My brush with Bharat Ratnas

In the choice of these awards Modi has again shown political astuteness and statesmanship of a very high order.

Anil K. Rajvanshi Feb 13, 2024
Bharat Ratna

Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, to former prime ministers Charan Singh and P. V. Narasimha Rao and eminent agricultural scientist Dr. M. S. Swaminathan, all posthumously. 

In the choice of these awards Modi has again shown political astuteness and statesmanship of a very high order.  For the last so many years he has given Padma Awards to exemplary people who have done good work for the country.

I knew all three of them with different degrees of familiarity.                               

Choudhary Charan Singh

My father Jagdish Rajvanshi and Choudhary Charan Singh were in jail together during the 1942 Quit India movement. Later on our families became close friends.  So quite a number of times when my parents went to see a movie in a Lucknow theatre I was often kept with Mrs  Charan Singh. Besides my father and he worked closely with former Home Minister Govind Ballabh Pant and also in UP politics. 

Charan Singh was one actually started the Aya Ram Gaya Ram culture of Indian politics and was a great opportunist. He was very ambitious and was rightly called “Chair Singh” since he always changed parties to remain in the seat of power. My father told me how Charan Singh initiated and mastered the art of vote rigging. Nevertheless he did think deeply about the welfare of farmers, was well read, and wrote many books about these issues.    

In 1978 when my parents were going to US to visit me, they had gone to see Charan Singh. He was ailing and enquired about me and told my father that he wants to get his son Ajit Singh from USA back to India so he can take over the mantle of Jat leadership. Obviously, the leadership change was not smooth since Ajit Singh and his sister Saroj Verma later on fought bitterly over the  mantle. Saroj was a frequent visitor to our house.    

My father also told me an amusing anecdote. Once Charan Singh (when he was no more the prime minister) was travelling from US to India. A person of India origin (PIO) on the plane told him that he had seen this face before. To which Charan Singh replied, “This is the face which once belonged to the Prime Minister of India” !

He always boasted of his non-corruptibility but there were many question marks on it. His elevation to Bharat Ratna may have been dictated more by political calculations rather than any stellar qualities.

P. V. Narasimha Rao

I never met Narasimha Rao but corresponded with him.  As everybody knows he was the architect of India’s liberalization and our march towards trillion dollar economy is very much inspired and guided by his opening of the economy in 1990s. In this he was ably assisted by Dr. Manmohan Singh, his finance minister who later was to become prime minister. 

In May 1992 I was invited to the third European Biomass Energy Conversion Conference in Interlaken, Switzerland.

It was a small conference with around 100 participants but almost all the who’s who of the world in the area of biomass energy. I was the only Indian researcher invited.  This conference gave me an exposure to the latest work in biomass energy conversion and to the technology of pyrolysis oil production from biomass.  Basically it involves combusting the biomass in less oxygen than is needed for gasification and condensing the ensuing gases to produce the oil. This pyrolysis oil is similar to diesel and with suitable modifications and processing via catalysts can be converted into automobile fuel.

In 1992 this was a very new technology and all the people (only three groups) involved in its R&D in the world were present at the conference.

I saw a tremendous opportunity for India to produce its own oil from biomass and agricultural residues. I had lengthy discussions with the developers of the technology and they said that they would transfer all the intellectual property rights to an Indian entity for a lump sum fee of quarter of a million dollars. For a country like India this money was peanuts! 

I came back from the conference all charged-up, and discussed the whole issue with officials of the Department of New Energy Sources; (DNES), Government of India but got a very lukewarm response. It seemed they did not understand the technology and its implications. So, in desperation and youthful exuberance I wrote a five-page letter to Narasimha Rao detailing the technology and its implications for India.

Rao was well-known for never replying to letters even from his closest colleagues let alone from an unknown Indian from the rural area, and hence I wasn’t really hopeful about receiving any response. Yet within 20 days I got a personal letter from him thanking me for bringing the issue of pyrolysis oil technology to his attention. The letter also mentioned that he was sending it to DNES for further action.

Immediately I got a letter from DNES asking why I had approached the prime minister. They informed me that this was an old technology that they were aware of and even had R&D projects on it. All of this was not true and hence nothing came out of my suggestions.

I felt India lost a tremendous opportunity to develop a national program on pyrolysis oil from agricultural residues. This pyrolysis oil conversion would have produced liquid fuel besides reducing air pollution which occurs because of residues and stubble bring. Today, the technology is proprietary and is being used for methanol and production of green hydrogen. Besides the technology transfer fees are very high.

Emboldened by this reply to my letter I wrote to  PM Narasimha Rao again after the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition but never got a reply since it was a politically sensitive issue.  Rao was an extremely well read and a scholar who knew 17 languages and wrote many books.  He possessed great intellectual qualities and vision for the country.   

M. S. Swaminathan

Among the three Bharat Ratna,  Dr. M. S. Swaminathan was the one with whom I met many times. 

I met Dr. Swaminathan (MSS) for the first time in 1981 in New Delhi. I had just returned from the US and had joined the Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI)  in Phaltan, Maharashtra which was started by my father-in-law, Mr. B.  V. Nimbkar.

MSS and Mr. Nimbkar were friends and had known each other since the early 1970s.  MSS also inaugurated our Institute building in Phaltan in 1980 and helped us in many agricultural-related issues both as a scientist and as an administrator in ICAR.

So in 1981 when I had gone to Delhi for some work my father-in-law, Mr. Nimbkar advised me to go and meet MSS. At that time MSS was a member of the Planning Commission.  We had a cordial meeting and he suggested that we should work on various agricultural-related technologies. 

After that, I met him at many meetings, and even visited his Swaminathan Foundation in 1988 in Chennai when it was in its nascent stages. He personally took me around showing me the buildings and the rainwater harvesting system that was installed in it. We were also together in the Jamnalal Bajaj Awards committee in different sections and so met once a year during the awards function.  He was always cordial and soft-spoken.

He was very sharp and scholarly with a tremendous grasp of fundamentals.  In 1985 we were together in Pune attending a national meet on biomass energy. After his chief guest lecture, I saw MSS sitting the whole day listening to other lectures and taking notes. Normally, VIPs give their talk and leave. To me, that was not only a sign of a good scientist but a curious person who was eager to find out what others had to say in their presentations.

Similarly, in 2011, I was invited to be the chief guest at a seminar in New Delhi. The seminar was on food security. Dr. Swaminathan could not come in the morning and hence he gave his keynote speech in the afternoon. He was also gracious enough to mention what I had said in the morning.

He had clarity of thought and was able to grasp the subject and present it in a pithy manner.  That was the reason why lots of politicians and high-ranking people in the government sought his advice since he could explain complex issues clearly and succinctly.

(The writer, an IIT and US-educated engineer,  a 2022 Padma Shri award winner, is Director, Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute, Phaltan, Maharashtra.)   

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Sun, 02/18/2024 - 01:41
When I initially commented I clicked the "Notify me when new comments are added" checkbox and now each time
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