Institution builder

Print edition : October 08, 2010

All his life he worked in and for India. Homi Sethna sought no fame and did not court politicians.

IN the death of Homi Nusserwanji Sethna on September 5, 2010, India has lost its staunchest and most consistent champion of its nuclear sovereignty. His achievements as an institution builder have been mentioned in the many and richly deserved tributes that were paid on his demise the setting up of the Indian Rare Earths plant in Alwaye (Aluva), Kerala; the construction of the thorium plant; the designing and building of the first plutonium separation plant at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Trombay, completed in 1964; and the uranium mill in Jaduguda (Jharkhand), completed in 1967. Earlier, in 1956-58, he was Project Manager of the research reactor, CIRUS (Canada-India Research-US).

Two tributes stand out. Ronen Sen, who as Deputy Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs was seconded to the Atomic Energy Commission, presided over by Homi, said: It was Homi Sethna's leadership which inspired our nuclear scientists and engineers to rise to the formidable challenges and emerge as one of the very few countries in the world, and Asia's first country, with full nuclear fuel cycle facilities.

Ronen Sen, who retired after a distinguished career as India's Ambassador to the United States, loyally kept in touch with his mentor until the very last. Another tribute that bears mention is by one of Homi Sethna's successors, Anil Kakodkar. He was a rare leader, one who thought far ahead. Name any important thing in Indian nuclear science and he has had a role to play. You need plutonium for fast reactors and for the strategic programme and it was Mr. Sethna who built India's first plutonium plant in Trombay. Challenges that arose during the construction of reactor Dhruva and also during the construction of the Madras Atomic Power Station, which houses India's first truly indigenous heavy water reactors, were also overcome by his resolute will. His leadership during the construction of the Tarapur Atomic Power Station was absolutely courageous. Plans for the construction of Dhruva, India's largest research reactor, were conceived when he was Director of BARC (1966-72).

All his life he worked in and for India. He sought no fame and did not court politicians. On the contrary, he had a problem concealing his contempt for them. Indira Gandhi he adored and, true to form, made no secret of it even when she was out of power and Morarji Desai was Prime Minister.

This writer may be pardoned for once striking a personal note, in the two decades' association with Frontline. I have lost a dear friend, a man who had character, integrity of the highest kind, and who never compromised with his principles. We met first in 1978 and it was a rewarding experience. The little I know of nuclear diplomacy I owe it all to Homi. The first thing that struck me was his determination to build an independent nuclear cycle. Homi was not soft of speech but he had a soft and caring heart. He gave freely and extended and commanded loyalties even after his retirement from high public office.

We have come a long way since Pokhran I in 1974, of which he was a prime architect. Today few care to recall the battles he fought when the U.S. reneged on its agreement of 1963 and its solemn commitment for continued supply of low enriched uranium fuel to the Tarapur Atomic Power Station. The Canadians walked away from the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station (RAPS). The Russians extracted a big price for the supply of heavy water for RAPS.

Morarji Desai and the men around him did little to support him. The U.S. Ambassador Robert Goheen strutted about freely, as most American Ambassadors tend to do. Even under Indira Gandhi there were those who were jealous of his prestige and influence. During all this he had one formidable supporter, M.A. Vellodi, Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, a master of detail who commanded respect in the councils of the United Nations. He shared Homi's vision.

Indira Gandhi gave her green signal for the fabrication of a device for a PNE (peaceful nuclear experiment) on September 7, 1972, on the banks of the Powai Lake in Bombay. She was there for the 10th convocation of Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in Powai. After the explosion at Pokhran on May 18, 1974, all hell broke loose. An international sanctions regime was devised. The U.S. enacted the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, 1978.

Homi had a realistic distrust of the Americans. We were told [in 1966] to devalue the rupee, which we did. We were told that money would flow once we devalued, and it would be all milk and honey. But money did not flow in.

The U.S. insisted on an assurance that India would not stage any more PNEs. This was refused. All that Homi wrote in a letter to Dixie Lee Ray, Chairperson of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, was that the fuel would be devoted exclusively to the needs of the station.

From July 1975, action on applications for fuel, filed by India's agent Edlew International Co., was deliberately stalled by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as well as the U.S. government. Hearings were held by congressional committees. When the U.S. cited the Act as an excuse for backing out of its commitments, Homi tartly rejoined by citing Article 27 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which says: A party may not invoke the provisions of its internal law as justifications for its failure to perform a treaty. He also cited an authority on the law who said: In some cases, legislation could of itself constitute a breach of treaty provisions.

Two episodes illustrate vividly the fronts more than one on which Homi had to fight. One was the hare-brained proposal in 1978 for a joint Ad Hoc Scientific Advisory Committee on Safeguards Question, headed by Sigvard Eklund, Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Eklund sensibly refused. His successor, Hans Blix, approved U.S. arms for Pakistan in order to wean it away from a nuclear programme. He played, not surprisingly, a devious role on the Iraq inspections. The committee's provenance was highly dubious. It was a ruse to pave the way for application of full-scope safeguards that the Americans demanded, as K. Subrahmanyam has revealed in an article in The Indian Express on September 7:

I asked Sethna whether he was happy with the PM's [Prime Minister's] decision to discuss with the Americans their proposal on examining the feasibility of the full-scope safeguards to the Indian nuclear programme. Sethna said he was totally opposed to the idea and it was not an American proposal but one initiated by the PM's secretary, V. Shankar. I pointed out that the PM had told Parliament that it was an American proposal and there was no harm in India discussing it with the U.S. Sethna pulled out of his file the fax message from the Americans, which referred to the full-scope safeguards discussion as Shankar's proposal and proceeded to outline the U.S. point of view. Shankar, I must add, was not the only one to play the Americans' game. A top Indian diplomat batted for them enthusiastically.

A U.S. aide-memoire of November 13 pointedly said that the game was at Indian initiative. Joseph Nye led the U.S. team. At the meeting in New Delhi on November 10, to quote the minutes, he referred to the discussions with the Principal Secretary [V. Shankar] in Washington when the U.S. side had agreed to the Indian proposal for a committee of scientists to examine the safeguards question. A Prime Minister who assigns or permits his Principal Secretary to perform such functions bypassing the Chairman of the AEC has only himself to blame for the mess. Morarji Desai changed his mind eventually.

By the end of 1981 India was on the verge of terminating the 1963 accord with the U.S. for its persistent breaches. Three rounds of talks were held in April, July and November. On November 12, India formally, explicitly informed the U.S. that it intended to abrogate the agreement unless it received guarantees of supply of the fuel. On December 22, 1981, Indira Gandhi threw a bombshell that took Homi as well as Vellodi by surprise a final decision should ensure that the Tarapur Atomic Power Station continues to operate Apart from that, we have to look at overall bilateral relations with the U.S.

She had decided to pay a visit to the U.S., which she did a few months later. U.S. Ambassador Henry Barnes' Non-Papers contained threats of sanctions. But not before Homi had been bypassed once again. He had led the delegation to the talks. Eric Gonsalves, Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, was an associate. The U.S. side came up with the new twist on the eve of the third round. Malone played (outside the official talks, and privately' to Gonsalves) upon the possibility that the United States might be able to get someone within the European suppliers' group to send fresh fuel for Tarapur within the control framework of the 1963 agreement. Although there were earlier recommendations from Malone that India should consider the Soviet Union as an alternative supplier the party really favoured by Washington seemed to be France. (N. Ram, India's Nuclear Policy; IDSA Journal, April-June 1982, page 513). Gonsalves had private talks with James Malone, the U.S. negotiator, way back in April 1981. It was with Gonsalves that Malone struck the third-supplier deal.

It is high time a documented official history of India's nuclear travails was brought out. I had promised Homi to write such a work. I did not.

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