Walk through the hot, dusty and energy sapping streets and by-lanes of the T. Nagar shopping district of Chennai and one often comes across a term used to describe the perfect bargain. Shopkeepers use it when, thwarted at every attempt to foist off a mixer-grinder or four-burner stove of dubious reliability, they finally relent and bring out the top-selling market favourite from under the counter. It may not be a shiny Maharaja Whiteline with seven jars or a Butterfly with copper gasheads but the product that is finally offered is a hard act to beat. “This sir,” he will say in resignation, “this item is cheap and best.”
And in most cases, it is. The product that inevitably changes hands is the perfect marriage of quality, reliability and price. Cheap and best.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
That moniker aptly describes the central philosophy in two projects that have made 2008 an uncommon year in Indian science and technology. It was a year that took our science from the realm of tantalizing but frustrating potential, and launched it into the mainstream. Both projects won considerable global praise. For a culture that continues to thrive on foreign appreciation before it reluctantly pats its own back, that was the ultimate stamp of approval. Indian science and engineering had arrived. More importantly, Everyman understood and appreciated.
The first project, when it was unveiled to the world this January at the 9th Annual Auto Show at Pragati Maidan in the Capital, weighed in at around 600kg. Reminiscent of a giant shiny egg on wheels, it was a shade over 3m tall and 5ft long. And inside the egg sat one Mr Ratan Tata.
When Tata stepped out of the Tata Nano and called it “The People’s Car”, the world came to a screeching halt in astonishment. Here was a car—“a proper car” as Tata reminded everybody later in a Forbes magazine interview—with four wheels and a bona fide engine and safety features all for the measly price of just Rs1 lakh. Or, to put it in perspective, around two-and-a-half times the price of the latest BlackBerry.
The Tata Nano was a dream come true not just for Ratan Tata, who announced it in 2003 to a lot of hope and plenty of cynicism, but also for thousands of Indians. They could now see dreams of finally being able to replace ageing scooters and motorcycles with an incredibly affordable car. Experts believe that the Nano, when it is finally launched, holds the potential to revolutionize urban and rural mobility in this country.
Noteworthy perhaps was Tata’s statement at the Auto Expo that none of the technology incorporated into the car was revolutionary. The final product, he indicated, was the outcome of improvising existing technology within the tightest possible budgets.
That exercise alone makes the Nano quintessentially Indian—a product of our unmatched ability to jugaad or improvise and create something that would, in a manner of speaking, fly off the shelves at T. Nagar. The Tata Nano was undoubtedly cheap and best.
If not for the Singur imbroglio, we could have seen the Rs1 lakh wonder on our streets today.
But our second project—our second tale of Indian ingenuity meeting shoestring budget—not only went according to plan but it has also reached its destination safe and sound.
Six minutes past eight, on the night of 14 November, 100km above the surface of the moon, the Moon Impact Probe (MIP) detached from the Chandrayaan-1orbiting vessel and went into free fall. It continued falling for around half an hour, all the while sending back data pertaining to a number of experiments. And just before impact, it was slowed down with rockets and allowed to crash into the moon’s surface. The 35kg MIP, painted in the national colours, landed on the moon near the Shackleton Crater.
22 October: Chandrayaan-1 is launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota on a PSLV-C11 rocket. Indian Space Research Organization / AP
It was the first time in 32 years that a man-made object had landed on the moon. And thus, thanks to Chandrayaan-1, India became only the fourth nation to plant, albeit via crashing, its flag on the moon. But wait, there’s more. The entire cost of the Chandrayaan-1 project was just around Rs400 crore. Or, to put it in perspective, Chandrayaan-1 cost as much as the Delhi Daredevils team in the Indian Premier League.
More than anything else, it was this aspect of the mission that captured the imagination of scientists, space buffs and policymakers everywhere. With just a fraction of the budget available to space agencies in the US, Russia and Europe, the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) had managed to design, launch and land an object on the moon.
Isro chairman G. Madhavan Nair ascribed the success to some calculated risks and some good old-fashioned Indian ingenuity. They ran less tests and around one-third of the technology was reused from previous Isro missions. In short, they had depended on some old-fashioned jugaad science.
Of course, once the patriotic fervour surrounding the success died down, many people wondered why India needed to waste money on moon missions. Isro has already announced plans for a sequel to Chandrayaan-1 which will land a motorized rover on the moon in 2012. A manned mission is being slotted after that.
While Isro maintains that it will stick to a shoestring budget, naysayers continue to believe that the government could use the money for more important things such as poverty alleviation and national security. The debate still rages but Nair promises that Isro missions will not only make monetary sense—Nair said in an interview that every rupee spent on Isro yields a rupee and half for the country—but also give the country immeasurable human resources and technology benefits. For once, scientists such as G. Madhavan Nair, and engineers such as Girish Wagh, who managed the Nano project, have become heroes.
On the face of it Indian achievements in science in 2008 boast of no Nobel Prizes or life-changing inventions. In fact both our crowning achievements have been more exercises in ingenuity and discipline than miracles in the laboratory.
Yet, over time, they captured the imagination of millions of people and gave them a reason to celebrate. Perhaps more schoolchildren will learn science so that they one day can be part of the first Indian manned mission to space. And then thankfully a Nano taxi will drop those children to the school that was too far away to walk to.
“Cheap and best” was never a glamourous philosophy. But like the Nano and Chandrayaan-1 tells us, it is one that can give you wheels on the ground and still help you reach for the moon.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org