The late Satish Dhawan did much to make the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) the premier science research centre in India. He also modernised the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and laid the foundations for the powerhouse that the ISRO has become today. On the birth centenary of this legendary technocrat, Ram Guha’s essay on the great man begins by recalling an anecdote that the erstwhile President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam, had narrated to him: “…in July 1979. Kalam was in charge of the project at ISRO and when some members expressed reservations about its readiness, he overruled them and ordered it to go ahead. The launch failed; instead of going into space, the satellite plunged into the Bay of Bengal. As team leader, Kalam was humiliated by the failure and terrified by the prospect of announcing it before the press. He was saved from embarrassment by the chairman of ISRO, Satish Dhawan, who went himself before the television cameras to say that despite this failure he reposed complete faith in the abilities of his team and was confident that their next attempt would succeed.
The following August, Kalam and his team tried once more to launch a satellite into space. This time they succeeded. Dhawan congratulated the team, while asking Kalam to address the press conference. In telling the story in later years, during and after his term as president of India, Kalam would feelingly recall: “When the failure occurred, the leader owned it up. When the success came, he gave the credit to his team.””
So who is Satish Dhawan and why does he matter to the current generation of Indians? “Satish Dhawan was born on September 25, 1920 in Srinagar. The son of a judge, Dhawan was raised and educated in Lahore, where he took degrees successively in physics and mathematics, in literature, and in mechanical engineering….In 1945, after taking the third of these degrees, Dhawan came to Bangalore and worked for a year at the newly-founded Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. He then went off to the United States of America for further studies, obtaining an M.S. from the University of Minnesota followed by an M.S. and a PhD in aeronautical engineering from the California Institute of Technology…Soon after returning to his now divided homeland, Satish Dhawan joined the Aeronautics Department at the Indian Institute of Science….
In 1962, he was appointed director of the Indian Institute of Science, a place that at the time was (in the words of one chronicler) “slowly slipping into a comfortable state of academic somnolence”. Dhawan woke the place from its slumber, making it the premier research institute in the country. In his tenure as IISc director, he helped incubate new research programmes in computer science, molecular biophysics, solid state chemistry, ecology, and atmospheric science, recruiting brilliant scholars from all over India (and the world) to staff and run them.”
Then comes the turning point in the life of this great scientist: “In 1971-72, Dhawan was granted a sabbatical by the IISc. He went off to his alma mater, Caltech, hoping to dirty his hands with research. While he was away, the head of India’s space programme, Vikram Sarabhai, died at the tragically early age of fifty-two. This was a body blow to Indian science… On the advice of her principal secretary, P.N. Haksar, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent a long cable to California asking Satish Dhawan to succeed Sarabhai as chairman of ISRO. He agreed, but not before stipulating two conditions: that he continue as director of IISc, and that the headquarters of the space programme shift from Ahmedabad to Bangalore. Mrs Gandhi accepted both conditions….”
Satish Dhawan went on to transform the ISRO: “In his book, ISRO: A Personal History, R. Aravamudan vividly recalls Dhawan’s taking over as chairman and the changes he brought in the organization. “Sarabhai’s management style”, writes Aravamudan, “was that of a patriarch dealing with a small well-knit family. It was a kind of monolithic structure and Sarabhai operated on a one-on-one basis. These were no formal systems in place, with parallel technical teams operating. Sometimes they would work on the same systems without any organization.”
This loose, informal, style just about worked when ISRO was small and still developing; but as it grew larger and its goals became more ambitious the organization required a more structured form of management. Thus Dhawan’s “first task was to bring some order into the widely dispersed teams by integrating them and defining their individual roles and collective responsibilities. This he did by forming programme-based centres with undisputed leadership. He also arranged for a national-level review of the long-term tasks of ISRO in association with internal and external experts.” …
At ISRO, Dhawan was keen to emphasize the organization’s social role, focusing on what satellites could do with regard to weather forecasting, natural resource mapping and communications. He worked assiduously to keep the organization at a distance from powerful politicians…
IISc is arguably our finest centre of scientific research; ISRO almost certainly our most admired public sector organization. In the making of both these organizations, and their reputations, the same individual played a critical part. These two institutions required somewhat different forms of leadership. That Dhawan could successfully guide both and at the same time is a mark of how great a leader he was….
His long-time IISc colleague, Amulya Reddy, wrote of him that “unlike most of his contemporaries, he was above caste, language, religious and provincial considerations.”…
To these tributes by colleagues, let me add some words of his daughter, Jyotsna Dhawan, herself a distinguished Indian biologist. Of her father’s deep social consciousness she writes: “In building the launch center at Sriharikota, the displacement of the Yanadi tribe troubled him, set as it was against the massive displacements going on all over India in the name of development, and he worked hard to see that some reparations were made…
Satish Dhawan was one of the greatest of modern Indians, being to the field of science what J.R.D. Tata was to entrepreneurship, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay to the crafts sector, and Verghese Kurien to the co-operative movement. There are many lessons in Dhawan’s life for the emerging leaders of today … They include an absolute integrity in personal life and professional conduct; a remarkable ability to recognize and nurture talent and to allocate responsibilities wisely and well; the generosity of spirit that encourages subordinates to claim credit for success; and, not least, the moral courage that leads the leader to take the blame for failure.”

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