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K Subrahmanyam: Homi Bhabha - Scientist, visionary, dreamer

K Subrahmanyam  |  New Delhi 

Bhabha would have welcomed private sector participation in nuclear energy.

The country will celebrate the birth centenary of Homi Bhabha next week, on 30th October. Very few Indian scientists have been so closely identified with a field of science as Homi Bhabha has been with atomic energy. Very few scientists had such an intimate association with both business and government as he did. He conceptualised the birth and role of atomic energy in India. As early as in 1944 he got the Tata Trust to fund the establishment of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. He was the founder of the Department of Atomic Energy and the Atomic Energy Commission. He was a rare scientist who could sell a dream to both JRD Tata and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Bhabha was an early ‘prophet’ of the peaceful uses of the atom. In a grand leap of faith he visualised the three-stage atomic energy development programme for India which in the second stage would utilise thorium, abundantly available in India, as fuel. While there were and are skeptics about the programme — Dr Meghnad Saha led a crusade against it — it is an idea that has found revival with the renaissance in nuclear energy development due to concerns about climate change.

It is a tribute to Bhabha that in his centenary year India is announcing plans for nuclear energy expansion up to 470,000 Mw of energy by 2050 and the design of an advanced heavy water reactor using thorium fuel. This target cannot be achieved without opening the nuclear power sector to private industry and without commensurate expansion in the private sector engineering industry. The reluctance in certain quarters to open up to the private sector is likely to slow down the expansion of nuclear power in the country and make it difficult to reach the envisaged target.

One could say in retrospect perhaps that Bhabha was too optimistic about the pace of development of fission and fusion energy, but his vision for India is beginning to be realised after a 40-year interregnum when India was subjected to technology denial by the international community. At this stage private sector phobia should not be allowed to come in the way of realising his vision. Bhabha would have welcomed private sector participation in nuclear energy.

Bhabha was also an internationalist in the development of nuclear energy for India. His acquisition of the first light water reactor for Tarapur at a time when the technology was new even in the industrial world demonstrated his confidence in international cooperation. Though Cold War considerations interrupted such technology cooperation, it is a tribute to his vision that we are once again able to get back to such cooperation in his centenary year.

Though he coined his oft-quoted aphorism in the early sixties, that “no power is costlier than no power”, our parlous energy situation today is a testimony to his foresight. Bhabha was also a pragmatist. He opposed the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as originally proposed, as it had very stringent controls on fissile materials in all non-nuclear countries of that time. He succeeded in getting the safeguards system modified to what it is today, with the right of civil nuclear energy and autonomous R&D on it for non-nuclear nations. Glenn Seaborg, the former Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, said of Bhabha: “He was very self-assured. He was not easy to argue with. Polite, but very sure of himself, he was never at a loss for words and was most articulate. He was a very imposing presence.”

Could Bhabha have played the role he did if Jawaharlal Nehru had not been the prime minister and had not given him the access he enjoyed? There is no doubt that the personal relationship between the two was largely instrumental in ensuring that the atomic energy programme had all the support it needed. When Bhabha came to meet Lal Bahadur Shastri as prime minister and minister for atomic energy in June 1964, he had to wait for three days for his first appointment. He was not amused.

There is a view that Bhabha was the main driver behind India’s nuclear weapon ambitions and Jawaharlal Nehru was a dove totally committed to nuclear disarmament. The late historian, Sarvepalli Gopal, who had access to Bhabha’s papers, told me that in the wake of the First UN Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, over which he presided, Bhabha wrote to Nehru proposing that India should amend its constitution, renouncing nuclear weapons. Nehru replied, advising Bhabha to concentrate on development of the nuclear programme and to inform him when the stage was reached when India could make nuclear weapons. He asked Bhabha to leave political and strategic issues relating to nuclear energy in his hands.

Bhabha came out in favour of Indian nuclear weapons once the Chinese conducted their nuclear test on 16th October, 1964. He persuaded Shastri to sanction the Subterranean Nuclear Explosive Project (SNEP) in November, 1964. Bhabha died in the Mont Blanc plane crash on 24th January, 1966, the day Indira Gandhi was sworn in as prime minister. Could Bhabha have conducted a nuclear test, if he had not died before the deadline of 1st January, 1967 stipulated in the Non-Proliferation Treaty? Hardly likely, for the simple reason that India had not accumulated enough plutonium to conduct a test by that time. However, it was his SNEP team, headed by Raja Ramanna, which conducted the first Pokhran test in 1974.

Bhabha has his share of critics. There is a section of the scientific community which believes his influence on Nehru benefited the atomic energy programme at the expense of other and more cost-effective scientific efforts. Anti-nuclear lobbyists would attribute the direction of the Indian nuclear weapon policy to his inspiration. They also feel he exaggerated the benefits of nuclear energy and downplayed its costs and environmental risks. Bhabha’s basic ideas about using the thorium fuel available in abundance in India, focusing on energy generation to alleviate poverty, keeping abreast of the rest of the world in science and technology, and international cooperation for that purpose, should be cherished and the nation must honour him for it.

First Published: Thu, October 22 2009. 00:57 IST