Invest in Dreams. Create Cultural Wealth. This century belongs to India . Interview with Dr. Vijay Bhatkar, India’s Super-Man that built India’s super computer before Europe did. That too when USA refused to collaborate.
Dr Vijay P Bhatkar is one of the initiators of the electronics revolution in India and an acclaimed global leader in advanced computing. Of his many path-breaking initiatives, the best known is the Param supercomputers and GIST multi-lingual technology. Param put India in a league ahead of Europe. He has also created several national institutions, notably Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC); the Electronics Research & Development Centre (ER&DC), Thiruvananthapuram – India’s largest Centre of application-oriented R&D in electronics and the International Institute of Information Technology (I2IT), Pune. He is now involved in a path-breaking project to spread education via broadband. A topper throughout Dr. Bhatkar completed his engineering from Nagpur University in 1965 when he was barely 18! He recounted the fascinating and highly inspirational events of his life
ML: Can we start with your background? You were born in 1946, just before independence.
VB: I was born in a very small village with a population of 300, about 40 kms from Akola in Vidarbha (Maharashtra). My parents were involved in the freedom movement and worked very closely with Mahatma Gandhi. They were also highly educated. My mother was a Headmistress of a school at Dewas. My grandmother was also a Headmistress. My father was an organiser of the Scouts movement and founded the Bharat Sevak Dal. So the atmosphere in my house was very education-oriented and nationalistic. This shaped my life.
I was born in October 1946 and by that time it was clear that India would get freedom. My father had been badly injured during the communal clashes and was almost on his deathbed. Around the time I was born, he also started recovering, so I was named Vijay – in fact, my name was Vijay Anand – to represent the joy of India’s freedom. My early schooling was in the village because Mahatma Gandhi had told my father that the village should be the centre of development. I studied at a temple school up to the 4th standard. I spent a lot of time those days with my grandmother as well and she had a great influence on my life. My grandfather used to run two newspapers those days in Vidarbha. He was very forward looking and a part of the Satya Shodhak movement.
I remember my mother reading books even while cooking. My grandmother used to insist that we read, so she read to us in the light of lanterns and we read a lot beyond our school curriculum. We were expected to be toppers. I studied directly in the 4th standard, because I insisted that I would study with my brother, Avinash, who was two years older. Sometimes, he topped the class and sometimes I did. Since we didn’t have formal laboratories, my brother and I used to collect prisms, magnets, syringes and scraps for experiments. We created school magazines and wrote for them. Our mother encouraged us in all this.
ML: What about your college?
VB: I studied at Vidarbha Mahavidyalaya, which was one of the best colleges in that region. I studied science and had to suddenly switch from Marathi to English. I realised that mastering English would be the key if I wanted to do engineering and so I started reading almost anything and spent a lot of time in the library. I was especially fascinated by the evolution of science and how discoveries occurred, so I used to read way beyond what was required by the syllabus.
ML: You completed your engineering at a very young age didn’t you?
VB: Yes, at 18, I was an engineer. I had finished school early and because of the war with China, India needed engineers and the engineering courses were compressed from four years to three. But I must admit that it was tough for me. After this, I decided to go for my Masters and took admission at IIT, Mumbai. But my father said, “You must have a broader exposure. If you go to IIT you will again go through an intensive programme.” He had studied at the MS University in Baroda and said, “why don’t you go there?” I didn’t always listen to my father, but on this occassion I did. I went to Baroda which was a turning point in my life. Of course, I topped the class there, but my interactions with departments of fine arts, music and philosophy really opened my mind.
ML: What next?
VB: I got an offer to be an Executive Engineer from the Maharashtra State Electricity Board (MSEB), which was considered a great privilege. I was just 21 then. A lot of people told me to accept it, but I was keen on doing research. My mother played a big role at that time. She said: “I know your quest for knowledge. If you want to study further, you must do it.” So I went to IIT, Delhi for my PhD. That was another turning point. At IIT Delhi, I started thinking about what is behind engineering. That led me to more abstractions, which led to physics and mathematics. I decided that engineering was for more practically oriented people. I was more interested in fundamental work and theory. That led me to mathematics, but I did not know mathematics. So I had to learn mathematics from scratch. There was nobody to teach higher mathematics at the engineering department, so I went to the mathematics department. But they were also more interested in applied mathematics. So I began to teach myself. It was very tough and painstaking. I had to keep reading again and again. I used to fall asleep on my books. Finally, I reached a stage when I could teach mathematics to the PhD students in mathematics. Those days, engineering students and professors did not often know what I was talking about.
ML: How did you manage to do both – engineering and mathematics?
VB: My guide said, “I don’t know what you are doing, but I am not going to stop you.” That was really good, because very often people don’t let you do what you want to. I used to spend a lot of time in the library those days, but it closed at 7 p.m. So I requested the college to keep it open for longer hours. They said, you become the library secretary and take charge. There were 70,000 books in the library. I browsed through every one of them. And I was surprised that even at IIT, there were several classics that nobody had ever opened. I also wrote and published a lot of research papers. That was the time I got interested in what is called “non-local phenomena”, which has now become important as “smart materials”, or materials that exhibit memory. I wrote a paper with a professor in the U.S. who was originally from Princeton. I was fascinated that someone so far away, was interested in what I was doing here. There was no email and I used to wait for his letters. Eventually, we decided that once I finish my PhD I would go to Princeton to do my post-doctoral work.
ML: But you didn’t?
VB: It was 1971, Mrs. Indira Gandhi had formed the Electronics Commission (EC). Dr.Vikram Sarabhai sent Dr. N Sheshgiri and Dr. Subramaniam to the IITs and elsewhere to pick up the bright guys. I was one of the two persons from IIT, Delhi who was nominated for the EC. That was another turning point. I didn’t really know if I wanted to do electronics. My brother was already in the US and I was set to go there. I told Dr. Sheshgiri that I am a mathematician and he said, “I am also a mathematician.” He knew about my family, so he spoke to me about playing a role in national development and that convinced me. So I agreed and joined the EC at Bombay.
At the EC, I saw the entire development of electronics. Initially, it wasn’t clear how the industry would develop. Then came the discovery of the microprocessor by Intel. That device would change the course of civilisation. I proposed that we must start an education programme covering microprocessor in a big way. Those were the days of self-reliance, nothing was available easily and we had to do everything ourselves. I created the curriculum for introducing microprocessors at various levels of education, especially in engineering colleges.
ML: How did it move through the bureaucracy?
VB: The EC was Mrs. Gandhi’s brainchild and so it had a powerful stature, especially since the senior staff had the confidence and competence. Once a programme was cleared, it had the knowledge, the resources and the authority to implement things. So, it got done. My other contribution was to use my background in control systems. Indian industry was way behind in terms of automation. I initiated the programme for automation, instrumentation and control systems to improve productivity and quality of our steel plants, fertiliser plants and cement plants. They were designed and manufactured in Electronics Corporation of India Ltd, Instrumentation India Ltd and, later on, by BHEL.
ML: Was there any collaboration in designing them?
VB: There was no collaboration at all. They were completely indigenous designs. People would resist what we were doing – I fought several battles with Siemens. I went all over India, visiting mines and industries. There were agitations by workers fearing automation will cut jobs. We had to convince them that no such thing would happen. There was huge resistance among managers too about locally-made systems. They feared there would be accidents and so on. So, in one case we put an outer panel of a foreign system and ran it for a year and later revealed that it was the Indian one doing the job all this while. In the eight years between 1972-80, I went from abstraction at IIT to the other end – the real world of engineering shopfloor.
It was at this stage that I came to another turning point in my life. KPG Nambiar was called by the Kerala government to start KELTRON (Kerala State Electronic Development Corporation). He had seen my work, so he invited me there and asked me to head the R&D as well. I started Electronic Research & Development Centre, India’s largest electronics R&D lab and headed it when I was just 31. It was not a national laboratory but bigger than the national labs. I had to make a decision about going from Delhi to Kerala. People told me: you will not be able to do much in a communist state. But we did some amazing things there. Keltron became the harbinger of India’s electronics revolution. We built 18 factories all over Kerala in just five years. The state government was very supportive. When Mrs. Gandhi wanted colour telecast of the Asian Games, everyone said it is not possible, but we designed it and made it happen. So colour TV, colour telecast, low power transmission, we built it all from scratch. One of the first things we designed was microprocessor-based traffic system, which was a great success commercially.
ML: All this was possible because you could create excellence without bureaucratic interference?
VB: Yes, we did it at Keltron and EC also had a very open environment. Mr. Nambiar was a very positive force. To him there was no such word as ‘no’. He’d say, ‘it will be done’ and it was. I have never seen such an environment even in the private sector. It has to do with inner conviction, commitment and credibility. Then we were asked to create similar organisations in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra etc. This revolution went on from 1980 to 1987-88 until Mr. Nambiar moved on to become Secretary at Delhi.
ML: That led to another turning point in your life?
VB: Yes, but I must talk about another project I did at that time. When Mrs. Indira Gandhi was assassinated, I was asked to build the entire security system for the Prime Minister’s residence (PMO) and South Block. It was a highly confidential project and it was given to me because of my family background. I had to actually build and install the alarm systems, sensors, close circuit televisions, movement detection systems etc. This was a major project and we built it in 18 months. That was the time I met Rajiv Gandhi. We had created some green push buttons on the trees, which only the family members would know existed and would trigger alarms. We had SPG people watching the systems and they were to act on the alarm. One morning, Rajiv Gandhi was walking and he decided to see what happens when he actually pushed the button. So he did it. And the alarms began to ring and hoot all over the place – in the control rooms etc. And nothing happened. Nobody did anything. That is because everybody was sleeping in front of the consoles! He went in and saw it himself. Clearly, automation does not work unless people behind it are alert.
ML: So then came the biggest phase of your career, C-DAC.
VB: Mr.Nambiar became the Electronics Secretary and Mr. KR Narayan was the Minister of State. They were good friends. Rajiv Gandhi was the PM and he went to meet Ronald Reagan in 1987 for the high technology accord. We wanted the supercomputer but Cray was allowed to sell only the previous generation one and we were to use it strictly for weather forecasting. Some senior US official even remarked that if it was used for any other application, ‘then forget about the chip, even a pin will not be allowed to come to India’. It was humiliating and he (Rajiv Gandhi) asked if we could make nuclear reactors and launch satellites, why can’t we build a supercomputer? KPG Nambiar was called and, in his typical style he said, “why not, we will build it.” He then called me. I was at Kihim beach at that time. There were no mobile phones so I went to the RCF office to take his call. He said, “Dr. Bhatkar, can you build a super computer”? I said, “We have not seen one, but after what we did in Keltron and EC, we can always say yes. If you give me the signal and the freedom, we can build it. He said, “how much time will it take? I said, I cannot answer that question until I do some homework. I started doing a lot of reading on computers. Parallel processing had just come in as a technology.
I concluded, we cannot build a Cray-like computer, because neither the chips are available nor is the cooling feasible. So we had to go for the parallel processing which was also the route for Europe and Russia. Japan had chips, so it could have built a Cray-like computer. At that time, C-DOT, started by Sam Pitroda was already a success. Till then, the highest systems we had, with TIFR, were tens of mega flops and we were trying to build giga flops, which were hundred times more powerful. We decided come what may, we will do it. I am not the kind to waste time and worry about how things will happen.
ML: What about the components? Did you have them?
VB: I had worked with microprocessors, I knew that we did not have the components, but we would surmount that problem. At that time Rajiv Gandhi called a meeting with Nambiar, KR Narayan and myself. He asked three questions and I think the way I answered them made a difference. He asked, “Mr. Nambiar, can it be done?” He looked at me and I said, “it can be done”. Then he asked how much time will it take? My answer was, it took us three years to get the Cray with all the licences and regulations. I said, it will only take as long as it takes to import a Cray computer. His last question was, how much money will it take? I had estimated that the cost of importing the Cray would be around Rs 37 crore. So I said at the same cost that it will take to import that one computer. He was surprised and said, “Really? Then we are off”.
It was decided that C-DAC should be along the C-Dot model, which was already successful. It was not a smooth journey. I could not recruit anyone for six months. The project was set up in Pune. People said, why Pune, so Mr. Nambiar said, “he has taken the responsibility and if he says Pune, that is where it will be set up. We have always built the CSIR laboratories around people. Dr. Bhaba wanted it in Bombay, so TIFR was in Bombay. Dr. Sarabhai wanted it in Thiruvanantapuram so it was in Thiruvanantapuram, now Dr. Bhatkar wants it in Pune, it will be in Pune. If you are taking responsibility, you build it.”
ML: Why did you choose Pune?
VB: I had a choice between Pune, Delhi and Bangalore. I did not want Delhi, because it would have been too politicised. I didn’t want Bangalore. Pune was a centre of learning, had good education facilities and a good climate.
ML: You said you could not recruit for six months.
VB: Because of the minority commission and problems with it. But I had put an advertisement to hire people and a lot of people joined. The C-DAC model was a contract model and we had all left our jobs and gone there. Amazingly they worked for six months without a salary and even travelled with their own money. I was surprised that in the security-conscious environment of India, people were actually willing to join me and work without a salary for six months.
ML: Was the supercomputer done in time?
VB: In 1990, in just two years, we had built the supercomputer. But I knew the Indian psychology. Unless the world accepts that we have built it, even our own scientists will not accept it. Fortunately, at that time Zurich had an exhibition on supercomputers. The US was also participating. Apart from the Cray, they had an Intel-based system based on the parallel processing system and one from Boston. There was a Russian, German and Anglo-French consortium that was exhibiting.
We had all kinds of nerve-racking bureaucratic hurdles over taking the system to Zurich. We finally landed just a day before the exhibition. We weren’t sure we could even assemble a supercomputer in time and make it work. Fortunately, our engineers worked over time and managed to get it ready for the next day. At the exhibition, the Russian and German systems did not work. All the top computer scientists, including those who built the earliest computers in the world were there. All the top scientists whose work I had studied. I was intimidated that I had to make a presentation to them. But when the benchmarking was done, our system worked well and was next only to the Intel system. And at that time it became clear that India had built a prototype.
ML: How did you get the components?
VB: We got the components from UK and Germany and routed them through different countries. I won’t say whether it was right or wrong, but we got the components.
ML: Why was it called Param?
VB: When I came back from Zurich, the question was what would we call it? We asked engineers for suggestions. I wanted a Sanskrit name. I also wanted a system that was easy to pronounce yet reflected our culture and history. So, one day I was at home and was thinking what is the meaning of the word ‘super’. Super means Supreme… in Sanskrit the expression is Param – parmanand, parmeshwar, or the ultimate. So I said, “aha, Param it is.” I also realised that Param would also mean Parallel Machine, so I was convinced that it was the right name. When I explained the thought behind the name, everybody liked it and accepted it.
The next year, in 1991, we built the full-fledged system. The Wall Street Journal wrote an article saying ‘An angry India builds the supercomputer’. And that was a fact, if we had not been denied the Cray, we would not have built it. When WSJ wrote about it, everybody believed that we had actually done it. It was announced in parliament and it was done in three years without any cost or time overrun in 1991. Then Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. And later, people wanted to undo anything that he proposed. They said, you have built the supercomputer, it is enough.” We went through a phase where we had no support, but sustained ourselves on our own efforts.
ML: How did you do that?
VB: One of the decisions we had taken at that time turned out to be very important. In 1990, we realised that if computers are not endowed with Indian languages, we will have to use only the English language. Since culture is very closely linked with language, we were worried that Indian languages would lag behind. I used to give the example of the printing press, which was initially used for the English language and how much it contributed to the spread of the British power. So, I initiated a project for Indian language technology, which was not part of the original mission. I convinced the Governing Council that this was as important as the supercomputer project, if not more.
Initially a group was created to work on graphics and intelligence-based script technology. Our first challenge was to create Indian language standards like the Ascii (American Standards Code for Information Interchange). So we created the Indian language standards. We had 18 languages and scripts. Fortunately, our languages are very phonetic and very structure-based – even the graphical structures. So we could develop the ISCII (Indian Standards), which was mapped and adopted as the national standard. We then had the challenge of mapping all characters on a keyboard so that all complex characters could be generated. We wanted to do it for all languages in a uniform way. So we created a hardware card and a chip – Indian language chip. We designed it in such a way that if that card is installed in the computer, it can be used for any Indian language simultaneously. We then developed packages for all of them.
ML: That is what allowed all Indian language papers to be automated.
VB: Yes, it would not have been possible otherwise at all. We could print in any language at the same time, even Urdu, which goes from right to left. That was a marvellous creation. It also became the foundation for Unicode for Asian languages and that also generated revenues for C-DAC. Around that time, the Russians decided to buy our supercomputer. We were supposed to buy from them, but instead, they ended up buying from us and that gave me enormous satisfaction. When I went to Russia to launch it, I was to address a mammoth gathering of all the top scientists and Nobel laureates and all those eminent people whose books I had read. I went to launch it at the Russian Academy of Science and they gave me a standing ovation. That was one of the greatest moments of my life – that these people, who I looked up to, were using our computer and appreciating it. Remember, this was possible because of my moving from engineering, going deeply into abstraction and mathematics at IIT, because supercomputing is all about mathematics. Weather forecasting and satellite launch is all mathematical equations. The engineering people would have been frightened by the equations.
Later, the Congress government came to power again and we started the next mission. I proposed the tera-flop architecture. So we had the Param 8000, then the Param 10000 and then I proposed a four-year programme for the tera flop architecture which we developed in 1998. IBM was trying for it, Europe was trying for it, Japan was trying and we were doing it. I needed Rs 400 crore, but the government said the money was not available, they could give me only Rs 40 crore. So I said, okay, I will generate another Rs 40 crore myself. But I will not physically build the machine. I will only create the architecture and build only a 100 giga flop machine. We built the tera-flop architecture and in 1998 it was exhibited. IK Gujral was the Prime Minister and it was announced in Parliament. The world acknowledged that other than US and Japan, India is only the third country to possess that technology. By then, I had completed two terms in C-DAC and I found it demeaning to go and ask for a third term. I decided to chalk a different path and do something else.
ML: Somewhere along the way you turned to spirituality in a big way.
VB: That happened sometime in 1996. I used to see engineers working day and night at the supercomputer. There is this law of mortality called Moor’s law which said computing power would double every 18 months and memory power would double every 12 months. So, whatever the supercomputer you develop, in five years it will be a desktop machine. I knew that this glory is not enduring. It got me thinking about what is enduring in life. I was always inclined towards philosophy. I realised that from our perspective, Indian culture is enduring – our Vedic culture, our Bhagwad Gita – that is enduring. The content is enduring not the embodiment, which keeps changing. So, I decided that content has to be brought to the computer. I got very deeply involved in what is enduring and it turned me towards the content of the Bhagwad Gita and finding ways of bringing the Gita into the computers. I decided to begin with the Marathi interpretation of the Gita – the Dyaneshwari. Then my teacher Sakhare Maharaj from Alandi said, it is not important to create a library. It is important to understand it. He said, you first try to understand it, before you render it. He was one of the greatest teachers and he used to come a distance of 40 km to teach me. I then realised the truth that if you have a great longing for something, the guru comes to you. It was here that I turned to the foundations of spiritual knowledge and led me to questions that I am still struggling to understand. Both science and spirituality are trying to understand the nature of Reality – one through experimentation and the other through experience. In our shastras, we don’t distinguish between scientific knowledge and spiritual knowledge – it is all part of the whole knowledge system.
ML: That is how India discovered the Zero, which is not a number – it is a state.
VB: It is a state – or the purnatva – the zero is a great universal discovery and also a mathematical discovery. Computing is the foundation of zero and one. In the sankhya philosophy, there is purush and prakruti or one and its negation. That is binary. So purush as its negation is prakruti. So with zero and one I can express anything in these two states – that is amazing, philosophically. It is also the basis for computing. You can create a virtual world with just these two states – zero and one. That is why, they say the world itself is virtual – it is not real, it is all maya
ML: Finally, what about your Education-to-home initiative which is owned by C Sivasankaran.
VB: I was part of the group that ushered in telecom liberalisation, launch of Internet etc. I felt that this is a major agent of change and could be used for spreading education. So ETH was set up to directly broadcast education to homes and institutions. ETH is part of an organisation that has set up commercial enterprises such as the broadband, mobile etc. As part of corporate social responsibility, we decided to help India jump from illiteracy straight to computer literacy. That is also part of ETH’s area of work. We helped develop Maharashtra Knowledge Corporation in making 2.5 crore persons computer literate, without any government money. We did this by setting up centres around the state totally managed on the Net and standardised. We are transforming pilgrimage places to knowledge pilgrimage places such as Shirdi. We also did a massive programme for digitisation of schools in Indian languages including content creation and delivery.
ML: What would you have done if you were 20 today? What should be the biggest investment of today’s youth?
VB: I was born in 1946 and I would like to live for 100 years – for only one thing. I am certain, that by 2047, India will be the world’s number one country. No China, no Russia or any other country will be the number one. We are already an advanced country in many ways. Look at the way we have managed our elections compared to what happens in the US. In the next few decades we will create wealth we have never seen before, as Swami Vivekananda has predicted. My message to the young people is, invest in this dream and make it happen.END
August 25, 2008
In a wide-ranging chat with MoneyLIFE editors Sucheta Dalal and Debashis Basu in Pune,