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Remembering Bhabha

The author reminisces his encounter with Dr. Bhabha, the founding father of the Indian nuclear industry

One name was not mentioned throughout the three-year long debate on the nuclear deal - Dr. Homi Jehangir Bhabha. He was, after all, along with Jawaharlal Nehru, the founding father of nuclear industry in India, without whom there would be no atomic power stations, let alone atomic bombs. But we seem to have forgotten him.

Bhabha had a proprietorial attitude towards atomic energy and would react violently to any outside involvement in the matter. And to him, everyone or nearly everyone was an outsider, including ignorant politicians and uppity economists.

I nearly came to blows with him, figuratively speaking, when he suspected that some of us were trying to denigrate atomic energy as a viable source of power, although that was not the case. This was about fifty years ago, when I was working on energy development in India, a new subject then, and atomic energy was in its infancy. We had no reactors of our own, no nuclear industry, and, of course, no atomic bombs. But Bhabha, as the ultimate atomic authority, was very much in evidence.

In one of the papers, or may be an article, I published at the time, I said that atomic energy would never amount too much in India, being very expensive compared to other sources, and full of pitfalls. I also said that the share of atomic energy could be no more than 2 to 3 percent in 20-25 years time.

This was like a red rag to Dr. Bhabha's bull and he came down on us like a ton of bricks. He shot off a letter to my boss, Dr. Lokanathan of National Council of Applied Economic Research saying that I knew nothing about atomic energy, which was true enough; and asking for my head on a platter.

The problem was that Bhabha used to operate from Bombay and we working in Delhi. There was no STD then, and, of course, no mobiles.

One day I received a telegram from Bhabha saying that he was coming down to Delhi and would I be good enough to meet him. It sounded like an order, not a request, but I let that pass.

His office was close to Pandit Nehru's, but there was no security, and I passed by the PM's office a number of times before I located Bhabha's room. It was sparsely furnished for a man of his stature and there were only two chairs. Bhabha did not ask me to sit down.

“Where did you get your figures?” he asked.

“What figures?” I said.

“The ones in your paper.”

I said there were no figures in the paper relating to atomic energy, because there was no atomic energy in India at the time. About the other material, I had taken it from official documents, including some produced by Bhabha's own department.

Bhabha changed tack and asked me if I was happy working in Delhi. Would I like to work in Bombay?

I was an economist, not a physicist, and knew little about atomic energy, and could barely distinguish between uranium and plutonium. But, like most Indians, I had a gut feeling that atomic energy would never amount to much in a poor country like India for a long time to come.

I told Bhabha that I was happy in Delhi, though Bombay was my home town. Bhabha died mysteriously in an air accident a few years later. Atomic energy still does not amount to much in India, only about 2 to 3 percent of total electricity output, but it does make a lot of noise and packs a lot of punch, and can bring a government down, as it almost did last month.