Meet Ipsita Biswas, scientist who developed non-lethal plastic bullets
It pierced her heart, the picture of a young girl’s face disfigured with pellet injuries that surfaced on social media after clashes between Kashmiri residents and Army personnel over the killing of militant group Hizbul Muhahideen commander Burhan Wani in 2016. Pellets, also known as riot control ammunition, were being widely used to control crowds.
However, after coming under fire for grievous injuries caused to civilians in Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) by the pellets, the Union home ministry had set up a panel to come up with a non-lethal alternative to the pellets to control riots.
This was how plastic pellets were developed and tested by scientist Ipsita Biswas, 57, and her team at the Terminal Ballistics Research Laboratory (TBRL), Chandigarh, under Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in just one-and-a half years.
“I work with life-saving devices and that too for our forces. If somebody saves a little bird, that is in itself a good feeling and when I work to build armour for the forces responsible for our protection, it comes with a responsibility and feels great,” she says.
Proud of her team’s work, Biswas points out that the plastic bullets are non-lethal and serve as a means to disperse crowds. No special weapon is required to fire them and AK 47’s work just fine, which 70% of the Indian Army is equipped with. Unlike a pellet (burst), only one plastic bullet is released at a time and hits the area of target. Since the speed of the bullet decreases as it nears the target, it reduces fatalities,” she says.
A scientist with 20 years standing, Biswas heads three technical divisions at TBRL, which she joined in 1998 when she came to Chandigarh. She leads a team of 10 scientists in areas of test and evaluation of life saving devices, characterisation of armour material and more.
Conferred with the Narishakti Puruskar in March 2019 by President Ram Nath Kovind for her contributions to the army and paramilitary forces, Biswas is currently working on frangible bullets, a specific application for sky marshals, which crumbles to pieces when it strikes something harder than itself with no damage to the aircraft in the case of a hijack attempt.
Even though she’s from a family of engineers, Biswas, who loves math, had always wanted to pursue research and development.After completing her postgraduate degree in applied mathematics from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, in 1988, Biswas did not pursue a PhD because she had filled a job application for DRDO and “in the first shot in 1988, right after my postgraduation, I got the job at DRDO in Delhi after an interview,” she says.
She took up the chance immediately as her parents thought it was a good opportunity. “So I did not go anywhere else, not even for UGC interview,” says Biswas, who was born and brought up in Kolkata.
Driven by curiosity and indulged in developing life-saving devices, Biswas has been evaluating bullet-proof jackets and mine protected vehicles for the armed forces and paramilitary jawans. “Working on it for over 10 years, a partially completed project still requires work on bullet-proof helmets. Helmets are crucial because head injury can kill a person. So it is more important to come-up with a successful bullet-proof helmet,” she says.
About challenges, Biswas says usually women are perceived as being unable to do complicated jobs as they don’t want to shift their focus from their families. “Women understand science just as well as men but the demands of a job in science and research leads to problems in families as women are expected to work during certain hours, only after finishing household chores,” she says.
That’s why balancing everything is important, says Biswas, who stays up till late to finish her reading, both personal and work-related, after her family has gone to sleep. “I don’t mix the two. I find time for my studies somewhere in between.”
Asked whether the glass ceiling exists in her field of work, Biswas says, “the younger generation of women does not have to worry about it because we have done it for them.We have faced the biases and taboos around women in science and now everyone knows that women know and understand science equally well. They just have to explore now. Every profession has its hurdles but if you are driven, there is no limit,” she says. “There is no limitation to opportunities for women.” What’s her Eureka moment? “ It is yet to come” she signs off with her signature modesty.
Biswas, who prefers reading Bengali books and is also a Harry Potter fan, finds her inspiration in Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. She says she met him when he was working in DRDO and admired him for his work and simplicity.
FEATHERS IN HER CAP
Recipient of Technology Group Award,
Agni Award for Excellence in Self Reliance,
HEMSI Team Award for Meritorious Service.