Ousting Chander

The termination of Avinash Chander’s tenure as Science Adviser to the Defence Minister and head of DRDO was too sudden and created shock waves. The sotto voce explanation that Dr. Chander was a little tardy in following up on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s advice to speed up ongoing projects, streamline the internal processes, and reward younger scientists with bigger responsibilities, and Mr. Parrikar’s statement that DRDO needed a younger helmsman, is all very well. But, it is also a misplaced punitive initiative because it presumes that radical changes can be readily and speedily affected, and that the working ethos transformation can happen overnight by diktat from DRDO HQ. And, ironically, it involves a man who unlike most of his predecessors in the post, was elevated to the position on the basis of a stellar record of success. Chander was previously Director-General of the Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL), Hyderabad, the one stop design and development bureau for the Agni family of missiles — perhaps the most outstanding success story, other than the ATV programme to produce the Arihant-class SSBN, that DRDO can boast of.

ASL and ATV projects are fairly unique in their dogged pursuit of obtaining for the country deterrent reach and punch, ASL’s advanced Agni-5 IRBM/ICBM being among the most sophisticated delivery systems available anywhere with any country. ASL is also an organization fortunate enough to have enjoyed fine leadership starting with RN Agarwal, Chander, and the current DG, VG Sekharan.

DRDO is by and large a useless organization, like all the defence public sector units, it is true, and I have so slammed them all in my writings (see my blogs in the defence industry category) for being involved in jobbery. Many DRDO heads need to roll, and the bulk of DRDO programmes can be safely shut down to save the tax payer’s money and the rest handed over to private sector companies to prosecute more effectively and efficiently. But to tar a proven performer, such as Chander, as a laggard is to dump on an individual the ills of a system, and to do him grave injustice.

In the event, the Chander case should be the metric to judge all leadership in the government sector, by which standard the horde of senior IAS, IPS and other civil services officers as well as much of the armed forces brass — all of them perpetually gumming up the works — should likewise be summarily ejected, replaced by younger. more energetic, officers. In that event, the Chander dismissal, even if unfair, will be seen to have some merit. But because this last won’t happen, kicking out Chander will be seen especially by many in the defence science and technology sphere as a one-off whimsical move of the scapegoating kind. It will grow puzzlement and discontent in DRDO and destroy what go-go spirit prevails there, and thus do more harm than good.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in civil-military relations, Defence Industry, DRDO, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Navy, Indian Politics, Missiles, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, society, South Asia, Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Ousting Chander

  1. mnas dhar says:

    Having some experience dealing with DRDO and LRDE in the past I can tell with absolute conviction that these organizations are the worst tragedy Independent India has faced other than the humiliating loss to China in ’62. Now that i’ve switched jobs and dont need to travel the rat maze of inefficiency and ineptitude i feel much better as a human being. Rest assured the people working in these labs dont suffer from any such feelings. Inefficiency is a article of faith for these guys and failure a way of life. In the event of a war if the enemy blows up these labs which are spread across India like a virus, I really would’nt mind that all that much.
    I guess that is enough to let off the pent up frustration I have against these guys. Cant really comment on individuals Like Mr.Chander whom I had the honour to meet. Found him to be the quiet sort of a guy (maybe it went against him) but Modi had sacked his railway minister too after a few months.
    (PS: DRDO labs should get out of the defense R&D business and get into the tea making one, thats what the people over there care about, that and lunch breaks. Once they do that after years of delay in production rest assured the tea and coffee dispensers they manufacture would be a piece of junk priced at double the normal rate. These people are incapable of running a professional enterprise which makes a decent profit. Infact these people dont know what profit means cause they have never seen or heard of it during there worthless existence.

  2. tiwari says:

    Ironically enough I have worked with several DRDO labs, ADA, LRDE in the past and my experience is completely opposite. In particular, the scientific staff were extremely courteous, honest and punctual. Cant get into too many details but had many programs meet severe competition from foreign vendors but clear requirements. Of course, there were several chai drinking, useless chaps too but dont see much of a difference there from general indian society.

  3. tiwari says:

    Mr Karnad, if you state DRDO is a useless organization, I’d invite you to visit the Bangalore and Hyderabad based labs (if they’ll have you) and take a look at what they have already delivered to the Armed Forces, missiles apart. I would think you will be surprised. There are many systems manufactured by Bangalore-Hyd firms of both PSU and private type. DRDO (and IAF’s SDI another similar estbt) suffer from lack of professional advertorial capabilities. They simply have no body to drum up their real work and what comes out from their periodic jamborees is amateurish. I suspect DRDO etc are often targeted not merely because of delays as I once used to think because of sheer ignorance (the civilian military divide) and also malice. Any industry trade fair is nowadays full of rtd service folks who wander around bad mouthing the DPSUS and ironically enough are employed as consultants and advisors by their rivals. These talking heads also write editorials, infest think tanks. There is good money to be made in winding up DRDO etc and making sure only the game of technology transfer goes on.

  4. I get your point. I’m aware of DRDO success stories beyond ATV and ASL. But the broad brush perception is still valid because, exceptions apart, working in a cocooned/protected environment has robbed most of these entities of the vigour and competitive spirit, which can get them to exceed their best, routinely. What DRDO, I maintain, requires is corporatization and the freedom to hire & fire with profit as driver. It’ll be empowering and enabling. I have visited HAL and some HAL-related outfits, but my view hasn’t changed — not sure what DRDO units you have in mind. And, it is also true, most of the DRDO constituents do not sell themselves very well — their efforts being mostly of the amateurish-type. But better salesmanship alone is not going to cure the major maladies afflicting them.

  5. tiwari says:

    Mr Karnad, thanks for your reply. Agree with you that more autonomy the better for DRDO.
    The severe bashing has in a way acted as a driver for some of these labs to prove themselves. I’d recommend you visit LRDE, DARE, ADA in Bangalore (not sure about ADE or their programs much), DLRL, RCI, DRDL in Hyderabad and get briefed about their products which are delivered and in development both. With your contacts and professional stature, I dont think it should be hard for you to arrange this. Perhaps even ASL and other places. The scientists may not be top on professional communication or sharp media management or even perception (they dress like everyday babus, dont have smart marketing folks). But they do have many products and BEL is making good business off working with DRDO. IAF officers whom I met said the trials for BEL/DRDO manufactured items were as vigorous as they did for French made units in service and both had cleared them. There was also discussion about using Indian “CFE” customer furnished eqpt on Mirage and MiG fleets I dont know whether the manufacturers agreed.
    HAL is very different. Its a complete manufacturing shop with very little research (some in their upgrade unit and chopper complex). They are used to waiting for GOI to decide their choices for them. Even more than DRDO. Things are, I am told, on different focus now, but it will take a decade for them to deliver.
    Both organizations though are stifled with GOI redtape. As vendors, one has to jump through hoops in dealing with any Gvt institute because of paper work delayed invoices and so forth. Gvt giving more financial and decision autonomy to its institutes will be a plus.

  6. mnas dhar says:

    Was surprised to see DLRL make the cut. The last time I went there one department did not know what the other was doing, so i would not go as far as to blame the marketing guys. Also in LRDE they are cranking out radars employing pretty old RF technology(bulky stuff). Last I heard they had stopped most of the R&D activity on new optical technologies. Anyway, that was a long time ago and hopefully things have changed for the better.
    No doubt BEL is better off but that is because is enjoys a sort of a free hand in decision making that few other labs enjoy. seems to me that it sometimes dictates terms to other labs also. But i would still be very circumspect about how much of there work is really cutting edge.
    Finally as far as mktg goes, I would disagree as your mktg can only be as good as the product you have in hand. I think the armed forces are mature enough to look through fancy suits, white skin and well spoken english (atleast in most cases, white skin being the primary distraction some green contrast is also welcome ). Also i was of the opinion that for sensitive equipment they altogether bypass the mktg department and approach labs directly (I am discounting all low level tactical equipment which does require a heavy dose of mktg). Unless of course i am wrong in which case i retract my comments.

  7. tiwari says:

    LRDE etc have made headway into active aperture systems over the past few years, power and range requirements mean it will remain bulky but its comparable to the items we otherwise import and knock together (and call manufactured at BEL). Some of the LRDE partners are also into offsets for the Israelis so its current gen stuff.
    DLRL is well regarded in Navy and some service officers are stationed there to move things faster, they can grant clearance for day to day stuff which would otherwise be lost in red tape. Navy usually tends to be most practical in these things. I think Army, AF have followed suit, but not sure about Air Force.
    Marketing is simply absent in DRDO labs. They outsource at time of jamborees, functions etc to local marketing companies, provide pics and details and those guys come out with half baked stuff. I think they have some internal org which is manned by part timers and is regarded as a useless function.
    While BEL is one of the better run PSUs, it relies too much in the past on assembly work from foreign vendors. I doubt it is a path for future gains.
    Services unfortunately are very influenced by suits and boots and marketing. They send out RFPs, get all sorts of vendor quotations back and then cobble together staff requirements and pass it to PSUs, DRDO etc. These are then a mix of ridiculous specs no one product can meet.

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