News Govt’s top science adviser, nuclear man R Chidambaram, to hang up his boots

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SOURCE: THE HINDU

When India went nuclear in May 1974, he was there. In May 1998, when the country went back to Pokhran to test another bomb, and declare itself a nuclear weapons State, he was there, too.

‘Smiling Buddha’ and ‘Operation Shakthi’ were among R Chidambaram’s greatest achievements, as also being principal scientific adviser (PSA) to the governments of prime minister AB Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi. When he stepped down as PSA earlier this week, the 81-year-old eminent nuclear physicist and Padma Vibhushan awardee had completed over 16 years in that position, and 56 years of service to Indian science.

The Centre has named distinguished biologist K Vijayaraghavan as Chidambaram’s successor. Vijayaraghavan is expected to take over sometime in April.

Pokhran’s mastermind

Chidambaram’s were seminal contributions to crystallography, and to India going nuclear.

In the Pokhran nuclear tests of May 1998, Chidambaram and APJ Kalam (former President, who was then Chief Project Coordinator) masterminded ‘Operation Shakthi’, evading detection by American intelligence.

It led to sanctions, mostly technological, and a torrent of questions on whether the blast really measured up to India’s claims.

Chidambaram, Kalam and Anil Kakodkar, who was Director, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), deftly handled the global criticism.

Not only is Chidambaram a top-class scientist, but a diplomat to the core. He had a knack for warding off ‘difficult’ or ‘political’ questions.

Often, when reporters attempted to buttonhole him at news conferences he would take the question, but politely deflect them to others.

Chidambaram, who hails from Tamil Nadu, joined BARC in 1962, during the time of the legendary Homi Bhabha. He steadily rose to be a part of the critical team that made the nuclear bomb and conducted the 1974 Pokhran tests in the Rajasthan deserts. He headed the BARC In the late 1980s, he headed BARC, and consequently became the Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission.

The articulate scientist also had to wade through controversy and criticism over the handling and performance of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). His running feud with the Atomic Energy regulator, AA Gopalakrishnan, who raised over a hundred issues, several on the safety and security of the country’s nuclear programme, is well known.

Highs and lows

In the 1990s , Chidambaram saw through a ‘cut and rise’ in funding to the nuclear programme. The ‘rise phase’, under Vajpayee’s NDA government, saw the rapid expansion and possible participation of the private sector, including global players, in nuclear power generation.

This led to opposition and protests from environmental and civil rights groups opposing nuclear power on the grounds of safety and economy. Chidambaram had to draw his best skills and talent from within the DAE establishment to face the challenges.

While the nuclear weapons programme moved fast and collaboration with DRDO, then under Kalam, smoothened to achieve quick goals, civil nuclear power generation fell far behind targets. Against a targeted 20,000 MW by the year 2000, the Nuclear Power Corporation could only achieve 4,170 MW.

Global role

Chidambaram was a proponent of India being a peaceful user of nuclear power and the country possessing nuclear deterrence. He was vocal in spelling out this stand in international fora. The nuclear scientist also led a few groups at the International Atomic Energy Agency.

His keen interest in research also gave a push to India’s participation in several international projects, including the CERN-led mission on particle physics, and the international nuclear fusion research project (ITER).

Term as PSA

As the PSA since November 2001, Chidambaram was instrumental in pushing through several initiatives.

Among them was the technology support to the automotive sector under CAR or Core Advisory Group for R&D in the automotive sector, developing indigenous technology strengths in semiconductor, electronics, sensors and other areas. Creation of RuTAGs (Rural Technology Action Groups), SETS (Society For Electronic Transactions and Security) are making impact.

Another important contribution of the PSA office was the high-speed National Knowledge Network, which was developed with the National Informatics Centre, and connected over 1,500 higher education institutes. He is credited with coining the phrase ‘coherent synergy’ to ensure sustained and fast growth of India’s science and technology by harnessing strengths in various departments.

Chidambaram played a key role in the turnaround of the Hyderabad-based public sector electronics company, ECIL, which, towards the turn of the last century, was on the verge of being declared sick. He pushed through a ?100-crore support package for the company and provided challenging indigenisation projects. ECIL has now established itself as a key PSU supporting the needs of electronics, radars and communication systems to strategic departments such as atomic energy, space and defence. It also manufactures electronic voting machines for the Election Commission.

However, his tenure, which, in the initial phase, was marked by ‘Big Bang’ projects and strides in technological capabilities at the DAE and PSA, seemed to have tapered off into a whimper. In the last few years, the PSA seemed to have little impact. The Narendra Modi-led NDA government has also disbanded the high-profile SAC-PM (Scientific Advisory Committee for the PM), chaired by Bharat Ratna CNR Rao, and the SAC-C (Cabinet).