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Vol. XXIX No. 11, September 16-30, 2019

The man in charge of Chandrayaan

The Chandrayaan mission may not have been wholly successful but Dr. K. Sivan and the ISRO team he heads, have come in for high praise. A profile of the man at the helm is most appropriate at this juncture. – The Editor

Sarakkalvilai in Kanniyakumari basks in the glory of its most famous son. A humble son of a farmer who studied in its local government-run Tamil medium schools is the head of India’s premier space agency. Dr. K. Sivan was born in Sarakkalvilai in Kanniyakumari district in 1957. He is the first graduate in the family.

Sivan studied in government schools in his native village till the 5th Standard, and completed his schooling in neighbouring Valankumaravilai, all in the Tamil medium. Later, he graduated from S.T. Hindu College in Nagercoil.
He then graduated from the Madras Institute of Technology in aeronautical engineering in 1980 and completed his master’s in aerospace engineering from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, in 1982.

That year he joined ISRO on its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle project, towards which he contributed in mission planning, design, integration and analysis. He has held various responsibilities during his stint in ISRO, finally going on to head India’s space agency.

At ISRO, he completed his PhD in aerospace engineering from IIT-Bombay, in 2006.

Dr. Sivan, who has been appointed for a three-year term, is only the second rocket scientist after G. Madhavan Nair to head ISRO.

Sarakkalvilai is in the outskirts of Nagercoil. “Take the next right and it is at the end of the road,” says a villager. And as you reach the house, you realise it is as unpretentious as the man who grew up there. Dr. Sivan’s sister-in-law Saraswathi lives in the family house with her daughter.

“I was married 30 years ago into this family and at that time he was already working for ISRO in Thiruvananthapuram. He used to live in a lodge then. He would come home for festivals and family functions,” says Saraswathi. “He comes with his family, offers prayers and leaves the same day. When he is with the family he is always smiling and joking. He never calls, but his wife calls regularly and keeps in touch with us,” Saraswathi says.

“He was a class topper from school to college,” says Dr. Sivan’s uncle who lives in the house opposite.

“He was a brilliant student and never went for tuitions or private classes. His father used to pluck mangoes and young Sivan used to go to the market to sell them. He was a helpful child,” the uncle adds. The school Dr. Sivan studied at is also opposite the family house. The retired PT master there recalls him clearly. “He was five years my junior in school, I remember him as a very quiet boy.”

“I too was five years his junior,” another villager pipes in. “You know the final exams used to come during harvest time. His father used to be in the field while Sivan sat on the lower branch of a tree with his books, studying, keeping one eye on the harvest, and run if his father called. He was always studying.”

Dr. Sivan’s house.

“When Sivan and I were in school we had a very good headmaster,” the villager adds. “That headmaster planted many trees in the school compound and made every class in charge of a few trees. In the morning, when we came to school, the first thing we did was to water the trees and only after that did we attend school.”

“Kanniyakumari is basically an agricultural district,” a village elder points out. “Apart from coir, there is no industry here. We all survive on farming. It has rich fertile soil and there is plenty of water. Paddy, bananas, coconut, mango, rubber is grown here.” “Sivan was exceptional,” he goes on. “While he helped his father in the field he continued studying every free moment.”

“As there was only a primary school here he went to nearby Valankumaravilai for his SSC (Class 10). Those days there was no 12th standard. As there was no bus facility, he walked.”

A colleague from ISRO, who retired a decade ago recalls, “He (Sivan) would go home only to sleep. He is extremely hard-working and totally focused on his work. He was not only the first graduate from his family, he was also the first graduate from his village.” “He is a disciplined taskmaster,” says D. Karthikesan, former director of the ISRO Propulsion Complex in Mahendragiri, Tamil Nadu. “He likes to keep everything on schedule and works with a deadline,” adds Karthikesan. “If he thinks there is a problem somewhere he will go and talk to the people actually working on the project, and never limit himself to seniors in the organisation.” The former ISRO scientist adds, “He is also extremely generous and always looks after the welfare of the people working under him. So people work hard for him. He is a bold decision-maker. Where others may hesitate wondering if it would work or not, he will say it will work and will do it.”

Dr. Sivan has two sons. The elder one has finished his B.Tech, the younger son is in college.

The school Dr. Sivan studied in was built over 60 years ago. “We need to pull it down and build another,” says a villager. A government-run school, the land was given free by Dr. Sivan’s uncle.

The village still does not have a bus service. Nor does it have a middle, high or higher secondary school.
K. Sivan’s ascent bears an uncanny resemblance to another ISRO scientist who was born in a fishing village in Ramanathapuram, also in Tamil Nadu.

That scientist, of course, went on to become the most beloved President this Republic has had. – (Courtesy: A. Ganesh Nadar / and TCC Digest.)

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