It should disturb us all gravely that a motorised battery-powered chariot is the level of “technology” the DRDO feels proud to pass on.
SHIV AROOR @shivaroor
I love this story. Everything about it numbs the brain. What I love best about it is that nobody could have made this up: An Indian military laboratory tucked away in a leafy Pune neighbourhood, tasked with building combat support vehicles, has built and supplied a gleaming battery-powered rath to the grateful Alandi Temple nearby. Correct. A chariot. For a temple. You see what I mean? Can’t make this stuff up.
Details sometimes kill a great story. In this case, they really crank up the W-T-F value.
The story emerged on the front pages of the New Indian Express which reported that the rath was built at a cost of Rs five crore and “donated” to the temple. The laboratory reportedly explained that the work was done as “seva” and that a scientist who apparently blew the whistle on what he felt was a totally improper use of public money and laboratory resources, was shunted and buried in a lower profile role in Nashik. The clincher now, the NIE report says, is that the Bombay High Court has stepped in and ordered the DRDO and MoD to explain what this rath business is all about. I know nothing beyond what’s been reported, so I decided to poke around. When I called a DRDO spokesperson asking him what the fuss was about, he fobbed me off. “It was done as seva. What is wrong if some military research helps some civilian cause also?” he asked. Well, plenty, I thought, but decided to sit on it. Let’s see just how farcical this can get. Other than a little hilarity and outrage on Twitter, the story hasn’t turned too many people on. That may change if the DRDO decides to officially comment.
First off, only an idiot would hope to find any justification at all for a public-funded combat vehicle research lab spending any resources (money, man-hours that could be better spent, materials, electricity) on a rath. Second, excuses like “seva” etc don’t hold. If the rath project eats into laboratory time or resources even slightly, it’s unacceptable. Period. Three, inappropriate diversions of this kind are an insult to the hundreds of DRDO scientists actually doing stellar, quality military research, even at the same laboratory. Indulgences of this kind hurt the reputations of scientists who have to work harder just to make up for the incompetence, laziness and vacuous sahib culture of their colleagues. Finally (and this is my favourite reason) it should disturb us all gravely that a motorised battery-powered chariot is the level of “technology” the DRDO is dabbling with and feels proud to pass on. As someone on Twitter pointed out to me, a small group of engineering kids could have built the thing in two months or less. (Less. Definitely less. Have you seen the stuff engineering students make these days?)
The Bombay High Court has better things to do than intervene in preposterous issues of this kind, but I for one would love to know how this one plays out, especially since the DRDO chief himself has been asked to explain. The DRDO chief is a good man, a strong missile scientist, who I hope will send out the right message. Because for far too long, the DRDO has gotten away never having to explain itself, always shielding itself with a pretend-patriotic forcefield, crying foul at the slightest criticism and accusing its detractors of being anti-nationals.
“Not just high-altitude chikki”. That was the title of the final column I wrote for the Indian Express before I left in 2007. The column welcomed a rare formal awakening within the government about the need to completely overhaul and reinvent India’s doddering, plagued and villified Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO). The government’s decision to find ways to kick the DRDO into a shape was, if not directly a result of, at least catalysed by a relentless eight-part series that the Express had frontpaged just days earlier, carefully picking apart the breathtaking incompetence and sense of entitlement that had allowed the DRDO to balloon into a nightmarishly out-of-control and wasteful organisation. The title of my parting column was a reference to the mind-boggling products the DRDO found (sigh, and still finds) the need to expend its energies on, instead of focusing on giving India its basic weapons. (The DRDO’s Defence Food Research Laboratory in Mysore actually researches, among other things, stabilised chikki and cashewnut burfi for troops at high altitude). DRDO chief at the time M Natarajan had written an letter to all employees asking them not to be affected by the “malicious news columns” that seek “distract us from our goal of self-reliance”.
Comment Writing about DRDO for almost exactly ten years now, the one thing I’ve noticed is that hilarity about its misadventures always diffuses into anger. The truth is, the organisation has nobody but itself to blame. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Modi chastised the DRDO at a public event, informing it that the world wouldn’t wait for it, and that delays in crucial weapons projects was unacceptable. The DRDO has enjoyed “friendly” defence ministries in the past, notably under AK Antony. Modi has signalled that the time for fun and games is over. The message is simple: That’s public money you’re using. Soldiers need the stuff you make. You don’t have a moment or a rupee to waste. Get your shit together. Now.