In 2006, a local Mumbai newspaper splashed a wonderful photograph on its front page. It was of a meeting of some of the scientists who had worked on the Indian nuclear programme in its formative years. They were together to mark 50 years of Apsara, the first nuclear research reactor, in what later became the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Legend has it that it was Jawaharlal Nehru who named the reactor after the celestial dancers, after he was enthralled by the blue Cerenkov radiation of the nuclear reaction. The caption of that historic photograph was interesting. It described the scientists as “The real Team India".

The editors of the Marathi paper were making an important point. Our national obsession with politics, cricket and Hindi cinema—an obsession that I share with most Indians—often makes us forget the extraordinary people who helped quietly transform India for the better. One such extraordinary person left us this month: Verghese Kurien. His death was followed by a lot of media coverage about how he transformed millions of rural lives even as he helped make India the largest producer of milk in the world.

There are three ways to judge the impact a person has on his times: the number of lives he touched through his work, the strength of the institution he built, and the team he left behind to carry on the chosen task. Kurien left behind an immense legacy if one judges him by these three criteria. And there are others as well: Homi Bhabha built up a nuclear programme from scratch, Vikram Sarabhai did the same with the space programme, M.S. Swaminathan played a key role in the Green Revolution that broke Indian dependence on imported food, E. Sreedharan delivered two excellent railway projects along the Konkan coast and in New Delhi, Dashrath Patel built up the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, R.H. Patil created a world-class stock exchange in the face of great opposition. Of course, the names I have mentioned till now have largely been involved in public programmes, but one can also think of similar examples in business (H.T. Parekh, S.S. Nadkarni, N. Vaghul and N.R. Narayana Murthy) or civil society organizations (Ela Bhatt, Abhay Bang, Baba Amte, Nanaji Deshmukh and Anil Sadgopal).

Take Bhabha, for example. He died in a plane crash in 1966. At a public meeting held in Mumbai to mourn him, M.G.K. Menon, who succeeded Bhabha as director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, offered some glimpses of what makes such people special: “The legacies he left behind are not only the tangible programmes, buildings, equipment, gardens and the like, visible creations of his scientific and artistic abilities; but even more important is the legacy which is in some sense intangible—the large number of trained personnel, who have embraced the vision of a new India and who have acquired confidence in their own abilities. (Patrick Maynard Stuart) Blackett has often stated that a first-rate laboratory is one in which mediocre scientists can produce outstanding work. Homi Bhabha … understood this well and this is what he sought to create by the right environment and the right conditions of work."

J.R.D. Tata once called Bhabha one of the three most remarkable men he had met in his life; the other two were Gandhi and Nehru. To be sure, even the most remarkable individuals have their flaws. Kurien got into a bitter battle with the next generation at the organization he built up (succession planning is an even bigger issue in civil society organizations that tend to be built around one outstanding individual). It is also true that such men and women often require political encouragement to do their work, especially if they are working on government programmes. Kurien was sent to Anand by none other than Vallabhbhai Patel. And most of them were lucky to have long tenures; after all, it takes many years to build an institution that survives the passage of time.

My friend Ajit Ranade, chief economist of the Aditya Birla Group, has a theory that it takes at least 20 years for a person to create a lasting institutional legacy. One example he gives is of Ravi Mathai, who became the first full-time director of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He was hand-picked by Sarabhai, an institution builder to the core. Mathai stepped down from the top post after six years, but stayed on as a professor because he believed the director of an academic institution should only be the first among equals and the post should not be used as a vehicle for career advancement.

How many of these modern karmayogis will you find in our school textbooks, which are full of medieval potentates? How many are held up as role models for the next generation? Have we given more importance to our protesters than our builders? These are perhaps questions worth asking at a time when there is cynicism in the air and anger on the streets.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor, Mint.

Write to Niranjan at impartialspectator@livemint.com.

Also Read | Read Niranjan’s previous Lounge columns.

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