Bereaved father wins 12-yr-long battle with courier firm

Scientist who fought against int'l firm that botched up a courier containing his son's remains speaks of how his son inspired him to emulate Dr Abdul Kalam, and how the ex-president nudged him on

Inspiration can be found in the most unexpected and unkind of circumstances, and from the most unlikely of people. Be it a parable from the man who was president of India or innocent curious words uttered by a dying son, or a 12-year-long battle to set right the wrongs. 

Inspiration: Prof K Venkat Rao, a former ISRO scientist, with
Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.

#1: A hard-won battle
Four days ago, the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) passed the verdict in an exceptional case. It ordered the international courier firm FedEx to compensate K Venkat Rao, a former ISRO scientist, to the tune of Rs 5.5 lakh because it failed to deliver or return his dead son's remains after undertaking the responsibility.

Om Prakash,
Prof Rao's son, who died due to a rare neurological disorder on May 10, 2000

The son, Om Prakash, was a little over 16 when he passed away on May 10, 2000, due to a rare neurological disorder that no expert has yet been able to pin down. Rao could not rest till he found out what had gone wrong. So he decided to courier his son's organs to scientists in the US for research.

Professor Rao, head of department of aeronautics and civil, at an engineering college in Coimbatore, told MiD DAY, "After several inconclusive diagnoses in Thiruvananthapuram, and negative responses from experts in the US, UK and Japan, Om's condition deteriorated. He slipped into a coma on May 7, 2010, and three days later, he passed away."

An autopsy was conducted and Om's lungs, brain, blood and cerebral fluid were preserved by the hospital.
Haunted by the question of what claimed his son's life, Rao decided to donate his son's brain and lungs for comprehensive research to find out what was wrong with him. 

"As a father, I wished to see him living through others. So we proposed to donate all his vital organs to the deserving humanity and medical fraternity. Our aim as parents was also for the scientists to diagnose the root cause of this rare ailment," he said.

Dr Bruce H Cohen in the US showed his interest to undertake the research. His associate, Dr Steven J Zullo, advised Rao to send his son's organ samples through FedEx.

Rao contacted the FedEx office in Kerala. He was told that for the special packaging of the organs, with dry ice, he would have to visit Mumbai. On June 23, 2000, Rao visited the international airport in Mumbai with the required permissions.

Rao alleged that FedEx not only refused to fly the organs, they would not even resend the package to Thiruvananthapuram. The aggrieved father filed a case in the consumer court in Kerala. It was set aside. He then approached the consumer disputes redressal commission NCDRC, where the judgment awarding him the compensation was finally passed.

Though Rao is satisfied with the judgment, he has decided to challenge the order in the Supreme Court. "My intention is to ensure that a stringent message is sent through the Om Prakash case, and it is used as a reference in future. Our only aim was to know the reason that led to our son's death, but we were deprived of this on account of FedEx."

He added, "It has been 12 years since my son passed away and we are still waiting to know the reason for his death. I had been to the US in 2010 to touch base with Dr Zullo, but after writing numerous mails, I could not meet him or get any response."

#2: His son's father
Rao's distressing story would have ended here, with an epilogue of Rao's pursuit of the case in the apex court. Except that a few lines from his son, and later, a few more from APJ Abdul Kalam -- scientist, visionary, president, and for Rao, a confidante and counsel -- scripted the beginning of another chapter in his life.
Rao recalls, "In his last days, my son asked me, 'Daddy, they say great things about Dr Abdul Kalam. You say you have worked with him for some years. Can you not be more like him?'

"I didn't know it then, but that was my first inspiration. I replied to my son, 'I can. But I have a family so my dedication to work is limited. To be like Dr Kalam, I have to put in extra time, long hard hours, and I hope to do it shortly.'

"He must have sensed my aspiration. For, to pave the way for me so his own great ambition could be fulfilled, he left us when he was a tender 16, so I could put in those long hours, and follow in the footsteps of Dr Kalam, to do something for the society, especially for the student community."

#3: President's parallel
In the summer of 2000, Rao visited Dr Kalam in New Delhi. He told his former colleague the dialogue between him and his son.

Rao recalls Kalam as saying, 'Rao, you had a great son. While you had wonderful things planned for him, he wanted you to achieve greater things. Do whatever you can to fulfil his ambition.'

"To give me solace, Dr Kalam said, 'Sometimes life is sour, some fruits fall from the tree when they are not even fully ripe. But that's nature. No one can fight it, or blame it. But because of this parting, does the tree get sad and fail to bear sweet fruit? No, it continues to give more. That is the essence of life. Sour and sweet are alternate phenomena.'

"That was my second inspiration, to put in those extra hours, to take up teaching, and at all possible occasions, to inspire students of all ages. My son would always ask me why I couldn't be more like Abdul Kalam. Today, I think I am somewhere close to that. I have chosen to serve a rural institution. Oh my son, let your plan and my action fulfill your ambition for me and I know you are always looking down on me smiling.

Rao, a professor in Rural Thiruvananthapuram now, is helping students of all ages to achieve what they want.

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