India Today
Charioteer Of Fire

After 22 years helming the workhorse of India's nuclear arsenal, recognition comes to Agni's Programme Director R.N. Agarwal even as he prepares to hand over the torch
FIRE IN HIS BELLY: Agarwal at the Agni assembly centre

At first glance Ram Narain Agarwal hardly looks like a rocket scientist. "I could easily pass for a Marwari businessman if it wasn't for the laboratory," he jokes, alluding to his ancestry. Most of his family members are traders in Jaipur. But Agarwal was always fascinated by flying machines and opted for a masters degree in aeronautics engineering from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. It would give him the foundation to launch a career devoted to building the deadly Agni ballistic missile, the centrepiece of India's nuclear weapon arsenal.

Working behind extra thick curtains of secrecy at the Defence Research and Development Organisation's (DRDO) key rocket laboratories in Hyderabad, much of Agarwal's contribution to India's missile development programme had to be kept under wraps. But recognition came recently when he was awarded this year's drdo's Lifetime Achievement Award "for pioneering the development and establishment of long-range missiles systems". R. Chidambaram, principal scientific adviser to the Union Government and former Atomic Energy Commission chief who had worked closely with Agarwal, says, "Building missiles is a complex scientific enterprise. Agarwal has pursued it with single-minded devotion and has done a marvellous job of it."

Since 1983, Agarwal has headed the Agni missile project, seeing it through the toughest period of development where he learnt that "failures are the hidden treasures of success". With no country, including India's then ally the Soviet Union, willing to share expertise or the technology to build ballistic missiles, Indian scientists like Agarwal would face an uphill task in mastering the rocketry involved. When the Agni project was initiated along with four other guided missiles, India had just become a member of the exclusive space club with a pencil thin satellite launcher called SLV-3, developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Built by a team headed by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, now President of India, SLV-3 could put a 40 kg satellite into orbit.

Agni's requirement was to carry a nuclear weapon weighing 25 times more than what SLV-3 could cart into space, calling for a massive upscaling of rocket technology. It was to be designed to carry warheads that could cause more damage than the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima. More importantly, since Agni was to be an IRBM (intermediate range ballistic missile), the scientists would have to master the complex technology of having the missile re-enter the earth's atmosphere. In doing so it would have to withstand fiery temperatures of over 3,000 degrees centigrade, enough to melt steel.

It would be Kalam, after he joined DRDO in 1982, who would rope in Agarwal to build the Agni missile. Kalam regarded Agarwal as a "doer" and made him project director. The initial project amount sanctioned would be just Rs 42 crore, which Agarwal told Kalam was "peanuts" for building such a sophisticated missile. Kalam replied, "Now I am working for you." To which Agarwal retorted, "If it just required you and I to make Agni then every household in India would be making it." Agarwal was impressed with Kalam's ability "to take criticism with a smile". He confesses that he could never match Kalam "for his motivation, dedication and ability to integrate teams".

Agarwal's main strength was, as his deputy Avinash Chander says, "his ability to focus on the task at hand in an almost Arjuna-like manner". Belying his serene demeanour other colleagues describe him as "rough, tough and gruff". Agarwal is quick to anger, and another of his colleagues, V.G. Sekharan, jokes: "He loses his shirt so often that he may as well not wear one." To which Agarwal says, "Pressure! Bah! The only pressure I know is hydraulic or pneumatic." He had what is regarded as a large bandwith of tolerance which was ideal for the business at hand. Chandrika Kaushik, another scientist under him, says, "While for him the job always came first, he also built a personal rapport with everyone who worked for him."

All this would enable Agarwal to get a strong team to work on the launch of the first missile, essentially a technology demonstrator. It involved co-ordinating with a range of DRDO laboratories and fighting against great odds to get the rocket into shape. "It would be a real Agnipariksha, a test of fire," recalls G. Rohini Devi, who built the missile's heat shield. Embarrassingly, when the missile was ready, they had to abort the launch twice. On May 22, 1989, after determining that the auspicious hour was between 6 and 8 in the morning the Agni team pressed the launch button. As the five-story tall missile blazed a fiery path across the firmament, it lived up to its name. The then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi would tell a triumphant nation, "Agni is a major achievement in our continuing efforts to safeguard our independence and security by self-reliant means."

The following decade saw Agarwal and his team consolidate the gains made. The first need was to get Agni to give India striking depth against Pakistan. Though the Prithvi missile system was built as an alternative delivery system, with its range of 150 km it would have to be launched from close to the border making it vulnerable. The Agni, on the other hand, with a range of 1,200 km, could be launched from middle India to strike any target in Pakistan. The next task was to up the range of the missile to anywhere between 2,000 and 3,000 km so that most of China's major cities came under its range. "The learning process was an adventure but now it had a different dimension. Agarwal provided the much-needed continuity and staying power," recalls S. Krishnaswamy, former chief of air staff.

By last year, Agarwal and his team operationalised two variants of the missile: Agni 1, with a range of 800 km and ideal against Pakistan; and Agni 2, with a range of 2,000 km that brought some Chinese cities in its ambit. Now the team is concentrating on building Agni 3 which has a range of 3,000 km-plus that could target most of China's major cities. Ashley J. Tellis, senior associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a US think tank, says, "There is no question that the Agni project is an achievement. It was done using internal Indian sources and sheer initiative to provide the country with a credible land-based deterrent."

At 64, Agarwal has decided to call it quits. After 22 years of being at the helm, he is now handing over directorship of the Agni programme to Chander. Agarwal says he wants to concentrate on other scientific pursuits. But it is apparent that there is still plenty of fire in his belly and the DRDO is unlikely to allow Agarwal to ride into the distance.

AUGUST 08, 2005

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