This is how one man created India’s great research laboratories
   Date :08-Aug-2021

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By Vijay Phanshikar :
WHEN a brilliant -- and financially lucrative -- career in advanced scientific research lay ahead of him in England, Dr. Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar, then just a 37-year-old man, returned to India, the call of Motherland making him uneasy in those cosy confines of University College in London. That unease continued, however, even in India since the young scientists itched to do something more substantial. What followed until 1955 when he passed away was nothing but a material good enough for classic fiction. The life of just 71 years of Dr. Bhatnagar tells the story of how one man created a network of research laboratories in Independent India. In the process, he created in India not just physical facilities for research in various fields, but also gave a thought-process unencumbered by the British influence that was so common in those days.
It is not without reason that the Government created the country’s highest award for scientific research in his name. Every Indian scientist feels proud to be a recipient of that award -- just because of the halo around the name of Dr. Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar, just because he created such a sense of pride in Indian science in everybody’s head and heart. However, this great saga is only rarely told to our kids in schools and colleges. Only rarely do our teachers, too, know much about the man whose creativity in sciences roamed freely in applied industrial research, physical chemistry, celluloid chemistry and many other fields. Only very rarely do we realise that the wonderful network of laboratories in India owes its birth to the vision of this man. Of course, Dr. Bhatnagar belonged to an era whose value our youngsters today may not understand at all.
He belonged to times when the country was fortunate to have scientific personages such as Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, Dr. Homi Bhabha who forayed into different green-fields of science and gave the country an upper edge among other nations that too were throwing off the yoke of foreign rule. The speciality of Dr. Bhatnagar was that when others were working in fields such as space and atomic sciences, he chose to think of more basic scientific needs of the country. From that core thought and from the detailed discussions with peers came up the concept of building India’s own laboratories handling different branches of research. It was only natural that the Government chose him the founder-Director General of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), thus honouring his fatherhood of a terrific idea that changed the complexion of research in the country. And then, Dr. S.S. Bhatnagar did something other than as well. He was instrumental in creating the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) whose mandate it was to bridge the gap between research and development and its application. Dr. Bhatnagar, himself, believed in applied sciences. As part of that belief came his invention of the Bhatnagar-Mathur Magnetic Interference Balance that revolutionised research systems anywhere in the world.
As part of that belief, Dr. Bhatnagar also did a lot of applied research for many big-ticket industrial enterprises including the Tatas. All that work created immense possibilities making big money as well for Dr. Bhatnagar. But that man just wasn’t interested in that pursuit, deeply engrossed as he was in nation-building. And inside the heart of this man with a rather stern face, lay a poet of high substance. He wrote fine Hindi poetry, so much so that as a professor of sciences in Benaras Hindu University, he wrote the University Song -- Kulgeet -- for which he will always be remembered. The pen that wrote scientific papers also produced, thus, wonderful poetry in Hindi and Urdu. True, he was born in a near-aristocratic family of learned people. Some familial developments, however, divested his father of his share of family wealth. And then came another stroke of misfortune when his father died fairly young, leaving wife and children in penury. But when Destiny rules and the person is determined to succeed, there is no force that can stop him. That happened in Dr. Bhatnagar’s case, as well. Through thick and thin of life, through trials and tribulations, he completed his education in the most honourable manner -- and eventually became an icon of Indian sciences. This is his story -- in short.