Vikram Sarabhai


"There is no leader and there are no led. A leader, if one chooses to identity one, has to be a cultivator rather than a manufacturer. He has to provide the soil and the overall climate and the environment in which the seed can grow. One wants permissive individuals who do not have a compelling need to reassure themselves that they are leaders"
Vikram Sarabhai

Sarabhai’s name will remain inseparable from India’s space programme. It was Sarabhai who put India on the international map in the field of space research. But then he made equally pioneering contributions in other fields. He worked in the fields of textiles, pharmaceuticals, nuclear power, electronics and many others incessantly till last.

The most striking aspect of Sarabhai’s personality was the range and breadth of his interests and the way in which he transformed his ideas into institutions. Sarabhai was a creative scientist, a successful and forward looking industrialist, an innovator of the highest order, a great institution builder, an educationist with a difference, a connoisseur of arts, an entrepreneur of social change, a pioneering management educator and more.

However, the most important thing is that besides being all that he was a very warm human being with tremendous compassion for others. He was a man who could charm and win the hearts of all those who came in contact with him. He could instantly establish a personal rapport with those with whom he interacted. This was possible because he could convey a sense of respect and trustfulness to them and also a sense of his own trustworthiness.

He was a dreamer with a seemingly unmatched capacity for hard work. He was a visionary, who could not only see opportunities but created some where none existed. To him the object of life, as Pierre Curie (1859-1906), the French Physicist who was co-discoverer with his wife Marie Curie (1867-1934) of polonium and radium, has observed, was “to make life a dream and to turn the dream into a reality”. What is more, Sarabhai taught many others how to dream and to work towards realising the dream. The success of Inida’s space programme is a testimony to his. Sarabhai was a “rare combination of an innovative scientist, forward looking industrial organiser and imaginative builder of insitutions for the economic, educational and social upliftment of the country”. He had an excellent sense of economics and managerial skill. No problem was too minor to him. A large part of his time was taken up by his research activities and he continued to supervise research till his untimely death. Nineteen people did their PhD work under his supervision. Sarabhai independently and in association with his coleagues published eighty-six research papers in national journals.

We are told that anybody, irrespective of his position in the organisation, could meet Sarabhai without any fear or feeling of inferiority and Sarabhai would always offer him/her a seat and make him/her relax and talk on equal terms. He believed in an individual’s dignity and tried hard to preserve it. He was always in search of a better and efficient way of doing things. Whatever he did, he did it creatively. He displayed extreme care and concern for the younger people. He had immense faith in their potentialities. He was always ready to provide opportunities and freedom to them.

Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai was born on August 12, 1919 to a wealthy family at Ahmedabad. During his childhood his ancestral home. The Retreat at Ahmedabad, used to be visited by important people from all walks of life. This played an important role in the growth of Sarabhai’s personality. His parents were Ambalal Sarabhai and Saraladevi Sarabhai. Sarabhai had his early educatio in the family school started by his mother Saraladevi on the line propoounded by Mme. Maria Montessori. After completing his Intermediate Science examination from Gujrat College, Cambridge (UK) in 1937 where he obtained his Tripos in Natural Sciences in 1940. At the outbreak of the Second World War he returned to India and joined the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore where he took up research in cosmic rays under the supervision of C.V. Raman. He published his first research paper entitled “Time Distribution of Cosmic Rays” in the Proceedings of Indian Academy of Sciences. Sarabhai’s work on cosmic rays during the period 1940-45 included the study of the time variations of cosmic rays with Geiger-Muller counters at Bangalore and at the high level station in the Kashmir Himalayas. After the war he returned to Cambridge to work for his PhD is cosmic ray physics. In 1947, he was awarded PhD by the Cambridge University for his thesis `Cosmic Ray investigation in Tropical Latitudes’. He also carried out an accurate measurement of the cross-section for the photofission of U-238 by 6.2 MeV y-rays which formed a part of his PhD thesis. After getting his PhD he returned to India and continued his research in cosmic ray physics. In India he studied interplanetary space, solar-terrestrial relationships and geomagnetism.

Sarabhai was a great institution builder. He established or helped to establish a large number of institutions in diverse fields. Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association (ATIRA) was the first institution that Sarabhai helped to build. This assignment he undertook just after returning from Cambridge after obtaining a PhD in Cosmic ray physics. He had no formal training in textile technology. Formation of ATIRA was an important step towards modernising textile industry in India. At the time of establishing ATIRA there were no quality control techniques in majority of the textile mills. At ATIRA, Sarabhai created conditions for the interaction of different groups and fifferent disciplines which cross fertilise each other. While hiring personnel at ATIRA Sarabhai ignored the requirement of experience. The various institutions established and looked after by Sarabhai benefitted from each other’s experience and techniques to their mutual advantage. Some of the most well-knon institutions established by Sarabhai are :-

  • Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad
  • Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad
  • Community Science Centre, Ahmedabad
  • Darpan Academy for Performing Arts, Ahmedabad (alongwith
    his wife)
  • Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuramm
  • Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad (This institution came into existence after merging six institutions/centres established by Sarabhai)
  • Faster Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR), Kalpakkam
  • Varaiable Energy Cyclotron Project, Calcutta
  • Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL), Hyderabad
  • Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL), Jaduguda, Bihar

After the death Homi J Bhabha in January 1966, Sarabhai was asked to assume the responsibilities of the office of the Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission. At that time he was deeply involved in three major areas. In his own words (what he wrote to the Prime Minister accepting the offer):

“Currently I have substantive responsibilities in three areas. Firstly, at the Physical Research Laboratory as Director and Professor of Cosmic Ray Physics, where I continue my research and the supervision of doctoral candidates. Second, as Chairman of the Indian National Committee for Space Research Programme as well as the project for the development of rockets and space technology. Thirdly, I have been concerned with policy making, operations, research planning and evaluation of a significant segment of the family business interests, particulary centered around chemicals and pharmaceuticals”. He had also regular association with the Laboratory of Nuclear Science of the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, USA. But all these did not deter Sarabhai from assuming the new responsibility in the interest of the country. He had to disassociate himself from the family business. He was at the helm of both atomic energy and space research programmes in India from May 1996 till his death.

Sarabhai had realised the enormous potentialities inherent in space science and technology for a wide range of social and economic development activities – communication, meterology/weather forecasting, and exploration for natural resources, to name only a few. The Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, established by Sarabhai pioneered research in space sciences and subsequently in space technology. Sarabhai also spearheaded the country’s rocket technology. He played a pioneering role in the development of satellite TV broadcasting in India.

Sarabhai was also a pioneer of the pharmaceutical industry in India. He was among the very few in the pharmaceutical industy who recognised that the highest standards of quality should be established and maintained at any cost. It was Sarabhai who first implemented Electronic Data Processing and Operations Research Techniques in the pharmaceutical industry. He played an important role in making India’s pharmaceutical industry self-reliant and self-manufacture of many drugs and equipment in the country.

Sarabhai was a man of deep cultural interests. He was interested in music, photography, archaeology, fine arts and so on. With his wife Mrinalini, he established Darpana, an institution devoted to the performing arts.

He believed that a scientist should never shut himself up in an ivory tower or overlook the problems faced by the society in mere academic pursuit of pure science. Sarabhai was deeply concerned with the state of science education in the country. To improve the same he had established the Community Science Centre.

He had an uncanny ability to gauge the capability of a person just by talking to him for a few minutes. In fact he used to frequently say that he could judge a person from the sparkle in his/her eyes. He believed in systematically developing people. At times he will go out of the way to give a person full opportunity of developing himself/herself. He had a pleasant personality. It is said that by his mere smile he was able to transmit a great deal of inspiration to all those who worked with him.

Sarabhai died on 30 December 1971 at Kovalam, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. In 1974, the International Astronomical Union at Sydney decided that a Moon Crater BESSEL in the Sea of Serenity will be known as the Sarabhai Crater.