It was just past five on a chilly December morning in Hyderabad. The three of us, project managers at the Defence Research and Development Lab, were accompanying Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in his staff car from the DRDO campus in Kanchanbagh to the airport. As the car approached the Chaderghat bridge, he cautioned the driver to slow down, to avoid hitting people sleeping on the sidewalk. "Do you know who they are?” he asked. "We work for them. They, and millions like them, are our real masters. We are spending their money."
Our mission that day was to meet senior managers in two of our public sector partners in Bengaluru, Bharat Electronics Limited and BEML Limited, who were facing delays in producing subsystems for us. We failed to resolve the issues at our level. So we persuaded Kalam to accompany us to try and push the schedules. How he accomplished that was a lesson in management we would never forget. At one unit, the department heads were adamant that the lead time could not be reduced. Kalam did not press further. "Let us visit the factory floor and meet your guys there," he said.
On the shop floor, he moved from lathe to milling machine to grinder, chatting with every operator and complimenting them on their workmanship. He switched from English to Tamil to put them at ease and sought their advice on accelerating the production cycle. They were touched that he consulted them and went into a huddle with him while the managers watched. "We will do it for you, saar,” they said.
In 15 minutes, the bottlenecks were cleared and the PSU's management, supported by their workers, revised their delivery schedule to meet our pressing needs.
When Kalam came to DRDL in 1982 to head the missile programme, the first thing he did was to replace the rectangular conference table in his office with a large round table, which had no 'head' and hence no slot for the boss. Every morning at nine, he would sit at this table with the administrative heads of the lab for an hour-long meeting. Any employee who faced any kind of administrative holdup was free to come to the meeting and have his or her problem addressed. After 10am, Kalam refused to be bothered with administrative matters and was available only to his scientists.
Soon after he was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1997, Kalam went to Hyderabad to deliver the first M. Channa Reddy Memorial lecture on the topic, Andhra Pradesh and technology. At the end of his talk, a little girl went up to him requesting his autograph. As he signed her autograph book, he asked her, "What is your dream?" She said, "Sir, I want to live in a developed country."
When I met him two days later at his office in Delhi's South Block, he was still pondering over the girl's remark. "That child put it so beautifully," he said. "We have been a developing country for 50 years. Isn't it time we became a developed country? Our economic strength will flow from our mastery of key strategic technologies."
That chance encounter with a young mind was the trigger that drove Kalam to seek out young people and share his vision for a developed India. But even during his Hyderabad years, he was never far from children. When doctors told him about nine-year-old Swarna, a polio victim, he got DRDL to design an ultra lightweight, prosthetic foot support for her.
The writer is a scientist who had worked with Kalam.