By Vaidehi Nathan
Homi Jehangir Bhabha can easily be described as the father of nuclear programme in India. He was a visionary who believed that atomic energy and its uses in peace far outweighed the arguments against it. He set up India’s first atomic reactor, in Trombay, taking it as a challenge when a British scientist had ‘dared’ him.
Born in a well-known Parsi family (part of the Tata clan) on October 30, 1909, in Bombay, Homi Bhabha received a rich education. His father wanted him to be an engineer. He convinced his father of his deep interest in physics. The father then allowed him to pursue the subject of his interest. He worked in the area of cosmic rays and made some early discoveries.
Calling Bhabha a scientist would be an inadequate description of the man. He was a great music lover and an expert. He could walk into a concert of Beethoven and accurately identify the number. With equal ease, he could indulge himself in Hindustani and Carnatic classical music. He loved spicy Goan food and ate with relish, eyes watering. He had an inborn eye for aesthetics.
When touring abroad, he noted down details of gardens. Once, he drew a sketch of a well-done fence, for a lawn, in England and brought it back home to decorate the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), which he set up. Several of the great artists, whose paintings now sell in millions of rupees today, were encouraged by him in their early days. He bought their first paintings for the walls of the institutions he set up. In fact, then people had criticised him for “wasting” money on “frivolous” things like paintings. These paintings would fetch crores of rupees in international market today and they are the nation’s property.
Bhabha was an institution builder. He visualised the need for an institution like TIFR when he was a researcher in Bangalore. A job awaited him in Cambridge, after the war. Bhabha wrote to J.R.D. Tata, expressing his wish to remain in India as a duty to his motherland, and continue his research. He said if facilities were available, several brilliant Indian scientists would not leave our country. On JRD’s advice, he wrote to the Chairman of the Sir Dorab Tata Trust, Sir Sorab Saklatvala, seeking his help. After consulting several people, Sir Sorab granted Rs 45,000 a year. Some fund came from the government of Bombay (as it was known then) and some from the Government of India. He was on first-name terms with most of the scientists in India and abroad. Such was the rapport and respect, he enjoyed in the scientists community.
Bhabha recruited each man for the TIFR. When he found someone doing good work, he brought him to TIFR, creating positions. He did not create positions and look for men. That would have been “filling up”, he argued. Instead, positions were carved according to the calibre of the man. He oversaw the construction of staff quarters. He went into the finer details of the design. His keen aesthetic eye can be gauged from the following incident. He asked the designers where the space for drying clothes was. When they gave no reply, he suggested to them to include space for the clothes-line at the back of the house. “Washed clothes lying in the front balcony give such a dirty fa?ade to the homes,” he is reported to have said.
He laid the first step for the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). He, with the full support of the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, paved the way for the passing of the Atomic Energy Bill, leading to the setting up of the AEC. We owe to Bhabha the setting up of the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay and its first nuclear reactor. AEET is now known as Bhabha Atomic Research Institute (BARC).
This high-profile man was devoted to his mother. Whenever he was in Bombay, he always reached home for dinner, with her. Some days he would get “lost” in work. His mother would call and his secretary would buzz him on the phone. He would jump up, pick up his coat and tell the secretary to tell his mother that he had already left. Once he told the secretary, with a twinkle in his eye, “I don’t want to let her think that I forgot her because of my work. That’s why I tell you to do this.”
Bhabha had visions of making India a leader in atomic energy, with which, he was confident India would never face a power crisis. It is a clean source of energy, he argued. If India had kept the atomic energy programme at a pace set by Bhabha, over 80 per cent of our electricity needs would have come from that instead of the less than 20 per cent now.
When after independence, our defence forces needed a certain type of batteries, it approached private companies that were manufacturing batteries then for the technology. The companies asked for exorbitant amounts. Bhabha took up the challenge and within a year gave the in-house technology.
The man was charged with energy. He wanted to do so much. The new-born nation was demanding it from a nationalist scientist and an able administrator. But Time thought otherwise. In 1966, a day after addressing the condolence meeting for Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, Bhabha died in an air crash, on way to Geneva. His body has not been recovered yet. The spot where his plane crashed remained inaccessible for decades. Even now, only some wreckage has been recovered. He was merely 56. His mother was alive when he died. He had not married.
It is normal practice that offices close when heads of institutions pass away. The fact that all atomic institutions, installations and the TIFR observed a normal working day on the day when his death was announced is a tribute to the man who truly worshipped work.