MGK Menon: Administrator, institution builder; man who took IBM head on

Professor MGK Menon, who passed away at the age of 88 on Tuesday, was the last surviving architect of science and technology in independent India. He was perhaps the most powerful science administrator and institution builder the country ever had, occupying every single important post in science and technology administration including that of the Minister for Science and Technology during his career spanning half a century.

Mambillikalathil Govind Kumar Menon was the most prominent face of what is known as the "Bhabha school" or the "Atomic Energy School" in scientific circles. He was a protégé of Homi Jehangir Bhabha, the founder of atomic research in India. While he was conducting cosmic rays research at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Menon worked closely with Bhabha and had started handling affairs of the institute at the age of 33. Bhabha was preoccupied with the nuclear research programme while being the director of TIFR. When Bhabha was killed in an air crash in 1966, Menon emerged as the top choice for the post of the director even though he was just 37 years old.

A file image of MGK Menon. Courtesy: Dinesh C Sharma

A file image of MGK Menon. Courtesy: Dinesh C Sharma

His career as a science administrator began in 1971 when he was named the first secretary of the Department of Electronics (DoE), which was set up to make India self-reliant in electronics and computing. The backdrop of the DoE formation was the growing influence of International Business Machine (IBM) in the Indian market. Menon’s name was suggested to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by Vikram Sarabhai, who was the chairman of the Electronics Committee and also Indian National Committee on Space Research (a precursor to the Indian Space Research Organisation, ISRO). Incidentally, both Bhabha and Sarabhai used to address Menon as "Goku".

In an interview he gave me in 2007, Menon revealed that he was reluctant to become a science administrator. He said he agreed to be the secretary of DoE on two conditions: first, he wanted to continue his position as the director of TIFR so that he could continue his research work; and second, he wanted the Electronics Commission (EC) to be located in Bombay so that he could divide time between Bombay and Delhi. Both the conditions were agreed to and the EC started operating from Air India building at Nariman Point.

Menon soon emerged as the czar of Indian science in the 1970s. Within two years of DoE coming into being, India had a vast infrastructure for electronics policy making, R&D, licensing and administrative control — all headed by him. All this while, Menon continued as Director of TIFR. In 1974, he was also appointed the scientific advisor to the defence minister.

After Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (founder of CSIR), Menon became the most powerful science bureaucrat holding several key positions at the same time or in quick succession in the 1970s. He is also the only scientist to have headed all important scientific agencies during his career. After DoE, he became the secretary, Department of Science and Technology and director general of CSIR (holding a dual charge). After that he became the first secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, member of Planning Commission (Science), head of the Science Advisory Committee; and finally became Minister of State for Science and Technology in 1990. He was briefly chairman of ISRO and first chairman of the Commission for Additional Sources of Energy which subsequently became the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy.

The Menon era at DoE was full of turmoil, though. His tenure is much misunderstood, and often, he was criticised for obstructing the growth of electronics industry. Menon told me that the role of DoE was promotional, but it had to operate under existing licensing regime which was restrictive. "You must understand that we (DoE) were not the government, we were part of the government. We were not the Parliament. It is the Parliament that lays the route in which the country should go. One of the earliest things that we did was to bring to the notice of the Prime Minister that the Industrial Development and Regulations Act is not valid for electronics. It is too slow, electronics is too fast." Because of restriction on foreign equity, he said, the government refused entry to Texas Instruments (TI) which first approached DoE in the mid-1970s.

When TI Chairman Patrick Haggerty came to India with a project for Integrated Circuit (IC) manufacturing, he wanted 100 percent ownership and no restrictions in the form of "export obligation". When Menon conveyed this to India Gandhi, she said, "It is a wonderful idea, I accept it, but I will not be able to get it through the political system." During the interview with me, Menon recalled: “She told me bluntly: forget it. There was no way I could have brought in Texas Instruments. I was not the boss of the country. I only operated as secretary under Gandhi who was the prime minister, who told me it is not possible."
While Menon wanted TI and other foreign players like Burroughs to come to India, his stand with IBM was different. He said he did not want IBM to leave but only mend its ways. In Menon’s words, "IBM wanted to play a dominant role in India as a 100 percent foreign company, leasing computers, mainly low-grade systems. I had any number of discussions with them, trying to persuade them 'Please manufacture in India, bring your latest systems here'. I said train people here because the system of leasing and maintenance meant we remained dependent on them. But they were not prepared to do any of these things. They were not prepared to go down in equity. This was against the government policy." Still, while acting tough with IBM, Menon deputed one of his close aides, N Seshagiri, to hold secret talks with the company in the US to avoid IBM's exit from India, but these talks failed.

DoE under Menon funded electronics research in strategic areas and founded key bodies like the National Centre for Software Development, National Informatics Centre (NIC) and Computer Maintenance Corporation (CMC) among several others. DoE also encouraged states to establish State Electronics Development Corporations to promote electronics manufacturing. All these institutions developed skills in design, development and software writing which helped a great deal in developing an indigenous base in electronics and software in the 1980s.

Dinesh C Sharma is the author of the award-winning book The Outsourcer: The Story of India’s IT Revolution, MIT Press, 2015.