12 June 2007

A 'warts and all' view of Indian science

BOOK REVIEW: With interesting tidbits about the 1974 atomic test at Pokhran and the economics of India's nuclear energy programme, Ashok Parthasarathi's Technology at the Core provides a useful account of how the country's S&T policies and institutions were designed and evolved during the Indira Gandhi era.

12 June 2007
The Hindu

A 'warts and all' view of Indian science

TECHNOLOGY AT THE CORE — Science & Technology with Indira Gandhi
By Ashok Parthasarathi
New Delhi: Pearson-Longman, 2007. Rs. 695.

Siddharth Varadarajan

As a scientific advisor in the Prime Minister's Secretariat (PMS) during the Indira Gandhi years, Ashok Parthasarathi was witness to that momentous period in the development of the Indian economy when the foundations for the policy of "technological self-reliance" were laid.

Seconded into the Department of Atomic Energy by Vikram Sarabhai in 1967 after spending a year at MIT, Parthasarathi found himself in the PMS three years later at the instance of P.N. Haksar. It was from this vantage point that he helped Indira Gandhi shape the Government's thinking across a wide range of technologies, from atomic energy and space to electronics (his own field of specialisation), defence, agriculture and the environment. The account he provides is detailed — in some areas perhaps even too detailed for the lay reader — but frank and honest.

Atomic energy

In particular, he is quite unsparing in his criticism of the grandiose "profile" for atomic energy proposed by Sarabhai and later Homi Sethna in 1971 and 1972— the former envisaged 2700 MW of electricity generation capacity through nuclear power by 1980, the latter 4,500 MW by 1985. As the Prime Minister's scientific assistant, Parthasarathi had deconstructed both profiles and concluded neither was feasible. "My doubts were unfortunately vindicated later by the fact that the actual nuclear power capacity achieved in the year 2000 was only 2,800 MW!" he notes.

Predictably, given current interest in the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement, the most fascinating sections of the book are the ones dealing with the problems faced by the U.S.-built Tarapur Atomic Power Station (TAPS). The denial of reprocessing rights has led to the accumulation of a vast acreage of dangerous spent fuel. Tracing the problem back to the flawed agreement on fuel supply with the U.S., he says the problem could have been resolved when the agreement expired in 1993. "With TAPS itself a serious radiation hazard, one would have thought ... [the government] which had to deal with the problems of radiation emission management from the spent fuel storage tanks would have had the courage to `bite the bullet' and at least shut down TAPS," he writes. He laments the fact that all Prime Ministers from Indira Gandhi onwards "have allowed the deadly reactor to continue to operate" and generate highly radioactive spent fuel.

Nuclear investment

The book also contains a fascinating discussion about the economics of nuclear power generation. Having done the math himself, Parthasarathi critiqued the DAE's sums for, inter alia, not treating the use of heavy water as an explicit cost and not factoring in the reduced capacity utilisation rates for its reactors or ultimate disposal and reactor entombment costs. When the Government was in the process of sanctioning the investment funds for a second reactor at Madras (MAPP-2), he sent a note detailing his objections on grounds of the irrational economics that were involved. He was overruled and Cabinet approved the plan in April 1971. "When I met Haksar after the Cabinet meeting, he said, `I hope you appreciate why the approval of MAPP-2 had to be accorded. As you are well aware there are larger objectives to our atomic programme than nuclear power and those objectives cannot be compromised at any cost'." [Original emphasis]

Parthasarathi was no babe in the wood. He knew exactly what Haksar was talking about but said that if nuclear investments continued to expand as an energy programme, "momentum would build up within the atomic energy community for an expanding nuclear power programme that the country really did not need and could not afford." In a sense, this is exactly what has happened.


This book also contains a fascinating account of Indira Gandhi's decision to test a nuclear weapon at Pokhran in May 1974. Though formally called a "peaceful nuclear explosion" (PNE) and justified to the world as such, nobody in the PMS had any illusions about the actual intent. He mentions how Indira casually informed him in September 1972 that the decision had been taken to go ahead with the PNE. He also writes about how a copy of a Top Secret letter written by the Prime Minister to the Army Chief of Staff on the subject in 1972 mysteriously ended up on his desk a few days after the 1974 test. "Dr. R. Ramanna, Director, BARC, needs to undertake some experiments in the Pokhran test range. Kindly give him all assistance," the note said. An investigation was launched into how the note had casually surfaced two years later but nothing came of it.

Lay readers are bound to wish that Parthasarathi had leavened his book with more such anecdotes and insights. However, his account of these years is likely to become a standard reference work for anyone interested in the history of India's science and technology policy.

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