Solar can equip India to become a great country: K Subramanya

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Born in a small town like Hassan in Karnataka could not deter him from reaching for the sky, with the sun as his guiding light. This simple yet intelligent boy would rise to heights, believed his school teachers. His passion for the environment and determination to achieve the impossible has made him the man he is today. Meet the solar man, who believes in the potential of solar energy to build a better world, who lives a simple life in harmony with nature, who aspires to bring light to more than a billion lives, who has great faith in Generation X, and is optimistic about seeing his country on the world map as a super power.

In a freewheeling chat with Srabani Sen of Electronics Bazaar, K Subramanya, chief executive officer, Tata BP Solar, looks back with pride at the millions of lives the company has touched and impacted. With about three decades of rich experience, Subramanya is steering Tata BP Solar into an exciting new future. His leadership has made a lasting impact on the solar industry. He narrates the interesting and eventful story of his life, which begins in a small town, but with the backing of a large family.

Carefree childhood

In those days, my birth place Hassan was known as the poor man’s Ooty. Born to a father who was an honest and ideal government school teacher, my life was simple, yet I was content. Ours was a large family—of five sons and five daughters; I was last among the sons, followed by three sisters. My father is no more today, but he continues to be my inspiration. The ethics and value systems that he taught us, are still with us. His lessons on how to value hard work, commitment, doing one’s duty, and on staying positive, gave us all a deep rooted belief in traditional values. Ours was a God fearing and emotionally attached family.

As my father valued education, he ensured that we all studied in good institutions. I studied in St Joseph High School and later in Malnad College of Engineering, one of the premier colleges in Karnataka, and both had fantastic faculties. As a child, I was intelligent but not studious, and my parents were never strict with me, maybe because of the large family that they had to look after. Also, my father used to get transferred from place to place, paying the price of being a non-corrupt school teacher.

However, I was very interested in sports—cricket and badminton were my favourites. I was a champion in marble playing. I used to win marbles and sell them to my mates at discounted rates so that they can play again. I was always good in numbers. I recall that once I won a mathematical race in high school. We had to run half the distance, pick up a puzzle, solve it, and run the remaining distance to reach the destination. I was way ahead of all my competitors as I hardly took any time in solving the number puzzle. Even today, I am very quick and comfortable with numbers.

A BSc in mathematics was, therefore, an obvious choice for further studies after I finished school. After that, I wanted to do MSc in mathematics or criminology, but suddenly I received a telegram from my elder brother in Mumbai (who is a civil engineer and runs a construction company) that I must join engineering. So I joined engineering in electronics and communications field. I completed my engineering degree in 1975 from Mysore University, with distinction and was among the rank holders.

Passion for solar

Before I got my engineering results, I flew to Mumbai and became fascinated with the city’s speed, dynamism, efficiency, commerce and the people. My brother was keen that I do an MTech from IIT Bombay; I got selected in the written test but somehow did not make it in the interview. So I opted for a job and started a career in a consulting company in Mumbai in 1975. Next, I worked for two years for a semiconductor company called Ruttonsha International Rectifiers.

I developed a passion for solar power when I started working with BHEL, Control Equipment Division, Bengaluru, in 1979. Coming from a semiconductor background, solar photovoltaics (PV) was a natural extension. BHEL was then making efforts to manufacture space grade solar cells with BARC, but eventually they were not successful. During that period, I developed a keen interest in the solar power industry as I worked actively with the solar ecosystem, and grasped what was happening across the globe. During this period, I did a lot of good work and travelled to the nooks and corners of the country—from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, to villages in Bihar to Arunachal Pradesh. Later in my career, of course, I travelled to countries in the SAARC region, Far East, Middle East, Africa, Europe and the Americas, pursuing business goals with missionary zeal.

I can recall some of the lasting impressions made on me during my BHEL days. When I visited the Andamans Islands in 1982, exploring the potential of solar power with a colleague from BHEL, it was announced over the local radio that: “Mr Subramanya and ……… have come to the Andamans and Nicobar Islands to improve the conditions of the people living in continuous darkness.” We were also interviewed at the All India Radio studio there. The honour and respect we received was an amazing experience.

Once when I had travelled to Salem Hills, I saw lots of solar lights but none of them were working and there were innumerable complaints from the village tribes. I walked with my boss through rough and tough into a tribal hamlet. Suddenly, we saw a light and heard sound in one busy shop, which sold desi liquor. We realised that this shopkeeper was tapping all the electricity for his business. It was an eye opener to me that even people in remote areas of India have such enterprise and technological capability. That was really a turning point for me. It made me realise that if this capability is put to work in a positive way, India can reach a higher level in the field of technology.

Birth of Tata bp Solar

I first thought of becoming an entrepreneur in 1985, when I had joined Tata Exports (now Tata International) and got exposed to international trade and commerce. Tata Exports was the number one Trading House in the country.  I was in two minds, whether to do the job or start on my own. But somehow, an inner voice told me to hang on and postpone the decision. The subsequent approval by the Government of India to my dream project changed my priorities.

I had joined Tata Exports to set up a solar project. It took four years to get a licence and government approval to set up the project. In November 1989, we got the approval and started looking for a suitable location to set up a unit. Finally, we settled on Bengaluru because it was the best hub for engineers, offices/factory sheds on rent were cheaper, the city had no labour problems, and an electronics ecosystem existed.

On December 31, 1989, I shifted to Bengaluru to establish Tata BP Solar. I was actively involved in conceptualisation and birth of Tata BP Solar in 1989. I stretched my imagination, resources and abilities to set up what is today India’s largest solar company. In fact, I evolved along with the company.

We started working from Diners business centre, and soon hired three sheds from the Karnataka Small Scale Industries Development Corporation at Electronics City. We grew very fast and had to hire 10 more sheds. We outgrew even that and bought 2 acres of land and established our first factory. When even that seemed inadequate, we took another 9.5 acres land at Electronics City Phase II. Today, we own four factories (out of which we rented out two), nine offices across the country, and employ more than 1000 people of which more than 200 are executives.

We started off in 1989 as a joint venture with British Petroleum’s solar arm called BP Solar. The initial days were very tough because there was no solar market in the country, and all the components and raw material had to be imported. Subsequently, we set up a solar cell manufacturing unit in 1996, which even todate is one of the most successful and efficient plants in the world. We made major investments in manufacturing solar cells and modules. While doing so, we realised that India lacked good quality batteries for the solar market. So we developed tubular plate battery range along with reputed Amco and offered a five year guarantee on it to customers.

Passion for innovation

It was really difficult to inculcate the spirit of innovation in a sector when there were no set benchmarks, but it is exciting to drive innovation. We kept conducting research along with BP Solar and came up with new solar solutions. Tata BP Solar has made some remarkable product innovations that have helped in lighting up many lives.

The Indian solar industry is currently facing the big challenge of reducing the cost of generating solar energy. So, it needs to increase its contribution towards the research efforts to find new materials, processes, systems and applications. This will improve the efficiency of PV cells and modules, and reduce the cost of converting solar light into electricity. I have been steering Tata BP Solar’s research programmes towards this—it is aimed at developing high efficiency solar cells, modules, products and systems through innovative processes, materials and designs. Tata BP Solar also closely works with equipment suppliers and academic institutes to assess the potential of new technologies such as selective emitters, anti-reflection coatings, edge isolation and silver printing, etc.

Team motivation is challenging

I am a private sector person and do not like hierarchical and bureaucratic ways of working. I believe in giving decision making powers to people, as I like freedom and meritocracy. I also like ethical systems, speed in decision making, innovation, diversity and mobility.

Motivating a team is certainly a major challenge, and something that hasn’t changed in all these years. One has to match your ideals and passion for success. It is all the more challenging in the solar sector because you don’t have enough skilled hands in this sector. Also, not all people complete the journey and reach the destination. Many board at one station and alight at the next. But as long as people work with you, you must try and get the best out of them. Try and find people who can be the pillars of the company and can play long innings, while you take on the responsibility to enlarge their canvas and help them to achieve their dreams and aspirations in the process.

Despite all hardships, I am confident Tata BP Solar has the best people in the industry, and that we can sustain this talent. We hire bright people from all over the country and train them in solar technology. We lay special emphasis for recruiting women.

Partners through life

My wife Usha has been a great partner and a pillar of strength in my life. I respect her for her strength, ideals and bonding with people. She was a bank employee but gave up her career to take care of our family. She is a good painter, a music lover and, of course, a fantastic cook.

I have two lovely daughters—Sindhu and Surabhi. Sindhu graduated from BMS College of Engineering, Bengaluru, and did her MS in computer science from Illinois. She is now working as a software engineer in the R&D division of Cisco, USA. Sindhu, a keen Bharatanatyam exponent, is married to Shreyas, an MS in computer science, who also works for Cisco. Surabhi has passed standard 12 with flying colours and has just joined an engineering college in Bengaluru to study computer science. She loves sports and music.

Both my daughters are nature lovers, care for the environment and are passionate about harnessing renewable energy. We are, in fact, a solar family.

Contribution to the nation

I would like to be remembered not only as a simple and incorrigible optimist, but somebody who has significantly contributed to the development of the solar energy sector in the country, and campaigned for the cause of the environment and sustainability.

I played a role in helping the government to conceptualise and design the Solar Mission as well as in its ongoing implementation. In 2008, I had presented to the Prime Minister’s office my dream of building a solar nation. The realisation that village electrification, liberating women from drudgery, enabling girl child to attend school, creating jobs locally, lighting up schools and hospitals, connecting children to the world, all depend on copious supply of energy and that solar can help in achieving this. These ideas are reflected in the Solar Mission, which is now being hailed as the world’s largest solar energy programme.

My contribution to the Indian industry goes far beyond the business interests of Tata BP Solar. I have been investing my personal time and efforts in the overall development of the solar energy sector in India by engaging Indian decision makers and opinion shapers from the media, academia, NGOs and the scientific and research community.

I am closely associated with several associations, institutions and trade bodies. I was invited by the India Semiconductor Association (ISA) and SEMI PV Group to be on their advisory panels, and by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) to chair its Renewable Energy Council. I was also invited by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) to launch and lead a new Solar Energy Task Force. I have chaired the Environment Council of the Karnataka chapter of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). I speak frequently at national and international forums. My canvas is very wide and I have the energy to work much more.

The future ahead

Five years down the line I will surely be engaged in two ways—working for social causes and continuing to be associated with solar energy (either as a consultant or an advisor). I will be writing, speaking and motivating more people into the field. I strongly believe that solar power can propel India to become a great country, where there will be no gap between the rich and the poor. I look at the world with great optimism and hope.

Apart from the potential of solar energy, I feel passionately for the environment and sustainable development. Every citizen must protect the planet earth and the environment. I am a great believer in the youth as well. I believe that India can prosper with the power of her young people, and can truly achieve a super power status. Today’s youth is very comfortable with technology and innovation.

Tata BP will continue building a great foundation, touching everybody’s lives. There is so much more to do in this field. I want to make Tata BP a progressive company and set a benchmark for others to emulate.

I want to make Tata BP the TCS and/or Infosys of the solar industry.

As a message to the industry, I would advise them to be proud of India. It is a great place to live and work. One should contribute in all possible ways to empower India. Despite a 30 year career behind me, I feel so fresh, energetic and more committed.

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THESE ARE A FEW OF MY FAVOURITE THINGS

Music: Semi-classical and soft music

Food: South Indian food, particularly the Karnataka style

Film: 3 Idiots

Book: Anything on the environment, energy and management

Dress: Whatever suits the climatic conditions, but I like to look elegant and smart

Colour: Blue

Historical figure: Swami Vivekananda

Actor: Kannada actor, Raj Kumar

I adore: Dr Abdul Kalam

THE THINGS I WOULD LIKE TO CHANGE

In the world: Make it borderless for people to move across nations.

In my workplace: Create a climate for continuous innovation

In India: Root out corruption

In society: Caring for each other, and for the environment

In myself: To be able to work for many more years

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