Sacking DRDO Chief Avinash Chander was unprofessional and vindictive

Written by: M Vidyasagar

The sacking of Avinash Chander as Director General of DRDO, especially the shoddy and unprofessional manner in which it was carried out, is shocking in the extreme.

Undoubtedly I am biased by my more than two decades of acquaintance with Avinash. I was the Director of CAIR (Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics) under the DRDO when Dr Abdul Kalam was its Director General, and Avinash was contributing via various roles in the missile programme.


Avisnash Chander's competence, professionalism and integrity were unquestionable

Throughout those years I got to know him well, and admired his technical competence, professionalism, and integrity.

Avinash is one of Dr Kalam's "missile men." as was his predecessor, Dr VK Saraswat. Dr. Saraswat was in charge of the Prithvi missile, while Avinash worked on many missiles, with the Agni being perhaps his most notable achievement.

The logic of contract and age is not tenable

The rap against him as read out by the Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar is that he was on contract and that Parrikar wanted a younger person. These are two unrelated considerations, so let us examine them separately.

The contract factor

For at least a couple of decades, the Government of India has adopted the idea that the person at the top of any organisation should have a minimum tenure of at least three years, so that he can leave his imprint on the organisation.

Prior to the 1980s, the Chiefs of the Army, Navy and the Air Force were appointed only until the age of superannuation, which often led to ultra-short tenures at the top.

But during the 1980s the system was changed so that each Service Chief was given a full three-year term, even if it meant that they would serve beyond their normal retirement age. The three-year term given to Arinash starting in November 2013, combining normal service followed by a contract appointment, should be seen against that background.

Given that Service Chiefs still continue to be appointed for three full years, whatever their age might be, the fact that Avinash was singled out for having been on contract smacks of vindictiveness and arbitrariness.

62-year-old replacing 64-year-old: A "youth movement" indeed

Now let us look at the other issue, namely that Parrikar wanted a "younger" person heading DRDO. According to newspaper reports, Avinash is to be succeeded by Dr Sekhar Basu of DAE. I do not know Dr Basu, but according to publicly available information, he is 62 years old. If Parrikar really believes that replacing a 64 year-old by a 62 year-old constitutes a "youth movement," then he would be a laughing stock.

Already a whispering campaign has been initiated that Avinash was eased out because he refused to go with the government's new and flashy 'Make in India' programme.

Charges that Avinash refused to go with govt's Make in India programme are ludicrous

To anyone who knows the antecedents of our missile programme, this charge is ludicrous. When Dr Kalam was Director of DRDL in Hyderabad (prior to becoming the Director General of DRDO), and was in charge of the missile development program, he had already initiated his own version of 'Make in India' by co-opting several local industries to build various components and subsystems.

Recall that this was during the 1980s, before liberalisation, when making anything in India was truly painful. All of Dr Kalam's disciples, including Avinash, are steeped in the 'Make in India' culture, even if they did not go around inventing catchy slogans and selling them to the world at large.

The other rap against Avinash is supposedly that the DRDO has a poor work culture and low output. On the very day that Avinash was sacked, the Supreme Court pulled up the government for not having made any progress in cleaning the Ganga over a thirty year period.

In response, the Government grovelled before the Supreme Court that it had been in power for less than one year, and that the sins of past governments cannot be heaped on its head. Fair enough.

Why make Avinash scapegoat for DRDO's lack of progress?

So why is Avinash, who had been DG for less than two years, being made the scapegoat for the DRDO's lack of progress and work culture over four decades? What is sauce for the government goose should also be sauce for the DRDO gander.

Avinash was served notice only after the news was announced on a govt web site: Is that a way?

If newspaper reports are to be believed, Avinash was served the notice of his termination only after the news was announced on a government web site, and even Parrikar claimed that he found out about it from the media. This surely a very strange way to deal with a Full Secretary to the Government of India, and moreover, one who has dedicated his entire working career to an organization!

In government service, administrative positions are held "at the pleasure" of the government, and any person can in principle be removed at any time.

However, having the power to remove someone is one thing, while actually exercising it is an entirely different thing.

Arbitrary and high-handed dismissals of people, merely because one can get away with it, smacks of bullying and a lack of professionalism and maturity.

[M Vidyasagar is Cecil & Ida Green Chair in Systems Biology Science at the University of Texas at Dallas, USA, and distinguished professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad. Previously, he was Distinguished Scientist & Director in DRDO (1989-2000) and Executive Vice President in Tata Consultancy Services (2000-2009)]

The opinion expressed here is the author's own

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