The history and evolution of the Indian atomic energy program is synonymous with the life-story of Dr Homi Bhabha, the story which N.D. Sharma has attempted to capture in his book, Homi Bhabha: A Visionary & Science Administrator Extraordinaire, along with Dr Baldev Raj. Unfortunately, Dr Raj did not live to see the book and passed away in a sudden tragic death. The author himself worked with BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Centre), retiring as the controller and wished to highlight the oft-neglected and ignored aspect of Dr Bhabha’s competency; that of an excellent scientific administrator and leader of human beings. The author N.D. Sharma did painstaking research into the administrative legacy of Dr Bhabha, unearthing his “administrative orders” that played a key role in creating and nurturing the AEET (Atomic Energy Establishment Trombay), later renamed as BARC after Dr Homi Bhabha along with other exhaustive documentation pertaining to the establishment of TIFR.
J.R.D. Tata, the industrialist, once remarked, “I know there are complete men. The first two are Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The third one is Dr Bhabha.” Complete man indeed; and if I could summarise it, it would be: top-ranking physicist, aesthete, connoisseur of music, ardent lover of architecture and gardens, artist, great leader, administrator par excellence, brilliant scientist and above all a passionate patriot. Here I must admit that the author successfully manages within the brief space of 130-odd pages to capture this “complete man”, including in the concluding chapter, which lucidly captures the aesthetic or artistic dimension of Dr Bhabha, replete with his paintings and sketches along with his poignant remarks on the role of arts in his life.
I didn’t realise what that appellation “Promethean”, as applied to Bhabha by the author, exactly meant till I completed reading the book; truly an extraordinary human genius who was nominated for Nobel Prize for Physics four times, published some of the most path-breaking research papers totalling nearly 100, parlayed with distinguished scientists like Dirac, built TIFR, built AEET (renamed after him later on) and whose brainchild was the International Atomic Energy Agency.
PROFILE OF A SCIENTIST, AN INSTITUTION BUILDER:
Dr Homi Bhabha was born on 30 October 1909 to Meherbhai and Jehangir Bhabha. His father Jehangir was an Oxford-educated barrister and a successful lawyer. Homi Bhabha, after completing his secondary education in Bombay went to Cambridge, at the Gonville and Cauis College where he had an impressive performance securing both the Mechanical Tripos and Mathematics Tripos in first class and went on to complete his PhD on cosmic rays, with the doctorate being awarded in 1935.
During his short summer vacation in 1939 in India and while doing his stint as a researcher at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Bhabha got the idea of setting up a dedicated institute for fundamental research. Hereby he approached the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and through trials and tribulations, exhaustive efforts and extensive networking pioneered by Bhabha, the institute assumed shape in its fullest glory with its own buildings and structure on 15 January 1962, and was inaugurated by the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Bhabha published 90 scientific articles and delivered 12 speeches including the one at the General Assembly of the United Nations indicating an active, engaging life of a researcher during his TIFR-building days.
Apart from TIFR, one of Bhabha’s enduring legacies of institution-building lies in the creation and formation of Department of Atomic Energy and the AEET (Atomic Energy Establishment Trombay). Homi Bhabha wrote to Nehru on 16 April 1948 exhorting him to establish an atomic energy program with his proposal where he conjectured that atomic energy would play an important role in the economy and industry of nations.
A key remarkable feature of the book are the “administrative orders” that were issued by Homi Bhabha in the AEET which truly captures the essence of his administrative acumen. AEET was formally inaugurated on 20 January 1957 and Bhabha released a large number of standing orders, office orders and memoranda that have been recorded in the book. The author has been thorough, accurate, contextual and relevant by classifying and categorising the administrative orders according to the purpose and functionality. Here the author succeeded in conveying his objective of portraying Bhabha the administrator through these administrative orders to a large extent. The first thing which strikes you is Bhabha’s attention to minute details and that very mundane and simple aspects like clean toilets and facilities attracted his attention. Dr Bhabha was for me in many ways ahead of his time in formulating “work-orders” that are akin to process specifications, process definitions and housekeeping rules which now form part of quality certifications like QS2000. The administrative orders manifest the superb administrator Bhabha with his eye for details and with a real interest in governance. These orders were in a personalised form, addressing the members of the staff. These orders were not mundane diktats but imbued with a feeling that AEET should become one of the best and outstanding institutions of scientific research in the world.
Bhabha was legendary for the maintenance of facilities and cleanliness of the working environment.
Bhabha was also very particular and fastidious about how a proposal should be submitted, with papers being properly arranged in a file cover, with page numbers and cross-referenced. Particularly with respect to the reports we find repeated insistence by Bhabha on brevity, a few pages or even one page, being comprehensible, simple language to be understood by an average person and being cogent conveying major points of activities and research highlights. With regards to human resources management, selection and training of personnel Bhabha was probably the most innovative person in Indian sciences. His ingenious philosophy was to recruit the best talent and then build institutions around them including divisions. Bhabha was clear in his orders to look for the best qualified talent and be attracted with all the sops necessary.
The three-way nuclear program which Bhabha designed and developed was highly innovative and my highest thrill was reading about it. Apparently, Bhabha realised that India did not have enough deposits of uranium, a key resource for nuclear power generation and had access only to thorium. Hence the reactors were designed in such a way that the waste of the burnt-out fuel was redeployed in power generation, which reduced the need for uranium. This was extraordinary since most nuclear reactors around the world were open-cycle and would not use the waste for further generation of power.
Personally I wish to make a powerful point that throughout the book one finds numerous instances of innovation which were world-class and which can be a source of pride for the Indian scientific mind and place us in the global league of scientific powers.
The writing style of the author is sharp, clear, concise and describes his thoughts in succinct terms—more like a good summary at the end of a chapter or section. What lends rigour and authenticity to the book are the exhaustive collections of validating documents like letters, detailed summaries of reports, extracts from notifications and most of all the collection of administrative orders that the author has diligently collated from the archives. The language is simple, straightforward and devoid of any scientific and technical jargon and it’s truly remarkable how much valuable information has been packed within these 100-odd pages. Perhaps the book could have been made more interesting with a few more anecdotes from implementing those orders along with a few more personalised conversations between the actors involved. Regarding the chapter on three-way nuclear program, perhaps a little explanation along with flowcharts would have made it more comprehensible to non-technical readers. Overall it’s a fascinating, comfortable, engrossing read for anyone interested in this giant of a man, the scientist who steered a new course for a fledgling independent nation, India, with scant resources and adversities.
Dr Kaustav Bhattacharyya is a PhD from Cass Business School, London, entrepreneur and an Anglosphere enthusiast.