I was happy when I left Cochin. I had discharged the duties of vice-chancellor by putting in my best and conducted myself with dignity. For me the perks or authority attached with any high office had no attraction if availing them required compromising values I lived with. At no time while defending the interests of the Cochin University of Science and Technology had I thought that with my actions I would reverse the flow of wrong being done to it. But I swam against the flow of planned exploitation of my University. I did not let uncertainty of the future override my actions in the present. It gave me personal satisfaction when persons expressed their appreciation for the stand I had taken in protecting interests of the Cochin University of Science and Technology.
When I reached Delhi I found that the NCERT administration was under transition. Dr. Gopalan had completed his term of office and left on attaining superannuation. Dr. A. K. Sharma was the Joint Director. He had been given the additional duties of in-charge Director by the Government pending appointment of the Director. I was the senior most professor in NCERT. Dr. Sharma had to find a suitable position for me at NCERT Headquarters. I was made the, Head, Department of Education in Science and Mathematics (DESM).
On reaching Delhi I did not have an immediate problem of accommodation. I moved into my mother’s home. My concern was that it already contained the households of three families; my late father’s and of my two brothers. There was no space left in it for adjusting my household goods. I did not mind the Railways taking three months to deliver my goods booked with them from Ernakulam. Delay gave me time to wait for the allotment of official accommodation by the NCERT. In the mean time I had to make contingency plans for storing the household goods should they arrive before the allotment of a quarter to me. I did not receive support in creating space in the garage of our house in Vasant Vihar. My mother expressed her resentment on finding that I had discarded an old collection of magazines belonging to my grandmother. My luck was good. I was allotted a quarter a day before the Railway Wagon containing my household goods reached the Hazarat Nizamuddin Railway Station.
Asha’s Research Scientist award was transferred from CUSAT to the Jawahar Lal Nehru University (JNU). The JNU campus was not more than three or-four km from the NCERT campus, and the IIT Delhi campus shared a boundary with it. Gargi’s hostel was walking distance away. We were happily settled in Delhi.
Dr. Sharma was appointed by the Government as the Director of the NCERT for one year instead of the regular term of five years. Senior bureaucrats in the Ministry of Human Resource Development knew me well. I had opportunities to interact with some of them when I was the vice-chancellor of the Cochin University of Science and Technology. Dr. Sharma was keen that I should be appointed as the Joint Director of the NCERT. I enjoyed the support of the bureaucrats in the MHRD but the appointment of the Joint Director was made by the Government.
Three events from the period when I functioned as the Head, DESM, come to my mind. The NCERT was approached by the High Commissioner of India to Zimbabwe for helping the Government of Zimbabwe in developing expertise for publishing its own school textbooks and to explore, pending that, whether NCERT could supply books in science and mathematics for use in schools in Zimbabwe. The NCERT’s school textbooks were published following the policy of no-loss-no-profit and were the cheapest in the country. The textbooks of classes one to eight were priced with an upper ceiling of Rs. 20. There was also an international book fair of school textbooks in Harare. We decided to participate in it. I was made the Head of a three member delegation to go to Harare. The other two were the Head, Publication Department, and the Chief Business Manager, of the NCERT. I took along with me a few souvenirs such as a small carved sandal wood box and other similar items from the Cottage Industries Emporium. The High Commissioner had scheduled for me courtesy calls on the Education Minister and the Education Secretary of the Government of Zimbabwe in Harare.
Harare is a beautiful city on a plateau at a height of about 5000 feet. We had come there in the beginning of July. It was the period of mild winter. Harare was pollution free and a green city. Its downtown appeared like that of a typical European city.
We displayed our textbooks in the book fair. The Government of Zimbabwe was purchasing school textbooks mainly from the UK and South African publishers. These books were expensive and I was told each book was shared by at least ten children. The publishers who were selling books for use in schools of Zimbabwe saw our books. They realised that their commercial interests were under threat as we could make available similar books at a fraction of the price at which they sold textbooks to the Department of School Education of Zimbabwe. The agents of the UK and the South African publishers lobbied against our visit. When I went to call on the Education Secretary I felt that I was an unwelcome visitor. The Secretary opened the gift I gave him and in irritation said, “What will I do with this box?” I told him, “Sir, this is a piece of handicraft from India and I have brought it for you as a gesture of good will.” He calmed down and expressed his general unhappiness. He said that in spite of Zimbabwe becoming an independent country the common people were found fit only for doing menial tasks. He did not take my suggestion that he could get from us school textbooks in science and mathematics at a cost of less than one US dollar per book. He was also not interested in taking the help of the Publication Department of the NCERT for building indigenous expertise of publishing school textbooks. All my other appointments in Harare including with the Education Minister were cancelled. The formal dinner hosted by the High Commissioner was boycotted by the senior officers in the Education Department whom he had invited to meet us.
We had planned a one-week stay in Harare. I now had no work to do in Harare. I decided to visit the Victoria Falls. I went to Livingstone by air from Harare. It was a clear day with blue sky. I saw the impressive Victoria Falls formed by the Zambezi River. It plummeted into a deep gorge. I walked past the rain forest by the side of the falls. I was told that there were many crocodiles in the Zambezi River. I was not lucky enough to see crocodiles in my short boat trip. I bought small souvenirs of Zimbabwe before taking the return flight from Harare.
I have written in the account of my boyhood period that when I was studying in Aligarh I performed an unsuccessful and unpleasant dissection of a live frog. A person in Chennai had developed software on simulation of dissection of frog. The DESM invited school biology teachers to see this software and to find out from them whether this software or similar software can be used effectively for teaching anatomy. They were of the view that experiments on live dissection of frogs or other animals could be dispensed with in the school curriculum.
Dr. Sharma had gone on long leave as his father was unwell. I was the senior most professor in the NCERT and the Head of the DESM. I got a message that Mrs. Maneka Gandhi wanted to meet me. She came to the NCERT. She held the view that it was an anachronism to continue to have dissection of animals in the school curriculum when more effective alternative approaches to teaching anatomy such as computer simulations which did not involve cruelty to animals were available. I agreed with her. But she said that she will come to the NCERT two days later with five thousand children to protest against cruelty to animals in the guise of learning science. I did not mind her visit with the children but she said that I should arrange that each child is given an ice cream and a soft drink. At such short notice it would have been difficult for the administration to handle visit by 5000 children. In spite of my personal views on the subject I was unwilling to give any commitment on change in the curriculum under pressure. A curriculum is framed by experts following laid down procedures. At short notice I invited biology professors from the University of Delhi, JNU, the Medical Council of India, and senior biology teachers from schools and colleges. I am unable to recollect the exact draft of the resolution passed by the experts in the meeting I had convened. I remember that it broadly stated that the existing method of teaching anatomy in school biology should continue till such time computers and software on visual simulations become available in each secondary school in the country. Mrs. Maneka Gandhi with 5000 children did not come to the NCERT.
In the same period when Dr. Sharma was on leave I received a proposal for hiring 20 computers for three weeks at a rate of Rs 25,000 per computer. I checked the monthly rate for hiring computers with Shachindra. He told me that students in IIT hire computers for their personal use for about Rs 2000 per month. I was unwilling to sanction the proposal which was put up to me. I was warned that I was obstructing an international programme as two experts from abroad were coming to India for training in regression analysis of data for Project DPEP. Twenty computers loaded with software sent by the experts had to be prepared in advance for a programme which was to start five days later. Pressure was put on me through the senior bureaucrats in the MHRD that either I should obtain the computers at the market rates I had been told by the IIT Delhi or sanction the proposal.
I contacted a company near Nehru Place which sold assembled computers and also supplied computers on rent. I told them my requirement and the time frame in which I wanted them to give me computers on hire and to load the software on each one of the computers being given by them. My experience of hiring assembled computers was similar to what I recently saw in the movie Rocket Singh. As I was asking for twenty computers to be assembled in two days, the rate for giving computers on hire was raised to Rs. 2500 per computer for three weeks use. It was 10% of the proposal put before me for my sanction. Now the bluff was caught. A lot more drama was enacted. I was told that the computers I was hiring were unsuitable for loading the imported software. Shachindra pointed out that the software hardly required large memory and could be easily loaded on the assembled computers. The computers were prepared in time for the programme. This episode made me a no nonsense man in the NCERT.
In 1994 Gargi went to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for doing her Ph.D. It was our good fortune that she met Niranjan on her arrival in Pasadena. Before the year was over she was engaged to be married to Niranjan. Soon after, she moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Niranjan had moved from Caltech to MIT to start his post-doc. In August 1995 we went to Boston to perform Gargi’s marriage with Niranjan. Asha has written a detailed account of it as an introduction to the Gargi and-Niranjan’s wedding album.
On 24th October 1995 a total solar eclipse could be seen from India. I took a team of photographers and experts in film photography to Alwar for making a film on the total solar eclipse. I wrote a commentary for the film. I am reproducing it below:
Why is the total solar eclipse exciting to view?
Why do we not see stars during the day? How did Shri Krishna create the illusion of sunset in advance of its scheduled time and enabled Arjun to kill Jayadratha? Does the Sun have structures outside its bright disk? If yes, when can we see them? Answers to these questions and many others of interest to astrophysicists can be found by observing the total solar eclipse.
The total solar eclipse, though a rare event, is looked forward to both by scientists and common man because it presents a grand visual spectacle whose description through words is as inadequate as telling a blind the aesthetic feelings experienced on watching a beautiful rainbow. Though being aware of such limitations, an attempt is being made to share the thrill of the total solar eclipse of October 24, 1995.
It is the morning after the Diwali. The sunrise over the Arawali Hills near Alwar in Rajasthan has been beautiful. Life is normal. There are no prior signals like unusual behaviour in men and animals. What to talk of birds, even the local village folks are unaware of the celestial phenomenon yet to occur and are attending to their daily routine. Yet, the excitement of something extraordinary likely to happen is palpable.
Akbarpur is like any other village of Rajasthan but has special significance for us as it falls within the line of totality from where the total solar eclipse will be visible. The village has a small hill providing an unobstructed view of the eastern sky. We also take our positions on the hill and admire the rural scenery on a cloudless beautiful October morning.
It is 7:24am. We are happy to see that the lunar disk has touched the line of sight to the Sun. It is the first contact. The solar eclipse has commenced.
There is no noticeable change in the brightness of the day. We see through the specially coated visors that the Sun’s disk has developed a small crescent. Now the villagers are also interested to see the Sun. We share our visors with them as they are safe for watching the Sun directly.
From this time onward there is common excitement. The life in the village has come to a stop.Adults and children alike are interested in seeing what we have come to see.
Changes in the Sun’s appearance that we see are like watching in one hour changes in lunar phase that take place from the time of the full moon to the new moon. The intensity of the sunlight is gradually cut-off to less than one percent, yet the sky is bright. We feel that the temperature has dropped.The crescent is waning fast and we realise that in few moments the solar disk will become completely dark. Before that happens we see a dazzling diamond ring.
The celestial diamond ring in its brilliance and lustre is majestic.On seeing this ring the proud owners of even the most expensive man-made pieces of jewellery may feel humbled to realise that what they possess are mere trinkets as they are a poor replica of the perfect ring owned by nature.
The grand finale of this drama is yet to come, but we do not have to wait for long. On the ground we see moving waves like ripples in a pond of water. These are called the shadow bands and are caused by the refraction of the changing light in the earth’s atmosphere. Suddenly the sky turns dark and there is a loud sonic boom from the plane flying at supersonic speed following the eclipse.
It is the totality. We see a dazzling white cloud of light laced with golden colours surrounding the Sun. It is the solar corona. It is not seen except during the totality for the reason why we do not see the stars in day time. Mercury and Venus are now visible. There may be other bright stars visible to the naked eye. But there is so much to see in the two minutes of the totality.
Fascinating phenomena taking place in Sun’s corona cannot be missed. There is a possibility of sighting even with unaided eyes shooting solar flares and prominences.
It is not surprising that birds are confused by the strange signals to return to their nest without having put in full-day’s activities. So was Jaydratha. He came out of the protective umbrella of the Kaurava warriors and was killed by Arjun like a sitting duck. We are awed by this celestial sight. It is glorious and exhilarating. We experience strange sensations, perhaps similar to what have been described in the visions of seers who have had divine glimpses. We feel as though we have been purified and are thankful for having been born. We wish that this sight will not end. But this is not to be.
Second Diamond Ring
As a parting gift diamond ring appears again.It is an indicator of return toward normalcy. The Moon has decided to clear its encroachment of the view of the Sun. On the upper edge of the Sun’s disk a small bright crescent appears.
The crescent begins to grow in size. It is like the fast playback of the waxing of the phases from the new moon to the full moon. The sky is gradually restored to full daylight. The solar eclipse ended by 10am.
Total solar eclipses are indeed rare events. From any given place on the Earth they can be seen once in about 360 years. The next total solar eclipse visible from India will be on 11 August 1999. All those of us who were privileged to witness the total solar eclipse of October 24, 1995, will carry with us a feeling of reverence for nature and also indelible memories worth sharing with our grand children.
I wanted the NCERT faculty to start using computers in their work. To facilitate computerisation of NCERT’s functioning I decided to set up a computer resource centre. The entire ground floor of the Administrative Building was renovated and centrally air-conditioned and converted into the Computer Resource Centre of the NCERT.
It is generally acknowledged even by my detractors that I was a good administrator. I did not take any decision under pressure and always kept in mind the three cardinal principals mentioned by me in my write up entitled 'Cochin'. It was difficult to obtain sanction from me for a proposal which was vague or involved wasteful expenditures.
It was pointed out to me that pirated editions of the NCERT textbooks were illegally printed and sold. To curb this menace I decided that we should affix holograms on our books to validate their authenticity. The Publication Department floated tender for inviting quotations for making holograms for the NCERT. One evening the person in-charge of the Publication Department came to me with a file and said, “We have completed the tender process for the award of work for the procurement of our need of holograms.” I asked him to show me the file. I found the proposal was for purchase of holograms from one firm which had been shortlisted. I asked if there were other quotations. He answered, “Yes, there was one other quotation. It was rejected by the technical committee. Its financial quotation was not opened by the finance committee.” He continued, “Sir, the quotation recommended for your approval is very reasonable as the price quoted for each hologram is 30 paisa.” I raised a doubt and asked, “How have you found the price to be reasonable and why do you want me to accept your judgement? What is the bench mark for comparison?” I ordered on the file that the tender be floated again with wider notice. I asked the in-charge Publication Department to show me the finance bid of the tender which was rejected. He started protesting and said, “I will be incurring breach of procedure if I open the finance bid of the rejected quotation.” I told him to hand me the finance bid. I found the price given in the second quotation was 8 paisa per hologram. For an order of 10 million holograms we would have paid extra 22 lakhs of rupees if I had accepted the proposal of the Publication Department in-charge. The Director, NCERT, accepted my recommendation to invite fresh quotations. We had decided to issue a fresh tender therefore there was no financial loss to the NCERT. But the next morning I was surprised to receive a call from the Secretary of the Minister of State of the MHRD asking me to accept the tender which I had rejected. I could not understand how information over the night had reached the Minister’s office of an internal purchase issue of the NCERT. The obvious conclusion was that the Publication Department in-charge was in collusion with the office of the Minister of State. By the afternoon of the next day the purchase file of the hologram was asked by the office of the Minister of State from the NCERT. I received a list of 18 legally drafted questions to be answered within seven days. The objections were of a technical nature. Order had not been issued to any party causing financial loss to the NCERT. There was no misuse of public funds. I answered the questions in consultation with the legal advisor of the Council. Dr. Sharma was called by the Minister of State to give him in writing, that the ‘the integrity of the Joint Director is in doubt’. He refused to do it. My good luck was that Dr. Sharma was the Director. He would not do injustice to me. I carried out my administrative duties fearlessly and in the best interests of the organisation. I was confident that my decisions were not taken expeditiously in violation of rules and so I could at most make an error of judgement.
I was equally concerned about programmes of the four RCEs which were now renamed as the Regional Institutes of Education (RIE). I visited them by turn. I decided to spend time waiting for flights, during flights, and in the guest houses where I stayed in solving problems in basic physics. I wrote in free hand my thinking process in answering these problems. While travelling, I carried with me the set of three books on Physics by Halliday, Resnick and Walker, a pad, a scientific calculator and a pen. I found that solving such problems relaxed me. I discovered that with time I had filled twenty pads and had solved around one thousand problems in basic physics.
Dr. Sharma’s extended term of five years as the Director of NCERT came to an end. At the same time the post of the Chairman, National Council of Teacher Education (NCTE) became vacant. The Government of India initiated process of filling posts of the Director NCERT and of the Chairman NCTE. My name appeared in the list of names recommended by the search committees of both the posts to the Government. The Appointment Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) of the Government of India appointed me the Chairman of the National Council of Teacher Education. The NCTE had come into existence in 1995 as an autonomous body for the planned and co-ordinated development of teacher education in the country. The NCTE Act was passed by the Parliament of India.
In November 1999 I moved into the NCTE as its Chairperson. I have covered experiences of my tenure in NCTE as its Chairperson in the following chapter.