India must have Policy that streamlines the needs of the Diaspora to help the country’s needs: Jagdish Saluja

With all the talk of the reduction of  Red Tape under the Modi Government, the new opportunities will be many in the areas of environment, energy, defense, health care and infrastructure development. I wish I was young again, says Indian American nuclear Scientist and Entrepreneur Dr. Jagdish Saluja in an interview with Dr. M. Mahalingam of GRFDT.

Could you tell us about your family and yourself until you had left for the US in the year 1955?

My dad, Kirpa Ram Saluja moved to Bombay (Matunga) in April- May of 1940 to work for the Dalmia’s to inspect the tents for the War effort. Dad was concerned all the time about the progression of the war in Europe, the advance of the Japanese in to Burma and almost to the borders of India. Because of safety concerns he sent the family back to the village (Abdoolapur- now part of Pakistan). This uprooting affected our schooling. After the war things were tense again because of concerns as to what would happen after India received its Independence in 1947

We returned to Bombay (this time to Thana) after the end of the war in 1945. One of my brothers was still in Lahore (DAV College) and 2nd one stayed with the Uncle in Abdoolapur. I with three younger brothers & two sisters were in Thana with Mom. In Thana I joined St. John the Baptist School until graduation in 1951, after which I went to St Xavier College in Bombay, majoring in physics and mathematics. I graduated with a B.Sc in physics  and maths in 1955.

You were born in 1934 in the village called Abdoolapur, Jhelum, Pakistan. But you grew up in India. Do you face any ambivalence in terms of your Diasporic loyalty?

In the village of Abdoolapur (total population approx. 100), we were the only Hindu family and had lived harmoniously since 1886. My grandfather owned about 80% of the land by 1947 and it was tough for him to move to India, leaving everything he had built. The decision was forced upon him by, my dad and uncle who worked for the Bharat Bank in Delhi at that time

As far as my loyalty goes, I was born an Indian, I grew up as an Indian in Bombay. I changed my citizenship to American, in 1968 when I started working on the US Space Program. This required secret clearance.

What is your point of view on the partition of India in 1947? Was it a political ploy or not? 

The partition was the result of Jinnah wanting to satisfy his ego; he was not a religious man. The concept of Pakistan was a result of a Masters Thesis by one of the Muslim scholars, I believe in Oxford. This concept was presented to Jinnah then but he ignored it at that time. It is unfortunate that it happened. The people of Pakistan and the surrounding countries are paying a price for it today

After obtaining your Ph.D, you came back to India in search of a job in the Indian nuclear establishments,but, you did not get a call from them.  At that time, your family friend Dr. Zakir Husain advised you to return back.  Why did he suggest you so? What happened there after?

I met the then President at Rashtrapati Bhavan. After talking to him about my background he essentially said that perhaps India was not ready to take advantage of my services at the present time and that I should go back. Since it was already 6 months since I had gotten my PhD, I was getting rusty and started planning my trip back. I talked to Prof Ram in Cincinnatti, Ohio and Prof Ziya Akcasu at the University of Michigan. Ram sent me my plane ticket to come back & Ziya Akcasu sent me $1500 for my trip expenses for the way. Within a month after arrival, I was working for Westinghouse Electric in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on the Nuclear Rocket Engine Program. 

What prompted you to write a biography that is in the making? How did you get the inspiration to write a book on your life journey?

Prof R K. Jain of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) undertook a Study of The Saluja Family Tree back in 1990. The study was completed in 1992 and the report prepared and circulated amongst the Saluja Family members. No one provided any comments, including me as I was too busy in my business related activities. After my retirement from Business in 2007, I revisited the Family Tree report. In reviewing the report, I discovered several errors and omissions. I had some difficulty in locating some family members in the original report. I therefore decided to update the report. The result was the book, “Migration of Indians across continents spanning generations (A case History of the Saluja Family)”. This book was published in 2010 and is available from Amazon. Com. A year later my younger son Samir, suggested that I write my Biography detailing my vast experiences in the last 70 years and thus this book. 

You have globe trotted very often for various reasons. Could you share your global experience as a ‘transnational’ Indian –American immigrant?

After my MSE in Nuclear Engineering in 1959 from the University of Michigan, I went to work for the Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), one of the original laboratories of the US Atomic Energy Commission. I was assigned to work on the Instrumentation & Control of the Juggernaut Reactor (250KW research reactor).  Juggernaut Reactor was supposed to be the next step up from the 10KW research reactor built in Feb 1957. The 10KW was the forerunner of the original Chicago Pile-1 (CP-1), which was the world's first artificial nuclear reactor. The first artificial, self-sustaining, nuclear chain reaction was initiated within CP-1, on December 2, 1942.

At Argonne I met many nuclear scientists from around the world; Japan, Korea, Taiwan, India, Turkey, Pakistan, France, Spain, Italy, and U.K. At the University of Michigan I had made friends with students from Philippines, Indonesia and many other countries including the Soviet Union. Therefore my first trip around the world in 1961 was to visit many of my friends whom I had met at Argonne or from the University of Michigan. They all spoke English; so language was not a barrier. They showed me around the cities.

As a settled Indian origin American, What kind of relationship (cultural, economic and political) do you try to maintain with India?

Since I have a couple of brothers and two sisters in India and my wife’s family has relations in Delhi and Punjab, I keep on visiting India almost every year. My children visit India for site seeing every 3 to 4 years with their children.

In my business, I tried to develop some small Power Projects in Goa and elsewhere but of no avail. Doing business in India for a small American Company is almost impossible. 

Are you an ‘Indian American’ or ‘American Indian’?  Which phrase you would prefer to use? Why is that so?

Indian American is the right phrase. American Indians are the original inhabitants of the U.S; The Red Indians.

Are you a member of any of the Indian Diasporic associations in the US?


As a parent of an Indian American, What are the issues or dilemma of second and third generation Indian youth in the US?

I did not have an issues living with American Families, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Downers Grove, Illinois, and Gainesville, Florida. My children likewise did not encounter any problems either. My younger son however did encounter some problems after 9/11 because of his name as one of the terrorist, had a similar name. He had been stopped by the policetwice and I told him to ignore it because of their ignorance. Both my boys went to University of Michigan. The older one; Sunil also went to Oxford, U.K, University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and MIT. He is; Director of a Neonetology Group in Seattle, Washington and the younger one works for Microsoft in Seattle.

What cultural changes have your family undergone?  What were the challenges of your family for integration in the host land?

They blended themselves very well and consider themselves as American citizens, which they are.

You went to the US as a student migrant, later you evolved to an economic immigrant and thereafter, a Diasporic entrepreneur. Could you explain in detail about your evolution? What are the prospects for Indian Diasporic entrepreneurs in the US at present?

Consider the times I was growing up; the 40’s. My Dad being an avid reader had already picked up a field of endeavor for me; I was going to be a Nuclear Engineer. He had decided on this in 1947- 1948 time frame. He had read about the Nuclear Chain Reaction in Chicago in Dec1942. My eldest brother was going to be a Civil Engineer, #2 would be a Business major, I am #3, #4 would be in Agriculture, #5 would be a Mechanical Engineer and #6 would be an Aeronautical Engineer. The girls would do Home Science. No body was allowed to question parents unlike these days. We all worked hard to satisfy his dreams. My Dad had a construction company; building roads, bridges, dams, railroad tracks from Calcutta to Siliguri in Assam. The old tracks passed through the part of India, which went into Pakistan.

During one of his trips to the US in 1975, my Dad accompanied me to a store to get a few things from there. I picked up only those but my Dad kept on adding more and more. It was the last week of the month and I had limited funds. I told my Dad that I had forgotten to bring my checkbook.  He handed me his wallet and told me to take what I needed. He had only 50 and a100 dollar bills; so I took the 50dollar bill. He would not take the change back. At this point in time, I had 2 kids; one 7 year old, and the 2,nd 2 year old. I was 41 years old then. At this age my Dad with only High School education already had 8 children.

I asked my self a logical question; how would I be able to comfortably send my 2 kids through School & College in my new country. It is this reasoning that led me to think that I should, one day start my own company; perhaps some business sense may have rubbed off on me. I left Westinghouse Electric end of 1977 and formed my own company; Viking Systems International to concentrate on Safety of Nuclear Power Plants. The very same year there was a Nuclear Power Plant accident in Pennsylvania and the Nuclear Industry in the US has to this day not completely recovered from it.

Problems with the Nuclear Industry forced me to look at other areas of endeavor. I looked at Energy from Biomass, Solar Photovoltaics, and Biogas. I talked to the government regulators of Commercial Nuclear and Defense Nuclear to provide them expert reviews. The contracts from the above fields got me started. Too much reliance on Government work and foreign Joint Ventures, which never worked finally brought my company down and I closed shop in 2007. In the mean time my children got their education and I never repented my venture. I would never make a millionaire like my Dad.

Prospects for new entrepreneurs are plenty in today’s climate; Health Care, Software and even in Nuclear internationally. 

Could you comment on the emerging role of Indian American community in the US?

In the 50’s there were very few Indians; in spite of this fact, in 1957 we had one Indian American from Yuba City, California to become the first US Congress man in Washington. Today we have 2 governors out of 50 in the US, several congress men from various States, Presidents of Universities, and Indian Americans at the helm of large corporations and many billionaire entrepreneurs. Also there are 2 Indian Americans in Professional Baseball, and 2 Indian Americans in the news media; ABC (Reena Ninan) & CBS (Vineeta Nair).

Do you think that the Indian governments have capitalized upon the potentials of the Indian American community for India’s growth and development so far?

I would say no. There are a few Indian Entrepreneurs in the Software Business that have large operations in India. They have taken their money there and hired cheap labor to make it worthwhile for them. Too much red tape and corruption makes it prohibitive to develop business that they should be able to. For example I was asked to develop a 100MWe Power Plant in M.P by one of the Ministers there. He wanted 20% Equity in the Plant for providing Land, water and utility connections. I told him that 20% was very excessive, to which he said, ’we will raise the Electricity Rates”. In my mind I thought, he wants to screw the public. I never got in touch with him again. I have more examples like this in Maharashtra, and Rajasthan. 

You have occupied very eminent positions as a nuclear scientist in the US.  Did you play the role of a facilitator for enhancing India’s nuclear capabilities at any point of time given your various positions?

Back in 1989- 1990, Mr Suresh Katti, Chairman of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India had asked me if we could provide our Mobile Robot which our Company had developed to retrieve Heavy Water that was leaking out from their RAP’s Plant in Rajasthan. I went to RAPS to find out more about their needs. On return to the US, we were able to ascertain that we could help them.  Then we applied for a license to export our Robot to India; this was denied, as we could not ascertain that it would not be moved from there, as India had not signed the Non Proliferation Treaty. Several years earlier I had asked Dr. Iyengar that I was available to help out either personally or via my contacts. His answer was that they were self-sufficient and did not need help.

As a Diasporic Indian, How do you see India-US relation in the next ten years?

With all the talk of the reduction of Red Tape under the Modi Government, the new opportunities will be many in the areas of; Environment, Energy, Defense, Health Care and Infrastructure development. I wish I was young again. 

Have you obtained dual citizenship scheme offered by the Indian government? What is your point of view on dual citizenship scheme?

If the scheme exists, I am not aware of it. I am a US Citizen and carry a PIO Card. I am for the scheme if it is offered, but I am too old for it. My children were born & brought up here and will not see any point in it for them.

What do you think about the Indo-nuclear agreement? Is the agreement boon or bane to India?  Please give an elaborate answer.

I am all for the Agreement. I wish it had happened long ago. Countries such as;  Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Spain, Italy, France, U.K, Switzerland, etc, all of them signed long ago. Indian Nuclear Program is older than the one in Spain, Italy, Taiwan, Korea,& Japan. Look where they are in this business today. The Nuclear Chain Reaction was demonstrated in 1942 and President Dwight Eisenhower started his Atoms for Pease Program in 1957. Many countries took advantage of it by sending their scientists for training at the Argonne National Laboratory, including India. Other countries took advantage and developed their Programs but India decided to go it alone; hence, they are where they are.

As a nuclear scientist, how would you assess the Indian nuclear capabilities, establishments and research at present?

Most of my work has been with Pressure Water Reactors- The Westinghouse type. The Boiling Water Reactors (BWR’s) were developed at Argonne National Laboratory and later promoted by General Electric. I was present at the meeting when DrHomiBhabba, came to the Laboratory to get a briefing on the BWR Technology and then visit the first plant in Morris, Illinois. He opted for the BWR Technology for their first Nuclear Plants. All subsequent Power Plants were, Heavy Water Plants because of their need for Plutonium for their bomb effort. They then proceeded to develop The Thorium Cycle as India had abundance of Thorium. I have not kept up with their Research Capabilities in the last 15 years.

In the US, the Nuclear Sector is Private; in India it is in the hands of the Government. All hiring and firing is constrained; not so in the US. When I came to India in 1966 after my Phd, I applied at Trombay without going through my Dad’s influence. I had to return back.

I am sure the Indian Nuclear scientists are very capable; do they know everything? No, only God knows everything. Over confidence can be harmful. In the US, they get consultants from wherever they can to solve the problem at hand. This is not necessarily true in India. In the US, there are many Universities offering Nuclear Curriculum, In India at least there was only one in 1967; IIT- Kanpur.

As a Diasporic Indian, in your view, could you comment on the perception of India as a rising power?

In a Democratic Society that we have, and with Corruption rooted in every sector of the economy and non-functional Legal system, it may take more than two terms of Modi’s Government to move things in the right direction. In China they can catch them and they are soon history. We are not China.

In your view, what is the important contribution of Indian Diaspora to India so far?

I have not been following their activities, other than a few Software Companies that I know who are active there

As a diasporic Indian, what are your expectations from the government of India?  Do you think that the Indian government needs to move forward in terms of its policy towards Diaspora?

Definitely, yes; India must have Policy that streamlines the needs of the Diaspora to help the country’s needs. Otherwise it will discourage people. One of my friends from Ireland has made about 20 trips to India and has now given up.

Interview Date:   Wednesday, Apr 22, 2015
Person Name:   Jagdish Saluja

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