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From the Archives: When several Indian nuclear scientists died mysteriously

This article was first published in THE WEEK issue dated July 18, 2010

mahalingam nuclear victims (File) A collage showing L. Mahalingam and Deboprasad Bag and Kaberi with a photograph of their son Partha Pratim Bag

The allegations by an ISRO scientist that he was poisoned multiple times have caused a shock. More than 10 years ago, THE WEEK investigated the mysterious deaths of multiple Indian nuclear scientists.

This article was first published in THE WEEK issue dated July 18, 2010

JUNE 8, 2009: L. Mahalingam, a 47-year-old senior scientific officer at the Kaiga Atomic Power Station in Karwar, Karnataka, went on a morning walk and never returned. Five days later, his highly decomposed body was fished out from the Kali river. His family did not believe it was him, until a DNA test confirmed the identity.

NOV. 24,2009: More than 20 workers at the Kaiga Atomic Power Station fell ill after drinking tritium-laced water. Around 90 workers who drank from the same water cooler were also treated.

DEC. 30. 2009: Two young researchers, Umang Singh and Partha Pratim Bag, were burnt to death in a mysterious fire in the modular lab of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre's (BARC) radiation and photochemistry department. The third-floor lab, situated in the high-security BARC complex in Trombay, was one kilometre away from the nuclear reactors. Neither Singh nor Bag was dealing with

inflammable material.

FEB. 22, 2010: Mahadevan Padmanabhan Iyer, a 48-year-old mechanical engineer at the BARC reaction group, was found dead in his staff quarters in Anand Bhavan in south Mumbai. At first, it

seemed that Iyer had suffered a heart attack. The police presumed suicide, but the autopsy confirmed murder.

April 8, 2010: Cobalt-60, a radioactive element, reached Mayapuri scrap market, New Delhi. A scrap dealer was killed by the radiation and many others were exposed to severe radiation. Nuclear investigators traced the material to Delhi University's chemistry department.

JUNE 28, 2010: The presence of radioactive material in a room at the Aligarh Muslim University campus triggered panic. As this report was going to press, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) was sending a team of experts to survey radioactive sources in the university's physics department.

Even if one of these incidents—either directly or indirectly linked to our nuclear institutions—remains

unresolved, it is sufficient reason for India's nuclear establishment to sit up and worry. Unfortunately,

most of these incidents, which have occurred over a period of one year, still remain a mystery. You would ask why are we clubbing together the deaths of individuals, who happen to work at nuclear establishments, with incidents like tritium contamination, which are to do with the larger issue of nuclear safety.

For one, no unnatural death should go unexplained, especially since the dead had been working in highly sensitive establishments dealing with nuclear energy. In the age of terrorism when the "enemy within" angle is more than just a threat perception, the security of our scientists should be of utmost concern to the authorities. And, their deaths should be above doubt.

Said S. Rajagopal, former secretary, Atomic Energy Commission: "I believe that every unnatural death should be investigated to its logical end, and there should be a paper to specify the cause of death. True, some of these deaths could be due to natural phenomena. For instance, during my time, a scientist from the Philippines jumped off her 11th floor apartment and died. We came to know that she was suffering from schizophrenia."

In Mahalingam's case, the Karwar police is sure that it was suicide. However, the case is yet to be closed. THE WEEK learns from reliable sources that Mahalingam's brother, who works for a corporate firm, regularly calls the Karwar police to check if they have found any fresh clues. Obviously, he does not believe the police's theory. After his death, the Mahalingams shifted from Karwar to Tamil Nadu "without informing the police".

For the five days, until Mahalingam's decomposed body was found snagged on a submerged tree in the Kali river, speculation was rife that he could have been the target of some sinister plot aimed at the country's nuclear programme. Coming as it did after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, the "missing case" had taken on a seemingly ominous twist.

Uttara Kannada Superintendent of Police Raman Gupta dismissed all theories about foul play. "He set out for a walk that morning knowing well that he was going to kill himself. He had a heart condition and never left his cell phone behind. That day, he left his watch and cell at home," said Gupta. Some hints about discord in the family led the police to conclude that the scientist had taken his life.

Even as Mahalingam's death was being forgotten, two more deaths shook the nuclear fraternity. This time, they were inside a high-security zone at the BARC.

Umang Singh and Partha Pratim Bag were two promising scientists in a team of researchers in the chemistry group. Only two of them from their 10-member team were present on that fateful afternoon when the mysterious fire burnt down the lab.

No fire extinguishers were at hand and the fire tender lost its way and reached the lab 45 minutes too late. The fire had consumed everything in the lab, including the two scientists. That there was nothing inflammable in the lab only deepened the mystery.

To this day, neither Umang's family nor Partha's family knows the exact cause of the fire that took away their only sons. Both families had to give blood samples to the lab for a DNA test to identify the bodies.

"Everybody from BARC visited us. We asked all of them, but nobody gave us an answer on what caused the fire. They just hang their head and keep quiet," said Udaynarayan Singh, Umang's father, who lives in a lower middle-class chawl in Mumbai's Jogeshwari area.

"We are simple people from a village. Mumbai is far far away. What can we do from here?" asked Partha's parents, Deboprasad Bag and Kaberi, who live in Narayanpur village, over 120km from Kolkata in South 24 Parganas district. No one from BARC even visited the Bags after Partha died.

As for the Bags, they were simply taken aback by the questions they had to face from the police when they arrived in Mumbai, the day after the incident. The trauma of their son's death notwithstanding, the police questioning of the family bordered on "harassment". Deboprasad said, "It seemed as though they suspected our dead son of some foul play." The Bags want nothing to do with the police. They also attributed their sense of resignation in the case to "language problem and distance".

When THE WEEK inquired with the investigators about the cause of the fire, Trombay Assistant Commissioner of Police Jalinder Khandagale said the police report had been submitted to the government. Apparently, BARC's internal inquiry report has also been submitted to the government. Khandagale was tight-lipped about the police's findings.

In a clear case of murder, Mahadevan Padmanabhan Iyer was found dead in his house in south Mumbai. Except for some blood stains on the bed, on which he was found dead, Iyer's apartment was undisturbed. The death was discovered rather late—two days after the murder—after neighbours complained of a foul smell.

First, the death was put down to a heart attack. Slowly, it changed to "suicide". The autopsy conducted by forensic experts at Mumbai's Grant Medical College concluded that Iyer died after being hit on the head with a blunt weapon. The killer has not been apprehended.

While there is no speedy investigation in these cases of unnatural death, a clear case of breach of nuclear safety was discovered when some workers in the Kaiga atomic power station showed unusually high levels of radiation in their urine.

This most glaring case of breach in safety occurred on November 24, 2009, at Unit 1 and 2 of the Kaiga

nuclear power station. The source of radiation was a water cooler used by the workers. The cooler, located in the Reactor Building (RB), was common to Unit 1 and Unit 2. The water was laced with tritiated heavy water. Tritium is a strategic material and so, highly guarded. Only very few authorised personnel have access to it, that, too, after going through a controlled access system manned by the Central Industrial Security Force.

When the incident came to light, authorities in India's nuclear establishment said tritium contamination was negligible and that the incident was minor. Union Minister of State for Science and Technology Prithviraj Chavan told the media that it was an "insider's job". Chief of the Atomic Energy Commission Anil Kakodkar concurred. It was only a matter of time before the culprit would be found out, they said.

The AERB and the station director at Kaiga, J.P. Gupta, stuck to the theory that a "disgruntled employee" had contaminated the drinking water. They claimed that the contamination was far below levels permissible by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the AERB. The affected workers, besides being administered diuretics, were advised to increase water intake. The tritium would be flushed out of the body through perspiration and urination, they said.

Last week, THE WEEK visited the Nuclear Power Corporation of India township at Mallapur, 65km from Karwar, hoping to meet doctors who had treated affected workers at the Kaiga hospital. But permission was denied.

"After the scientist's [Mahalingam] death, security has been tightened. Even the perimeter wall's height has been raised from 4ft to 7ft," said the security officer. Permission to interact with workers in the township was also denied.

Security personnel said any information regarding the tritium leak should come either from Gupta or the site director, V. Sanath Kumar. Both officers were based at the plant site, located about 15km away and surrounded by thick evergreen forests of the Western Ghats. It is a fortress guarded by many layers of security.

At the main gate, we were stopped and permission was not given to go further. We managed to talk over the telephone to Uma Maheshwar, senior manager, HR. When told that we wished to meet Gupta or Sanath, we were asked to contact Assistant Public Relations Officer Subash Khanade. Khanade said Gupta was on tour and that Sanath was inspecting the plant site.

On insisting that we wished to meet Sanath, Khanade contacted his office and conveyed the following message: "The police investigation is under progress. Once it is over, we will intimate the media." It is reliably learnt that the authorities later reprimanded their subordinates for permitting THE WEEK team to reach the main gate of the plant. AERB Chairman S.S. Bajaj, too, did not respond to our efforts to contact him.

Meanwhile, president of the employees association at Kaiga, Sumanth, ruled out the possibility of employees being involved in the tritium contamination. "No employee would do it [mix tritiated heavy water with drinking water], because we know the consequences," he said.

Two things emerged from our probe: Seven months after the incident, the plant authorities had no clue how strategic material from a restricted zone was brought out and mixed with drinking water. What's more, the "mischief maker", who is not identified, is perhaps still at large in the plant.

Raman Gupta, who is determined to unravel the tritium mystery, is battling several odds to crack the case.

To begin with, it was believed that only a few people had access to the area where the tritium was stored. Slowly it emerged that hundreds of people—even those not authorised to enter the premises—used a master-card to enter the area.

"At the CAS gate, anyone with the master-card could enter without their name being recorded. The next chance [of zeroing in on the culprit] was the CCTV cameras. But there was no proper backup of the footage," said Raman Gupta. "Unit 3 and Unit 4 have the best security systems and procedures." He also ruled out the possibility of tritium accidentally getting mixed with drinking water. All these points at severe flaws in the operating procedures. "I hope they have set them right after this incident," he said.

There was, however, no way of finding out if the standard operating procedures have been revamped.

Transparency is sacrificed in the name of secrecy in these establishments. In contrast, the Nuclear

Regulatory Commission in the US constantly puts out information in the public domain.

Said Rajagopal: "We lack transparency in our functioning. That's not the case the world over, when dealing with nuclear material. If a ship carrying plutonium is travelling from London to Japan, all the island nations along the sea route are notified. This puts the countries concerned on alert. Hiding this in the name of secrecy would be counter productive."

On the tritium contamination at Kaiga, Rajagopal said: "Tritium, per se, is not very dangerous to health.

The question is, how did it get out? Thankfully, it is only tritium. Tomorrow, it could be something more dangerous like cobalt or plutonium."

With the questionable physical safety of nuclear material in India, former AERB chairman A. Gopalakrishnan believes that the Nuclear Liability Bill would be a farce. "When the sufferings of the people affected in such incidents are not even investigated, a liability law is fruitless," said he.

Charred hopes

Kaberi and Deboprasad Bag run an ice factory in Narayanpur. West Bengal. They had two children, a son and a daughter, until December 29, 2009.

It was on television that they first heard about their son Partha Pratim Bag's death. Kaberi recalled how they wanted Partha to give up his PhD work in BARC after 26/11 happened. "Ma, you are worrying unnecessarily. BARC has the best security in India, W e are safe.” said he.

What killed him was a mysterious fire in the laboratory in which he was working. Debuprasad had no idea what Partha was working on, but Kaberi was never tired of listening to her son. "He was working on retrieving cells that were damaged by radiation," she said. "Basically, his experiments involved working with animals—white mice, monkeys, etc. He once told me that the tuberculosis bacteria could survive without oxygen."

Staring into space, Deboprasad kept repeating "he was a good boy". As she served us mangoes, Kaberi spoke about Partha's love for the fruit, his photographic skills and how he would call every night when they sat for dinner, “'What's for dinner? Did you make fish for father?' he would ask." recalled the mother fondly.

The parents came to know of Partha's popularity among his colleagues only after his death. All his friends keep in touch with Partha's parents and tell them how much they miss him. When he died, students pooled money for the family, but Kaberi and Deboprasad refused it. "We are well

off. Partha was not the breadwinner of our family. Umang Singh's family needs the money more than we do. They are poor," Deboprasad said.

Umang Singh was the breadwinner of his family. Coming from a two-room tenement in a slum near Jogcshwari, Mumbai, he studied under street lamps to climb the academic ladder and was three years into his PhD when he died.

A week before the fire, Umang burnt his hands when he put out a fire in another lab. "He did not tell us about it. But a person who put out a fire and saved others, could not save himself," said Usha Singh, Umang's mother. The father Udaynarayan Singh, a former mill worker, is a crushed man. "We did not know he was achieving so much," he said.

Aditya Singh, Umang's brother-in-law, has turned cynical after the incident. "Nothing is going to happen. This is how things work in India," he said sporting a T-shirt with Adolf Hitler's image on it. When asked if he was a Hitler fan, he said,"Now, I have become a fan... after this incident." Aditya explained how Umang was into cancer research.

The family said leaders from all political parties had been promising to take care of the family, but the promises remained promises even after seven months. Even to claim the insurance money of Rs 5 lakh, they require the case to be closed by the police. "At least for that reason, we need a logical conclusion to the case,'' said Udaynarayan.

The family has no word either from BARC or from the police about the cause of the fire. One of the relatives asked the police, but there was silence. The last moments of their sons still haunt the two families. "The body, what was left of it, was in a crouching position," said Kaberi. "It appeared as though he was trying to escape by crawling away."

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