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'Indians can do whatever we put our minds to'

June 06, 2005 10:59 IST
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Professor M G K Menon, senior advisor, Department of Space at the Indian Space Research Organization, and chairman, Board of Governors of the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, last month led a delegation of directors of IIT and other luminaries from India to the Global IIT Alumni Conference in Washington. He received an embossed copy of the US Congressional Resolution 227 lauding IITs and their alumni in the US House of Representatives.

Professor Menon is also president, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, and chairman, Raman Research Institute Trust, Bangalore.

In an exclusive interview with, Menon, who had served as chairman, Board of Governors of the IIT, Mumbai from 1997 to 2003, and was the Dr Vikram Sarabhai Distinguished Professor at ISRO from 1999 to 2004, said he felt great to see the alumni who have emerged from the institutions being recognised as adding so much to the United States.

He said the recognition was not just for the IIT alumni in the US but for scientists and engineers in India and for the more than 60 percent of IITians who are in India, many heading some 'great institutions' in the private and public sector.

The recipient of numerous awards, including the Padma Shri in 1961, Padma Bhushan in 1968 and Padma Vibhushan in 1985, Professor Menon received his PhD from the University of Bristol, United Kingdom.

Professor Menon said the sky is the limit in terms of space cooperation between the US and India, now that it is among the quartet of issues in the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership. He predicted the US had as much to gain from India in such an endeavour as India did from the US. He spoke to Aziz Haniffa, National Affairs Editor, India Abroad, the newspaper owned by in Washington, DC last week.

How did you feel to be in the well of the US House of Representatives, receiving a copy of the Congressional resolution that praised IITs and their alumni and their contribution to American society and its economy?

I felt great. It was an institution I have watched for years, many of them since inception. I did not mention anything about my connection but I was on hand to see the foundation stone being laid for IIT Bombay. I have seen them grow. I have had honorary doctorates from three of them. I have given a convocation address at everyone of them, except Guwahati, where I was invited but could not make it because I am here.

I have very close ties and connections with them, although I am not an alumnus of IIT. I have been chairman of the board of IIT Bombay for six years and for three years, chairman of the board of IIT, Delhi. I have seen the people who have emerged from the institutions. Being recognised by the US Congress in this way as adding so much to the US -- another country they have adopted -- is something great.

I guess more so as such recognition has not been even bestowed on institutions like Harvard, MIT, Stanford.

Absolutely. The resolution passed in the US Congress in addition to the proclamations by the states of Virginia and Maryland has never happened to any other nation's institution and at this level of the highest body representing the country.

Even with Britain, with whom we have had such close relations, it has not happened. The US has been willing to accept and give credit to IITians and the Indian-American community as a whole for what they have done here.

It is a moment of pride for the IIT system which exemplifies what the IIT alumni and Indian-American community have done in their professions, in industry, business, finance, technology, science.

It is very important that it should be understood by the government and the people of India, that what they have really started and initiated -- the dream of Jawaharlal Nehru -- has led to it. There are many other things I could have said in my remarks but it gives confidence in what Indians can achieve, particularly in science and technology.

You take agriculture, where we have produced enough food for our population. You take our atomic energy programme, where we have self-reliance across the spectrum of activities.

Take our space programme. I was less than three weeks ago in Sriharikota, at the Satish Dhawan Centre, where we launched our Cartosat-1 satellite for survey operations.

When you think of it -- I saw it, the picture book launch, every single parameter as it went along, whether it is the pitch or roll of altitude per dotted line thematically predicted -- our people can do whatever they put their minds to.

Take the heavy satellite put into orbit. It is all done by such people. It is not only the people who are working here. Sixty percent IITians are in India, many heading great institutions in the private and public sectors.

With regard to your connections with ISRO and the Indian space programme, particularly now that the US has said it is committed to the Indo-US space programme under the quartet of cooperation of the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership, are IITians here and Indian-American scientists who head up leading research laboratories and so on be catalytic in the NSSP?

There is absolutely no doubt about it. I hope the US government will take their experience and expertise into account. They can be catalytic in many ways, not only in terms of government-to-government cooperation. There will be technology outsourcing, which will come from here. They can work with their IIT counterparts and other scientists in India. Of course, all the expertise we have at ISRO, where, we have got a lot of them. Also in other areas -- pharmaceutical companies with regard to discovery of new molecules for essentially new drugs some of which can be invaluable even in space and for testing in space under wide-ranging densities and pressure and gravity and all that.

Now it can be done at lower cost in the Indian context as we have the capabilities to do it. First rate chemical engineering and organic chemistry and biochemistry and so on. It can happen in biotechnology. It can happen in material sciences.

There is a range of areas, not only in terms of combined collaborative research projects, but as you have business processing outsourcing, you will have technology outsourcing for space launches and satellite launches on a large scale.

You are bullish about Indo-US space cooperation under the NSSP. You believe it will happen?

It is right. There are certainly tremendous opportunities as essentially we view space not in terms of offensive aspects but in terms of what it can do to contribute to development -- opening up completely new opportunities. Planning for instance is done through remote sensing.

I was chairman of the National Natural Resources Management Committee. I have seen how remote sensing can be used effectively for a range of areas. Agricultural planning, land use, environment, urban sprawl, a range of issues. Also geological surveys, hydrology, weather predictions and forecasting. All this can be done. The point is these are opportunities of great magnitude for India and the US. You know, there is quite a lot of cooperation going on in some areas of remote sensing where we make available data to the US government, NASA and others.

You do not believe it will be a one-way street vis a vis the NSSP, where it is a one way transfer of high technology and dual use technology to India? You believe India has as much to give -- at least in terms of space cooperation -- as the US to India under the NSSP?

Absolutely. It is not a question of a one-way street. We are not there as slave labour or to crave for their equipment and technology. We have developed most of our atomic equipment, space equipment, and other forms of technology, be it the Super Computer and everything else, wholly indigenously.

It will be an opportunity for us to contribute and compete as (author and The New York Times columnist Thomas) Friedman said on a level playing field.

Image: Uday Kuckian

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