Breathing Life

Where machines fail, DRDO takes care of the men

Ghazala Wahab

Even as the DRDO has been grappling with machines, read weapon systems, it has taken a few successful strides when it comes to the man behind the machines. Given the extreme conditions, not only weather but also operational, under which the Indian soldier is required to keep his body and should together, it is important to ensure that he is not only physically fit but also comfortable. Moreover, his motivation does not dipowing to his work environment. India is perhaps one of the only countries in the world with drastically varied climatic conditions. While on the Siachen glacier the temperature hovers around -20 to -40 degrees, in addition to fierce bone-chilling winds, in the deserts of Rajasthan the temperature easily crosses 50 degree Celsius. Then, of course, there are the rain-fed, snake-infested forests of the Northest. Aerospace and underwater warfare are other emerging areas that make extraordinary demands on the fighter.

Life Sciences have been an integral part of the DRDO. Of the 50 laboratories scattered all over the country,10, including Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences, Defence Institute for Psychological Ressearch, Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences, Defence Agricultureal Research Laboratory are dedicated to the human resources, taking care of such aspects as training, physiological development, psychology, nutrition, health care and so on. Though it would be churlish to jump to conclusions about the success of life sciences, it does seem that at least in this area the DRDO has met with more success than failure. Moreover, this is one area were the DRDO has been involving the private sector in a big way, mostly in the production stage and at times in the research stage as well. Decides, this is one area where the benefits of the DRDO research are also enjoyed by the civil sector.

The priority at the moment in life sciences is surviving and coping in the nuclear, biological and chemical environment. Apart form manufacturing detectors and gas chronomatographs to measure the biological and chemical discharge in the environment, the DRDO has also made ensembles for soldiers complete with a suit, face mask and a filter with canister. The nuclear gear for the quick-reaction teams has been developed in association with the private sector company Duckback. Says a visibly proud Dr. W Selvamurthy, Chief Controller, Research and Development (Life Sciences), DRDO, “So far, we have already supplied NBC clothing worth Rs 127 crores to the armed forces.” The armed forces, however, are also buying NBC gear from abroad. At the last count, the services have already placed the order for more than 3,00,000 Individual Protection Equipment under the fast-track scheme through the DRDO. The chief controller, however, says that he is unaware of this. The gear apart, the DRDO has also developed Underground Integrated Field Shelters which can house up to 30 soldiers each for four days, by which time the NBC decontamination process would have taken effect. Buried two metres underground the shelters would be self-sufficient in terms of food, beverages and bunk beds. The field trials for this are over and the shelters are currently under production by a private firm in Mumbai. For detection of chemical agents in the environment, the DRDO claims to have developed a there colour litmus paper, over which it also enjoys a patent. The DRDO is also working on developing and disseminating educational kits to create awareness about the NBC threat.

A major thrust of the life sciences division of the DRDO is equipping the personnel on the high altitude, in the desert area and in the sea. Earlier it only had to cope with those at the Siachen glacier, now however, after the Kargil war it has to take into account the entire corps worth of troops placed in the high altitude area. The DRDO has been working on developing low wight, highly-flexible and yet insulated clothing from synthetic fabrics for the personnel in the high altitude area. Though most of the clothing has been accepted by the forces, the DRDO made gloves and socks have not met with requisite approval. “Our biggest limitation is that as a nation we do not approve of using animal skin and fur for making clothes. We have to use only synthetic material, which has its advantages and disadvantages. Unlike the fur-lined gloves and socks, which the Russians use, our gear is lighter and provides greater mobility. But it also allows cold to seep in. We are working on overcoming this problem.” Recently, Defence Agricultural Research Laboratory established a germplasm centre (GPC) of German Angora rabbit under United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to develop high quality angora wool which is warmer then other wools. This will perhaps solve a few problems.

The DRDO has also developed a self-cooling gear for the armed personnel operating in the desert area. The gear is insulated with tiny pipes that run cool water through the clothes keeping the person cool in the extreme heat of the desert. Though vey huge and cumbersome at the moment, which makes it suitable for use only inside a tank, the DRDO is currently working on miniaturizing the contraption. Eventually, it wants the contraption to be so small that even those who go on patrol in the desert can wear it. The DRDO hopes that once that goes into production, they can make it available to even civilians. “Even the long distance truck drivers can use this.” Says Dr Selvamurthy, Similarly, for the submariners. It is developing submarine escape suits which have so far been imported from Russia.

Even as clothing elicits mixed reactions, the DRDO is quite proud of its research and development in the agrosector. Using bio preservatives and specialized packaging. Called anaerobic packaging, the DRDO has developed a range of packaged food, which has a shelf life of at least 10 months without refrigeration. The food includes heat and eat foodstuff like palak paneer, matter paneer, aloo gobhi, suji halwa, vegetarian pulao and so on. The technology developed by the DRDO was transferred to the private industry and now these products produced by such brands as MTR among other, are available over the shelf to both the military and the civilians.

For areas where it would not be possible for personnel to even heat the food or immerse the food pouch in boiling water, it has developed self-heating packaging. The two-layered package contains a water sac and a chemical coated sheet. All one needs to do is puncture the sac so that the water runs over the chemical coated sheet. As water trickles down to the chemical sheet, a reaction takes place, causing the water to boil. In about 10 minutes, the food inside the package becomes piping hot in the plains; and in the high—altitude areas it would be warm enough to eat. The patented packaging is one of the DRRDO’s star products.

As the DRDO has devised nutrition scales for the armed personnel depending upon their area of operations, each packet explicitly mentions its nutritional and calorific value. That apart, it has also developed a detoxifying, anti-oxidation fruit juice, extracted from some berries found exclusively in the Ladakh region. Christened Leh Berry, the juice is also available over the counter in the metropolitan cities. It has also developed a technology to preserve and package the tender coconut water. Called Cocojal, it is available over the counter.

The organization has also developed a number of herbal products to treat personnel suffering from various high altitude ailments, including skin conditions, such as leukoderma, eczema cold and sunburn. Currently under clinical trials, these products will then be given to the private sector for production. As far as R&D is concerned, the DRDO has been doing a relatively good job in the life sciences, but the trouble happens after the technology is transferred either to the private or the public sector for mass production. As Dr Selvamuthy says, “Often in the production line our technology gets compromised as the production units don’t always adhere o stringent quality control measures.”

Developing law-cast, effective technologies to ease the life of a soldier has been just one aspect of DRDO’s life sciences laboratories. They also work as standardizing agencies. In the last few decades, the DRDO has evolved recruitment standards for the armed forces personnel which are being followed throughout the country. These standards are based on periodic anthropometric surveys, measuring the height, weight and body structure of different people taking into account their ethnic peculiarities. These physical standards are reviewed every 15 years. Moreover, Defence Institute for psychological Research is constantly working on the psychological conditions of soldiers exposed to war like conditions for an extended period. In collaboration with the Armed Forces’ Medical Services, the DRDO has been developing various therapeutical measures to maintain a soldier’s psychological health, which is often a casualty among those posted on the Siachen glacier.

Happily, in the last few years, DRDO’s research in the field of genetic engineering has yielded positive civil spin-offs, which has not only enhanced the organisation’s reputation but has also benefited local people. The agricultural laboratories have transferred technologies to local farmers in various parts of the country. Especially in Ladakh, where farmers now have been able to grow such vegetables as tomatoes, okra and capsicum in simulated environment.

In the last few years, it is evident that the DRDO has increasingly been realizing that cooperation with the private sector can be mutually beneficial. It has been so at least in the field of life science. Perhaps, they can move towards greater cooperation in other areas as well. When its report card is finally written, it is clear which subjects DRDO is going to top.



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