Parmjit Singh Sehra

Meet the only Indian scientist to have visited the South Pole

By T V Jayan
Published: Monday 30 June 2003

-- The official history of India's presence in the Antarctic begins from December 6, 1981, when the icebreaker M V Polar Circle steamed out of Goa with a 21-member team. But would it be true to say that the real history begins a decade ago, in 1971? This was the year Parmjit Singh Sehra reached the cold continent as part of a joint Indo-Russian expedition to study the upper atmosphere. At that time Sehra was a young researcher in Ahmedabad-based Physical Research Laboratory. "[Vikram A] Sarabhai [the architect of the Indian space programme] had a keen desire of sending someone from India to the Soviet Launch Stations, especially the one in Antarctica, so as to avail of the rare opportunity provided by the Hydrometerorological Services of the ussr," recalls Sehra in his book A Visit to South Pole. "But none were ready for this venture because it involved great dangers and risk of life. The India Meteorological Department (imd) had already withdrawn from their earlier commitment." Sehra was hand-picked by the great scientist and, unlike the venerable imd, had no qualms.

He spent 18 months in the Antarctic, working at Molodezhnaya, headquarters of the Soviet Antarctic expedition. Sehra and his Russian counterparts launched 60 rockets into the atmosphere. He writes: "When the weather is extremely bad with very strong winds, we sometimes do have to crawl to reach the work place and to survive in good health. Our living-quarters are on the foot of the highest ridge, which we have to climb up twice and climb down twice everyday to accomplish our rocket sounding work, and in bad weather climbing is replaced by crawling." They found that unusual polar winter warmings are caused by an increase in the supply of energy in the form of a vertical flux of geothermal energy and by radioactive and photochemical processes taking place in the upper atmosphere. His findings -- among the earliest on upper atmospheric winds over the Antarctica -- were published in prestigious international research journals such as Nature and the Journal of Geophysical Research.

The climax was the odyssey to the South Pole. He writes: "I got lost in my deep thoughts while standing at the bottom of the world (90 South) on a high ice-covered plateau more than 9,000 feet above sea level. The temperature at that time was -60c and the pressure much below the normal". For Sehra, the occasion is a historico-mythical one: "It was the place first reached by the great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen about 60 years ago. On January 17, 1912 about a month after Amundsen, Captain Scott and four other Englishmen stood on the same spot who were later trapped by a blizzard and never returned home." South Pole apart, he has also circumnavigated the Antarctic ocean, the first Indian to do so.

Sehra came back an Antarctic research enthusiast. "Antarctica was a great experience. I wanted to share it with all. On August 15, 1972, India's 25th Independence Day, I sent a letter to the then prime minister Mrs Indira Gandhi from Antarctica to impress upon her the need for India seriously looking at Antarctic studies. But, I did not get any reply." The government wasn't interested in him, but others were. His work at Antarctica earned him fellowships to international scientific societies such as the Royal Meteorological Society of the uk, the American Meteorological Society, and the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society. Sehra became a globetrotting scientist/academic, working in institutions such as the World Meteorological Organisation.

Today, he is 56 years old and teaches in the agro-meteorology department of Ludhiana-based Punjab Agricultural University. The Indian presence in the Antarctic is 24-expedition old. Does he feel left out? He writes: "We human beings like to dream. While in Antarctica, I too used to dream of opening an Indian Research Base in Antarctica but I never knew that on my return to India, the source of my dreams and hopes will no longer be in this world. Vikram A Sarabhai would have certainly appreciated my ambitions and dreams and also might have made them true... It should be now our commitment to achieve all the goals the great soul had".

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