas girls retain them as they have no compulsion to lose them. So when faced with questions to test original thought process in our viva voce, girls fared better.

I had another observation. I found boys want to opt for catchy and easy option of work preference like VLSI, programming etc. Whereas tedious and difficult jobs like RF circuit and MMIC design have no takers. Since girls do not protest much, these jobs were forced on them. I must confess that girls executed RF designs in stellar fashion. In my time, SAC had the largest corpus of own MMIC design in India, ranging from L-band to milli metre wave bands. It gives me pride that 80% of them are designed by girls.

Learning is more important than education. Excessive parental attention ruins originality. The above examples show a relaxed education gives better learning and gives courage to take risk as well as succeed.

B. Prevalence of lack of self confidence

This psychological affliction of lack of self confidence has spread to industry, labs, universities. In general there is a feeling that we can only repeat anything what has been done abroad. There is always a disbelief that we can do on our own for the first time. We ourselves have less conviction when we oft repeat that we are second to none.

During Chandrayan 2 time frame, we had difficulty of getting the optical and infra red spectrometer. The imported one had poorer performance by a factor of 2. ISRO never had any history of design of spectrometer optics. All famed designers were not ready to take the risk, as odds against success were very high. I called a meeting of all the designers and I just asked who of them want to take a career risk by attempting spectrometer optics design. One lady raised her hand. I made her leader. Seeing her, a few more volunteered, raising their hands and fingers to different extents. I made them team members. Rest is history. We flew Made in India spectrometer in Chandrayan 2, built at very minimal fraction of import cost.

In India everybody forgot the name of R M Vasagam and Leo Lesrado, makers of satellite and SATCOM payload of our first communication satellite, APPLE in 1981. We built its apogee boost motor, first time in Asia. Surprisingly we did not build upon them. We went for importing 4 satellites of INSAT 1 series, of which one only worked reasonably. I still get a feeling that had we shown our courage to build upon our own contribution, we would have advanced our communication programme by a decade.

Similarly with our Radar imaging programme. In our country, Radar imaging is more important than optical imaging because of widespread cloud, smog and dust coverage. But we arrived in space based Radar imaging scene three decades late. Reason was simple, it was difficult to convince who mattered thar imaging radar can be built by ourselves, they can be built in India, at much cheaper a cost and there is no need to look for a “Suitable Boy”. I, being in the ring, always had the pressure of proving ourselves, lest all our dreams get shelved.

We introduced two new imaging modes in RISAT : Hybrid polarimetry and extra long sliding spotlight imaging mode for very high resolution imaging. Just because none of the SARs in international arena, had these features, I had to personally convince people umpteen times that these modes are not flukes, but scientifically feasible. I am happy to state that we set the standards and these features are adopted by all the current and future soaceborne SAR systems.

We built India’s first High Throughput Satellite, HTS, when nobody believed designers. I fact we were ready for launch when wise people were still on the lookout of imported counterpart, at a whooping cost. This caused piquant situation. GSAT 11 was launched, albeit with lot of drama and personal cost, which I ignored as nation is larger than individual egos.

Many people, including those who built India’s space programme, expressed doubt on my posts(**) whether we are imagining too much that our space programme can be more democratic. Whether we have engineers in the country who can dare tread uncharted path. Can they bring the magic of ISRO widespread? I believe, if we are conscious of our limitations, we are in a better position to circumvent it on our way to success. Let us shed our own inhibitions. It is high time to thump on the table, “Yes we have arrived. Naysayers, kindly excuse us.”

1. https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10218220635653855&id=1428772703

  1. https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10218269300350442&id=1428772703
  2. https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10218387671149638&id=1428772703)

The author, Tapan Misra, is a distinguished scientist. At present he is Advisor in the Department of Space, Government of India. Earlier he was Director Space Application Centre, Ahmedabad.

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