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DC Special: Govt doesn’t do enough for science, but we try to, says Bharat Ratna awardee CNR Rao

DC | DARSHANA RAMDEV
Published Nov 18, 2013, 1:41 pm IST
Updated Mar 18, 2019, 6:53 pm IST

Bengaluru: Professor C.N.R. Rao’s office at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru received a steady stream of visitors all through Sunday morning. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah was the first to arrive, at 8.30 am, followed by a brief interaction with the media.

A visibly exhausted Prof. Rao then retired to his study, where friends and well-wishers continued to drop by.

“I even got a phone call from someone at 1 am,” he told us, later. Why the rush? On Saturday afternoon, Prof. Rao, one of the foremost authority on solid states and materials chemistry, was conferred the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian honour, felicitating decades of breakthrough research, 1,600 papers and 45 books.

In came Dr Roddam Narasimha, one of the country’s most prominent aerospace scientists and a dear friend to Prof. Rao. Dr Govindarajan Padmanabhan, Prof. Balram’s predecessor as the director of the Indian Institute of Science, the AGP and Prof. Kumar, and former director, Raman Research Institute, were also among the elite list of visitors.

Meanwhile, we were ushered into another room to speak with Prof. Rao’s wife, Indumathi, about the CNR Rao Educational Foundation.

The Foundation was formed back in 2005, the year Prof. Rao won the prestigious Dan David Prize for Science, a million-dollar grant. “We decided to use that money to give back to society,” said Mrs Rao.

The CNR Rao Hall of Science, Madan Mohan Malviya, was funded by the Ambani Trust. Each year, the Foundation honours two teachers, one from Karnataka, usually from a Kannada medium school and one from across the country.

“It’s not just what they do in class, but what they do outside of it, to enthuse their students,” Mrs Rao explained.

Prof. Rao celebrates his birthday each year (June 30) by organising a Teachers’ Day, of sorts, with lectures and a music concert. “Music is very important to us,” Mrs Rao added, with a smile. Why? “It’s so beautiful, don’t you think?” she replied.

The Foundation has remained, with intent, a tiny organisation, run on very low funding. “We don’t want to ask anybody for money and besides, I’m the one who has to manage it, which I really can’t do anymore,” Mrs Rao admitted. The couple is nearing eighty now and although they do seem full of beans, age has undoubtedly taken its toll.

The Foundation has worked with over 60,000 children since it was formed, with an average of about 2,000 students each year. “We work with rural children in particular, because they are so motivated and talented, but have no opportunities,” she said.

Prof. Rao, who was born into an educated middle-class family, attributes his success entirely to education. “We had no godfathers,” he remarked.

 

Read here: Angry CNR Rao calls politicians 'idiots'

Nearly an hour later, we are allowed in to Prof Rao’s office. His little study is piled high with bouquets, hiding a most eclectic collection of books. Being of the firm belief that you are what you read, I rummaged only to find books on Persian poetry, music and art lying side by side with heavy volumes on Science.

I’d learned, through the grapevine at the Institute, that Prof. Rao had a green thumb.

“I’m the official tree planter,” he agreed, happily, saying he’s planted over 20,000 trees in his lifetime. Not too long ago, four trees on the border of the IISc campus were uprooted because the branches got in the way of a high-voltage wire.

“All they needed to do was trim the branches, but they cut down the trees. I was outraged and nobody said anything!” he said.

“I created a forest here, but they’ve gone and put a road there and done all kinds of foolish things,” he added crossly. “The JNCASR campus is beautiful. I don’t allow vehicles to drive through either. I like to stay in harmony with nature.”

We return to a question that first arose the evening before — should the government do more to bridge the gap between industry and research? “The industry isn’t interested in funding research,” said Prof. Rao. “In other parts of the world, nearly 60 per cent of the research being done is funded by private companies.” It is a little known fact that Prof.

Rao received a $5 million grant from Sheikh Saud of Saudi Arabia. “We met at a conference once and he really seemed to like me,” Prof. Rao explained. “Soon after, he flew down to JNCASR and gave me a grant, with no strings attached!” The Sheikh paid him another visit only last month.

“Wealthy Indians are more interested in funding universities abroad. Ratan Tata has done nothing for IISc yet, for instance. Give me three or four million dollars,” he said suddenly, “I’ll set up a university as good as Harvard.”

It doesn’t take him long to meander towards his second favourite thing in the world — music. “I listen to Hindustani classical music,” he said, delving into the small mountain of bouquets to locate his music collection —which includes cassettes, by the way! It has become customary for Prof. Rao to bring well-known musicians down to the institute, the most recent being Pt Amjad Ali Khan.

The conversation slowly veers back to science and the Bharat Ratna award. Will the award give careers in science and research a touch of glamour? Prof. Rao dismisses the idea. “Science doesn't involve glamour for me,” he said at once. “All that matters is asking the right questions.” Prof. Rao is currently working on artificial photosynthesis, which he hopes to recreate in his lab. “I want to create material that is ordinarily useless, but which can be made to absorb sunlight.”

At the age of 80, Prof. Rao still manages to publish an astounding 30 papers each year, more than most scientists still in their prime. “I work all the time, I'm always writing something. I actually dream about how I’m going to phrase a particular sentence,” he said.

Back in 2007, Prof. Rao raised many eyebrows, by saying that IT employees are like coolies who work for wages without producing any significant intellectual material. Did Narayana Murthy call to congratulate him? “No,” he said. “I don’t call him; he doesn’t call me.” The Infosys Foundation has started giving out a Science Prize, we ventured helpfully.

“That's not a very good prize,” Prof. Rao retorted. “There are far more deserving scientists. Besides, the Infosys Foundation tends to laud Indian scientists who are working abroad. They don’t need the help, while scientists in this country do,” he said angrily. “Narayana Murthy's committees are full of nepotistic relationships.”

Prof. Rao then wades into an ocean of nostalgia for a little while, talking about Rajiv Gandhi, whom he served as Chairman of the PM’s Advisory Council from 1985 to 1989. “He was a wonderful man,” he said, staring glassily into the distance. “People would portray him as a party person, but he was a teetotaller.

He was also quite the moralist. The day he was assassinated was one of the saddest in my life,” he said, adding, quite succinctly, “I really admired Indira Gandhi too. She had class,” he said. Does that mean today’s politicians don’t have class? “Today’s politicians are a bunch of crazy guys,” he replied.

“Just look at the sort of language they use and the way they talk about women. The mindset in our political class today is that women are merely sex objects,” he said, a look of disdain marring his otherwise smiling face for a moment.

As the conversation drifted in and out of a plethora of issues, science, it seemed, was foremost on Prof. Rao’s mind. Funding science, he remarked, is last on the government’s priority list. “At best, we get about 20 per cent of the funding we require. I’ve never had political patronage and I’ve never sought it either. Politicians are here today and gone tomorrow.”

Prof. Rao’s Foundation does try to fill this void by promoting scientists from some of the least developed nations.

“We do offer grants of up to Rs 5 lakh each year," he said. His family has been sending urgent messages to his study, beckoning him for lunch at once, so we take our leave too. What we did get, in the end, was a glimpse of the man behind the science – a remarkable man he is, too. All that’s left to say is this, “Professor Rao, you’ve done India proud.”

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Location: Karnataka




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