Monday, July 16, 2018

Remembering Gen KV Krishna Rao

Had he lived, Kotikalapudi Venkata Krishna Rao, or Gen KV Krishna Rao would have turned 95 today. He passed away two years ago in Secunderabad, leaving behind a rich legacy as India's Army Chief, Governor of several states including J&K during a very turbulent phase in the 1990s and a strategic thinker who ushered in long-term changes in the India Army's organisational structure and its doctrinal thinking.

By the time I met him for the first time in 2006, Gen Krishna Rao had comfortably settled down in his retirement house after having done his bit for the nation as an army officer and as a Governor. But even before joining NDTV, he played a small role in my decision to shift to Delhi and take up the NDTV assignment.

I had come to Delhi from Guwahati in January 2006 to discuss the possibility of becoming NDTV's Defence Editor. After discussions with the editorial leadership, I was meeting the CEO, Narayan Rao (Gen Krishna Rao's son, who too has passed away--God bless his soul) to finalise my terms before joining the organisation. Till then, I of course had no idea that Narayan was Gen Krishna Rao's son. 

We got chatting about Army life, after he learnt about my background. "I too am an army kid he said without revealing who his father was. I was yet to decide whether to shift to Delhi and join NDTV. Then suddenly Narayan remarked, "Wait, aren't you the guy who did the Kargil reports for Outlook? Also the stories on Brig Surinder Singh?" I nodded in the affirmative. 

Without saying a word he picked up his mobile and dialled someone. Then, without warning, he passed the phone to me and said, "speak to my father." Dumbfounded, I asked, who's your father. He said Gen KV Krishna Rao! It was all very unnerving. I nevertheless blurted out a greeting to the General and said Sir, I'am Nitin Gokhale. It's a great honour to speak with you." Gen Krishna Rao's reply was: "Of course I know your name. I wanted to thank you for saving my Paltan's izzat." I was flabbergasted. For life of me I couldn't fathom why he was saying that. His next sentence removed the confusion. He said: "Thanks for giving the right perspective on what happened in Kargil and to one of our own boys, Brig Surinder Singh." Brig Surinder, former commander of the 121 Brigade in Kargil was a controversial figure in the context of the 1999 conflict and he belonged to the Mahar Regiment, the General's own regiment. 

The penny dropped. I thanked him for his words and was about the give the phone back to Narayan when the General said from the other end: "I am told by Narayan that you are still in two minds about joining NDTV. Don't hesitate. Take up the offer. You will like it." He left me with no choice really! His nudge was one of the reasons why I decided to come to Delhi in 2006. 

Then, later in 2006 I met him in Secunderabad and spent a very educative two hours listening to his experiences, his thoughts on the army, the security situation and the strategic challenges that India faced. He shared his experience in bringing in organisational changes in the army and also why Mrs Indira Gandhi decided to appoint Gen AS Vaidya as Army Chief to succeed him instead of Lt Gen SK Sinha! We also chatted about the north-east (where I had already spent 23 years) and the 8 Mountain Division, commanded by Gen Krishna Rao in the 1971 war. That Division used to be based in the north-east before being shifted to Kargil-Dras area in 1999.

Gradually as I started taking more focused interest in the military and some of the strategic issues, I read about Gen Rao's contribution to a major shift in Indian Army's doctrinal thinking between 1975 and mid-1980s. The mechanisation of the Indian Army, the raising of the Mechanised Infantry were his seminal contributions to the nation. Gen Rao's vision was later translated into reality by Gen Krishnaswamy Sundarji.  

As Col Vivek Chadha writes in an IDSA article: "The government appointed an expert panel in 1975 to undertake, probably for the first time, a long-term perspective plan for the army. The committee was headed by Lieutenant General (later General) K.V. Krishna Rao, with Major Generals M.L. Chibber and K. Sunderji as members and Brigadier A.J.M. Homji as secretary. It was mandated to present a perspective till 2000. It was required to evaluate national security threats, propose a strategy against it, visualise the future battlefield, determine the size of the army and suggest an incremental build-up of forces. Wide-ranging discussions were carried out by the committee with a number of agencies, including the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and Planning Commission. This ensured that it was able to collate a wide cross-section of views prior to making its recommendations. These changes aimed at improving the teeth to tail ratio of the army, making its organisationally lean even as it pursued modernisation. This report followed up on the limited mechanisation of the army that had begun in 1969 with the induction of TOPAZ and SKOT armoured personnel carriers. As a result of the recommendations of the report, this received an impetus with the raising of the Mechanised Infantry Regiment on 2 April 1979, equipped with BMPs. The real impact of these recommendations was felt when Sundarji took over as the Chief of Army Staff in 1986. By the end of his tenure, 23 mechanised battalions had been raised, most equipped with BMP-2 infantry combat vehicles (ICVs), thereby utilising the best technology available."

Even by 1975, General Rao had done enough to be remembered well in the Indian Army. He was commissioned in August 1942 in the Mahar Regiment and served in Burma, North West Frontier and Baluchistan during the Second World War. He was part of Lord Mountbatten’s Punjab Boundary Force during Partition, which saved lives in both East and West Punjab during extensive rioting. He saw action as a Company Commander with 3 Mahar, the infantry battalion he later commanded, in the Jammu and Kashmir operations of 1948.

But the moment he cherished most from his life was the one he began his memoirs, In the Service of the Nation — Reminiscences, with: being witness to Pakistan’s surrender at Dhaka in December 1971. He was the GOC of 8 Mountain Division in Sylhet sector, where his division liberated North-East Bangladesh. 

After his retirement, Gen Rao served as the governor of Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura from 1983 to 1989.
He was appointed governor of J&K in July 1989. General Rao had a major role to play in subduing militancy in his second stint as governor of J&K from 1993 to 1998. He governed the state under Governor’s Rule and ensured successful parliamentary and assembly elections in the state in 1996.
He provided military helicopters and security to election commission officials and saw that the polls were conducted smoothly. He had earlier survived an IED blast during the Republic Day celebrations in Jammu in 1995.

As I kept going to Secunderabad--to the College of Air Warfare and to the College of Defence Management--to deliver talks, I would either bump into him at the inaugural sessions or would go and call on him, whenever possible. Truly a towering personality and not just because he was more than 6 feet tall. 

Friday, July 6, 2018

How a law firm helped a teen caught between foster family and her mother

Last week, our older son's boss sent me an email. I was intrigued. Our son Harsh is a lawyer, and has nothing in common with my profession. 

Opening the mail, I found a detailed note attached by Harsh's senior and a mail trail. He was all praise for Harsh and said this will make you proud as his parents. Reading the attachment, we knew why he said this.

Below are the details (as mentioned in an internal note) about a humanitarian case that Harsh and a couple of his colleagues in the well-known law firm DSK Legal--headquartered in Mumbai--handled and prevented a minor girl from being taken away from her foster parents. This story has made into the papers this week but irrespective of the traction it has gained, it was nice to know what young people--brought up in the right atmosphere--can accomplish even when working in a commercial law firm, provided the bosses are equally humane. It of course makes us feel happy but this case also shows that not all lawyers and legal firms are mercenaries.

A minor girl child, aged 14 years was born to a Hindu mother in Mumbai. She came into the care and protection of a Muslim family residing in Tardeo upon the request of her biological mother. At this time, she was only 2 months old.

Ever since, the foster family has brought up the child retaining her identity of name and religion. The family cared for and educated the child for fourteen years. They extended to her, natural love and affection as they did for their other children residing within the same house.

Fourteen years later and earlier this year, the biological mother returned to take forceful custody of the child and take her to Kanpur. Despite repeated attempts, the child and foster family refused to handover custody of the child to the biological mother and her accomplice from Kanpur. The child resisted all such attempts pleading that she wishes to continue staying with the foster family. These forceful attempts continued at the girl’s school as well. Taking cognizance of this nuisance, the teachers of her school were compelled to call the Child Line Services to seek their intervention.

The call resulted in the child being shifted to the Dongri Childrens Home and later to an anonymous NGO’s hostel. Neither the foster parents nor the biological mother were permitted to meet the girl for over 2 months.

The Child Welfare Committee, established under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2006 conducted various hearings as they are by law mandated to ascertain the best interest of the child and further expected to take decisions regarding the child’s welfare including handing over custody of the child to the foster family or the biological mother.

It was at this time that an old client of ours recommend the foster family approach us for assistance. Our team gladly took on the matter.

At the first hearing before the Child Welfare Committee, we appeared as friends of the foster family due to lawyers being disallowed from appearing. We filed an interim application seeking that the child be repatriated to the foster family in light of the fact that the child has been brought up in this family for over 14 years. We further argued that the state of children’s homes in Mumbai is unfortunate and that the child ought not to continue staying there.

However, the Committee acted with extreme cautiousness in this matter. This was possibly due to the biological mother and her advocate from Kanpur’s pressure on the Committee. We understand that they filed several petitions, complaints and applications in various fora to seek custody of the child and repatriate her to Kanpur.

During the course of these hearing, the girl child was insistent that she does not want to reside with anyone but the foster family. However and perhaps employing abundant caution, the child was subject to several rounds of counselling to reaffirm the same. The child remained in the NGO’s hostel for over 60 days during the course of these hearings.

Meanwhile, we also filed a Guardianship Petition before the Hon’ble Bombay High Court praying that the foster family be appointed as legal guardians of the child to the exclusion of her natural guardians.

The Child Welfare Committee finally rendered its decision on June 26, 2018 granting custody of the child back to the foster family. She is now reunited with her family after the lapse of 2 months. A picture of the family as reunited is attached.

The team working on this matter was that of Harsh Gokhale, Nausher Kohli and Samit Shukla. 

Harsh could be of help because he a MSW from TISS and has had some experience in handling such cases before becoming a lawyer.

Later the story got some play in the media.


Sunday, May 27, 2018

India's most decorated General departs

On 24 May 2018, India's most decorated and perhaps the most under-rated soldier, Lt Gen ZC 'Zoru' Bakshi passed away, largely unnoticed and unmourned. In 2015, while writing a book on the 1965 war, I had an occasion to meet someone who had seen then Brig Zoru Bakshi in action during one of his many legendary military exploits: the capture of Haji Pir pass. Here's an excerpt from that chapter. My small tribute to one of India's greatest military leaders. 

Extracted from 1965: Turning the Tide

Haji Pir: Taking the battle to the Enemy

In April 2013, military aficionados gathered at London’s National Army Museum and voted the twin battles of Kohima and Imphal between the British Indian Army and the Japanese Imperial Army during April-July 1944 as Great Britain’s ‘greatest battle’ ever fought  beating Waterloo and Normandy—two other decisive victories in war for Britain—to second and third place respectively. The voting was done by a select audience of military enthusiasts and not ordinary citizens. To that extent, it is subjective. But if the greatness of a battle is judged by its political, cultural and social impact, as much as its military impact then Imphal and Kohima were really significant for a number of reasons, not least that they showed that the Japanese were not invincible and that that they could be beaten, and beaten well. The battles of Imphal and Kohima saw the British and Indian forces, under the overall command of Lieutenant-General William Slim, repel the Japanese invasion of India and helped turned the tide of the war in the Far East.

India has fought four major wars (1947-48, 1962, 1965 and 1971), and a local conflict in Kargil (1999) since its independence. Many heroic acts and decisive moments in the glorious history of valour, sacrifice and team spirit displayed by Indian soldiers come to mind but if there is one battle that can truly be called a turning point in the overall context of a war, the vote should go to the conquest of the Haji Pir bulge under Operation Bakshi in August 1965. An important area for infiltration into Kashmir Valley and Rajouri/Poonch areas, Haji Pir Pass is located on the Pir Panjal Range at 2637 meters or 8600 ft on the road between Uri with Poonch.

As Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh, who was Western Army Commander in the 1965 war noted: “Pak did exploit the peculiar configuration of the Cease Fire Line in the Haji Pir bulge, for launching the main influx of her infiltration campaign into the Valley. In addition to using this area for entry routes, huge stocks of arms equipment and supplies had been built up at several places in the Bulge for speedy administrative support of the various raider groups. The Haji Pir Operation was…intended to knock the logistic bottom out of the infiltration campaign as also to plug the entry routes of the raiders…”

The pass had to be captured since it worked as a lifeline for the saboteurs operating in the Poonch area. It was dominated by three adjoining hill features—Bedori (3760 m high), in the north-east, Ledwali Gali (3140m) in the north-west and Sank (2895 m) in the north.  The capture of these features was considered necessary for advancing on to Haji Pir pass. Bedori is about 4 km to the south of the CFL while Haji Pir Pass is about 10 km to the South-west of Bedori.
Capturing the Pass was not going to be easy. Brig. ZC Bakshi, a veteran of the Burma campaign in World War II was Commander of 68 Brigade which was drafted in from Srinagar and placed under the command of 19 Division headquartered at Baramulla. As the infiltrators started pouring into the Valley, the Brigade was pulled into the conflict. Remembers retired Brig. Shamser Singh, who was then a young Signals Captain with barely two-and-a-half years of service in 1965: “On 4 Aug 1965, 68 brigade was asked to take part in the investiture parade planned in Srinagar for 15 August. Even as we were practicing for the event, we came to know on 7 August that infiltration had taken place across Pir Panjal. And sure enough we were put into action in Gulmarg two days later. Though the infiltrators had a tough time—no local support, no food, we were chasing them all over the place.”
 As the anti-infiltration campaign picked up speed, there were fresh orders for the Brigade. Recalls Brig. Shamsher: “Somewhere around 14-15 August—I was just a company commander, OC of the signal company of the 68 Mountain brigade with less than three years of service--I felt some lull in the operation. We were pulled back from Gulmarg to a place called Pattan. Around 18-19 August my BM (Brigade Major)—the lynchpin of a brigade who coordinates between the commander and the battalions under the brigade-- told me: get ready for something bigger. The briefing (orders) took place at Rampur, the 161 Brigade HQ. We had nothing of our own paraphernalia. The original battalions under 68 Brigade were left behind where they were and we were given three brand new battalions: 1 Para commanded by Lt Col Prabhjinder, 4 Rajput, headed by Lt Col Sudarshan Singh (the same battalion which had captured Point 13620 and Black Rocks in Kargil in May that year) and 19 Punjab, commanded by Lt Col Sampooran Singh. Coincidentally, all three infantry battalion Commanding Officers (COs) were Khalsas. Even field regiment CO, Lt Col Shivdev Singh was a Khalsa and so am I,” Brig Shamsher reveals by way of an aside.
The COs met the Brigade Commander for the first time in Ops room at Rampur!
The Brigade Commander was Brig. Zorawar Chand Bakshi--PVSM, MVC, Vrc, VSM, McGregors Medal—the most decorated officer in the Indian Army ever but certainly at that time.
On 21 August his opening lines in the briefing for the operation were: “Gentleman, since 1947 we have cribbing that government does not allow us to attack, go into offensive but this time, we have been clear mandate to capture Haji Pir at any cost.  Where I say at any cost a civilians may means 100 per cent casualties but I as an Infantryman, say only when you have had 40 per cent casualties, come back to me otherwise press home. In WW II, after my company lost 40 per cent strength we were prevented from pressing further. I don’t want that when I fought in WW II, it means if you have 40 per cent casualty come back to me otherwise press home.
“Ironically, our own battalion 6 Dogras were left behind in Gulmarg to mop up the infiltrators. So the plan was that D-Day would be 24 August. The attack was to be two pronged: Sank-Sark-Ledwali Galli (right) on night of 24 and capture it by 25 August morning. On left 19 Punjab was to capture Bedori by 9 am and Rajputs were to push through to capture Haji Pir by that evening. That was the plan. But as they say in the Staff College, ‘gentleman, this is my plan, but if everything goes according to plan, there is something wrong with this plan.’ Sure enough on 24th evening it rained so heavily that it was going to be impossible to launch the attack. I remember, I was wearing a blue turban. Its colour drained on to my face. So much so that Brig. Bakshi, jokingly said ‘have you camouflaged yourself with the blue colour!’ Anyway, the attack was postponed by 24 hours.”
“We went in on the night of 25th. 1 Para was to attack Sank-Sar, 19 Punjab to launch an attack on Bedori. On 25th night, 1 Para surprisingly could not contact the objective as they were ‘day lighted,’ meaning they were exposed in the open. In the mountains you cannot launch a daylight attack so they were pulled back. Similarly, with 19 Punjab attacked Bedori but they could not go beyond Pathri. The conditions were bad because of previous day’s rain, the slopes slippery. So the position on 26th morning was: 1 Para is stalled, 19 Punjab is stalled. And Zoru (Brig. ZC Bakshi) is sitting on Rustom picket, contemplating his next move, when he got a call from his course mate Hardev Kler, then a G-1 from 19 Division told him, Bedori has already been captured. Zoru was surprised. I was sitting with him. He told Hardev Kler, it can’t be. Then Kler said I will put you through to 161 Brigade Commander. 161 Brigade Commander was patched through and he also told Zoru ‘I have captured Bedori, what’s the problem?’ Zoru was still not convinced. Still he took the 161 brigade Commander’s word and told 4 Rajput to go an occupy Bedori to consolidate and let 19 Punjab press ahead since the ultimate objective was Haji Pir,” Brig Shamsher recalled.
Brig. Shamsher, now in his mid-seventies but still in possession of a sharp memory that recounts every moment of that momentous period continues: “In the evening of 26, that is night of 26-27th, as 4 Rajput advanced towards Bedori, they came under attack. Surprised at Pakistanis still being there, Rajputs asked for artillery fire on Bedori. Zoru did not allow that since he was told it was already captured. In the bargain, Rajputs took casualties and were stalled at the base of Bedori. When Zoru informed GOC 19 Div, Maj Gen  (first name) Klan about the situation on ground, Gen Klan lost his cool. The GOC told Zoru, in that case, ask the Rajputs to press on and capture Bedori at any cost since it has already been announced on radio that India has captured the peak! Zoru refused. He told the GOC, ‘Sir if I tell CO 4 Rajput now to capture Bedori, he will mutiny. One moment we tell them it is in our control, the next we say go and capture! This is not on.’ So the situation on 27th morning was: Rajputs were stalled, 19 Punjab was sitting around doing nothing. Of course 1 Para meanwhile had done all right. They were in Ledwali gali by the morning of 27th.”
For 1 Para getting to Ledwali Gali was not easy. The attack was launched at 2230 hrs on 27th night by the B company followed the D Company which moved forward towards Point 9591 or Sank. The Pakistani troops rushed from their trenches and opened fire with MMGs, LMGs and other small arms. The Indians also opened up forcing the enemy back into the trenches. By 0430 hrs on 27th August, the B Company had reached within 450 m of the Pakistani positions and formed up to charge frontally. The daring platoon attack that followed, the Pakistani MMGs and LMGs were silenced. The Pakistanis were forced to retreat to Sar leaving 16 dead although they managed to evacuate 100-odd wounded soldiers. Despite the small tactical victory, the position was still not secure since a menacing fire from Sar continued to pin them down. So D company was tasked to clear the feature. It soon captured Sar and advanced to Ledwali Gali where Pakistanis made their last stand to allow safe withdrawal of their remaining troops. The B Company had meanwhile secured the surrounding areas.
Despite these victories against heavy odds, Haji Pir was still in Pakistani control. That’s when Brig ‘Zoru’ Bakshi took, what Brig. Shamsher thinks was the momentous decision of the 1965 war—and took it unilaterally! As he narrates What Zoru Bakshi did that morning of 27th August 1965, Brig Shamsher’s eyes are looking far back in the past, his face glowing with pride for being one of the prime witnesses to that historic decision.
He recounts: “A most historic and momentous decision was taken by Zoru in my presence. Very few can do that in any army, any era. After Gen Kler told him to take Bedori, and after 1 Para had reached Ledwali Gali, Zoru knew that the Pakis would have guessed by now that all the thrust by the Indians was for capturing Haji Pir pass. Zoru knew the Pakis would have reinforced Haji Pir by now and sure enough they had. The 18 Punjab (Pakistan) was rushed in to defend Haji Pir on the night of 27-28th. But as the man tasked to capture the vital pass, Zoru knew he had to press on with the plan despite mounting odds and in spite of the express orders of the GOC to first capture Bedori.
“So Zoru asked CO, 1 Para, Lt. Col Prabhjinder, who can lead a commando style operation on Haji Pir. Prabhjinder nominated Maj. Ranjit Singh Dayal. Ranjit Dayal was given a Company plus for the attack. Before Dayal started his operation, Zoru told him in thet Punjabi: ‘Agar te jit liya Haji Pir to tu hero ban jayega, ne to meinu wah kaid kar lenge ( If you win Haji Pir you will be a hero but if you can’t I will be arrested for taking a unilateral decision),’” Brig Shamsher remembers.
Maj RS Dayal, who rose to become a Lt General, was once again in the limelight in June 1984 when he was chosen—despite being a Sikh--to lead Operation Bluestar into the Golden Temple. But more of that later.
Maj Dayal was given a mixed column of A and D companies. It started the march to Haji Pir from Ledwali Gali around 1530 on 27th afternoon descending to the Hyderabad Nallah along the spur. It encountered MMG firing from the western shoulder of Haji Pir. Small arms fire also rained down on the column from the east of the Pass. So the FOO (give full form) registered the two areas and brought down artillery fire to silence the two positions (is this correct?). The column kept moving though down to the Hyderabad Nallah   the two areas and brought down artillery fire to silence the two positions. 
The column kept moving though down along the left bank of the Hyderabad Nallah alongside the hill before crossing over to the pass side and then start the ascent (see map). At about 1730, two hours after the column had started the march, heavy rains began, making movement very difficult. By 1900 hrs it was completely dark. But Maj Dayal decided to continue climbing towards the pass despite adverse conditions. As the troops were climbing, they came across what looked like an abandoned house but in reality was a shelter for infiltrators. In a swift action, 1 Para troops captured 10 members of the Azad Kashmir militia—a kind of para-military force—one LMG and 10 rifles. The captured prisoners were gainfully utilised to carry the extra load of the column, mainly ratio and fuel! As the troops reached the Uri-Poonch road, 10 km below the Pass, it was already 0430 hrs on 28th August. Maj Dayal decided to give a much-needed two-hour break to the soldiers although they had to rest in pouring rain which accentuated the cold.
At 0700 hrs, the column resumed the march. In another two hours, it was barely 700 metres short of the pass. Pakistani troops, perched atop the peak were surprised to see the column. They had perhaps thought that the Indians had abandoned the attack due to the heavy rain the previous night! As the surprised Pakistanis opened up with an MMG from the western shoulder of the pass and with LMG and other small arms from the pass itself, Maj Dayal had to think of outwitting them.
Zoru Bakshi briefing Gen Harbaksh at Haji Pir
After assessing the Pakistani defence on the pass, Maj Dayal tasked two platoons to climb the steep spurs from the Western side of the pass, silence the MMG and then roll down to the main defences. The supremely fit and confident paratroopers did the job exceedingly well, surprising the Pakistanis. As the rest of the column fetched up, the Pakistanis could not withstand the twin attacks and withdrew to a feature west of the Pass.
By 1000 hrs on 28 August Haji Pir was in India’s control, thanks to the daring day light attack by 1 Para troops under the bold leadership of Maj RS Dayal. It was to prove a major turning point in the 1965 war. The main infiltration route was now plugged from one side but more importantly the morale of the Indian army was now sky high following two major successes in Kargil and this one in Haji Pir against formidable odds. Remember these battle victories had come in less than three years after the humiliation against China.
Capturing Haji Pir was however only a partial completion of the overall plan. Pakistanis were known to counter-attack swiftly, so Haji Pir and its surroundings had to be secured. As expected, the Pakistanis did counter-attack on 29th but it was repulsed by the brave and efficient paratroopers. To further consolidate their position, 1 Para captured Ring Contour on 30 August and the adjoining Point 8786 a day later.
For his act of courage, innovativeness and leadership in capturing the Haji Pir pass despite very adverse conditions, Maj RS Dayal was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra.
Brig. Shamsher recalls: “When we captured Haji Pir, there was one small incident I cannot forget. When 1 Para was going for its assault, I had sent a detachment of  Signals headed by a Havaldar Pillai with a couple of radio sets which were short of batteries. So I had told the Signals men not to use the high frequency radio set unnecessarily and conserve the battery. I will call you, you don’t call was my instruction. But he called on the radio set after 1 Para had secured Haji Pir. So I scolded him, why are you wasting the battery, I said. So he replied, there is no problem sir. So I said what no problem. Havildar Pillai, pleased as punch said ‘Sir the Pakis have left behind many radio sets in full working condition besides lot of petrol and several tins of desi ghee!’
Meanwhile Bedori was still unconquered. Two attempts by 19 Punjab on 25 August and by 4 Rajput on 27 August had failed. Zoru Bakshi and his battalion commanders realised they had no option but to assault the Bedori peak through the Bedori springs in the north-east.
How media reported it that time
So after reaching a place called Heman Buniyar  at 0715 hrs on 28 August, the battalion moved to the Bedori springs, already secured by a neighbouring battalion, 7 Bihar and prepared for the final assault. At 0330 hrs on 29 August, 19 Punjab crossed the forming up place for the assault on Bedori. It involved a steep climb of nearly 600 m. After fierce hand to hand combat as well as a firefight, Bedori was captured in less than three hours. The B and C companies, besides a 3.7 inch Mountain gun played a major part in securing victory. The gun had apparently arrived just the previous night. Its firepower destroyed the Pakistani sangars (temporary bunkers) but also shattered the morale of the Pakistani troops. After securing Bedori, 19 Punjab moved through Kunthar di Gali and linked up with 1 Para on 1 September. The CO of 19 Punjab, Lt Col Sampuran Singh was awarded Mahavir Chakra for his un-daunting spirit, exceptional leadership and bravery.
However, had it not been for the bold leadership of Brig Bakshi (after whom the Operation was named). Haji Pir could not have been secured as quickly as the Indian Army did. For his bold, unconventional leadership Brig Bakshi was awarded Maha Vir Chakra.


Monday, January 15, 2018

What the fauj--and parents--taught me

I had written the piece below more than six years ago. The debt I owe to the fauj is immeasurable, not just because I report on it extensively but because many of the values I cherish and practice have been inherited from the ethos and tradition that the military preaches and practices in large measure. On Army Day 2018, reupping the article with a sense of gratitude. Many have probably read it earlier but no harm in reloading it for those who haven't. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

What the fauj and parents taught me

Last week, a friend in the Army, reacting to my latest documentary on the endless-and thankless-war that Indian soldiers fight in Kashmir, paid a heartfelt compliment by calling me a ‘soldier-journalist’. Flattered though I was for a moment, the remark also embarrassed me no end. For I have never donned the uniform. To me soldiering is the only profession in which men and women go beyond the call of duty and therefore deserve the highest respect in the society. To me soldiers are a breed apart. In my chosen profession of journalism, this attitude is regarded as partisan. Many feel I am blind to many sins of commission and omission that the armed forces personnel seem to indulge in these days.

The charge may be partially true but I am not ashamed about it mainly because our forces are still way above the rest of the society when it comes to upholding the values of honour, teamwork, professionalism, ethics and camaraderie. But let me also confess: the biggest reason for my soft corner for the forces comes from the fact that I too am a fauji kid and sub-consciously somewhere deep down I still live by a dictum one learnt as a kid: Karmanye Vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshou kada chana (Do your duty to the best of your ability and don’t seek rewards).

When I look back, I realise that my father, who retired as a subedar major in 1982 and with him my mother, followed this practice in their daily life and passed it to us three brothers without making a song and dance about it. Throughout my 28-year career as a professional journalist, I have been fortunate that I could follow this principle without even realising that I was practicing what my father did all his professional life. Now, wiser and littlemore experienced than before, I am in a position to analyse some of the reasons behind the moderate success that each of us-three brothers-have managed to achieve in our respective  professions.

Adaptability, my biggest strength, has been a second nature through our growing years thanks to the frequent transfers and constantly changing schools. In the 1960s and the 1970s, ordinary soldiers — and my father was one — had a tough life in the Indian Army. They lived far from their families, toiled hard for a pittance and yet possessed a dignity that is not found in an ordinary civilian. The soldier never complained, never whined and never expected anything in return for what he did. I changed eight schools in 10 years and studied in three different mediums- English, Marathi and Hindi before entering junior college in 1978. Sub-consciously, without ever preaching to us, our parents drilled a motto into us: “Take life as it comes.”

And we did.

We met the challenges head on. I remember travelling from Pune to Lekha Bali in Arunachal Pradesh by train in the late 1970s. It used to take us four days and five changes at Kalyan, Allahabad, Baruani,
New Bongaigaon and Rangiya before we could reach the destination.

Reservations were never confirmed.

Dad was never with us.

One lived by one’s wits and survived. Frequent transfers meant frequent dislocations and packings. And unlike today, there were no movers and packers in those pre-liberalisation days. So we learnt to adapt.

To be responsible for our actions. Discipline and punctuality was given.

Colleagues laugh at me when I start getting uncomfortable if I am late for an appointment. They laugh at the fact that  I sleep by 10 pm and up by 5.30 am. But I know no other way. I mentioned adaptability earlier. My parents not only taught us how to adapt and accept but also practiced the principle. The biggest proof is my being a journalist. In the summer of ’83, the world was at my feet as far as my parents were concerned.

I was selected to be a flying officer in the Indian Air Force. All that remained was for me to submit my graduation certificate by June 30 and start my training in July. As luck would have it, my graduation results were delayed by over a month. So the dream of joining the Air Force was put on hold.

I had six months to kill before I could appear for another round of combined defence services exam that December.

That’s when destiny dealt a decisive, and now in retrospect, a lucky blow.

The Sentinel, a Guwahati based newspaper was just starting out and was looking for trainee journalists for their sports pages. Having played all games from kabaddi to squash and from kho-kho to cricket as a child, I thought with all the cockiness of the callow youth that I could become a sports journalist, at least for a while. So just for the heck of it, I appeared for the written test that the newspaper held.

Five days later, they called me for an interview. With no expectations, I went for the interview and landed a job at a princely sum of 700 rupees. I still remember the entire sequence in my head as if it happened just yesterday. At the end of the interview that fateful afternoon, the editor asked me, “When can you join?”

 My answer was, “Whenever you want.” He said, “Can you join, tonight?”

And I agreed to join that very evening. Then I became a journalist.

Of course at that time, I had no inkling that I would stay the course. I was sure I would do the job for six months and then move on. But that was not to be. As I joined the paper and started picking up the nuances of the job, I felt at home. The thrill of being part of the team that put  together a newspaper for the benefit of thousands of readers can only be experienced. It can never be described in words. The duty hours were erratic. One went to office at 2 pm and never returned home before 5 am. Three months down the line I decided to remain a journalist and not to pursue the aim of becoming a fighter pilot.

My parents were aghast and crestfallen. For a junior commissioned officer in the earlier 1980s, there was no greater honour than seeing his son becoming a commissioned officer. But like a true soldier, my father
accepted my decision without rancor. All that my parents said at that time was “Excel in whatever you choose to do.” So I stuck on in Assam.

My parents moved back to Pune soon after but again luck smiled on me. Neha married me in 1988 and continued to encourage me to take risks with life and with career. Never ever complaining that I chose to take up risky assignments touring deep into north eastern states, reported the Kargil war, the Sri Lanka conflict, when I could have played safe and remained a desk bound journo.

Today those risks have paid off.

I can say with a bit of  immodesty that I can compete with the best in business without feeling inferior.

The urge to do better than yesterday comes naturally to the men in uniform. If I behave that way even now, it is thanks to my upbringing in a military environment. Despite all its faults and foibles, the military remains a vital part of my life for whatever I am today is thanks largely to the fauj and its ethos.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Harnessing space for security & development

Date: 30 June 2014
Place: Satellite Launch Centre, Sriharikota

Just a month into office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had travelled to the ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) facility to witness the launch of the PSLV-C23 satellite. In his speech after the successful launch, Modi praised the ISRO scientists for their stellar work and then stunned them into momentary silence by posing a challenge. “Today, I ask our Space community, to take up the challenge, of developing a SAARC Satellite - that we can dedicate to our neighbourhood, as a gift from India. A satellite, that provides a full range of applications and services, to all our neighbours. I also ask you, to enlarge the footprint of our satellite-based navigation system, to cover all of South Asia.”

Initially, the assembled scientists did not know what to say. “We had never done such a thing,” remembers an old ISRO hand. Modi reinforced this idea five months later, speaking in Kathmandu at the SAARC Summit on November 26. He said, "India's gift of a satellite for the SAARC region will benefit us all in areas like education, telemedicine, disaster response, resource management, weather forecasting and communication.”

In less than three years after the Prime Minister challenged the ISRO scientists, they came up with the answer. On 5 May 2017, the SAARC Satellite’ was launched from Sriharikota, opening a new chapter in space diplomacy.

The 2,230 kgGSAT-9 is a Geostationary Communication Satellite. Communication services from it will be shared with five neighbours (Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives). It will help to meet the growing telecommunications and broadcasting needs of the region. All participating nations will have access to at least one transponder using which they can telecast their own programming. The countries will develop their own ground-level infrastructure. The satellite is expected to provide communication channels between countries for better disaster management. Afghanistan is also expected to join the group soon. As a scientist in ISRO says, “For smaller countries, this is a dream come true. To lease a transponder, a lot of money has to be spent. But here India has gifted them a permanent asset.” Apart from the obvious use (telecommunication, broadcasting), leaders of these six countries can have secure dedicated one-on-one communication through the VSAT facility that the satellite provides, explained ISRO officials. The leaders can also have a video conference between themselves if they so wished, thanks to the South Asia satellite.
In a way, by dedicating a separate satellite for the neighbourhood, Modi has taken his favourite theme of SabkaSaath, SabkaVikas, beyond India’s own physical boundaries. An early example of helping neighbours through satellites came in Nepal. In August 2014, a massive landslide blocked Sun Koshi river in Northern Nepal indicating the possible formation of a lake. This created flood threat for several villages downstream in Bihar.

ISRO immediately swung into action, acquired the images and in consultation with India’s National Disaster Relief Agency (NDMA) could get to exact location of landslide, compute the extent of debris due to landslide and could come up with a solution for controlled release of blocked water slowly, averting possible flash floods in Bihar. This operation was made possible because ISRO now coordinates closely with Inter-Ministerial Group for Emergency management at the Centre. IMEG helped coordinate the relief operation in Nepal and later in September 2014 in Srinagar too.

But that’s not all.
As ISRO Chairman K. Kiran Kumar sees it,“While ISRO has always been a pace-setter in space application Prime Minister Modi and NSA Ajit Doval have spurred us into taking our technology a step higher.” He cites the example of ‘Island mapping’ programme launched in 2015.
Apparently in one of the meetings in the PMO sometime in June 2015 Modi asked the number of islands India possesses. As officials from MHA scrambled to get the exact figures from Survey of India, some officials in the PMO itself tried to add up the number by getting the figures from state governments and from the census records. But the figures varied widely. It was clear that the records were old and not updated in years.
That’s when NSA Doval turned to ISRO. He asked ISRO chairman Kiran Kumar if the space agency could help in determining the exact number of islands. Kiran Kumar was quick to say yes. Remembers PG Diwakar, currently Scientific Secretary to the ISRO Chairman: “I was then in-charge of Remote Sensing Applications at NRSC. The Chairman asked me to devise a quick method to map the islands around India’s vast coastline.” He got down to work immediately with a hand-picked team. “We were asked to not just determine the numbers but also look at their exact status, distribution and area (of the islands). We were particularly told to recheck the status of the islands that were on the Survey of India list from the British days. The fear was that some of them would have gone underwater while some others would have sprung up,” Diwakar recalls.
The unspoken apprehension behind the exercise was the possibility of some remote, uninhibited island in Andaman-Nicobar territory or around Lakshadweep or even in the Sundarbans being illegally occupied!!. Security agencies were aware of how arms smugglers had used a remote island in Andaman in 1998 to land a large consignment of arms meant for Burmese rebels and tried to transport it across the Bay of Bengal to be delivered in Myanmar. The agencies had foiled the consignment in well-coordinated plan under Operation Leech in February 1998. Nearly twenty years later, the likelihood of an uninhibited island being occupied by forces aligned to India’s adversaries has increased manifold. The exercise thus had strategic implications too.
Once the number was determined, the ISRO team developed an Island Information System that has 34 attributes (give details). The Prime Minister was briefed about the system in October 2016. Since then, the NITI Aayog, state governments and other ministries have started to draw up development plans for 10 selected islands, five each in Andaman and Lakshadweep.
At the same time, ISRO satellites are keeping a continuous watch on these island territories. A software that updates any noticeable changes on these islands has since been developed too. So as Diwakar and his team drew up the latest data base on islands, they came up with new discoveries.  “Says Diwakar: “This work became very popular because we built this information system within a few months and were able to demonstrate this to MHAand other Ministries that were involved in the exercise. The Home Ministry had then called in many other ministries who are relevant in this exercise and also needed this data. For example, the Indian Navy and Coast Guard, the Census people, Environment & Forests and the Survey of India officers, all came on board. What we did is we brought on a common platform, an information system which can be used by multiple ministries.”  For example, an IG of Police from Gujarat told ISRO scientists that his force is now able to monitor vulnerable islands close to the maritime boundary with Pakistan much more closely and take counter measures accordingly.

The Island Information System apart, ISRO has successfully launched CARTOSAT 2 Series of satellites that can provide sub-meter images (spatial resolution of 65 cm) for monitoring purposes. ISRO is also building on capabilities to acquire images from as far as 36,000 km up in the space and yet give a resolution of about 55 m, at frequent intervals, empowering Indian security agencies like the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) and other intelligence arms to monitor real time activities of India’s adversaries. Such a capability would also help in effective monitoring of major national disasters in the country.
The Special Projects Division dealing with all strategic requirements of the armed forces and intelligence agencies has been reinvigorated. A senior scientist in charge of the Division works in close coordination with the Deputy National Security Adviser to meet all requirements in quickest time possible. So, for instance, while new and powerful ISRO satellites are continuously monitoring India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood as a matter of routine, a specific request like the one to hover over areas in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK) in the wake of the Uri attack in September 2016 was handled by the Special Projects Division. For a week in the run up to the surgical strikes in late September that year, ISRO kept a close and specific watch on terrorist camps and movement of Pakistani army troops. When Indian Special Forces crossed the Line of Control (LoC) and struck several locations inside PoK, real time surveillance was mounted by ISRO both to capture the assault and to monitor any threatening movement against the Indian Special Forces teams.
In June and July 2017, at the height of a tense standoff between India and China in Chumbi Valley just north of the Siliguri corridor, connecting rest of India with the north eastern states, ISRO was tasked with monitoring Chinese military activity in Tibet to determine if there was any unusual movement of troops, tanks or aircraft. Besides, ISRO now provides real time support to Indian Navy and Coast Guard to keep a close watch on the long coastline as well as the vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that India has. Movement of Chinese survey ships, submarines and warships in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal besides the Pakistani Navy’s forays into Arabian Sea, in conjunction with the Navy, is now one of the important tasks of ISRO following the new coordination mechanism established in 2015.
ISRO has in fact been continuously launching a series of satellites, mainly for cartography purpose. Called the Cartosat series, these satellites are mainly used for cartographic mapping the earth. So they are useful for dual purposes—military as well as civil. Through the Cartosat 2 series of satellites programme for instance, ISRO is helping derive1x4000 scale maps for better urban planning. As Kiran Kumar says, “the beauty of this technology is that it is continuously available. One can take an image today, one can take an image again, 15 days later, compare and monitor the progress of a project, a building or whatever else. With two-time data, say between 2007 and 2017, we can calculate the difference in height of a given building through stereo imaging and three-dimensional mapping and calculations to establish building heights, Mining related works or even new constructions.”

K Kasturirangan, former chairman of ISRO, says "The space agency has a formidable suit of technologies and all are suitably deployed with each user agency utilising the assets to their best advantage."

So while high resolution imaging satellite can help in urban planning it can also monitor terrorist camps across the border. Kasturirangan says a satellite image does not distinguish between friend and foe that interpretation rests with the users. Kiran Kumar says, "The Indian space agency will not be found lacking in helping secure India's national interests now and in future."

Speaking about the capabilities of this ultra-sharp satellite, Kumar said "The Cartosat 2 series has a unique capability of capturing a 1-minute video, which despite its enormous speed of 37 km a second, is able to focus at a single point for a minute." 

In addition, there were three other earth imaging satellites Cartosat-1, Cartosat-2 and Resourcesat-2 that provide top class imagery during day time. Going further, ISRO seeks to develop satellites that have a resolution of 25 cm in the very near future.

Former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair says even China does not have such high resolution satellites, the best China has is about 5-m resolution.
Nair says "India invested heavily in space imaging technology and is now reaping the benefits." Nair says right now India relies heavily on using Thuraya handsets for satellite telephony but he hopes very soon the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) will be able to deliver Indian handsets that are compatible with the country's GSAT-6 satellite.

In fact Nair insists that in the upcoming GSAT 6-A, satellite telephony should be made the bigger component. 

While understandably much of the resources are focused on land since India has hostile neighbours both on its western and eastern fronts. ISRO has not forgotten the deep blue oceans that surround India and they need to be protected as well. On a specific demand by the Indian Navy, the Indian space scientists have already deployed a satellite the Navy calls 'Rukmini'. This is a dedicated communications satellite which helps the Indian Navy talk to its ships when they are beyond the visual range, in a secure fashion.

As a senior security manager summed it up: “Now ISRO has got strategically aligned to India’s security requirements, thanks to the Eye-in-the-Sky. Earlier, it was largely technologically focused.”
Another feather in ISRO’s cap is the Indian National Regional Navigational System, meant for creating India’s own GPS facility. Having put up a constellation of  seven satellites which covers India and the neighbourhood—up to 1500 km to the east and west of India’s shores—ISRO has created a powerful system which is used for several important tasks including creating India’s own GPS system. This constellation of seven satellites was named as "NavIC" (Navigation Indian Constellation) by Prime Minister Modi and dedicated to the Nation on the occasion of successful launch of IRNSS-1G, the seventh and last satellite of NavIC. Navic in Sanskrit is incidentally, a sailor.
All the satellites will be visible at all times in the Indian region. While the first of the series of satellites was launched in July 2013, the rest six were put into space between 2014 and 2016.ISRO spent Rs. 1,420 crores on building and setting up the seven NavIC satellites in the orbit. Regarded as a precise system, comparable to US's GPS, NavIC is capable of providing position accuracy of about 10 metres. India has thus become one among a handful of countries, to have its own GPS. IRNSS Or NavIC will provide two types of services, namely, Standard Positioning Service (SPS) which is provided to all the users and Restricted Service (RS), which is an encrypted service provided only to the authorised users. The indigenous system is already up and providing services that is being tested and used a few applications already.  Says an ISRO official: “From 2018, we need not depend on US GPS at all.”It’s a major strategic advantage.

Based on the Indian GPS system, ISRO has tied up with Indian companies—under Make in India projects--for manufacture of a chip set. Once the chips are produced, they can be used for variety of purposes, from defence to simple road navigation in the civilian sector. Several trials have taken place of late. NavIChas started supporting the fisherman in coastal areas. Says Kiran Kumar, “the first application (of NavIC) which we have devised is given through a mobile App, a basic mobile. Once installed and linked to the NavIC Device, a fisherman in say Gujarat or in Tamil Nadu will get important services, like 1. Potential Fishing Zones (PFZ) information for him to navigate to that point for fishing, 2. Weather alert, like thunders storms, 3An automatic alert if his boat approaches international maritime boundary. Otherwise, on high seas, it is difficult to make out where the Indian area ends and other country’s begins.” Given the frequency of arrests of Indian fishermen in Pakistani or Sri Lankan waters, NavIC must come as a big relief to the fishermen community.
ISRO has already developed necessary Apps on Mobile that will allow fishermen to download potential fishing zones in the area before they launch the boat into the sea. Explains Diwakar: “Here, what we do is we use the sea surface temperature and chlorophyll information, which comes from the satellite data, Oceansat-2 is used here, both these are integrated to determine an area which would have a school of fish, that around this lat-long, the fishermen need not waste time in searching for fish as he can follow the PFZ maps and reach the right place for assured fish-catch.” This is in fact the first application based on NavIC, which is already in field-trial phase.
Once tested and tried, the chipset may even become integral part of every mobile handset in India to provide accurate GPS to everyone, ISRO scientists now say. There will be multiple applications that NavIC can be used for.
However, ISRO’s mandate goes much beyond just helping India’s strategic sector. Chairman Kiran Kumar says the scope and work of ISRO has expanded manifold since the Modi government has taken charge in 2014. In fact, the Chairman of ISRO says under this government, the number of ministries using ISRO data has gone up manifold. “From about 10-12 ministries in the past, we now have 58 ministries, including the tribal welfare ministry (which one wouldn’t have thought would have any use of our data) have a dedicated link to our data. That’s a huge difference.”

For example the Smart Cities & AMRUT projects that the government has launched. ISRO provides 65 cm data, 1x4000 scale maps, to urban planners for consistent and continuous planning and monitoring. ISRO’s technology now gives a three-dimension imagery allowing urban planners to record progress of a construction site. Project managers can now map the progress of various construction activities by comparing earlier images with the latest ones at a central place, on a dashboard. ISRO’s ability to map potential ground water zones, provide acreage and production of major crops well before harvest, monitor encroachments in forest in addition to mapping and monitoring forest reserves, assess quality of land (whether it is fallow, a wasteland or fertile), gives a handy tool to town planners. They can now plan to make optimum utilisation of water, electricity, energy since the entire three dimensional view of the proposed town or a city in progress is available. Once a new city comes up, many of its basic civic functions can be controlled, managed and utilised through a central system, thanks to ISRO’s technology.
Says Diwakar, “If I am a town planner, I would like to optimally utilize resources in a cost effective manner, let us say, the water, electricity and sewerage systems. I wouldn’t like to waste the precious water. So you can completely control through ICT technologies on how you’re going to distribute the water in a city. Through the computerised mechanism you release the water to a particular area for a particular time, you auto shut-off and close it since you know the amount of water the population is going to consume. ISRO scientists say their technology gives an integrated perspective and the ability to modify outcomes as and when required. For instance, they can effectively do traffic management by using ICT because the control room has the full picture and ability to monitor the amount of load on a given road and identify choke points during different hours. Near real-time monitoring and making real-time projections helps in better urban management. And at nights the control room can even manage street lighting and control energy consumption of a particular area based on traffic and use of public places. The control room manager can switch on /switch off or even reduce the illumination for a certain area if there’s no traffic, say after 12 midnight. In short, the Central control room concept in a smart city can literally manage and monitor all the basic amenities and facilities which are used by common citizens daily. Yet another possibility of using “Internet of Things (IOT”, intermixed with space technology helps in better management of smart cities. The capital of Chattisgarh—Naya Raipur—that is moving towards smart city program is one of the unique examples of marrying urban planning with space technology, ISRO scientist point out.
AMRUT or Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation is another example where urban bodies (municipal corporations, city councils) will be able to use geospatial technology for planning. For example, urban planners can get the full picture at the click of a mouse about the drainage situation, existing pipelines, allow them to check if space exists for new pipelines to be laid etc. The authorities can also take a comprehensive look at the green cover available in an urban setting thanks to the ISRO eye in the sky and decide accordingly which areas to leave out for construction, which to allot in case the land is found to be fallow or is a wasteland with no hope of being used for agriculture purposes.

So wasn’t this being done earlier, I ask the ISRO scientists. “Not at this level or with so much of coordination,” said one of them in reply. Normally, it used to take four to five years for town planners to finalise the city plans or even update them but now, working in close coordination with Ministry of Urban Development the process is much faster than before. The Ministry has modified the entire documentation with respect to town planning, they have evolved new guidelines that uses space and geospatial technology, so now the entire urban planning starts with a geospatial base map, the base map given by the high resolution satellite pictures. The satellite pictures combined with the existing maps gives full information on elevation, type of land--waste land or a productive land—to enable faster planning. At the moment, about 500 AMRUT towns and cities have been taken up and sought ISRO’s help.  Having tasted success, the authorities now want to use the technology for all 4,041 cities in the future.

Explains Diwakar: “This is a procedure we’ve put together. A client server system has been designed to be used by the MoUD. All the services will be ‘e’ enabled services.  All of them—water and waste management, traffic system, electricity grids, housing numbers-- can be brought under one roof and monitored in a dashboard. We are for example working with Naya Raipur to make it one of the first modern smart cities in the country. The model should be amenable to be emulated throughout the country.”

Planning smart cities apart, ISRO is contributing in mounting surveillance on gas pipelines, geo-tagging all the post offices in the country, helping tourism departments to come up with a real-time information monitoring system and collecting data for municipal corporations. The information of all 1.55 lakh post offices in the country—including their location, status of road connectivity to each one of them and even the services provided by them—is now available at one place, that is Bhuvan Geoportal. Moreover the 3Dimensional imaging capability that ISRO now has enables municipal authorities to monitor and compare data on building heights. For example, simply looking at a residential building’s 3D image from 2010 and 2017—for instance—the civic authorities can calculate the number of stories added to a building and accordingly come up with an estimate house tax they can collect.

Similarly, for agriculture sector, satellite imagery was used earlier too but over the past three years, the use of ISRO satellites has gone up manifold. Says a scientist: “Our technology now enables the agriculture department to estimate grain production much before the harvest. Earlier we used monitor about eight crops, now the count has gone up to 11 and also helping the ministry with Soil Health Card program in country in addition to the Crop Insurance scheme to help the farming community. Moreover, we have also included horticulture in this monitoring. The most important change however is the use of ISRO technology to assess damage to crops in drought hit areas or places that get excessive rains or flooding. This way the government’s crop insurance programme gets implemented in double quick time. We are actually able to provide almost real time data to enable the agriculture department in assessing the need for crop insurance.”

Even the water resources ministry uses space technology much more than before. Thanks to the new synergy, the Ministry now gets the water spread information in all water bodies and reservoirs on a bi-weekly basis through, says Diwakar. Every 15 days we get the picture of surface water body in the entire country, he adds. This kind of data is automatically processed and published on ISRO portal. Telangana and Andhra Pradesh States have launched a major program on water resources management using our technology and the advantage of such bi-weekly data on water from space.

ISRO’s achievements are already formidable but with growing use of space for defence and commercial purposes, its role is bound to increase and it must therefore strive to remain ahead of the curve by inviting India’s private sector to forge a beneficial partnership. As Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, senior fellow and head, Nuclear & Space Policy Initiative, at the Observer Research Foundation says, “India has a sizeable and talented private sector that must be brought in to maximize the capacity to manufacture as well as launch satellites. Isro might need to do a bit of handholding in the beginning but with a little help the Indian private sector can contribute to India’s space growth story in an effective manner.”

Increasing private sector participation part, ISRO will need to remain focused on India’s defence and strategic requirements in coming years and contribute much more than before in securing India through precise application of its capabilities even as it continues to attain new heights in commercial application of  space assets.

(From my book Securing India The Modi Way: Pathankot, Surgical Strikes and more)