Sunday, January 11, 2015

Bearings and straits away from the Sea

The Navy Foundation in Bengaluru is perhaps more unique than one may like to hear of at first instance. In the first place, Bengaluru is not a maritime location. However, the Admiral Pereira Lecture series that it has instituted is to do with alumni from the region. Kannur, came up severally in the Naval Chief’s welcoming address. Little did I imagine that Ronnie Pereira was from Kannur where India’s seamen are formally trained. Bengaluru by contrast seems more like the choice for naval officers’ retirement abodes. On asking uniformed men, I realised that not more than 70 officers had secondments or deputations across DRDO or Central Quality Assurance offices. Around 500 retired officers however resided in Bengaluru. This is the city the late Admiral Pereira breathed his last too.

 I was fortunate to be invited to the 2nd Admiral Pereira lecture by the renowned scientist Prof. Paulraj. Paulraj is the pioneer of a breakthrough wireless technology known as MIMO (multiple input, multiple output). MIMO is now core technology in latest WiFi and LTE systems. The topic for the day on 11th January at the BEL auditorium was regarding security and technology in the new world order. 

Admiral Robin Dhowan, had already assured the audience of indigenous development of equipment for the navy. The speaker in Paulraj represented a continuity in an intellectual voyage for the modern soldier in an asymmetric warfare context. Having spent 25 years in the Navy, he went on to be a respectful academic in Stanford. What I was especially drawn to were the pattern in his laments. None had a technological challenge. They were either social, organisational or merely cognitive or attitudinal. Let me recount a few of his reflections.

1.     Bureaucracy in India needs reform. It currently arrests development.
2.     Narrating the travel embargo during his sonar development, and the ‘good’ men in Raja Ramanna’s time, he elaborated on the rigidity of the ‘system’. He labelled it as the need for organisational reform.
3.     Technology cannot be left merely to the private sector. The gaps in technology requires government support in the order of lakhs of crores of rupees. Indigenous technology does not have that backing even if private capital were to join hands.
4.     Emphasis on quality is missing in higher education. The Chinese government sends hundreds of thousands of students to USA on government grants to access better quality of education. He gets more than 200000 letters of interest from students of Chinese origin annually. India’s scene is desperate and despicable in this respect.
5.     Spectrum for common citizens is blocked by the services in the name of national security. Prof. Paulraj felt some of this spectrum could be freed simply by withholding it in times of national security, than to permanently disallow the spectrum to civilians.

Well, the above notwithstanding, some points I picked up beyond the BEL auditorium were noteworthy too. We took to a table where an elderly veteran sat alone for lunch. He was kind enough to accept our presence. Having introduced himself as a veteran pilot, he went on to share much from his heart. Here's a brief recall from his outpouring.

1.       Commanders in the Navy could ‘separate’ out to pursue intellectual dreams like Paulraj did, and the host Ray D’souza did. The air force and the army on the other hand were short of personnel. The air-force and could hardly recover investments in its pilots for example.
2.       It takes 12 signoffs before a fighter aircraft takes off.  Ground duties are no less. Civilians have no clue to the preparedness of airmen.
3.       He felt that the seeds of indifference came about because Nehru did not feel sovereignty needed technological investments, so much so that the 1962 war saw soldiers on foot and in khakhi braving the Himalayan heights who in their retreat were lucky to be airlifted.  
4.       Bengaluru has been refusing permission for a war memorial. It is symptomatic of the clash between the political class and service officers. Just one officer alone has spent Rs. 26 lakhs since 1986 to fight for this right up to the Supreme Court, so as to create mind-share in forthcoming generations regarding the role of servicemen.
5.       Admiral Ronnie Pereira was lucky to be picked up from the road outside the air-force hospital in Bengaluru. He was riding a scooter in one of the most inglorious deaths a service chief may've had in India. An admiral as he, lived such a simple life as to be riding a scooter in retirement. Imagine!

The worlds of service personnel are quite far from those of the ordinary civilian. Governance has been diluted by serving and retired bureaucrats. No profession however can proceed to excel without a cause. And braving the odds as Paulraj would do to stay on a problem long enough despite the odds placed on him by invested paradigms.

Emergence is to be welcomed with openness - it is an attitude of trusting vulnerability. Expertise is an outcome of devotion, a relentless sacrifice to focus on a few things to exclusion of all else. It is an attitude of 'can do'. Originality comes from an attitude of curiosity and a presence of spontaneous positivity - that is to be authentic - without guarantee or pretence. Naivete of course will come from irreverence, and disregard for others' learning.

I had the opportunity to shake hands with naval aviation specialists, Air Marshalls and Admiral Dhowan himself. Overall, this session experience left me with a profound question. 

What am I bringing forth to this world?