Pathbreakers 2
“I had begun to feel that I had the potential to be much more than a peon”

He rose from washing cars and selling vegetables to become an MP.  Here is Shivajirao Patil’s incredible story of self-belief

His life story almost sounds like an absurd daydream, not merely because he rose from washing cars and selling vegetables for a living to become a Member of Parliament; but because he did it by mastering information technology and turning entrepreneur at a time when the country was barely aware of integrated circuits and microprocessors. That is Shivajirao Adhalrao Patil’s incredible story of achievement and self-belief. His firm Dynalog started out by producing manuals for microprocessors and went on to build industrial computers and later to supply components and assemblies for India’s missile programme. Dynalog’s profitability gave him resources for social work at his hometown of Landewadi in Pune district and got him elected to the Lok Sabha. Ironically, it is as the people’s representative he feels bitter that his efforts at social development are frustrated by dirty politics and mindless rivalries. Patil narrated his amazing story with passion and objectivity
 

ML: We believe that you come from a very humble background. Can you tell us something about your childhood?

SP:
I was born at a place called Landewadi in Ambegaon taluka of Pune district near a place called Mancher. This was in 1956. My family was into agriculture but since it was a very small landholding, my childhood was one of struggle. Going to school was also an issue. There was resistance from my family; they wanted me to earn money instead. When I was in the sixth standard, they wanted me to drop out and work on the farm.

ML: You went to a school at Landewadi?

SP:
Yes. From the very beginning, I was very fond of reading and studies. After my first standard, I got a ‘double promotion’ to the third standard, because the teacher thought I was good enough for that level. Since I was very interested in studies, I did my schooling up to the seventh at Landewadi and then did my eighth and ninth standard at Mancher. I had to travel by bus if I could get a concession pass; but if I didn’t have the money to buy a pass, I would walk five kilometers.

My father wanted me to join him in Mumbai. He used to go to Mumbai at least four months in a year, during the mango season to sell Alphonso mangoes. Sometimes, he just went to Crawford Market, bought a few boxes and sold them on a retail basis at Ghatkopar. At other times, he sold vegetables, fruits or lemons. Since he insisted on my joining him in Mumbai, I agreed, on the condition that he would allow me to study in a night school. We used to stay in one of the slums at Ghatkopar’s Golibar Road.

ML: Did you have any brothers and sisters?

SP:
Yes, I had one older brother in the military; he later joined the post office as a clerk. Another brother worked at the family farm and I was the third child. So, in Mumbai, I worked with my father during the day and went to night school at Ghatkopar East. After two-three years, my father decided that he wanted to go back to Landewadi. But I refused. I said I have been here for two years; let me make my career here. So I stayed back and tried to carry on the business of selling fruits and vegetables. But I didn’t like carrying boxes around and trying to sell them.

ML: So where did you stay after your father left?

SP:
My father had sold our little hut when he left. So, initially, I stayed with a friend. But since he had a family, it really meant sleeping in the open and leaving in the morning as soon as I had bathed. I had nothing, just one set of clothes and a little bedroll. One always slept in the open and, during the monsoons, we found shelter in some under-construction building nearby and slept there. This was during 1971-73, when I was around 15.

ML: How did you earn money then?

SP:
After my father left, I did a variety of odd jobs. I worked as an usher at cinema theatres, as casual labour at a textile mill at Rs seven for a 12-hour shift. I have worked at Crompton Greaves as gate-labour -- they used to pay Rs10 a day -- and, sometimes, as a railway porter. I also got into bad company, since there was nobody to guide me those days… I didn’t work until I ran out of money and then went back to a daily labour job. Then, my brother, who was in the post-office, found me a job at Zenith Computers at Walkeshwar. This was an assured job as a peon and gave me Rs125 per month. Once I settled down there, I started studying again. I joined Vivekanand night classes in Dadar. I also learnt typing and English conversation. I used to do three classes at a time - every evening - one hour of typing, then an hour of English conversation and then the night school. In that way, I completed my 11th standard and passed with a first class.

Zenith Computers used to sell the latest technology integrated circuits (IC) and chips for computers. I was around 18 and got very interested in what they were doing. I used to read all the manuals and literature. I worked for three years at Zenith and, since the office was very small - just eight-ten employees - I got to work in every department. As a peon, I worked with accounts, with marketing, purchase and the technical people. If someone was absent, I would help out wherever needed. I became an all-rounder. 

ML: You learnt all this on the job?

SP:
I had become quite the favourite there. For instance, if the marketing manager was absent, there wasn’t a problem because I knew his work. But if I was absent, they were stuck. Meanwhile, having finished my 11th  standard, I joined a correspondence course at the Shivaji University for my graduation.  It was a pre-degree arts course.

In the three years that I was with Zenith, I would do everything -- from bringing tea for the marketing manager and cleaning his table, to dictating correspondence when he was absent. Sometime then, I began to realise that there is no future in it for me. There were regular increments, which were undoubtedly good, but no promotion and, therefore, no future.

ML: Did you work directly with Raj Saraf (owner of Zenith Computers)?

SP:
Yes, absolutely. It was a very small office those days (Zenith Computers is now a listed company with Rs300 crore turnover). He used to have a second-hand car those days, where if he braked hard, his foot got tangled in the wires! He was a very generous man and encouraged me a lot. He gave me money for my exam fees and tuition fees for college -- well beyond my salary. His moral support was very encouraging. But still, I had begun to feel that I had the potential to be much more than a peon.

At that time, a few new companies had begun to enter the business of trading in electronic components -- other than the shops at Lamington Road. Although the products were required by a wide spectrum of industries using electronic equipment, few people understood the business. Then, in 1977, I saw an advertisement. This was by a family called Gupta who had come from America to start an electronic trading business. I applied for the post of a clerk and was called for an interview. After a detailed interview -- where they asked me a lot of technical questions -- I was told that I had been appointed as a Sales Executive. I said: “But I have applied for the job of a clerk”. They looked at my application form again and, finally, said, “Since you have answered all the questions, why don’t you join as a Sales Executive”?

They asked me about my salary expectations and after some discussion, offered me Rs1200 per month. My last salary at Zenith was Rs250.

I went back to Mr Saraf and told him that I was leaving for better prospects. He said: “if salary is the only issue, I will pay that much”. But I said that I have already committed to join the other company and left. Within three months of taking up the new job, I realised that I had little support from the company. I was buying parts on my personal credit -- because everybody knew me from my Zenith days -- they didn’t know the new company. The sales were also based on my previous contacts -- All India Radio, Glaxo and Doordarshan -- just about everybody who needed electronic components.

I then realised that I don’t really need the company to be able to do the business; so in three months, I decided to strike out on my own. I went to the owner of the business and told him about my decision. He tried to persuade me and offered to increase my salary to Rs2000. I said, “No, Rs 1200 was not a small amount for me, but I want to try my luck and see if I can succeed”.

ML: Where were you living those days?

SP:
I still lived in the slum with a friend but it changed after I started my own business. It was a very large slum near Dharavi. Since I was the only person buying an English newspaper in the slum, the paper vendor was curious about me and we got to know each other. One day, he told me that someone in a nearby building was looking for a paying-guest to share his apartment. I moved there in 1978, and started my business with Rs3500 in the bank. I used to give the address of my paying-guest apartment for my business.

ML: Wasn’t it a problem getting a phone, etc.?

SP:
Yes, but it didn’t matter because I wasn’t expecting anyone to call me. My schedule those days was to get out of the house very early and go from one company to another on a door-to-door basis. Once I picked up enquiries for a specific part, I would go to Lamington Road in the evening to check the sources. The problem those days was availability of electronic components and parts. There were thousands of components in a machine but they were not easily available. What I did was to look for alternatives -- for instance, if a television has a particular transistor, say the SL 100 which was made in Russia and was not available -- I would look through the data books and manuals to find an alternative component made by another company or another country. In 99% of the cases, the trick worked and I was able to supply the part. Most shop-owners at Lamington Road did not know this strategy -- of finding alternatives, even though the technical journals were available with them. That is how I started serving the industry. I then worked on my Zenith contacts at Kota, Ahmedabad and Baroda.

I called these companies and they would send me a list of components that they were stuck for and which were not available in India. I then studied the journals during the night, figured out alternatives and took samples to them. This was a value addition that people really appreciated. Jyoti Ltd. was one company that really supported me; it used to be in technology at that time. Similarly, Instrumentation India Ltd., in Kota, was a government company that supported me a lot. Whenever I went to Kota, their engineers and research scientists used to sit with me to discuss which is the best component to be used while designing a product -- say a temperature controller or data acquisition system. For instance, which IC should they use in a specific amplifier or timer that would be commercially viable and also regularly available for the next 10 years. So they told me their requirements and I would suggest commercially viable options to them, which they appreciated.

ML: You were working alone all this time?

SP:
Yes, mainly alone. In fact, there is another story behind that. Just before I decided to start out on my own, I had applied for several other jobs. In fact, it used to be my hobby to keep applying for various jobs -- that of a ticket-checker at the Railways or a peon at Canara Bank, etc.  On 15th August 1978, the very day that I wanted to start my business -- fortunately or unfortunately -- I received three appointment letters. One as a peon at Canara Bank, the second as a clerk at Raj Khosla’s office and the third one from another company, whose name I don’t remember now. I was really confused and couldn’t decide what to do. Here I was, starting on my own and I was going to turn down three steady jobs. It was very confusing and a difficult choice. I thought about my options through the night and decided that I would start my own business. I could always do a job; but if I wanted to get into business, I would only get one opportunity. It was now or never. At that time, I had about Rs4,000 in hand and was earning over Rs1,000-1,200 every month and I was risking that. The first month, I really didn’t get good business. But, at the end of the month, I had earned Rs500 and thought it was a good start. From then onwards, there was no looking back. At the end of the year, I had earned nearly Rs60,000 and I thought I am in business. That was in 1978-79.

ML: For how long were you into trading and when did you get into manufacturing? 

SP:
From 1978 to 1982, I was purely into trading in components. I got an office in 1979 -- just a table space at Botawala Building at Flora Fountain in south Mumbai. My previous boss at Zenith, who had also started his own business, was there. I approached him and he said, “I will help you”. It was a good address those days. After being successful at trading, I was reasonably settled -- financially. I bought a second-hand car and booked a flat at Vile Parle for Rs two lakh. Then, I decided that I must get into manufacturing.

The year was 1982 when the world saw a revolution in microprocessor technology. The most popular microprocessor was 8085; then came 8086, 8088 and so on. So, 8085 was the commercially viable microprocessor in 1982. To explain what is the 8085 microprocessor: Intel started what is called a ‘microprocessor system design kit’ for engineers to understand and evaluate how it works, its internal architecture and capabilities. I felt that all engineering colleges would require this microprocessor training kit. Intel was selling the product at Rs25,000. I also imported some kits and sold them. Then I wondered: why  can’t I manufacture the product here? I hired an engineer who copied the product for me in three months. I then added features on my own which were required by engineers but were not provided by Intel. So I made an Indian version. When I made this product, there were four or five others -- professors and PhDs who had produced similar products, but mine was more successful in India. In 1984, the government had a policy of encouraging microprocessor applications through the Department of Electronics, and the Dynalog product was selected. When I started manufacturing, I employed 8-10 people -- that was a turning point, not only for my company but also for Indian technology training business. Our major buyers today are educational institutions and R&D centres of companies. If anyone wants a microprocessor in any of their products and processes, they need to have the training kit to learn how to use it.

ML: When did you start Dynalog? And why the name Dynalog?

SP:
It was then that I set up Dynalog -- it was a combination of Digital and Analog -- so Dynalog. We were the only ones to export that product to countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Then, we started making industrial computers, add-on cards and other products. The trading part of our business is still going on. Our manufacturing base is in Pune and Ghatkopar.

ML: Why did you get into industrial computers? Is it a special line of activity?

SP:
Let me tell you. When I started manufacturing microprocessors, we sensed that personal computers (PCs) were very popular. Until 1985, PCs were used only for data-entry applications and office automation. Then onwards, throughout the world, people started using PCs in real-world applications -- like controlling office and industrial processes. You take a standard PC, include some add-on cards, design software for it and make the PC a controller -- for textiles, engineering or other industrial processes.

At that time, I felt that add-on cards were the emerging opportunity and made various kinds of PC add-on cards after understanding the requirement of different industries. We made almost 100 different PC add-on cards. Between 1985-89, commercial PCs were used for industrial applications. Then industrial PCs began to be used for specialised applications and we started making rugged versions of PCs for industrial applications. We also decided to tie up with some foreign vendors who are established leaders for making industrial PCs.

Then we began to deal with the defence sector. The DRDO (Defence Research & Development Organisation) is a sound organisation which uses the latest technology -- industrial computers or military computers are used by defence services all over the world. DRDO also needed them. We entered this market by taking up a project for supplying computers and components for major DRDO projects such as Prithvi, Agni and Bramhos missiles. For the last 10 years, we have been involved in these projects.

ML: In what capacity have you been involved?

SP:
We provide sub-assemblies and sub-systems to all these defence-related projects.

ML: You are now a Member of the Lok Sabha; when did you decide to enter politics?

SP:
While doing business, I used to spend three days a week at Landewadi. I realised that there was need for a high school at my village - the nearest high school was five or six kilometres away. In 1987, there were 57 students in my zilla parishad of which 38 were girls. Normally, girls don’t go to other villages for further education. I thought it is a serious situation -- they would not be able to study further. The villagers also requested me to do something. So, on non-government grant basis, I started a school there. That took me to the village more often. And, once you start doing something, people begin to come to you. Around 1989, I met Dilip Walse Patil, who was then an aspiring politician and working as a personal assistant (PA) to Sharad Pawar. We were both from the same village. Once I started my school, his father, who was an ex-MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) befriended me. Since 1989, we were together almost until 2003.

After the school, I started a cooperative credit society and then a cooperative bank. I started listening to the villagers and helped resolve their problems. We then started a sugar factory where I was initially the chairman.

ML: But you are an MP from the Shiv Sena. How did that happen?

SP:
Initially, I was with Sharad Pawar. I worked with him and Dilip Walse Patil for nearly 15 years. I supported him and the party, even financially, during their rough times. Somewhere, there was an understanding that they would give me a ticket for the Lok Sabha elections.

ML: Until then, you had not stood for any elections?

SP:
No, never. But I had done the kind of work in my constituency that led to a silent projection that I would be the next MP.  Mr Pawar specifically told me that I was doing a good job and that I would be considered for a ticket. In 1999, when Pawar launched the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), I supported the NCP again, on the understanding that I will get a ticket during the next elections. Everything was okay until 2003. But all of a sudden, when it came to actually giving me a ticket, I found that Dilip Walse Patil was negative. It was a big shock to me - I had supported him fully for three elections. When I was told that I would not get the ticket, I was upset, but decided that I would quit politics and stay focused on my social work. I didn’t want to join another party either. I announced my resignation from the sugar factory and my plan to quit active politics. But I began to be harassed by the party - they would spy on me, keep a watch on who I met, etc. My school began to have problems. I tried to tell them to leave me alone; but it did not work. During that time, the Thackareys of Shiv Sena approached me. Since I was being harassed by the NCP, I decided to fight back and agreed to contest elections on a Sena ticket.

ML: What is the extent of your involvement in the business now?

SP:
I have given it up completely. I have resigned from all my official posts -- in any case I cannot hold an ‘office of profit’. Meanwhile, my son completed his MBA from the US and joined the business.

ML: What next, are you enjoying being a politician?

SP:
Not really, I am not happy with politics the way it is today. It is too dirty. For instance, as an opposition party MP, I am not even allowed to work for the people. At all levels, they work hard to block my progress or the development work I am attempting to do. I end up spending a lot of time just fighting with the local authorities or the police. There are also attempts to involve me in various police cases. It is just too dirty and, if it continues like this -- and there is no support from the party -- I will have to consider what to do. In the zilla parishad elections, I fought three seats and won two, but the party hasn’t even called me. If this continues, I will again consider getting out of politics and go back to doing social work.

ML: But isn’t there a lot of satisfaction in being able to take up issues at the national level in Parliament?

SP:
Yes, absolutely. There is a lot of satisfaction in that. I am one of the members who has asked the maximum number of questions in the Lok Sabha - 802 at last count. You can see it on the Parliament website. I also did a lot of work on the Forest & Environment Committee and the Committee on Defence where I was a member. There is also a lot to learn from the speeches of politicians from various parts of the country.

It is the local politics that is dirty. For instance, bullock-cart racing is a big event in the villages. So just to alienate the farmers from me, the state banned bullock-cart racing, using the false cover of a High Court order banning animal fights. When we tried to protest, the police beat up the farmers very badly, arrested them and slapped cases of attempt to murder under Section 307 of the Indian Penal Code. All this talk about vision for development is just a sham.

But I don’t intend to give up so easily or allow myself to be defeated by them. Even today, I spend just a couple of days in Mumbai; otherwise I am constantly in my constituency working with my people. I pull out information and data from the Internet and follow up on developmental issues by approaching all the ministries concerned.

ML: Are you doing anything to develop entrepreneur-ship in terms of giving people support and helping build businesses?

SP:
Entrepreneurship is not the issue; government policies are not conducive to business. I have organised 26 entrepreneurship development camps in the last two years with the help of the Maharashtra Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). In one of the projects, 12 unemployed youth, trained by National Horticulture Board, have set up green houses on a two and half acre plot. It is already profitable.

I talk to people in order to remove the fear of doing business.

User

COMMENTS

Mandar

2 years ago

Inspiring life story of a self-made man, businessman and leader

Mandar

2 years ago

Inspiring life story of a leader

Patils

2 years ago

Don't give up Sir, we salute to your work and contribution. would like to be a CM of Maharashtra. Maharashtra really needed politician like u.
We are with you, best of luck.

“I have always looked for ideas that are tough, relevant for the society and can make a name for India”

Dr AV Rama Rao is the pioneer of outsourced medical research as a business venture in India

If outsourced research is the buzzword, Dr AV Rama Rao ought to be its icon. He runs India’s only scientific research lab as a business venture. His company Avra Laboratories provides technical services, process technologies and synthesis of new chemical entities for the world’s leading drug companies like GD Searle, Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb. From extremely humble origins in rural Andhra Pradesh, Dr Rama Rao became an innovative scientist with the National Chemical Laboratory in Pune and later turned the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology into a centre of excellence. His outstanding research work has led to 30 patents, 50 drug technologies for the industry and 109 PhDs. While his outspoken and straightforward nature has upset a few mediocre people, Dr Rama Rao has had a long friendship with Dr YK Hamied of Cipla, while synthesising the anti-AIDS drug that fetched global fame for Cipla and Dr Hamied

ML: Can you tell us a little about your background and your childhood?

AVR:
I have seen your other interviews where everybody seems to be a topper. Let me be very frank. I was never a topper in school. My father was a state government employee who got transferred frequently. I was the first child and used to move around with my parents. Usually, by the time I finished half a year, my father was transferred and I often didn’t go to school in the second half at all. I was happy spending most of my time playing. Then, I scraped through the sixth standard and got into the high school.

Since my father used to get transferred frequently, I often stayed with my grandparents at Guntur. But when I was in my fourth standard, I had a friend who played cards. Now, in Andhra Pradesh, everybody has three ‘virtues’ -- playing cards, drinking and womanising. We used to bunk school in the afternoon and play cards behind a temple. I somehow got through the exams because I had a terrific memory.

ML: When did you get serious about studies?

AVR:
The year I was supposed to appear for my SSC, I realised what I was doing. By then, I was sent to live with my aunt who was very poor. My father used to send Rs40 every month for my upkeep and they managed the house with that money. It made me realise, for the first time, that if I did not have proper education, I have had it. We used to have just one meal and leftovers in the evening.  

ML: How did this realisation change you?

AVR:
I used to dominate everything that I did. I was not a great football player, but I was the team leader. I also realised, for the first time during my SSC exams, that scoring marks is not difficult and I topped my school. At that time, my father used to say that he would get me a clerk’s job when I pass my SSC.

Because I didn’t study regularly, I had become weak in mathematics and I opted for biology, physics and chemistry at the intermediate level but didn’t know that students with biology went on to do medicine. I casually applied to a medical college in Guntur where only 13 of the 50 seats were for merit students. I ranked 14th or 15th. My father could not afford to send me outside Guntur. So, although Vishakapatnam (medical college) had more seats, I could not go. I didn’t feel bad. I had, by then, started liking chemistry, so I joined AC College in Guntur for my BSc. Getting a first class was a big thing those days and I was a topper. I was also the college student leader. Our principal believed that student leaders are rogues and don’t study. So whenever he got complaints from the faculty, he always called for my marks. I used to get away with a warning, since I was a topper. One had to go out of the state for a Master’s degree those days and most people went to the Benaras Hindu University. Since we were nine siblings, there was no money for me to go. My father had asked me to apply for the post of a clerk and I got the job, but I was reluctant to join.

ML: What did you want to do?

AVR:
I wanted to study more. But I knew the family situation, so I decided to join AC College as a chemistry demonstrator for one or two years. Those days, post-graduates applied for the demonstrator’s job, but sometimes they took graduates too. The evening before the interview, I went to meet the Head of the Department (HOD) hoping he would put in a good word for me. He did the opposite. He said, “You are a student leader and don’t deserve to be a teacher”. Anyway, I got the job. A year later, I was selected as a chemist in the Agricultural College at Bapatla. It is there that I realised that a BSc was not enough and told my father that I wanted to study further. I saw an advertisement of the University Department of Chemical Technology, Bombay. I applied and got through. I landed in Bombay on a rainy day like Sharma (Prof MM Sharma, see interview in MoneyLIFE 7th December issue). I didn’t know the city and someone on the train asked me to get off at Dadar. I took a taxi, which took me to VJTI and dumped me there. I then walked in the rain to the hostel. That is how I started.

I wanted to do pure chemistry and not engineering. Those days, Prof K Venkataraman was the best in organic chemistry. He was at the National Chemical Laboratories (NCL), Pune. I applied to do my PhD under him, even though many students took 8-10 years to complete their PhD with him. I was also getting job offers from companies like Glaxo and Pfizer. Nobody other than me went for research from my batch.

ML: Did you know Prof Venkataraman earlier?

AVR:
No, I didn’t; but he was a former faculty member of UDCT and had a soft spot for UDCT students. For the first three months, when there was no fellowship, I had to plead with my father for support and he sent me Rs100 a month for expenses. I completed my PhD in a record time of three and a half years and Prof Venkataraman asked me to stay on for post-doctoral work. After a year, I wanted to leave NCL for further studies. He insisted that I stay back. I told him that he should at least give me a regular position. I became a ‘Scientist B’ at NCL in 1965. Until then, everyone was appointed to this post only on returning from abroad after higher studies. I was already married and had a child. A permanent government job seemed like a God-given gift. For the next 10 years, I was focused on chemistry of natural products and isolated 100 new compounds from plants and insects, which led to 70 publications in top international journals.

ML: During 1965-1975, you also worked closely with industry, shifting from your desire to do only fundamental research.

AVR:
I had the notion that fundamental research was the pure thing and industrial research was mediocre. But NCL was changing at that time. Director Dr BD Tilak insisted that fundamental research had no relevance and the organic chemistry division had to find ways to serve industry. My first brush with industrial research was the case of Poona Synthetics in 1970. The owner, Maharaj Singh, was the son-in-law of LK Jha (then Reserve Bank Governor). Jha had requested Venkataraman to help the company solve a problem. But Venkataraman didn’t know anything about it so he asked me to help. The company was making OTS-amide, a key intermediate for saccharine, and in the process it threw away a by-product called PTS-amide. Saccharine prices went down and Poona Synthetics was making heavy losses. I felt that the only way to revive the company was to add value to PTS-amide by converting it into an intermediate called urethane, for an anti-diabetic drug. Hoechst India was a possible buyer. But Singh felt that Hoechst would never accept a local product. He was right.

ML: That was very surprising. Arrogance of MNCs?

AVR:
Right. Hoechst simply threw out the managers of Poona Synthetics. I bought a ticket to Bombay on my own and went to Hoechst. I didn’t even have a business card and wrote ‘from NCL’ on a piece of paper. The Hoechst manager was also a former student of Venkataraman and called me in. He knew my name and agreed to give me only one trial. He gave us an order for Rs two lakh immediately. But the company had no money to execute it. So, I approached State Bank of India which asked me for a technical guarantee. The manager said: “I will give money only on your word”. I took an NCL letterhead, wrote that the product would work and signed it. Later, I came to know that we are not supposed to do such things. I used to do some daring things but only with good intentions.

ML: You were involved in supervising the production too.

AVR
: I had to design the plant needed to produce urethane and I was also spending Saturdays and Sundays supervising the product batches in the factory 20km away from Pune. Within one year, the company was out of the red. In fact, I found another application for PTS-amide -- fluorescent pigments which were being imported.

ML: After that, you got involved with the drug industry.

AVR:
Around 1972, I was keen to start a programme on synthetic drugs. Indian patent laws had been changed to allow Indian versions of foreign drugs and pesticides. I selected the product diazepam but Regional Research Laboratory (RRL), Hyderabad, was already doing it for Ranbaxy. I told Dr Tilak that my approach would be different and it would work out much cheaper. But we had problems getting the raw materials, which were imported. In early 1972, I went to meet a trader in Bombay. He took me to Dr YK Hamied, then the director of R&D at Cipla. He was trying to set up a bulk drug unit. He enquired about my work and I explained my approach to synthesising a particular product. He wanted to buy the know-how. A few days later, he came to NCL and paid a one-time fee of Rs30,000 to buy the process. We were amazed. Later, we completed the synthesis of diazepam which was given to Centaur Chemicals.

ML: What was your next career move?

AVR:
I felt the need to spend one or two years at one of the best organic labs. In 1975, I landed up at Harvard working with EJ Corey (a Nobel Laureate). Somebody had initially recommended my name to Har Gobind Khorana, who was at MIT. But Khorana was working more on biological chemistry rather than pure organic. So I opted for Harvard. After two years, I was very keen to come back because I was well established here and wanted to continue my fundamental and industrial research.

ML: What did you do after you returned from Harvard in 1977?

AVR:
When I returned, I was very ambitious and wanted to work on tough molecules, especially relating to cancer. Dr Tilak told me: “Don’t think you alone have come from Harvard with an ambition. I too have worked with Dr Woodward at Harvard. Forget all your ambitions and goals and go back and work on natural products”. But I was adamant. He said: “In that case, you should get outside funds”. Then, I met Dr Hamied. He knew I had really good potential. He offered me a job. He said he would build an R&D lab in Bangalore. He gave a blank cheque to sign for my salary. I said: “No, I did not go to Harvard for nothing; I wanted to be in research”. He said: “I will give you 10 research fellows to work with you”. I said: “Once one enters the industry, research becomes secondary. For me, research is a primary commitment”. He suggested that I become a consultant. I have been a consultant to every major pharma company -- Ranbaxy, Cipla, Lupin -- at some or time or the other. But Dr Hamied was a regular. He used to sponsor all kinds of projects, so money was never a problem later.

ML: Around that time, you made a major breakthrough in cancer treatment.

AVR:
While I was looking for outside sources of money, somebody told me very casually that the Maharashtra Government has a small grant in what they called a Science & Technology Cell and that they may provide funds for one of my projects. The head of the Cell was one Dr Malshe. Unknown to me at that time, he was suffering from cancer and was reading a lot on anti-cancer research and medicine. He wanted to work on anti-cancer medication and had probably read about my work on vinblastine and vincristine at the Corey group (at Harvard). In the 1960s, Eli Lilly came to India and did research on some Indian plants based on the ayurvedic system as part of the collaboration with NCL for plant extraction.

They had picked up this plant -- the Vinca rosea -- which is traditionally known to have medicinal properties. The plant grows anywhere. It doesn't need watering and strangely no animal touches the plant. Even plant virus doesn’t affect it. The reason, as we now know, is that it contains powerful alkaloids, which give out a pungent smell. Do you know that women do not offer this flower to God? Nobody knows why, but nobody plucks this flower, although it grows in the wild. The Malayalis make a decoction by boiling dried leaves in water and drink it. They believe it cures diabetes. On that basis, they were looking for an anti-diabetic medicine, but it was not responding in animal tests.

ML: How was it identified as a cure for cancer?

AVR:
Vinca rosea affected the bone marrow and the white blood corpuscles reduced. That indicated that an anti-cancer drug was a possibility. So vinblastine and vincristine, the two dimeric alkaloids widely used as anti-cancer agents were isolated and even today are the only means of cure for leukaemia among children.
India was the only source of dried vinca leaves.

Traders were procuring it from tribals in Maharashtra and exporting them to Eli Lilly, USA. But people became greedy and started adulterating the leaves. When Eli Lilly realised this, it started cultivating the plant in the US
and Africa.

In response, the Ministry of Social Welfare began to buy leaves from the tribals to support them. When exports dried up, huge stocks had piled up. They then approached the Science & Technology Cell to see if anything could be done with the leaves. That is how Dr Malshe wanted to work with this plant. He wanted Pune or Bombay University to isolate vinblastine and vincristine, but neither of them came forward.

When I met him, I began to talk about the plant and gave him more and more details. He soon realised that I knew more about it than he did. He asked me “how do you know so much about this plant”? I told him I was working on anti-cancer drugs. I told him about wanting to isolate vinblastine and vincristine. He asked me how much money I would need. I said Rs two lakh. He sanctioned it in 24 hours. Since NCL had told me there was no money for fundamental research, I went to the Osmania University to look for research students. I started work in 1979 to process 10 to 20kg of Vinca rosea leaves to get a 0.001 extract of vinblastine. I got drums, bought a tap with my own money and welded it to the drum. I packed 30kg of leaves in the drum; I bought solvent and that is how the entire technology was developed, using a very simple process without chromatography.

ML: This is really a fascinating story.

AVR
: Yes. I informed Dr Malshe that we were able to get vinblastine. He was very excited and asked me about my other basic project for anthracyclines. I asked him if he would be willing to give money for that. His mandate was to fund state universities not central institutes, but he realised the importance of what we were doing. He said, “Dr Rama Rao, if you make vinblastine a success, then money is not a problem”. He later agreed to give us another Rs three lakh. His entire budget was Rs eight lakh and he had given more than half of it to us. I commercialised the vinblastine project and successfully completed the anthracycline programme.

ML: Why didn’t anybody else think about this procedure, a simple solvent extraction method?

AVR:
There are 95 alkaloids in Vinca rosea of which you have to pick one. Scientists read the literature and make things complicated. They carry on with what was done before. Maybe today I will not be able to do what I did before. Those days, I didn’t have the right facilities. Pushed to a corner, you are determined to find a way out. Even on anthracycline, when I published papers, all the MNCs read my papers, because the methods were so simple. And I got invited by all the pharma companies to give lectures. All these projects were relevant to them.

I am one chemist who has probably lectured at all the pharma companies and made more money from my lectures than consultancy. I used to pay more income tax than my salary.

ML: Vinblastin was an astounding breakthrough that combined both fundamental and industrial research and surely made waves at that time?

AVR:
In a coincidence, the very morning I gave the sample to Dr Malshe, he had met Chief Minister AR Antulay, who was under fire from the MLAs wanting the Science & Technology cell to be wound up. Antulay was supposed to reply in the Assembly. He asked Dr Malshe “Will you get any money from this research”? He said, “We will get royalty, but more than that, it is a product that will put India on the world map”.

Now, I had not discovered the drug. What I did was to discover a new technology to lower the price of making the key intermediate. But Antulay, being a politician, did not understand the difference and went ahead and announced that an Indian scientist had discovered an anti-cancer drug. It was reported on the front pages of all the newspapers the next day; but the text we had given him was accurate.

ML: What about the next steps -- establishing the efficacy and actual manufacturing of the drug?

AVR:
Our process of isolating vinblastine and vincristine was superior to what Eli Lilly was doing. But who was going to exploit it in India? Hindustan Antibiotics was supposed to make the product. It insisted on using vials. The authorities wanted me to demonstrate the efficacy of the product. That is where Dr Hamied helped. He put me in touch with Tata Cancer Hospital. There was one Dr Shetty who was the chemotherapy head. I spent my own money visiting the Hospital. Hindustan Antibiotics had a machine which was unused. I cleaned it up and used it to make vials for tests. We used the drug on the Tata Hospital patients, along with the Eli Lilly products and Dr Shetty concluded that the results were identical to the Eli Lilly product. But HAL refused to make them. I went to Dr Hamied and asked him if he would manufacture the drug. He said, ‘No. Rama rao, you are a good scientist, but you have to learn business from me’.

I was surprised. I thought I had done something fantastic. He asked me what is the total sale of the drug in India? It was Rs25 lakh. He said, “My investment would be Rs two crore plus two years of interest which would then have amounted to Rs40 lakh”. It made no sense and I had no real answer for this.

ML: Was there an export possibility?

AVR:
Those days, nobody thought about the world market. Cipla’s exports were only Rs1.5 crore. So I used to sit in the library, late into the night and wonder what is going wrong for this kind of innovation. Then, I suddenly discovered that the patent for the Eli Lilly product was due to expire in 1985. I called Dr Hamied the next morning and said, “It is a world market -- the patent is going to expire in 1985 and we are already in 1982.

We need two years to start production and you need regulatory permissions”. He said, “My God, Rama Rao, I didn’t realise this”. Cipla’s Bangalore facility was created. That was the beginning of exports by the Indian drug industry. That is how Cipla also moved very fast and I became well-known. Cipla signed the agreement for technology in 1983 and supplied the first 500 vials to three major cancer hospitals in December 1983. It sold each vial of vincristine sulphate at Rs25 compared to the imported price of Rs80.

Through the entire process I learnt not only technology and formulation but dealing with the doctors, clinical trials, dealing with FDA rules, good manufacturing practices (GMP) and exports. That’s why my own venture Avra Laboratories has the Vinca rosea (the Periwinkle flower) as its logo. The whole thing opened up my mind. Even today, no scientist knows all these aspects from fundamental research to commercialisation. You need extreme commitment to get solutions. Today, there are specialised people in industry to take care of different phases of the process; but at that time, there was no one.

ML: You worked on other projects with Cipla and Lupin. What was the next big piece of your work?

AVR
: Another area where I think I made some contribution to the country is in HIV/AIDS. I have a knack for identifying the right products -- it is a God-given gift -- through mundane sources. There is another aspect -- in science, everybody becomes expert in one chosen field; they rarely change track and do something different. But every five years, I changed my area of work.

ML: Tell us about each of these phases.

AVR:
When I returned from Harvard, I was into anti-cancer research. Then, in 1985, I decided I must change track and was looking for new areas. MG Ramachandran was the chief minister of Tamil Nadu and had undergone kidney transplant. One morning, while reading the newspaper, I noticed that the opposition parties were asking who had paid for it -- the party or the state government. He needed to take Cyclosporine A, which is a drug given to organ transplant patients and has to be taken lifelong. The cost was Rs50,000 per person per year. I wondered why does this drug cost so much and why can’t it be made here.

I rushed to the library and started looking up Cyclosporine A. I found it was an immunosuppressant.

I had never worked on this. So I went to the laboratory and wrote on the board - immunosuppressant. This is the project we are going to work on. My researchers were very reluctant because they knew nothing about it. I said, we will read and learn. To work in this area, we had to do asymmetric synthesis. This was done for the first time in India. Then there is a compound which is 100 times more powerful than Cyclosporine, which is given today to heart transplant patients. We did the total synthesis for the first time outside the US. We worked on this till 1990-91. From 1980 to 1995 was the period when I worked on my own and the way I wanted to. Since I had made a name in research, money was pouring in from industry and I utilised it for fundamental research.

I used to have a large number of student groups. I had supervised 109 PhDs over 15 years. I used to tell them to go and sit in the library and get me some new ideas. The ideas should be for something that is tough, relevant to society and get us name and fame. These were the three criteria. One day, I was looking at vancomycin which is used when all antibiotics fail. It is a very complex molecule. It is most fascinating structure-wise and activity-wise. I knew that if we could do something with it, we will be noticed. We worked on it from 1992-95. Guess who was our competitor? A Harvard professor. He had been working on it for 10 years. Everyone said he is working on it for a long time and couldn’t get anywhere, so why did we want to get into it.

ML: The product was already there. You wanted to make a new analogue for better results?

AVR:
Yes. It is like, why did you climb the Everest? It is for the excitement. Here, there was not only excitement but the work has relevance. Industry takes your work, makes a variety of analogues. Even for vincomycin, there are hundreds of new analogues. It was a fermentation product made by Eli Lilly. We were the first to synthesise it. We aimed to extend its knowledge and efficacy. We made it in two halves. Then a problem arose. How to hook the two halves together. That was the problem the Harvard professor was struggling with. I go for morning walks and, at that time, I think about all my problems. One day, while walking, it suddenly occurred to me that this may not be the way Nature has built it. So I came back and said, let us reverse the sequence; we were the first to complete the synthesis.

ML: You have also worked on AIDS medicine.

AVR:
In 1988-89, I read in a newspaper that a young man had come from the Gulf and died of AIDS because of blood transfusion. There was only one drug available for AIDS which had responded in animal testing. The USFDA had approved it without any clinical trials, bypassing all the rules. It was very expensive. I deeply felt that every Indian must have access to it. We came out with a new method of making the drug. I requested Dr Hamied to commercialise it in 1991. I said, “Please make at least a small amount for the Indian market, otherwise our people will be deprived”. He was reluctant but agreed. At that time, Burroughs Wellcome had introduced the drug in India and wanted to block our product. The Indian FDA wanted the drug tested on eight HIV patients, but there weren’t that many patients in Indian hospitals. This meant that it was impossible to meet the requirement. One year passed and it was not cleared. In 1992, Dr Hamied said, “I have done what you wanted; it is not in my hands, because this man is not moving the file”.

I then picked up the phone and called the officer. I knew the person because he was on various government committees that I headed. For the first time in my life, I threatened someone. I said, “If you don’t clear the drug within 24 hours, I will take up the issue with the prime minister, who is the president of CSIR”. It was cleared in 24 hours. Cipla manufactured about 10 million tablets of zidovudine, but there were no patients. Dr Hamied said he was willing to distribute it through the ICMR (Indian Council for Medical Research), but the director of ICMR said that was not his mandate. By 1995, however, AIDS had become widespread and the market for the drug just took off.

ML: Cipla has made such a global name by offering the drug at a much lower price than MNCs.

AVR:
Yes. Clinton came and visited the Cipla factory -- the Clinton Foundation buys the drug even today.

Dr Hamied really encashed on the drug and even got the Padma Bhushan. All this was mainly because of my initial pressure and he acknowledges it wherever he talks about AIDS. We share a deep bond.

ML: You moved from NCL to IICT (Indian Institute of Chemical Technology) at Hyderabad in 1985 where you transformed that organisation.

AVR:
We used to consider the Regional Research Laboratory (as IICT was earlier known) as a junk lab. The post of the director was vacant and Prof MM Sharma was chairman of the selection committee. He used his prerogative to invite me for the position. So, Dr S Vardarajan, who was the director general of CSIR, spoke to Dr LK Doraiswamy at NCL to release me. But I was making a lot of money for NCL. So Dr Doraiswamy wanted me to refuse the post. For the actual selection, however, Dr Vardarajan had recommended another candidate. The ultimate decision was that of the prime minister and I learn that Rajiv Gandhi decided in my favour on the recommendation of Shivraj Patil, who was the Science & technology minister. Mr Patil had occasion to see my work and spend some time with me earlier.

Initially, I was reluctant to go to Hyderabad, so was my wife. But I told her three things: one, it is an opportunity to turn the place around, while at NCL there were at least three people who were director material; two, we are from Andhra and it may be a better place to settle down after retirement; three, if I fail, I will be able do something on my own. I will not seek a job. I came to RRL, the junk lab, in 1985. By 1990, we were the number one, based on CSIR’s yardsticks. In 1988, they initiated the young scientist’s award. Over the next seven years, we won it six times. We won all the technology awards. In 1990, they initiated a business development cash award of Rs one lakh. Dr Mashelkar was heading NCL at that time, but they didn’t even apply because they felt we would get it. There was only one application -- from IICT.

ML: Why do people say that you are too outspoken?

AVR:
That is because if someone is doing something wrong, others keep quiet. I don’t. Also, I fight for the right. None of my fights is for my personal benefit. When I came to IICT, there were unions and I had to remove the troublemakers, which meant fighting the politicians.

If you remove one person, it causes a controversy; I had removed 29 people from IICT. I used to get calls recommending promotions but I never listened to anybody in my entire career. I believe scientists should be appointed on merit. I religiously followed reservations for lower posts, but not for scientific officers. Naturally, that became a parliamentary question. What did I gain personally by fighting on this issue? But, because of it, even today, IICT is a wonderful institution.

I was the only director who did not use the staff car for personal work. My wife didn’t touch the official car and if I did use it for sight seeing, I always paid for it. Once a director even told me that that by paying, I was suggesting that everybody else who didn't, was corrupt. As I said, my income tax payment was more than my salary because of earnings from my lectures. Because of my attitude, many people used to say, ‘when he retires, he will have to come to us for grants’. Everybody wants to be called a ‘distinguished scientist’, but once you retire, in our country, distinguished becomes extinguished. Once a person loses his chair, he loses all his power. So I decided to go on my own.

ML: There was a CBI inquiry against you as well.

AVR:
That was instigated by a minister who I did not listen to. Once I retired, they told the CBI that I was living beyond my means and had me raided. I wasn’t perturbed. They took my passport and my wife's gold. I demanded it back by showing them all my earnings and papers. I got it back on the third day. The officers told me, “we know you, but we were helpless”. It was the first time I realised to what extent politicians would go and how weak the CBI is. It was too much. All our earnings were reported; but they chose to attack me after retirement. This is happening to Mashelkar now, but not to the extent it happened to me.  

ML: Tell us about AVRA Labs, India's first independent scientific research lab as a business venture.

AVR:
Most scientists work as consultants and we think we know everything on earth. Then why beg the government for a post-retirement fellowship? It lasts only for five years, and although your successor treats you well initially, you soon begin to be treated very badly. I have personally seen it happen to several of my seniors.

I was also offered these assignments. I refused. But when I consulted them on doing something on my own, everybody discouraged me. Then I spoke to Prof MM Sharma. He said, “Rama Rao, you are the best guy; you can do it on your own”. When I told him that everybody had discouraged me, he said ‘forget about them; you can do it’. He said, “Even I get scared and prefer to work as a consultant”. I must tell you, he is the only man in the country I respect so highly. He stands for the truth and will also speak out for what is right.

ML: Did you work as a consultant after leaving IICT or did you start AVRA immediately?

AVR:
Yes, immediately. I went on a lecture tour. When I lectured at GD Searle, USA, they were so impressed with work I had done on vancomycin that they wanted to sponsor a project at IICT. I told them that I had already retired. They asked me about my plans. I said, I planned to work independently. They said, “Why don’t we sponsor you”. I said, “I don’t have any laboratory as yet, but I have a shed, will you pay for it”? They agreed. I asked them what the project was. Searle executives were working on a project but were not satisfied with it, because there was a nasty chemical which was the by-product. They said: “We have a solution but we won’t tell you about it; we want you to find your own solution”.

I agreed, but said I needed some money. It was all very causal. They asked how much I wanted and I said $200,000. The deal was signed even without a letterhead, on a blank sheet. The name Avra Labs had been registered by then and, by the time I returned, the money was here.

Then I went to address the Gordon Conference. It is a rare honour for an outsider to be invited there. I was invited twice. After my lecture, one of the executives of CytoMed asked me whether I would like to work on a project. I said, yes. He asked if I would come along to meet his CEO. They wanted 100 gm of a certain molecule and asked how much I would charge for it. I asked for $50,000. They agreed and gave me the money upfront. They had given the same project to a US company for $400,000 as well as to a British company; both had failed. They wanted to take a chance with me, because the molecule had gone through Phase I of testing but they couldn't get more than one gram of it. They were desperate for a breakthrough and we made a success of it. These two offers got me started. This is probably the only company that is built with zero investment -- everything is earned and ploughed back. We got some help from DM Neterwala, chairman of Dai-Ichi Karkaria, who promised to build the foundation for me, free of charge. I was surprised; even Dr Hamied was sceptical. But Neterwala gave me a shed and also built a building for me. When it was ready, he wanted me to become the managing director. I refused and then moved out. We have been lucky in getting a series of projects. We have worked with Pfizer, BMS, Astra Zeneca -- in fact, you name any big company and we have worked with them. Our work is essentially doing scientific research and being paid for it. Now we are getting into manufacturing outsourcing in a new factory near Vizag. Meanwhile, my son, who has a PhD from Cambridge, has also joined me.

Another thing we have done is work on anti-cancer drugs that are not being made. For the first time in the world, we have introduced a totally synthetic product to make a cancer drug intermediate. We have signed with a European company to supply the compound.That was a significant breakthrough.

User

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“If you are not dogged in India, you have no chance. Everybody will pull you down”

Dr CNR Rao, the world’s foremost solid state and materials chemist, airs his views on where Indian science is headed

He is known in India as “Mr Science” and has been conferred an astounding 40 honorary doctorates from all over the world. Dr CNR Rao, the world’s foremost solid state and materials chemist, is currently the Linus Pauling Research Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru and chairman of the Science Advisory Committee to the prime minister. At 73, his passion is nanotechnology, especially the nanomaterials comprising carbon nanotubes. He has authored over 1,400 research papers and edited or written 41 books in materials chemistry. There is hardly any academy that has not made him a fellow, including The Royal Society of London, National Academy of Sciences, USA, Russian Academy of Sciences, Pontifical Academy of Sciences, French Academy of Sciences and Japan Academy. There is a wide consensus that he would have easily won a Nobel Prize by now if he were working in a Western country. His views on where Indian science is headed, given the way bright science students are sucked in by the software sector are extremely forthright
 

ML: Would you tell us a little about your background? What got you interested in science? You also said somewhere that you were taught by your mother in your early years.  

CNRR
: I was born in Bangalore. I did not go to a primary school. I began formal schooling only in the middle school. My mother was a very spiritual person. She used to spend long hours in her puja and was a follower of the Madhawa philosophy of doing the right deeds. She herself did not finish high school but was very well-read through self-study. She used to read English newspapers and was aware of what was happening in the world. She taught me until I was six years old with a special emphasis on mythology and mathematics. My father was an inspector of schools. I was the only child. I had a lot of freedom.

A visit by CV Raman to our school in 1946 was probably the earliest factor influencing my interest in science. I decided to become a scientist when I was doing my intermediate course at Sahyadri Science College in Shimoga and later BSc with physics, chemistry and mathematics at Central College Bangalore. I had actually scored more marks in physics than in chemistry. I did not want to join the civil service or medicine or whatever; so I went to the Benaras Hindu University (BHU) to do my Masters degree.

ML: Why Benaras?

CNRR:
Because it was one of the few places where you could take additional courses rather than merely work on a thesis. At other places, like Bombay University, you had to mainly do a thesis. I wanted to study a lot of other subjects. It was the early 1950s and BHU was a great centre of learning. It had many top visiting professors including Nobel Laureates. One day, I came across a book called the Nature of the Chemical Bond by Linus Pauling. I was fascinated. What he wrote was totally new at that time. He got a Nobel Prize for it; he also got another Nobel for peace later. I felt I must work with him. After completing my MSc in 1953, I came back to Bangalore, spent a few weeks at Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and then left for Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Kharagpur (West Bengal) which had just come up. After a year, I realised this was not a place where I could do the kind of chemistry I wanted to (molecules and structures).

I wrote to Pauling wanting to do doctorate under him. He said, “Why don’t you work with two of my very good students?” and he gave me their names. When I wrote to them, one of them immediately gave me a fellowship. I had fellowships from MIT, Penn State and Columbia also but I went to Purdue to be able to work with Pauling’s student. He was a very fine person; unfortunately, when I went there, he became an administrator and was always very busy; he hardly ever came to the lab. I was doing my own stuff. And he said, ‘you are good at what you do, why don’t you help others in their work’? I helped a lot of PhD students. In fact, I am a common author of every paper that was written at that time.

I was about 23 at that time and I had already worked on the structure of an important molecule when Pauling had come to the university to inaugurate a new chemistry building. I had shown him how I had worked on two important structures on which he had a theory. He acknowledged my work in the third edition of his book Nature of the Chemical Bond. More important, my PhD was only a small part of the work I did at Purdue.  I got my PhD in two years and nine months, but I used to take all kinds of courses and also published some independent work on spectroscopy and physical organic chemistry. In fact, I did not get a degree in chemistry; I got it in chemical physics.

While I was taking these other courses, I used to come across various problems that others were trying to solve. I got interested in them and I ended up writing a large number of papers. By the time I left the university, I had published at least 28 papers, while for my PhD I had published only five papers. In fact, based on those 28 papers, I got a DSc in India. Somebody told me DSc was very hard to get. But I soon got a DSc degree from Mysore University based on a thesis that I had submitted there.

After my PhD, I went to Berkley. Berkley was really fantastic. The chemistry department was founded by GN Lewis who is considered the father of modern chemistry. I worked with Prof KS Pitzer who was once an undergraduate student of Linus Pauling and a noted physical chemist in his own right.  Then, in 1959, I decided to return to Indian Institute of Science where I got a job as a reader.

ML: Why did you come back?

CNR:
I always wanted to come back, especially because of my mother. She would have been heartbroken if I had not come back. She had not asked me to return. In fact, she would never have said anything if I had decided to stay on in the US. But I don’t know what she would have done if I had not come back. She was so quiet and such a selfless person. She has never asked me for anything in my life and I have not given her anything either. I feel terrible now. In fact, when she died, we discovered that she had nothing with her. She had given away everything that she had. My wife was closer to her than I was. I was too immersed in my work. I got married to Indumati after I came back when I was about 26. I have been married for exactly 45 years.

ML: In the ‘50s, most people did come back to work in India…

CNRR:
Of course, nobody believed in America at that time. India was the automatic choice. Berkeley wanted me to work there. I don’t know what would have happened if I had stayed on. After I came back, I was offered a readership at Punjab University. I thought why should I go there? It was not such a great place. In three months, I got an offer from IISc. If that had not happened, I would probably not have returned. Do you know that Dr Manmohan Singh would have been my colleague, if I had joined Punjab University? He had joined as a lecturer of economics at that time.  He is just a year older than I am.

ML: When was this?

CNR:
It was 1959. So it is 48 years since I came back. It was quite an experience. IISc was supposed to be a good institution; in fact, it was terrible. I was doing spectroscopy without a spectrometer! But however lousy the facilities, I did certain things well. The impact of your academic work is judged by the number of times you are cited. An article that I wrote at that time is one of my most cited works. I have about 35,000 citations. Most Indians do not have more than 5,000 citations and many people who are cited more than 2,000 times mention it in their bio-data. A monograph on ultraviolet and visible spectroscopy using molecular orbital notations was published by Butterworths of London in 1960 and went into several editions and languages.  I was still very unhappy at IISc. I had a long discussion with my wife and told her that in India I cannot do the kind of cutting-edge research that I want to do. For the first time in my life, I thought that maybe India is not the place to be.  She did not want to leave India, but then I was so unhappy as well.

I went to Purdue and Chicago for a short stint, came back and quit IISc.I accepted an offer from IIT Kanpur in 1963. It was started with American aid and help from MIT, Purdue and Berkeley. It was a new IIT and I was asked to build and head the chemistry department. I was just 29 years old then. I thought: how many times in life can one get an opportunity like this? That department I can proudly claim was the best chemistry department that I have ever seen anywhere. Indeed, there has probably never been a department like that anywhere in India. Every member of the team - Goverdhan Mehta, D Balasurbamanian, Animesh Chakravorty, S Ranganathan, PK Ghosh, D Devaprabhakara and JC Ahluwalia - was a member of the Academy (Indian Academy of Sciences). The chemistry department also produced hundreds of superb students. While this was happening, I also began to get a lot of awards. Sir CV Raman wrote to me a personal letter inviting me to be a Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences in July 1964.

I got an international award called the Marlow Medal by the Faraday Society of England; it was my first international award and Michael Faraday was my boyhood hero. I got the SS Bhatnagar prize at 34.

I remained at IIT Kanpur from 1963 to 1976. It was a busy time during which I got involved in several other activities at Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the National Chemical Laboratory, National Committee on Science & Technology, etc. Vikram Sarabhai also asked me to chair the committee on chemistry at the Department of Atomic Energy. Towards the end of my time, IIT Kanpur was plagued by some administrative problems.

Then, in 1974, I was invited to be the Commonwealth Visiting Professor at Oxford. I went there and, my God, it was a fantastic experience! I got to do research and publish papers with JS Anderson, a pioneer in solid state chemistry. Brian Smith, a friend from Berkeley, was there too. I made some life-long friendships at Oxford.

After Oxford, I returned to Kanpur, but realised that I would have to move on to fulfil my dream of setting up a modern chemical research facility in India. Then, I went to America again to receive a medal given by the American Chemical Society from Glen Seaborg, a Nobel Laureate at Berkeley. I gave a talk after the function and there were these two deans of two universities keen to offer me positions. And I almost agreed.

When I was at IISc, I used to talk a lot with the space scientist Satish Dhawan. Satish, Shivraj Ramaseshan and I were good friends. We used to meet every day and go to the restaurant to have dosa together. While I was wondering what to do, Satish Dhawan said, “I am told that you want to leave”. I explained to him my thoughts. He said, “What is it that we can do that will keep you here”? People were like that then. Vikram Sarabhai was also like that.

I told him that I want to work and teach young people and I want to build a completely new kind of laboratory which would be so good that I can compete with the best in the world. Also, I insist that I must have complete freedom to do it. There should be no interference. That means a new department has to be created, which I will create.

I then built a new department called the Solid State and Structural Chemistry Unit at IISc. I also got involved in setting up the Materials Research Laboratory. It was a tough period and the shift from Kanpur to Bangalore was a difficult period of adjustment both professionally and for my family.

ML: What did you do next, after the IISc stint?

CNRR:
Well, in 1982, I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, London, and soon after, in 1983, I went to King’s College, Cambridge as the first Nehru Professor. A year later, I returned to IISc and was offered the post of the Director. This was another tough period as I realised the difficulties in addressing infrastructural problems. Soon after, Indira Gandhi was assassinated and Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister. I had an excellent rapport with Rajiv Gandhi and a lot of good work was done during his time.

ML: Isn’t that the time that you received your Padma Vibhushan?

CNRR:
Well, there were many awards and honours but I really cherish only two. One of them is the Doctorate from Oxford - only three Indians of the modern era have got it -- Indira Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and I. Before that, Rabindranath Tagore had got it (laughs). After a point, it is not at all important; I have 40 honorary doctorates from around the world - and I am a member of all the academies of the world - with no exception - except maybe some of the smaller ones.

ML: Everybody says that you should have got the Nobel long ago and people have got it for less work than you have done.

CNR:
I don’t know (laughs). But as a dark-skinned person, you have to be 10 times better than the whites to achieve the same level of recognition. GN Ramachandran, the world-class biophysicist, became Fellow of the Royal Society in 1977, when he was 55. He had published his paper on triple helix DNA structure in 1954! I should have got most of my international recognitions 5-10 years earlier. I became a member of Fellow of the Royal Society only in 1982.

ML: At a recent address to the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, your speech expressed worries about the future of scientific research in India.

CNR:
Well, yes. Today, the focus is only information technology (IT) and software. Everybody wants to join the software industry to the exclusion of everything else. India has done well in software and people are, indeed, making a lot of money; but, as far as science in concerned, they are not the best of influences.

ML: Why do you say that?

CNRR:
Well, the government is being persuaded to ignore higher education. SM Krishna, the former Chief Minister of Karnataka, is a very good friend of mine. Krishna was all praise for these software czars who were very close to him. I told Krishna: “why are you listening to these people”? They have been arguing that there is no need to spend money on higher education. Higher education can take care of itself. This is a perverse argument. The Indian software industry is the biggest beneficiary of highly subsidised higher education and, today, they say that there is no need for the government to fund higher education! Higher education is not merely engineering and management which land well-paying jobs. What about pure sciences? Everywhere in the world - Oxford, Cambridge or the US, the best work is done by government-funded institutions, especially in pure sciences. But as long as Krishna was the CM, he didn’t do a thing for higher education, thanks mainly to the advice of one particular software businessman.

ML: A lot of people are complaining that the software boom is sucking away many bright people.

CNRR
: The value system has become lopsided. India’s basic strength has been generosity. You have to be generous to others - to colleagues and young people. Today, everybody is so materialistic. They want a house, a car, a wife and then they want a second car and a second house. I don’t know if they want a second wife (laughs). I never cared about material things only about operational freedom, etc. We must think of how to get young people interested in science.

ML: You have held a large number of administrative positions as well; didn’t that hamper your research?

CNRR:
I never failed to produce papers even when I held administrative positions. But yes, the quality went down while I was dealing with petty complaints and procedures. Fortunately, my citations in the last 10 years have gone up tremendously. By my own standards, the last two years have been the most productive period. In the last one year, I have worked on many new things, new phenomena and new materials.  

ML: To what do you attribute this increase in productivity?

CNNR
: You have to work at things consistently, every single day. Indians are not used to that kind of schedule. They work hard for a few days and then relax. You cannot develop a career like that. I work around 10 hours everyday. Also, if I am working on papers, I am with students all the time. I also travel extensively. I am going to Rio de Janeiro for a lecture, after that to Durham University for a lecture and then a lecture at Oxford. I just came back from Madrid.

ML: As the advisor to the PM, you have expressed concern that India’s contribution to research is meagre.

CNR:
If you calculate, we contribute just 2.7% to world research. It is very little. China’s contribution has now shot up to 15%. Then there is the issue of quality. If you consider that, our contribution is just 0.5%. India is hardly represented in the top journals. You can say I have done well for myself. But that was not the objective. If that was all I was looking for, I could well have been in the US. I would have done even better. In all the enthusiasm of using bright students to sell soaps and credit cards, this is where we have landed. Plus there is too much of emphasis on IT. Look at Bombay University or Madras University. I don’t know even one good scientist working in these places which produced luminaries at one time.  

ML: What needs to be done?

CNRR:
University upgradation is important and that is going on. The MM Sharma Committee has been made an empowered committee so that it can take decisions. The government has approved a plan for strengthening teaching and research in basic sciences and has provided an additional Rs600 crore of annual budget allocation for this. Prof Sharma is the right person to oversee this. But we cannot wait for old universities to improve. So, we are setting up new institutions - in Kolkata, Chandigarh, Thiruvanathapuram, etc.

ML: What is the future of Indian science?

CNNR:
Money is a major issue. The kind of money our IT coolies are making is amazing. Their goals are clear. They want to work for a few years and then retire. After all, Indians are very thrifty. Young people with a PhD with a few years of experience are making Rs2 lakh a month with foreign companies sitting in India, while salary levels for scientists are very low - maybe Rs2 lakh a year.

The problem of globalisation is affecting us badly. You cannot globalise only salaries. What about the other aspects? Businessmen are feeling good about the economic boom but what about civic services? If we cannot fix our drainage, what science will we do? Even the 2.7% of our contribution to global science will come down to 1%. That too is by a few individuals.

To succeed in India, you need tremendous determination, courage, single-mindedness and doggedness. You have noticed I never mentioned intelligence (laughs aloud). In India, if you are not dogged, you have no chance. Everybody will pull you down, until you achieve some international standing - then they can’t do much any more.

ML: Why do you say that?

CNRR:
Well, when I came back from the US in 1959, I wrote a book titled Ultraviolet and Visible Spectroscopy published in London and translated in six languages. There was a lot of jealousy. I was only 25. I heard people say: who is this fool writing books at 25, which is published from London? It was unheard of and there was so much of criticism. Then, I wrote another book, which was published in New York. Then they had an even bigger problem with me and said, this guy doesn’t give up.  

Tommy Thomson, a very famous scientist, used to tell me, “You know Ram, to succeed in India, you should be partly deaf - you should not hear everything and you should be partly blind - don’t see everything”. In fact, you cannot be too sensitive in India; otherwise, you will be negative, sarcastic and cynical. That’s why I try to help young people. I know what I went through; I used to be miserable about the criticism and how people would treat me.

For instance, when I started a new subject called Solid State Chemistry a lot of people were extremely critical; ‘what is this humbug, what is solid state chemistry? Is there something called liquid state chemistry’? There were very few people working on it those days. Now, I am considered the grandfather of solid state chemistry; it is a mainstream subject and people say it is all because of me. Now, of course, I don’t care any more. But, for a long time, it was very difficult to be a forward-looking person in a backward-looking country. Strangely enough, people treat you very well abroad - if not like a God, something close. Of course, things are changing even here.

ML: You don’t seem to have any patents to your name. Why is that?

CNRR:
I have not taken any patents. I don’t know why (long pause). I didn’t have the money. It takes about $15,000-$20,000 for each patent. No institute has the money for it. I can’t put my own money. The Centre doesn’t have the money. I would have probably taken 4-5 patents a year. That would be about $100,000, around Rs41 lakh.

ML: But don’t people walk away with your ideas and get a patent for it?

CNRR
: Yes, that happens quite often and they do use it in industry. Besides, I was not too keen, I was more interested in the research. That is why I have only displayed just two or three of my honours on the wall. One of them is my membership of the Japan Academy. I am the only Asian in it among 30 honorary members. That is the highest award Japan gives to a foreigner.

ML: Which are the other two?

CNRR:
One is the Dan Davis Prize, which is a $1 million award. They give three of those every year. The other is the Indian Science Award. That is the highest Indian award, so I put it up. Besides, it is made of glass. I didn’t want to drop it somewhere and break it. That is why I have framed it and kept it on the wall. Those are the only three I have displayed.

ML: On the patents issue, hasn’t the National Chemical Laboratories taken some patents which have helped?

CNRR:
Yea, some of them have done well, but there is a lot of hype too. Dr Mashelkar did a lot of things. But there is no doubt that there has been a decline in the standard of scientists. At one time, CSIR had some wonderful scientists, where are they today? The same is the situation in Atomic Energy Commission. Kakodkar (Anil) is a wonderful man. He is the best chairman AEC has ever had. We keep extending his term so that we continue to have a good chairman. But, one of these days, he has to leave. Who will replace him? Where are the people? This manpower crunch will hit us very badly soon.

ML: Does the PM know this?

CNRR: Of course, he does. He has done more than other prime ministers. More has happened in science in the last two years than before in terms of investment and so on. But maybe it is the wrong time. There is no one to utilise it.

ML: Like the Rs100 crore given to select institutions like IISc.

CNRR: That was stupidly handled. IISc was sanctioned the amount more than two and a half years ago, but the money came only in May. That is the problem.  

ML: Can the PM do anything more?

CNRR:
Well, like I said, Manmohan Singh is a decent man and very intelligent. I have worked closely with several prime ministers, including Rajiv Gandhi and IK Gujral. Gujral was a wonderful man, but had such a short term. He would have been an outstanding PM if he had continued. PV Narasimha Rao was a big disaster, though he was in the Congress. I don’t want to say anything about AB Vajpayee because I had nothing in common with his government. They threw me out of everything. I owe a lot to them because my science improved due to them.

ML: Why did they throw you out?

CNRR:
They thought I had sympathies for Congress. It was Murli Manohar Joshi who was responsible. They wrote a new science policy and I was not involved in it. I have been involved in government policies for decades, starting with the National Commission on Science & Technology when I was only 30. Then I was the advisor to Rajiv Gandhi, to Chandra Shekhar and so on. But I had nothing to do with government policies during the five years of BJP. And all the scientist friends of mine did nothing. There was also a lot of vindictiveness, you have no idea how bad it was. I don’t want to talk about it, except to say, that when others are in trouble, I try to help. Anyway, that is life.

ML: Your current passion is nanomaterials. Can you tell us about its future in India?

CNRR:
Yes, I want India to be at the forefront of nanosciences. Although we may not see the fruit of research in nanomaterials in our time, young scientists in India must get involved in it and the country must not hesitate to fund the research. I am especially interested in carbon nanotubes (these are thinner than human hair and promise to revolutionise several aspects of human life from health to defence). Unfortunately, we missed the bus on the semi-conductor technology and are much too focused on Information Technology. I want to do my best to lay the foundation of this research.

Prof CNR Rao - “Mr Science”

Number of Honorary Doctorates: 40
Number of Scholarly Citations: 35,000

Top Indian Positions Held
Chairman, Scientific Advisory Committee to the Union Cabinet
Chairman, Science Advisory Council to the PM
Member of Atomic Energy Commission
President, Indian National Science Academy
President, Indian Academy of Sciences
Member, Planning Commission
Chairman, Advisory Board, Council of Scientific & Industrial Research


Top Indian Awards
Bhatnagar prize (1968)
CV Raman award for research in Physical Sciences (1975)
PC Ray medal in Chemistry (1975)
SN Bose medal for Physical Sciences (1980)
Padma Vibhushan (1985)
Meghnad Saha Medal (1990)
India Science Prize (2004)


Top Foreign Awards
MARLOW medal from Faraday Society, England (1967)
Centennial Foreign Fellowship of American Chemical Society (1976)
The Royal Society of Chemistry (London) Medal (1981)
Hevrovsky Gold Medal, Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (1989)
Honorary Fellowship, The Royal Society of Chemistry, London (1989)
Honorary Member, Materials Research Society of Japan (1990)
Honorary Member, Materials Research Society of South Korea (1991)
Blackett Lectureship, The Royal Society, London (1991)
Albert Einstein Gold Medal, UNESCO, Paris (1996)
Linnett Visiting Professorship, University of Cambridge (1998)
Centenary Lecturership & medal, Royal Society of Chemistry (2000)
Hughes medal for Physical Sciences, The Royal Society (2000)
Officier de l’ordre des Palmes Academiques, France (2002)
Order of Scientific Merit, Grand-Cross, President of Brazil (2002)
Commander of the Order of Rio Branco, Brazil (2002)
Gauss Professorship, the Academy of Sciences, Germany (2003)
The Dan David Prize (2005)
Chemical Pioneer, American Institute of Chemists, USA (2005)
Chevalier de la Legion D'honneur, France (2005)
Honorary Fellowship, Institute of Physics, London (2006)


Top Fellowship/Membership
Fellow, The Royal Society, London
Foreign Associate, National Academy of Sciences, USA
Honorary Foreign Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Member, Pontifical Academy of Sciences
Foreign Member, American Philosophical Society
Founding Fellow, Third World Academy of Sciences
Foreign Member, Russian Academy of Sciences
Foreign Member, Academia Europea
Honorary Member, Japan Academy
Foreign Member, French Academy of Sciences
Foreign Fellow, The Royal Society of Canada

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COMMENTS

Abhijit Gosavi

3 years ago

Again, great interview! He says: "India is hardly represented in the top journals." So very true --- not just of the sciences but also of business/management studies! The IIMs hardly produce any papers in top management journals :(

P M Ravindran

3 years ago

Thanks for this timely post. I had been wondering who this scientist is after the news of his being conferred a Bharatratna along with Sachin. I am glad that a well deserving person has been selected for the honours.

Devender

7 years ago

Sounds little arrogant but I think he speaks from his heart.

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