Tuesday, November 27, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, November 28, 2007


Renowned Indian scientist and engineer Dr. Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, who was also the 11th president of India (2002-2007), was recently in Indonesia to deliver a speech at Indonesia's National Science Congress (KIPNAS) in Jakarta. Kalam, who is described as the "father of the Indian missile", sat down with The Jakarta Post's Alpha Amirrachman to discuss how science can contribute to the development of society. The following are excerpts of the interview:

Question: You have been described as the "father of the Indian missile" program. Do you think India's nuclear program serves as a symbol of India's advancement in science?

Answer: Well, in India we have bio-technology, agricultural science, space science and nuclear science. And putting them up together we can be said to be a nation developing science and technology.

You believe in science for Indian national development and that science development is ideologically free. How do you think science and technology could help bring about world peace and security?

We have six billion people on our planet, but only two billion people who have drinking water. We have a huge problem here of four billion people who desperately need help. Their standard of living should increase, and for that science and technology is a non-linear tool. If you use technology it will grow like that and very fast. I have emphasized the cultivation of scientific temper and entrepreneurial drive. That's why I am saying that science and technology can bring development to us. And science is borderless, any nation can work together.

What is your most significant achievement in your career as a scientist?

When an orthopedic surgeon came for a visit to my laboratory and found that the material we were producing was so light. He asked me to visit the hospital where I saw children dragging their feet around with heavy metallic calipers which weighed three kilograms each. In only three weeks we managed to produce calipers which weighed only 300 grams. No more dragging around a load of three kilograms, the children can now move and play around more freely.

So the light material you produced (for missile) is also used for producing walking equipment for children with disabilities. Is your country earnestly producing this new kind of orthosis?

Yes, indeed, a number of our industries have started producing the equipment because the material is not only very light but also very cheap.

You have mentioned that Indonesia can benefit from its 13,000 islands for its development? What is your specific idea on that?

Each island can become an economic center. Urban facilities should be provided in rural areas. You are here in Jakarta, but if you go 30 kilometers you would probably find rural areas or villages. You should give psychical and electronic connectivity to them. Build a core competence enhancement for the people, then the economy would come (in the form of) employment, etc. This is what I have suggested in my country that we build around 7,000 PURA (urban facilities in rural areas) clusters. The integrated actions are education that leads to entrepreneurship and employment opportunities, healthcare for all, population growth rates to be within a small band and first-rate infrastructure facilities.

How can regionally-based development help reduce disparities among states in India? How do you think this can be adapted in Indonesia?

In India, for example, the whole southern states now are having the rainy season, while the northern states have winter. In southern states they have unique materials available; we can process the materials and make a product, so southern states can become agricultural centers. And the regionally based management would bring the core competence together and as a result prosperity would come very fast.

For example, a number of states now have hydropower where we can connect all power generators and have a common grid and send it to the whole country.

Therefore, regionally based development can help develop the nation faster. I believe the physical, electronic and knowledge connectivities of 7,000 PURA clusters will bring about development for the region as a whole. In Indonesia, of course, this would depend on the political (will), the parliament here would need to see if this can be done.

What do you think our nation should do to encourage youth to become passionate about science?

This should be discussed in your parliament too because it is a political decision where you put priority and the availability of the money. In my country, by funding technology we can grow faster, like in agriculture we supported agricultural science. And today we have communications satellites because we gave priority to the space program.

Similarly in information and communication technology, people are coming in a big way. Education institutions have been reinforced. This all gives feedback to science. What is important is that the youth should dream and dream, transform their dreams into thoughts and transform their thoughts into action. And the youth should develop righteousness in their heart, which in my experience, can be built by three people: father, mother and primary school teacher.

You have been campaigning for the use of open-source software; how is it progressing in India?

Many of us are using open-source software in our industry and many applications are also used in the academic world.

Since you are a Muslim scientist who grew up in a middle-class family and have excelled in majority Hindu India, do you think other members of minority groups also have the same opportunities to develop themselves and to contribute to the development of the nation, and that their rights are fully protected?

In our constitution we have fundamental rights of equality and freedom. No discrimination for all Indian people and opportunities are wide open. For example, in India Muslims constitute 15 percent (of the population), Christians 3 to 4 percent of the whole population, and others.

We are a nation of multi-cultures, religions (multireligious) and languages. Very similar to your country which is also multi-cultural and has multi languages, and with a large number of people and so many islands you actually have more challenges.

What is it that you think you haven't achieved in your career?

Billions of people should smile a long way, and I still have to work on that.

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