ISRO And the Unsung Gold Mines of Kerala

I Mean What I Say

by Shashi Tharoor

5 min read
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi poses for a photograph with ISRO scientists in Bengaluru | PTI

When the nation was celebrating the success of the Chandrayaan-3 landing on the south pole of the moon, I took it upon myself to find another element to applaud – by telling the world that the key scientists on the lunar mission team were graduates from two unsung engineering colleges of Kerala.

While the ISRO chairman S. Somanath is a product of TKM College of Engineering, Kollam, at least eight of his other colleagues graduated from the College of Engineering, (CET) Thiruvananthapuram. Somanath’s institution was founded in 1956 by a successful Muslim cashew merchant, Thangal Kunju Musliar (abbreviated soon enough to TKM) and has gone on to establish a stellar local reputation, while CET — established in 1939 as the first Engineering College in the then Travancore State – retains its record and repute as the premier engineering college in the state of Kerala.

This wasn’t just regional chauvinism, as some of the usual snarky commentators on the X platform (formerly Twitter) suggested. My point was somewhat broader: I wanted to underscore that Chandrayaan-3’s success is a good occasion to recognize the alumni of unsung engineering colleges everywhere in India. Indians, I argued, are rightly and justifiably obsessed with the IITs, but Chandrayaan-3’s landing, especially four years after the failure of Chandrayaan-2 (which crashed into the lunar surface), was attributable to many from far less glamorous educational backgrounds.
“Worth applauding”, I wrote on X. “@ISRO chief Dr Somanath is a product of the TKM College of Engineering, Kollam, Kerala and many of his colleagues graduated from the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram (CET). At least seven more engineers from CET were involved in the #Chandrayaan-3 Success: Mohana Kumar (mission director / mechanical), Athula (electronics), Satheesh (mechanical), Narayanan (associate mission director / mechanical), Mohan (mechanical) and Shora (electronics).” [In fact, as a helpful journalist pointed out, I had overlooked an eighth who wasn’t in the photograph I tweeted: ISRO Divisional Head Binny TR, another CET product.] And I ended with my core point: “let’s salute the alumni of unsung engineering colleges who serve the public sector with dedication and who are the backbone of national enterprises like ISRO. IITians went to Silicon Valley; CETians took us to the moon!”

S. Somanath

This is not to disparage the elite IITs, which have deservedly garnered a global reputation. But our national focus on a few institutions — seen as islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity – has prompted us to overlook the “second tier” of engineering colleges in “Tier Two” towns and cities across India. Yes, there are mediocre engineering colleges in the country, and a few of them are closed every year under the directions of the AICTE. But good (though far from nationally-known) institutions like TKM and CET churn out an array of engineers against the odds and continue to do so, unnoticed and rarely praised outside their immediate catchment area. CET and TKM have, since their establishment, always been among the first choices of any prospective engineering student from Kerala, but hardly attract anyone from outside the state. Yet they represent a viable option for quality education in small-town India – and they’ve given us the backbone of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), including its chief.

Chandrayaan-3's successful soft-landing on the moon propelled India into an elite group of nations: only four have managed the feat (the US, the Soviet Union and China being the others). ISRO’s achievement – three days after a Russian attempt crashed disastrously onto the lunar surface -- won worldwide applause and was lauded by leading foreign media outlets as a massive moment for the country's space exploration, one that has significantly raised India’s profile and standing as a leading spacefaring nation. It’s to India’s credit that this happened on a shoestring budget of only Rs 615 crore – not just a small fraction of what the US spent but just about a third of even China’s budget for its own moon mission.

This wasn’t just about “frugal innovation”, a field in which India has garnered grudging global appreciation. As former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair pointed out, the space agency's scientists have accomplished this historic success by receiving salaries that are one-fifth of their counterparts in the developed world. Nair argued that the low wages for the scientists at ISRO are perhaps one of the reasons why they could find low-cost solutions for space exploration. No ISRO scientist, Nair added, is a millionaire; they live very normal and modest lives. "They are not really bothered about the money but are passionate and dedicated to their mission. That is how we achieved greater heights," Nair said.

Graduates from the IITs tend to look for, and obtain, the highest-paying, amply rewarded positions in a competitive global marketplace. Graduates of places like TKM and ISRO are content with passing government examinations for public-sector organisations like ISRO, HAL, BHEL and others which have gone on to constitute the solid backbone of India’s national endeavours to achieve excellence and self-reliance in technology and industry. Innovation is part of the ethos, because such institutions aren’t used to acquiring the most expensive material from the West but have to rely on devising home-grown solutions. The technology for our space missions was mainly devised at ISRO; that has helped our engineers reduce their costs considerably as compared to the space missions of other countries. In turn, our country already has concluded several commercial contracts with Europe and America, and this will grow now with the success of Chandrayaan-3.

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chief S Somanath, who earned his B Tech in Mechanical Engineering from TKM College of Engineering in Kollam from 1980-1985, developed an early interest in propulsion there, and got his professor to offer a course in the subject which had not previously been available at TKM. That in turn propelled him into ISRO: he was recruited for the space programme at the time when the PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) project was starting. It was nearly a decade after joining ISRO that Somanath went on to earn a master's degree in Aerospace Engineering, Dynamics and Control from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), the country's leading science research institute. He is now an expert in the system engineering of launch vehicles and, according to the space agency, contributed to ISRO’s PSLV and GSLV Mk-III (a heavy-lift launch vehicle) in their overall architecture, propulsion stages design, structural and structural dynamics designs, separation systems, vehicle integration and integration procedures development.

Narendra Modi interacts with scientists of ISRO on success of Chandrayaan-3 Mission | ANI

There’s a lesson in this for all of us. As a cricket fan, I am only too aware of how a nation long accustomed to gallant defeats on the cricket field began to expect victories all the time after its team expanded its sources of recruitment to the “tier-two” towns and villages of India. Cricketers from humble backgrounds who had never been within sniffing distance of elite educational institutions or fancy cricket facilities came to prominence because we found them in places without exclusive cricket clubs; their talent finally began to be recognized, and they had the “fire in the belly” to work harder for their success. The same could be true in every field of national endeavour. We have 17% of the world’s people – and that means we also have 17% of the world’s talent, brains and guts.

Let’s find them everywhere in the villages, small towns and forgotten by-lanes of our vast land, and they will bring us glory in every field.

When Chandrayaan-3 Mission completed its soft landing, a message was issued by ISRO: “India, I reached my destination -- and you too!” All of India did so. Long may we continue to rely on the real India for our greatest successes.

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