–Ananth Seth

There is no leader and there are no led. A leader, if one chooses to identify one, has to be a cultivator rather than a manufacturer. He has to provide the soil and the overall climate and the environment in which the seed can grow.”  Vikram Sarabhai

Born in Ahmedabad on 12th of August 1919 into a rich Jain family which owned many textile mills including the famous Calico Textile Mills, Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai was a brilliant scientist, an institution builder who built organizations which have given distinguished position to India on a global scientific map, and mentor of budding scientists like APJ Abdul Kalam, the missile man of India.

Vikram Sarabhai’s parents, father Ambalal Sarabhai and mother Sarala Sarabhai, introduced the Montessori system of education in India. Sarabhais’ eight children were educated in a private experimental school, called The Retreat, on the family’s 21-acre property. The children were home schooled by a succession of British and Indian teachers under the supervision of their parents.

After schooling, Vikram joined the Gujarat College, Ahmedabad, but before he graduated, he left India to join St. John’s College at Cambridge University. In 1939 he obtained his Tripos in Natural Sciences. The outbreak of World War II forced him to return to India. Back in India, he went on to work under Dr C.V. Raman on cosmic rays at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. He is the author of 80 scholarly papers on cosmic rays.

While at Bangalore, Sarabhai met and married Mrinalini Swaminathan, an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer. They had two children: son Karthikeya and daughter Mallika. In 1945, with the war over, Sarabhai returned to Cambridge. He obtained his PhD degree in 1947 on the topic Cosmic Ray Investigations in Tropical Latitudes, under the guidance of E.S. Shire. The thesis also included some work on nuclear fission. After getting his PhD, he returned to India and continued his research in cosmic ray physics. In India he studied interplanetary space, solar-terrestrial relationships and geomagnetism.

In the idealistic post-Independence era, Vikram Sarabhai established several institutions such as the Physical Research Laboratory; the Darpana Dance Academy, which he co-founded with his wife, Mrinalini; the Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association (ATIRA), India’s first textile research cooperative; the country’s first market research agency, the Operations Research Group; IIM Ahmedabad and helped in setting up the National Institute of Design (NID), Variable Energy Cyclotron Project (Calcutta), Fast Breeder Test Reactor (Kalpakkam) and the Electronics Corporation of India, Limited (Hyderabad).

Sarabhai was also a pioneer of the pharmaceutical industry in India. It was Sarabhai who first implemented Electronic Data Processing and Operations Research Techniques in the pharmaceutical industry. He played an important role in making India’s pharmaceutical industry self-reliant and self-manufacture of many drugs and equipment in the country.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched the first artificial satellite Sputnik into space and the world entered the Space Age. The IGY (International Geophysical Year) Program had started on July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958. Dr. Sarabhai had begun to contemplate the necessity to study solar activity to comprehend the behavior of cosmic waves affecting earth’s atmosphere; however, there was no ‘space program’ in any institutional form in India in 1955. Following the IGY, mindful of the extensive developments in astronautics and space technology occurring on a global scale, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai proposed the Government of India to start the India’s Space Program. In 1962, the Government of India set up the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) under the Department of Atomic Energy. Vikram Sarabhai was appointed as Chairman. Sarabhai was also entrusted with the administrative responsibilities of INCOSPAR. While the superpowers were deploying space technology for control and military power Sarabhai had a different vision. He dreamt of a unique space program for India – where satellites would be used for mass education, development communication, weather forecasting and mineral prospecting.

Sarabhai laid the foundation for SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment) a mass learning program for millions of unschooled Indian children. He established a rocket launching station at Thumba, Kerala very close to the magnetic equator. It was later expanded to a full-fledged Space Science and Technology Centre (today this center aptly bears the name Vikram Sarabhai Space Research Centre). Another rocket range was established in Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh and a Satellite Communication Centre in Ahmedabad.

In 1963, Sarabhai proposed at the UN that India was prepared to become the host country to establish an International Equatorial Sounding Rocket Launching Facility, the UN accepted the proposal and Thumba, 16 K.M. north of Trivandrum, was selected as the site for this international collaboration. On November 21, 1963, the country’s first rocket called Nike-Apache, was successfully launched from the first Space Centre established in India, namely, the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS). This marked the beginning of Indian Space Program with which India entered the Space Age.

If India has demonstrated indigenous capability in making low-cost satellites and of successfully launching its own moon probe – Chandrayaan, the credit certainly goes to the foundation laid by Vikram Sarabhai. He chose a passionate team and nurtured it assiduously — A. P. J. Kalam, E. V. Chitnis, Vasant Gowarikar, Pramod Kale, U. R. Rao, Kasturirangan and other pioneers.

Vikram Sarabhai won the gratitude of his nation and his international peers even during his rather short life. He was awarded the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Memorial Award for Physics in 1962, Padma Bhushan in 1966 the Padma Vibhushan (posthumously) in 1972. In 1974, the International Astronomical Union at Sydney, Australia, decided that the lunar crater Bessel in the Sea of Serenity would be known as the Sarabhai Crater. He had regular association with the Laboratory of Nuclear Science of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA.

He was at the helm of both atomic energy and space research programs in India from May 1966 till his death, on 30th December, 1971. Vikram Sarabhai lived the life of a practical Karma Yogi – doing his self-allotted duties (Swadharma) with selfless (Anasakta) and tireless devotion till the moment of his final sleep.

 – Author is Hyderabad-based Legal Practitioner

This article was first published in 2020