More skeletons come tumbling out of ISRO cupboard (IANS Interview)


There seems to be no end of skeletons tumbling out of ISRO’s cupboard – which makes one wonder where India’s space programme would have reached by now had merit and not personal proclivities been the order of the day.

In the latest series of broadsides, Dr Abraham E. Muthunayagam, considered the chief architect of rocket propulsion in India and the developer of an indigenous cryogenic engine, who left behind a lucrative career with NASA, has charged a former ISRO chairman of blocking his way to the top that resulted in his decision to quit the space agency.

Muthunayagam also says that the Nambinarayanan episode “could have been solved in the initial stages” had the then Secretary to the Department of Space (DOS), who was once his junior, not bypassed him.

Muthunayagam is also bitter at being denied national recognition as his “contribution” to the Indian Space Programme has not been less than that of many other ISRO personnel who were given the Padma awards.

“I was undoubtedly the senior-most centre director at ISRO, with around twenty-nine years of meritorious service in the organisation. Nevertheless, in April 1994, I was bypassed and Dr K. Kasturirangan, was appointed as secretary to DOS, and the chairman of the Space Commission and of ISRO. I felt that I had lost a prestigious race and decided to quit ISRO,” Muthunayagam writes in ‘From Space To Sea – My ISRO Journey And Beyond’ (HarperCollins).

The 398-page (minus the Index) book devotes 257 pages to his time in ISRO (and its previous incarnations), inclusive of a full 25-page chapter titled ‘Out of the ISRO Orbit: The Pain Of Ignominy’.

At the centre of this episode is the late Prof U.R. Rao, the ISRO Chairman from 1984-1994.

Why did UR Rao hound him out of ISRO? What were the various vested interests at play?

“I would like to state that in the mid-sixties Prof UR Rao and I were divisional heads reporting to Dr (Vikram) Sarabhai, Director SSTC (Space Science and Technology Centre). We had our offices in the same floor, facing each other. We were good friends always,” Muthunayagam told IANS in an interview.

“When I was in ISRO when Prof Rao was Chairman ISRO, he never mentioned to me any of his strategy and plans about career growth of the ISRO officials which was under his control. Hence, Prof Rao would have been the right person to respond to this query. Unfortunately, he is no more now. I regret that I am not able to respond to such queries which are beyond my domain and based on opinions of others,” he added.

Pointing to “all relevant facts” in Chapter 15 of the book, Muthunayagam said: “You may please analyse the details given by me and arrive at your conclusion which will be obvious to anyone with a logical approach.”

Three lines in this chapter, all relating to his promotions during the U.R. Rao regime, are significant:

“From the experiences so far, I had reached the conclusion that the ISRO management would deny the kind of prospects that I deserved and hinder my career, which ought to have culminated in the chairmanship of the organisation” (page 242).

A proposal by U.R. Rao to make all major centre directors on par in grade and salary “was a veiled attempt to make Dr Kasturirangan equal to me in grade and pay. However, the (Cabinet) Appointment Committee’s amendment – that I should be at a level six months ahead of all centre directors because of my seniority, contributions and long years of service at top positions – stymied Dr Rao’s manipulations” but didn’t come in the way of Dr Kasturirangan receiving two merit promotions that eventually took him ahead of Muthunayagam (page 245).

“As things turned out, Dr U.R. Rao refused me the coveted position (of ISRO Chairman) that would have been the crowning glory of my career,” (Page 247).

Muthunayagam is scathing in his criticism of the manner in which the Nambinarayanan case was handled.

Regretfully, and sadly, “ISRO initially put Nambinarayanan through a Kerala Police case and subsequently through a CBI case. He was jailed and said to have been tortured in police custody. I sympathise with him and am pained by his sufferings. I appreciate his long years of struggle with the legal system of our nation to get exonerated,” Muthunayagam writes.

“Mr Nambinarayanan was an officer directly reporting to me in LPSC (Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre that was developing an indigenous cryogenic engine). Unfortunately, ISRO management directly dealt with the case with Kerala Police and CBI, through the controller of LPSC, bypassing me.”

Significantly, Dr Kasturirangan, who had taken over as DOS Secretary six months before the Nambinarayanan case broke in October, 1994, “was new to the LPSC. He was not familiar with the operational system and the procedures in place there. He appeared to lack confidence in me because I was once his senior and a former unwelcome competitor to his new position. This is probably why he did not discuss the case with me”, Muthunayagam writes.

In all this, he also displays a level of pragmatism.

“I am sure that there are some more similar cases to mine, but they may not have come out to the public. I am also not aware of actions taken by the concerned individuals who were affected. I realize that in a government system such things go unnoticed due to the deficiency in the speedy operations for remedial measures. I do not think that any individual in the government can modify the system and operations in government. When things became unbearable, I decided to quit (rather than opt for legal remedies),” Muthunayagam writes.

In his second innings as Secretary in the Department of Ocean Development (DOD) (April 1995-January 2001), Muthunayagam worked under four Prime Ministers – P.V. Narasimha Rao, I.K. Gujral, H.D. Deve Gowda and Atal Bihari Vajpayee – and subsequently under Murli Manohar Joshi, the Minister for Ocean Development, Science and Technology and Human Resources Development.

“All these leaders provided the impetus and support necessary to make the DOD a pioneer in advanced technologies to use ocean resources,” Muthunayagam writes.

(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at



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