An appreciation of Praful Bidwai’s knowledgeable critique of nuclear energy and nuclear power. Praful Bidwai, 66, died in June. Courtesy: Economic and Political Weekly
For about four decades, the late Praful Bidwai, who was 66 when he died suddenly last month in Amsterdam, was no stranger to the readers of this journal. He wrote prodigiously on various aspects of nuclear weapons and energy. Even for someone as widely published as Praful, the sheer volume of his output is noteworthy. One could classify his writings into four categories: critiques of nuclear energy, dangers associated with nuclear weapons, nuclear diplomacy (pertaining both to weapons and energy), and chronicles of people’s resistance movements. These are not watertight compartments and many articles might be classified in more than one category; others may not quite fit in any.
It was in the late 1970s that Praful emerged as a prominent and well-informed critic of nuclear energy. His 1978 article in Business India entitled “Nuclear Power in India—A White Elephant?” was a landmark exposé of the poor state of operations at the nuclear reactors operated by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). After that, Praful wrote prolifically about the activities of the DAE, ranging from the problems in constructing and operating heavy water plants to the safety and economic costs of nuclear reactors in the pages of outlets such as Times of India, Economic & Political Weekly and Frontline.
The 1978 Business India article is notable for its blend of investigative journalism, with information from various inside and outside sources, masterful exploration of the problems encountered in the operations of nuclear reactors constructed till that point in India, lucid explanations of technical jargon to the lay reader, and a survey of the economic and human costs resulting from these reactors. Perhaps most dramatic of the revelations in that article was the fact that radiation doses to workers at DAE facilities were high and often not properly assessed; backed up with reports showing that hundreds of film badges, used to measure workers exposure to radiation, had been declared lost or missing or spoilt (Bidwai 1978: 27, 29).
Praful continued his critical assessment of the operations of DAE nuclear facilities even after he joined the Times of India. During the early to mid-1980s, Praful wrote about topics as varied as radiation levels at Tarapur, reactor trips at Kalpakkam, the uneconomical nature of reprocessing of spent fuel, and the DAE’s misplaced emphasis on fast breeder reactors (Bidwai 1983a, 1983b, 1983e, 1983c, 1983d). His assertions about reprocessing and breeder reactors have become all the more evident in the decades since (Suchitra and Ramana 2006; Ramana and Suchitra 2009; Suchitra and Ramana 2011; IPFM 2010, 2015).
Among his Times of India writings, a series of articles in 1984 that exposed the disastrous state of the DAE’s heavy water programme (Bidwai 1984e, 1984f, 1984g, 1984h), created a major splash leading to widespread concern and several letters to the editor praising the work. The DAE’s response was predictable: its secretary, Raja Ramanna, “summoned a press conference in Delhi” where he refused to respond to journalists asking about the veracity of the reports that Praful had penned but instead said “I have nothing to say except that this journalist [Praful Bidwai] is unpatriotic. What the Times of India has published is a waste of newsprint” (Bidwai 1996a: 96). Praful took that as a sign that his writings had hit the mark. Indeed, when India Today did an overview of the state of Indian media at the end of 1985, one of the developments it sought fit to highlight was: “The Times of India’s Praful Bidwai broke through barriers of secrecy erected by India’s powerful nuclear establishment and laid bare the inefficiencies plaguing the system” (IT 1985).
To the extent that outside criticism can influence the operations at an insular institution like the DAE, Praful may have done as much as any outsider to change the institution for the better. The 1978 Business India article, for example, pointed out that the DAE was “the only organisation in the world which usurps the functions of a safety council (which, in other countries, is an autonomous body comprising people from different fields of activity) while functioning as the contractor and operator of nuclear power plants” (Bidwai 1978: 22). Five years later, in 1983, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board was set up. But the regulatory body still lacks in administrative autonomy and Praful continued to criticise its position “as a subordinate agency of the DAE” (Bidwai 2010).
On N-power and Climate Change
In recent years, Praful was also deeply concerned about the dangers posed by climate change and wrote extensively on the subject (Bidwai 2011a). He had, however, no patience for the argument that nuclear power should be encouraged as a potential solution to global warming. Apart from the various well-known problems with nuclear power—high costs, risk of severe accidents and production of radioactive waste—Praful also emphasised, correctly in my opinion, the inadequacy of a purely technological solution to the systemic problem that is climate change. In his words,
The world is in need of profound changes in the way people produce and consume goods and services. Nuclear power is simply incompatible with such a radical change of direction which is imperative for climate stabilization (Bidwai 2011a: 266).
On Nuclear Weapons
A second stream of writing concerns the dangers associated with nuclear weapons. As with nuclear energy, Praful regularly exposed the large readership of Times of India to this topic, including a series of four articles on the 10th anniversary of the first Indian nuclear test at Pokharan, wherein he laid out why building an atomic weapon was not a major technical accomplishment, and arguing for ceasing the pursuit of more advanced designs (Bidwai 1984a, 1984b, 1984c, 1984d). Being someone firmly committed to peace, his articles spoke not just of the destruction that could be wrought by nuclear weapons, but emphasised the delusional nature of the arguments about deterrence (Bidwai 1997), making it clear that nuclear disarmament, both regionally and globally, were the only ways to achieve true peace.
His writings on nuclear weapons avoided any trace of parochialism, thanks in part to his close personal relationships with peace activists in Pakistan and other countries. When we talked about Praful’s sudden demise in June, my colleague Zia Mian was reminded of the first time he met Praful in 1993, at a summer school near Islamabad that had participants from Pakistan, China and India, and how Praful was deeply concerned even at that time, well before the 1998 nuclear tests, about the dangers of a South Asian nuclear arms race. Till his last days, Praful continued to write on hazards that could come with the use of nuclear weaponry and the ongoing arms race with Pakistan, both in Indian and Pakistani newspapers (Bidwai 2002, 2013, 2014b).
On International Treaties
A third and related stream of writings pertains to diplomacy and international treaties, many of which were written with his friend and collaborator for over three decades, Achin Vanaik. Their partnership received recognition in 2000 through the International Peace Bureau’s Sean McBride Peace Prize (IPB 2000), in part for their landmark book written after the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests (Bidwai and Vanaik 1999), and their role in setting up the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (Bidwai 2000). Together with Achin, and alone, Praful wrote extensively about the world of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ), and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), as well as, during the period from 2005–08, the US–India nuclear deal. Praful was in his element explaining to his readership the subtle distinctions between the NPT, which he opposed India signing (Bidwai 1991a), and the NWFZ, which he supported the establishment of (Bidwai 1991b); taking apart the fallacious arguments against the CTBT by Indian nuclear weapons advocates (Bidwai 1996b); and explaining India’s position during the early negotiations on the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty at the Conference on Disarmament (Bidwai and Vanaik 1997b).
A large set of his writings for EPW were on this topic, especially the occasional column called “Nuclear Notebook” that Achin and Praful wrote for a couple of decades in EPW. Through this column, the two took on the arguments forwarded by the “bomb lobby” that tried to push the Indian government to develop more destructive nuclear weapons. A particularly important tendency that Praful correctly identified early on was the constant invocation, by the bomb lobby, of the need for global disarmament but the virtual silence on, and indeed the active promotion of, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by India (Bidwai 1987b). This dual discourse was also his main point of criticism of the position taken by the Indian diplomatic corps, and its supporters, at Geneva when India voted against the CTBT in 1996 (Bidwai 1996b). The next year, Praful and Achin also wrote an important open letter to the Left followed, after the 1998 nuclear tests, by a call to support India’s accession to the CTBT (Bidwai and Vanaik 1997a, 1998). These did not change the official left’s position, much less the government’s, but they did lead some progressive activists to rethink their position (Phadke 1998).
In the last two decades, as international diplomacy related to nuclear disarmament treaties stalled, with the Conference on Disarmament unable to agree on an agenda for negotiations, Praful’s writings on nuclear diplomacy and international treaties focused on the US–India nuclear deal. Starting soon after the announcement in Washington, Praful wrote numerous articles detailing the problematic nature of the bargain between Delhi and Washington, the mistake of relying on nuclear energy, and the debates in the legislative bodies of the US and India (Bidwai 2005, 2006a, 2006b, 2008). While much of the mainstream obsessed over the potential impacts of the deal on India’s nuclear arsenal and the country’s perceived status as a responsible nuclear weapons power, Praful was among the few who emphasised the immoral nature of nuclear weapons and reminded readers that the most important act that nuclear countries are responsible for is mass destruction (Bidwai 2007).
On Social Movements
If all of the kinds of work described above were not valuable enough, there is a fourth category of writing that made Praful’s contributions especially precious: his writings publicising and supporting social movements, both for peace and against nuclear power projects. Over the decades, Praful wrote about Kaiga in the 1980s (Bidwai 1987a); about the peace movement that formed after the 1998 nuclear tests and the activities of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (Bidwai and Vanaik 1999; Bidwai 2000; 2001); about Koodankulam regularly since the mid-2000s (Bidwai and Ramana 2007; Bidwai 2011f, 2011e, 2011g); and about Jaitapur since around 2011 (Bidwai 2011d, 2011b, 2011c).
Given his personal history, which included joining Adivasi struggles and forming the Worker’s Democratic Union in the 1970s, it is not surprising that Praful would plead the cause of social movements. His outstanding contribution lay in articulating the technical bases for popular concerns and providing institutional analysis to help focus struggles.
Apart from articles in the media, Praful also took the time to engage in a variety of ways with popular struggles. He travelled regularly to talk to groups around the country, and attend public hearings, which are part of the environmental impact process. For example, he attended the public hearings proposal to mine uranium at Nalgonda (now in Telangana), and submitted a document to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) that emphasised the dangers that might accrue as a result of uranium mining, including details about the toxicity of uranium and the occupational health hazards to uranium workers (Bidwai 2003). Praful was also a part of the team of concerned citizens that visited the Jaitapur area “to investigate the depth of popular concerns about the environmental, nuclear safety, livelihood and governance issues raised by the project, to assess the extent of violations of civil liberties and social, economic and cultural rights of the people by the state, and to express solidarity with the popular movement against the project” (CNDP 2011: 3).
It is simply impossible, in the space of a short article, to even list all of Praful’s contributions and writings related to nuclear weapons and energy. But even those discussed above show his wide-ranging engagement and sustained commitment over nearly four decades. Praful’s writings deepened the nuclear debate in India, and globally, by bringing in critical knowledge and insights from several disciplines—engineering, economics, law, sociology, and political theory, to name a few—as well as ethical principles such as respect for human rights, democracy, and transparency. His criticism of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons were grounded not just in technical or economic details but in a conception of a humane and just society that he worked towards.
Just his engagement with the nuclear question in India, not to say anything about the various other fields of engagement, qualifies Praful to be ranked as not just a journalist or a writer, but a public intellectual of the highest calibre. The Palestinian American literary theorist Edward Said once wrote
Intellectuals are not required to be humorless complainers…Witnessing a sorry state of affairs when one is not in power is by no means a monotonous, monochromatic activity. It involves what Foucault once called ‘a relentless erudition,’ scouring alternative sources, exhuming buried documents, reviving forgotten (or abandoned) histories. It involves a sense of one’s rare opportunities to speak, catching the audience’s attention, being better at wit and debate than one’s opponents (Said 1996: xviii).
Praful exemplified these characteristics. Even when describing arcane technical details or bitter struggles, he had an enviable turn of phrase.
Writing about a lecture by the historian Romila Thapar, Praful argued that public intellectuals: “must take positions fiercely independent of those in power, must be seen as autonomous, and question received wisdom” (Bidwai 2014a). Praful’s decades-long engagement with nuclear matters fit these requirements exactly. Such people are rare, and all the more valuable for that. He will be missed greatly.
[The author is privileged to have known Praful Bidwai closely for nearly 20 years and benefited immensely from Bidwai’s encouragement, generous sharing of knowledge and warm friendship.]
Bidwai, Praful (1978): “Nuclear Power in India—A White Elephant?,” Business India, 4 September.
— (1983a): “Alarming Radiation Level at Tarapur,” Times of India, 9 May.
— (1983b): “Haste Caused Tripping,” Times of India, 27 July.
— (1983c): “The Fast Breeder Reactor: DAE’s Strange Nuclear Priorities,” Times of India, 31 August.
— (1983d): “Reactor Cost High, Risk Heavy,” Times of India, 1 September.
— (1983e): “Reprocessing Spent N-Fuel: Neither Safe Nor Economical,” Times of India, 7 November. — (1984a): “Fabricating A Nuclear Bomb,” Times of India, 1 May.
— (1984b): “II–Two Routes To A-Bomb,” Times of India, 2 May.
— (1984c): “III-Backyard A-Bomb: Not a Fantasy,” Times of India, 3 May.
— (1984d): “IV—No Case For Enrichment Plant,” Times of India, 4 May.
— (1984e): “Talcher Plant Is Unviable,” Times of India, 4 May.
— (1984f): “Talcher: A Story of Bungling,” Times of India, 6 May.
— (1984g): “Kota Plant Is Prematurely Sick,” Times of India, 7 May.
— (1984h): “Blatant Mismangement,” Times of India, 9 May.
— (1987a): “The Kaiga Story,” Economic & Political Weekly, XXII (1 & 2): 16–17.
— (1987b): “E P Thompson’s Clones,” Economic & Political Weekly, 22 (6): 215–16.
— (1991a): “A Nuclear-Free South Asia: New Initiative, Yes; NPT, No,” Times of India, 13 June.
— (1991b): “Nuclear Policy in a Mess: NWFZ, The Principled Realistic Way Out,” Times of India, 27 November.
— (1996a): “The Ethics of the Right to Information,” In Nuclear Energy and Public Safety edited by Vinod Gaur, New Delhi: INTACH, 96–101.
— (1996b): “The End-Game in Geneva: New Delhi Works against Its Own Treaty,” Economic & Political Weekly, 31 (31): 2061–63.
— (1997): “Mass Destruction as a Sign of Prestige,” Economic & Political Weekly, 32 (22): 1231–33.
— (2000): “Nuclear Disarmament and Peace: Report of National Convention,” Economic & Political Weekly, 35 (50): 4377–79.
— (2001): “The Struggle for Nuclear Disarmament,” in Out of the Nuclear Shadow edited by Smitu Kothari and Zia Mian, Delhi, London; New York: Lokayan; Rainbow Publishers Zed Books, 91–100; http://www.loc.gov/catdir/bios/hol058/2001017615.html; http://www.loc.gov/catdir/description/hol051/2001017615.html; http://www.loc.gov/catdir/toc/hol051/ 2001017615.html
— (2002): “Our Mutual Nuclear Death Wish,” The News International, 7 February.
— (2003): “Submission: Public Hearing on the Proposed Uranium Mine in Nalgonda India August 19 2003,” South Asians Against Nukes Post, 16 September, http://www.sacw.net/new/bidwai19082003.html
— (2005): “A Deplorable Nuclear Bargain,” Economic & Political Weekly, 40 (31): 3362–64.
— (2006a): “US India Nuclear Deal: Green Light in Congress, Red Signal in India,” Inter Press Service News Agency, 9 December, http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=35893
— (2006b): “India Split Over US Nuke Deal,” Inter Press Service News Agency, 19 December, http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=35893
— (2007): “Sanctifying Mass Destruction,” Frontline, 8 September, http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl2418/stories/20070921505011800.htm
— (2008): “Politics India: Nuking Democracy,” Inter Press Service News Agency, 19 July, http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=35893
— (2010): “Yawning Nuclear Gap,” Frontline, 26 May, http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl2711/stories/20100604271110100.htm
— (2011a): The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis: Mortgaging Our Future, New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.
— (2011b): “The Truth Behind India’s Nuclear Renaissance,” Guardian, 8 February, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/feb/08/ india-jaitapur-nuclear-disaster-biodiversity
— (2011c): “Radioactive Jaitapur,” Hindustan Times, 16 February, http://www.hindustantimes.com/columnsothers/radioactive-jaitapur/article…
— (2011d): “People vs Nuclear Power in Jaitapur, Maharashtra,” Economic & Political Weekly, XLVI (8): 10–14.
— (2011e): “For Nuclear Sanity,” Frontline, 8 October, http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl2821/stories/20111021282110100.htm
— (2011f): “People’s Power vs Nuclear Power,” Daily Star, 17 October.
— (2011g): “Time to Talk,” Frontline, 19 December, http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl2824/stories/20111202282409700.htm
— (2013): “The Dangers of Nuclear Hubris,” Daily News & Analysis, 25 July, http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column-the-dangers-of-nuclear-hubris-18…
— (2014a): “Why We Need Public Intellectuals,” The News International, Pakistan, 1 November, http://www.thenews.com.pk/Todays-News-9-281774-Why-we-need-public-intell…
— (2014b): “India-Pakistan: Courting Yet More Nuclear Danger?” Daily News & Analysis, 11 December, http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column-india-pakistan-courting-yet-more…
Bidwai, Praful and M V Ramana (2007): “Home, Next to N-Reactor,” Tehelka, 23 June.
Bidwai, Praful and Achin Vanaik (1997a): “An Open Letter to the Left,” Economic & Political Weekly, 32 (3): 71–74.
— (1997b): “After the CTB…India’s Intentions,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, March.
— (1998): “Why India Should Sign the CTBT: Returning to Our Own Agenda,” Economic & Political Weekly, XXXIII (38).
— (1999): South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
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IPB (2000): “Sean McBride Peace Prize,” International Peace Bureau, http://www.ipb.org/web/index.php?mostra=content&menu=about%20ipb&submenu…
IPFM (2010): “Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status,” Princeton: International Panel on Fissile Materials.
— (2015): “Plutonium Separation in Nuclear Power Programs: Status, Problems, and Prospects of Civilian Reprocessing Around the World,” Princeton: International Panel on Fissile Materials.
IT (1985): “Media: Off with the Cobwebs,” India Today, 31 December.
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— (2011): “The Costs of Power: Plutonium and the Economics of India’s Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor,” International Journal of Global Energy Issues, 35 (1): 1–23.