How do Indians pull themselves down- Nambi Narayanan’s Experiences with ISRO, Air India, Customs & the IB

The United Kingdom had decided to wind up its fledging, but impressive, space programme in the early 70s, after being assured by the US that they would launch the British satellites as well. In 1971, Vikram Sarabhai asked Nambi Narayanan to visit the Rolls Royce space facility at Spadeadam in Cumbria (Scotland) just before it was to be dismantled. They had set up a new 400 million Pounds worth hydraulics laboratory not long back, which offered simulation test for fluids with a complex system of gauges.

Nambi called on the facility director, AF Cleaver, who was a former British army officer, and had served in Bombay.

“I never quite agreed the way my country looted yours. Not quite how civilized countries should behave! I want to give back whatever little I can. I’m not sure how or what can I do, though”, Cleaver told Nambi.

The whole lab was a fluid engineer’s dreamland. Nambi felt like a child in a supermarket, or rather a rock n’ rolla. He would have asked for the whole fuckin’ lot, but settled for only the state-of-the-art hydraulics lab.

“Why don’t you give me this hydraulics lab?”, Nambi played bold, not expecting to be humoured.

“As I told you, we are in the process of dismantling it. So it won’t be possible for your people to come here for testing.”

“No, you didn’t get me, Sir. I am talking about shipping the whole hydraulics lab.”

“Oh, can you do that. It would be very heaven if you can. I will charge you nothing. Just pay for taking it apart, and shipping, and it is all yours.” AF Cleaver was one of those British veterans who felt guilty that his country had kept India from partaking in the Industrial Revolution. This was his way of compensating for those years of exploitation.

Nambi was over the moon at receiving this largesse. He called and informed Vikram Sarabhai about the success. In less than 24 hours, arrived the news of Vikram’s death. He had been found dead in a hotel at Kovalam. The hydraulics lab was systematically taken apart, and brought to India. The lab material was stored in two empty ISRO flats in Trivandrum. Since they could not accommodate everything, some stuff was shifted to the basement.

Unfortunately, ISRO could not find a place to set up the hydraulics lab. The heaps of tubes and gadgets were systematically plundered by the scientists who took them away for experiments- one asking for a recorder, another taking away a pressure sensor, a third one snatching a flow meter. It was probably better that way- at least some hardware could be put to use, rather than gathering rust and dust. Maybe some lobbies at ISRO who did not want liquid propulsion systems to gain thrust would have derived pleasure from the cannibalization of the Rolls Royce Hydraulic Lab.

This turn of events says a lot about our national character. We love to beg, even if we don’t know what to do with the alms. If the giver is afflicted with some kind of guilt, we do not mind. In fact, if we can play victims, and manipulate the potential giver, we would do that without any compunction. More often than not, we end up hoarding what we have received in vaults, and fail to put the intended aid to good use.

Apart from this, ISRO failed to stand by Nambi and his deputy, Sasikumaran, when they were accused of smuggling documents and rocket designs to Pakistan. ISRO could, and should, have clarified that India did not possess cryogenic technology then, and PSLV designs and diagrams, especially of the Vikas Engine were already in public domain and shared with local manufacturers. They could also have impressed upon the investigators that know-how means nothing in rocket science, know-why does. And know-why can only be gathered by collaboration and years of training, not by stealing charts and diagrams.

Nambi Narayanan, in his autobiography, Ready to Fire, talks in detail about how the Russian Space Agency, Glavkosmos, bypassed the watered-down contract, and handed over some valuable components and blueprints related to the Cryogenics programme. But when asked, Air India refused to transport the material, since it feared the wrath of the Americans. Air India did not want to jeopardize its lucrative trans-Atlantic operations, instead refused to support the national cause. Ultimately, the head of Glavkosmos, Alexander Dunaev, used his own contacts and arranged for the cargo to be sent by Ural Aviation. Some kind of national carrier, indeed! One can breathe easy to know that this white elephant called Air India has now been sold, and no longer feasts on public money.

Similarly uncooperative was the attitude of the Indian Customs, which refused to clear the top-secret cargo without poking around, despite the fact that the consignments had prior appropriate clearances. Such sniffing was dangerous and avoidable, and ultimately resulted in the leakage of information, which set off the Americans and their hirelings into planning the sabotage of the cryogenic programme. Only when the ISRO officials asked the Custom officials to get the matter clarified from the very top did the local officials in Madras back off.

Lastly about the ISRO Spy Scandal, in which the IB (allegedly)played into the hands of the CIA, as well as the AK Antony- Oomen Chendy faction of the Congress, and ended up sabotaging the cryogenic operation. The Kerala Police officers behaved most abominably, torturing and misbehaving with the senior scientist, thus revealing the true nature of the Indian law enforcement. Hats off to Nambi Sir for surviving these conspiracies, and then summoning inordinate strength to tell the story of his life as well as the Indian space programme in a lucid and interesting manner.

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