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The day Buddha smiled again...

May 12, 2004 20:20 IST

It was like any other day in the Thar desert -- scorching heat and very little surface activity, a lot of vegetables being moved up and down and some men in military uniform seen entering what looked like bunkers.

These men, however, were not from the army but scientists and engineers from Atomic Energy Commission and the Defence Research and Development Organisation.

The most conspicuous of those with flowing hair butting below an odd sized military hat was Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, the missile man, and now the President of India.

Among other scientists who could be spotted one resembled Dr R Chidambaram, AEC chief, while another looked like Dr Kakodkar, BARC chief.

Clearly the big event that was to follow was meant to be a closely guarded secret. Away from the world's view, so that even American satellite imagery did not suspect what was happening down below, and certainly not below the surface.

Six years after Pokhran II, a new book tries to give a first hand account of the events that unfolded in the Thar desert on the eventful day and precision with which the tests were done that left everyone including the US in awe.

"Some men in military uniforms were also seen entering what looked like fresh bunkers. But military equipment being tested on the Pokhran range was usual," says O P Sabherwal, noted journalist in the book India's Tryst with the Atom: Unfolding the Nuclear Story.

Then, precisely at 3.45 pm, May 11, 1998, with the AEC scientists and DRDO engineers sweltering under unbearable heat, the command signal was given for the great event, says Sabherwal.

"In a flash, the Indian nuclear tests were performed, the first three in the five-test series. On the surface, at the Pokhran test range, there were rumblings, as if of an earthquake, but no radioactive venting," he says.

Two other tests were conducted in similar fashion on May 13 but these were comparatively of small impact.

The book notes that Pokhran II was among the most successful in the long line-up of nuclear tests worldwide in terms of their performance being remarkably close to what was anticipated from theoretical computations; in terms of the data collected by Indian scientists and in successful completion of the experiments linked to the tests.

But, it says, the western media continued to cast doubts about the claimed Indian explosive yields, whether they were simultaneous and even about the validity of the thermonuclear test

Sabherwal says tilted and distorted characterisation of the Indian tests was a part of the global political games that began in the wake of the tests.

However, India's Atomic Energy Commission not only demolished this garbled and motivated analysis of the Indian tests by providing scientific information and analysis, but also by giving a perspective of the future.

Giving an overview of the Indian nuclear scenario, Saberwal says, "The confluence of Nehru and Bhabha laid a sound foundation, an umbrella organisation for nuclear technology acquisition, freed from bureaucratic tentacles, where science was in command."

"Distinct, and characteristic of the Indian nuclear programme, is its innovative, indigenous road mastering an advanced technology and building a chain of nuclear projects despite the sanctions regime and a veritable cordon sanitarie imposed by the Big Powers, first in 1974, then again in 1998, and this amid the limitations of a developing nations economy," he says.

The book also reveals the human face of nuclear science and technology, blended by Indian nuclear establishment to generate food, water and better healthcare for India's teeming millions.

About the book: India's Tryst with the Atom: Unfolding the Nuclear Story By O P Sabherwal; Published by UBS Publishers' Distributors Pvt. Ltd., Price Rs 525; PP 428

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