His colleagues fondly refer to Dr Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, scientific advisor to the prime minister, as "the 200 per cent Indian" for his fierce patriotism and derision for Indians with a penchant for the foreign. The father of India's missile programme was born in a poor family in Dhansokhodi in the Rameswaram district of Tamil Nadu. And strangely enough, his only visit to foreign shores was a two-year stint four decades ago when the NASA invited him. In a freewheeling interview with Shantanu Guha Ray, Dr Kalam talks of his vision for India. Excerpts:
What would have happened if there was no Partition and India and Pakistan did not have to spend such enormous amounts on defence?
Look at Europe and you’ll get your answer. It’s a continent where nations fought each other for more than 100 years, which heaped two world wars on us. Yet, it’s working towards a common trade code, a common currency and other things to boost the economy. I firmly believe India and Pakistan will have no option but to work towards a similar situation to keep their economic and political interests alive; it may take two or three decades, but it’ll happen.
How would you define a developed country?
Everyone in the country has to be well above the poverty line. There should be plenty of employment opportunity for all, including women and those in rural areas. There has to be basic self-reliance in strategic defence systems, so that external policy is not umbilically connected to countries through the weapons business. Self-reliance is the only answer in the defence sector. Health, education, employment too should reach one and all. There has to be effective action for old-age care. Above all, the nation should have a standing commensurate with its billion people.
Can India become a developed country?
It can and it should. It has the potential and basic capabilities. Thrust towards basic food security, self-reliance in strategic areas, speedier economic growth, and the new thrust we see in information technology are steps in the right direction.
How does one develop scientific temper in a country which can still have sati and where politicians look to astrologers to form governments?
Do not evaluate a nation by isolated incidents. In a nation of a billion people, everyone has a right to practice whatever he or she thinks is right. All the nation needs is a big aim, the rest will follow. The sparks for Independence flew way back in 1857; it took us 90 years to achieve freedom but there was this major aim before the nation which helped its people reach their goal. The nation needs that big aim to keep a scientific temperament alive.
But there’s still the paradox: We have nuclear power, supercomputers and missiles, yet our soldiers fight in Kargil in torn boots.
In a large nation, such differences or paradox (as you call it) will remain. We’ll only see it diminishing if we retain our tempo of development.
We also have world-class engineering schools but a pathetic record in primary education...
One very important thrust area for this decade has to be primary, secondary and higher education. Primary education has to be taken as a mission not only by the government but also by R&D establishments, public and private industries and armed forces including ex-servicemen. Secondary and higher education too should cover many more people.
How can India achieve total literacy in a reasonable timeframe?
It’s possible within a decade to propagate education to all parts of India by using well-proven educational methods which have been successful in certain states and also by using infotech and satellite communication.
Then again, India has pockets of scientific excellence-ISRO or DRDO, for example-surrounded by vast areas of mediocrity...
Space technology, nuclear and defence R&D, particularly in missile and software technologies, have shown successes because they were operated with a long-term vision in mission mode with proper funding, proper leadership and project management coupled with user demand. Our agricultural growth too is impressive because of national demand and right leadership for inducting technology with farmers’ participation.Similarly, software successes are driven by market demand worldwide. There are such examples in automotive components, pharma and traditional sectors like gems and jewellery and garments. We have to be selective in thrust areas and fund the right group.
What are the main hurdles to India becoming a technological power?
The problem is our ‘native’ mentality. We’re afraid of celebrating our people’s success in various fields. Above all, there is a mindset for propagating love for foreign goods and equipment by the well-to-do, the rich, and professionals. For the nation to prosper, I still like to put forth what is said in the famous kural by Thiruvalluvar two millennia ago: "If those who think to achieve/ Have a firm and focused mind/ They will realise what they thought of/ And even as they have thought of."
How can we keep the best technological minds of India from emigrating to the US?
I’m not worried about brain drain. Who cares? People will leave for obvious reasons. Who can stop them? It’s a process that will continue. We can keep them by creating more challenging opportunities in the country and by recognising best talent and performance. The nation should have a vision. It ignites the minds of the people and attracts the best.
Should we concentrate on core areas of research rather than all? Can you identify some?
The nation definitely needs to focus on specific areas and not spread its butter too thin. I can identify five areas which should be of absolute importance-infotech, agricultural science, infrastructure, health and education. Research in these sectors needs to be a never-ending process. And that’s imperative for the nation’s all-round growth.
Where do we balance expenditure on defence and that on development?
Indian defence expenditure as a percentage of GNP is one of the lowest in the world. If self-reliance in technology enters the mind of the well-to-do and highly educated, a beautiful balance will occur between income and defence expenditure as we live in an environment of dual technology: what’s developed for defence also has many peaceful applications.
When will India be fully equipped to protect itself?
At a time when even all developed nations take us seriously in a manner they take countries like the US.
Being a Vedic scholar, how are the Vedas relevant in this day and age?
I read the Vedas, I read the Gita, I read Ramayana and I read Bible. And often when I read a religious and spiritual book, I see a beautiful linkage, that is the real Indian culture. For a nation with vision and having a basic prosperity for all its people, religions will become a part of the individual and fulfil his personal needs.
Does the fact that your inventions include instruments of mass destruction bother you?
It does. But at the same time, I know that the same technology which produces the missile also helps develop an instrument used to clear blocked heart arteries. Some of the best defence-related technologies have done wonders in medical science in India. Scientists at DRDO are currently turning contaminated water in Orissa into potable water. And it’s the same scientists who work on defence-related programmes. Don’t forget the weapons business is a beautiful business. It’s a business where if you are successful, you can also influence others easily.