Home 2017 Professor MGK Menon (1928 – 2016): A Tribute

Professor MGK Menon (1928 – 2016): A Tribute

by Prof. S. P. Sukhatme
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A few months ago, we received the sad news of the passing away of Prof. MGK Menon, who was one of India’s most gifted scientists and administrators. Prof. Menon was closely associated with IIT Bombay as the Chairman of the Board of Governors of IIT Bombay from 1997 to 2003 and it is a privilege for me to write about him.

Let me begin by giving some information about him. Prof. Menon was born in Mangalore on August 28,1928. His father was a District and Sessions Judge in British India and so Prof. Menon spent his childhood in various parts of India. He received his primary schooling in the Madras Presidency and his later schooling in Jodhpur. His college education was also partly in Jodhpur where he was a student of Jaswant College.  He received his BSc from Agra University to which Jaswant College was affiliated. He then joined the Royal Institute of Science in Mumbai and earned his Master’s degree in science. He went on to do his PhD in Bristol, England where he did pioneering experimental work in cosmic rays under the guidance of Professor Cecil Powell.

Prof. Menon’s work caught the attention of Dr Homi Bhabha, then the Director of TIFR, and he invited Prof. Menon to join TIFR, which he did. After working as a post-doctoral fellow for a few years in England, he came back to India in 1955. At TIFR, he continued his studies on cosmic rays by integrating himself with existing research groups. On the one hand, he was associated with the group for sending up balloons having glass plates with emulsions to study cosmic ray interactions at high altitudes, and on the other side, he also worked with the group which performed experiments in the Kolar Gold Field mines to study cosmic rays deep below the earth’s surface. It was pioneering work and it was not surprising that he was honoured with the SS Bhatnagar Prize. A few years later, he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

In the 1970s, the Government of India recognised his contributions and his talent and it was not long before he moved to New Delhi to hold a series of administrative posts concerned with the development of science and technology in India.

But then there was another side to his work which was recognised soon after he joined TIFR. He had a talent for administration and policy-making in science, technology and education. Dr Bhabha recognised this talent quickly and handed over many responsibilities to him at TIFR. In a sense, he was grooming him for the future. Tragically, that situation arose rather soon because of Dr Bhabha’s demise in an aircrash in 1966. Prof. Menon was then appointed as the Director of TIFR. He was only 38 years old at the time. As the Director, he raised the bar in terms of research activities. Some of the finest research in the world is being done at TIFR today. More importantly, he widened TIFR’s horizon. It had been set up as an institute for research in Physics. Prof. Menon added faculty in areas other than Physics like Mathematics, Chemistry and Biology.

In the 1970s, the Government of India recognised his contributions and his talent and it was not long before he moved to New Delhi to hold a series of administrative posts concerned with the development of science and technology in India. Just to name a few, he was the Chairman of the Electronics Commission, a member of the Planning Commission, the Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology, and later the Minister of State for Science and Technology. He was a Member of Parliament from 1990-1996. So he had a very distinguished career which continued almost to the end.

It is his connection with IIT Bombay that I would like to dwell on a little. As you are aware, I was the Director of the Institute from 1995 to 2000 and it was during that period when I was halfway through that the term of the previous Chairman, Dr Chidambaran, ended. A few days later, I came to know from the HRD Ministry that Prof. Menon would be the next Chairman of our Institute.

Prior to this, Prof. Menon had been associated with IIT Bombay in a number of ways on many occasions. He told me once that he was here on our campus on the historic day of March 10, 1959 when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation stone of our Institute. So it would be fair to say that his connection with IIT Bombay began on that day. Going back in time, I recall that he was the Chairman of a Committee appointed by MHRD around 1975 to consider the possibility of establishing major Centres of Research in each of the IITs. Our Centre for Studies in Resources Engineering owes its existence to that Committee’s report.

Prior to his appointment as Chairman, Prof. Menon had met me a few times over the years. I remember being introduced to him at the Bhatnagar Awards function. Later I was a member of the Executive Committee of the Solar Energy Society of India, of which he was the President. There were a few meetings of the Committee in New Delhi which I attended. I also met him once or twice at Technology Bhavan when he was the Secretary of DST. So it would be fair to say that he knew me by name, but that was about all. Quite frankly, you know, you are little uncertain as to what you should do when you are told rather suddenly that someone who is very distinguished is now the Chairman of your Board. He was stationed in New Delhi and I was in Mumbai. Should I call him up and welcome him or should I wait for a day or two? Or should I write him a formal letter? I was thinking over the matter, when Prof. Menon took the matter out of my hands. He phoned me in the afternoon on the same day and said,“You must have come to know I have been appointed the Chairman. I think it would be useful if we meet soon. When are you coming next to Delhi?” I told him that I was coming in a few days and he suggested that we meet over lunch at the India International Centre. “It will be informal,” he said“nobody else will be present. What I want from you is a briefing. I want to know from you how the Institute is doing? How is it performing? What are the major issues before you which you think I should be aware of beforehand?”I prepared for the meeting carefully and I must say that it went off very well. He set me at ease immediately and the awe which I had felt disappeared in the first few minutes. He asked me a few questions. But it was his way of listening very carefully to you which impressed me. If you were saying something, he never interrupted you. He heard you carefully and then in the end, asked his questions. And of course, he spoke beautiful English and chose his words very carefully.

But it was his way of listening very carefully to you which impressed me. If you were saying something, he never interrupted you. He heard you carefully and then in the end, asked his questions.

Towards the end, when our meeting was coming to an end, he said something which was rather important.“Look,” he said “I am the Chairman and you are the Director. I will generally not be concerned with or interfere with the day-to-day functioning of the Institute. Nobody should expect that. A Chairman’s job is not that. I will be concerned with policy matters that affect the Institute. Policy matters that affect the  academic programs, selections and promotions, administration, etc. in an overall sense, I am never going to ask you why you have done this or that in a particular matter. Nothing like that. That’s not my business. So please be assured on that score.” I think it helps when the Chairman makes his position clear right from the beginning. In the past, in certain IITs, Chairmen have intervened with disastrous consequences. Then the Director finds himself caught in between and his public image is affected. Prof. Menon made his position clear right at the beginning and throughout his tenure, he kept his word. He never questioned what I did in public. He may not have agreed once in a while with some decision I had taken, but then he would tell me alone and it was for me to see how to set things right. “That’s your domain, Suhas” he said and he used my first name. I liked that. He was 10 years older than me. So a kind of relationship got established between an older and younger brother and that relationship remained throughout the two and half years that I was the Director and he, the Chairman.

Let me share with you a few more anecdotal experiences. The Board of Governors meets four times a year. Before any meeting, the agenda is prepared by the Registrar after consulting the Director. It goes back and forth between the two a few times before being finalised. After that, it is sent to the Chairman and all the members of the Board and reaches them a few days before the meeting. The agenda usually consists of a number of items of a routine nature. For example, there is an item listing all the approvals given by the Chairman since the last meeting on behalf of the Board. These are usually routine matters. There is a similar item regarding actions taken by the Director. The Board’s time is usually taken up in discussing three or four important items which are concerned with policy matters and with the long range plans of the Institute. There is a carefully written note in the agenda on such items or the report of a committee appointed for the purpose. Very often, these items are accompanied by an oral presentation either by the Director or a Dean. Prof. Menon would always discuss these items with me in advance. It was always a one-to-one meeting for about an hour just before the Board meeting. He would have read the written material and he would want the content to be discussed. He would say“Okay, this is what is written. Now what is your view? What do you think we should do? What will be the consequences? Where is the money going to come from?” Not that he would agree or disagree, but he would want this frank discussion and noted my viewpoint carefully. Then we would go for the formal meeting where the item would be discussed very carefully and an appropriate decision would be taken.

Prof. Menon also had a way of dealing with routine agenda items. Very often, a lot of time would have been taken up with the important items and lunch time would be approaching. He had a way of looking round the table and disposing of the routine items by asking me to present them very briefly or doing the job himself. He would invite members to make comments if any and say that the items were approved. That showed his ability as an administrator. He had the uncanny ability to gauge what needs attention and what just needs to be disposed off. In addition, he was always cool and composed, and in full control of the proceedings. I must say that my admiration for him increased with each meeting of the Board.

Let me describe another personal experience which showed his qualities and concern for the Institute. Many of you present today would probably know that alumni started to play an important role in the Institute’s activities from the 1980s onwards. The IIT Bombay Alumni Association became more active, Alumni Day became an annual, popular feature and the IIT Bombay Heritage Fund was set up in USA. The Institute created the post of a Dean for Resources Development and actively approached alumni who could help us in various projects. One of our distinguished alumni who helped us generously at that time was Nandan Nilekani. Let me recall what happened then and Prof. Menon’s pro-active role. I think it was March 1999. Nandan called me up and said, “The financial year is ending and I have taken a decision to give the Institute a donation before the year ends.” I think he mentioned Rs. 3 or 4 crores, which was a huge amount for us at that time. Now, the Institute had somewhat archaic rules for accepting donations. Till that time, the procedure for accepting any donation was to put up the matter to the Board for approval. Even if the offer was for one or two lakhs (for say creating a scholarship), the Director would effectively say to the donor, “Please wait; don’t send me the cheque. I will go to the Board and seek its approval. Then I will convey the Board’s decision to you and will be able to accept your cheque. I am not allowed to accept your money before that.” These rules were followed at that time because donations were few and far between. The whole procedure took a few months. I mentioned this to Nandan. He said he knew our rules, but had to make the donation before the financial year ended.Unfortunately, there was no Board meeting scheduled.

He had the uncanny ability to gauge what needs attention and what just needs to be disposed off.

Prof. Narayanmurthy, our Dean, was with me and we had a brainstorming session. After some time, I said, “Let me call Prof. Menon.” I did so. Luckily, he was in Delhi and I could speak to him immediately. I explained the situation to him and the need to act fast.He said, “What’s the problem, Suhas? You told me the donation is from Nandan. Just send me a fax describing the offer and requesting my approval. I will reply saying it is approved. Then you go right ahead. We will explain everything to the Board later in the form of an agenda item for information.” Now, that’s a Chairman for you! Within two hours, I received his approval. In those days it was fax for communicating immediately. We moved fast and of course, we received the donation before the year ended.

There were other occasions too when I interacted closely with Prof. Menon. I remember an IIT Council meeting at which there were some important issues concerning the non-academic staff for consideration. The staff members were getting restless and their reasons were genuine. They were concerned about the promotion policy which had been allowed to lapse. The finance people in MHRD said, “When you go from one pay commission to another, pay scales change, the existing promotion policy lapses and has to be modified or renewed. There is a dead period in between that does not count as service towards promotion in the new promotion policy.”

The non-academic staff felt that this was an unfair interpretation and agitations began in some IITs. It was decided that the matter should be considered by the IIT Council. In our IIT, there was no agitation or disruptions because we were in touch with the Non-Academic Staff Association and had indicated our support for their viewpoint. However, some of them would gather before the Main Building every day and there was some nominal slogan shouting.

I felt that we had to act. The IIT Council meeting was approaching. The Staff Associations at all IITs knew it. I talked to Prof. Menon and said that as far as I was concerned, I was with our Association, because what was being suggested by the Ministry under the ambit of financial rules was unfair to our staff. We needed to act and to speak before the meeting to persons concerned. At the meeting, I would probably be able to present our viewpoint and no more. There would be many outside people, many of whom would tend to keep quiet. It would not be surprising if the interpretation offered by the Financial Adviser in the Ministry prevailed because he had cited past precedents.I said the only way was to speak with the Minister beforehand and explain the case to him. As usual, Prof. Menon heard me and said “OK, I will arrange a meeting with him and I will come with you. But you will have to do the explaining.” So the day before the Council meeting, he arranged our meeting with Dr Murli Manohar Joshi. I remember, it was January 14, ‘Makar Sankrant’. Makar Sankrant is an important day for many of us, and particularly Maharashtrians. Of course, I took tilgul with me and gave it to the Minister with the traditional saying, “Please accept this tilgul and always say nice things.”

Then I explained the case to him. I said it would come up in the Council meeting the next day and that the Financial Adviser in the Ministry had expressed his inability to support the proposed promotions policy. I went on to explain why the decision of the Adviser was not fair to our staff. I think he understood my reasoning and said, “I will see what can be done.”

Next day at the Council meeting, I spoke on the item on behalf of IIT Bombay. Immediately, the Secretary in the Ministry spoke to say that the Ministry could not approve the item because of the negative views of the Financial Adviser. A few other persons, including one or two Members of Parliament, also spoke on the item. The Minister summed up by saying, “We need to look into the matter further. I think we will find a way around it.” The minutes were suitably worded to indicate that there would be more discussion and in fact eventually, the Ministry did agree with some modifications to what we had suggested. Sometimes, this is the way you need to operate. We have to remember that I could present the case to the Minister only because Prof. Menon could arrange that meeting and had said, “I will come with you.”

Prof. M. G. K. Menon, Chairman, BOG, presenting the Life Time Achievement Award to Prof. S. P. Sukhatme.

I could speak a lot more about Prof. Menon and recall more interactions with him. I recall that he and his wife, Mrs Indumati Menon, once came and had dinner with us.I had mentioned earlier that he grew up in Jodhpur. My wife was also from Jodhpur and spent her childhood there. We had a very pleasant evening and they exchanged stories of the city in which they had grown up. In passing,I must also recall a very special moment for me when Prof. Menon presented the Institute’s first Lifetime Achievement Award to me in 2001. He specifically came from Delhi to give me the award on that day.

It may be best to stop now and to sum up by saying “He was a gem of a person, a real visionary and a great supporter of the IIT system.”

In his passing away, the nation has lost somebody who was a true Indian and did so much for the good of our people.

May he rest in peace.

(Excerpts from a talk given by Prof. S.P. Sukhatme, former Director, IIT Bombay, on Alumni Day, December 25, 2016.)

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