Dr Saraswat, as former chief of DRDO has been also red-flagged by the Comptroller General of Defence Audit-CGDA over his several decisions that resulted in the Defence Ministry curtailing his financial powers
The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) appointed Dr VK Saraswat as full-time member of newly established National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog. Dr Saraswat is former Secretary of Defence (Research & Development- R&D), but is more known as one of the high profile former chiefs of Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO). However, his inning at the DRDO was marred by controversies resulting in the government turning down his extension. He was even awarded a jail sentence for contempt of court.
Dr Saraswat was the key scientist in the development of the Prithvi missile and its induction in the Indian armed forces.
A PhD in Combustion Engineering, Dr Saraswat started his career in DRDO in 1972 at Hyderabad-based Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL), he was responsible for the development of the country’s first Liquid Propulsion Engine, DEVIL. As Project Director of Prithvi, he steered the design, development, production and induction of the first indigenous Surface-to-Surface missile system into the armed forces. He is regarded as one of the key scientists in the team of former President of India, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, who is said to have had a deep influence on Dr Saraswat.
He was conferred the Padma Shri in 1998. He was also conferred the Padma Bhusan by the Government of India in 2013.
However, his career was not without controversies. In 2012, Dr Saraswat took a stand contradictory to the then Army Chief, General VK Singh, who had labelled Tatra trucks as substandard. Talking about Tatra trucks at a press conference, Dr Saraswat had said, "Tatra truck is an outstanding truck...They have a very good cross country capability and can move at good speeds."
Earlier in 2010 too, he had torn into the armed forces for failing to overcome their 'temptation' to induct latest imported weapon systems. Speaking at the National Technology Day in May where the then Air Chief Marshal PV Naik, Admiral Nirmal Verma and Gen VK Singh were also present, Dr Saraswat had said, "Services also must understand that while the temptation may be overwhelming to field proven, state-of-the-art imported systems, they too have a role to play in the country’s economic and industrial growth. No foreign system can be customised to completely address our long-term requirements."
Interestingly, as of now, both Gen Singh and Dr Saraswat have become part of the Narendra Modi government. While the former chief of DRDO has become full-time member of NITI Aayog, the former Army Chief is the Minister of State of External Affairs and Minister of State (independent charge) for North East Region, in the Modi government.
In a September 2012 report, the New Indian Express had said, "...a nightmare was revealed recently when Defence Minister AK Antony ordered the Comptroller General of Defence Audit (CGDA) to do a secret audit of India’s equivalent of the futuristic workshop of James Bond’s ‘Q’ — the Defence Research and Development Organisation that goes by the handle DRDO."
Quoting the CGDA, the newspaper had said, "DRDO has been developing equipment which is either sub-standard or have extended deadlines and additional budgets. Many of the projects have been sanctioned without the requisite government approval. Only 10% of projects have come to the Ministry for clearance. Corruption and nepotism exists in the upper echelons and there is an exodus of qualified scientists."
"The CGDA has questioned why he (Dr Saraswat) granted Rs2.88 crore to a mathematics institute to develop a futuristic radar when its scientists are not even remotely connected with research relating to the project. Incidentally, Dr Saraswat is the president of the institute’s governing body. The audit also stated that the institute lacked expert manpower and started recruitment only after getting DRDO funds that were released without due diligence. A Dehradun scientific lab was granted Rs14 crore to develop a communication link, while the institute headed by Dr Saraswat was also sanctioned Rs2.98 crore to develop the same technology — it doesn’t have even basic facilities like computers for individual researchers," the report says.
Although DRDO denied all the observations of the CGDA report, it affected the career of Dr Saraswat.
In September 2012, the Defence Ministry issued an order that said the Director General of DRDO would take all financial decisions in consultations with the Finance Division of the Ministry. Prior to that, Dr Saraswat had the power to grant financial approvals up to Rs50 crore on his own.
He retired from DRDO on 31 May 2013 when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government headed by Dr Manmohan Singh decided not to extend Dr Saraswat's tenure. Interestingly, quoting sources, a report from Times of India said, that former President Dr Kalam had sent an eloquent endorsement of Dr Saraswat, who was seeking an extension as DRDO chief.
The new full time member of the NITI Aayog also had a run in with the High Court. In September 2014, Dr Saraswat and Dr D Malakondaiah, the director of Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory (DMRL) were sentenced to three week's simple imprisonment by Madras High Court. The HC held them guilty for disobeying its April 2009 order related to re-employment of a clerk in a school run by a wing of the government’s scientific organisation.