A large number of employees at the Department of Atomic Energy are taking their own lives, raising uncomfortable questions
When Homi J Bhabha died in Air India Flight 101, which crashed in January 1966 near Mont Blanc in the Swiss Alps, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called his untimely demise a blow to India. The tragic death of India’s foremost nuclear scientist came at a crucial time for India’s atomic energy programme, which was just taking off. Conspiracy theorists pointed to possible sabotage by the CIA, aimed at obstructing India’s nuclear programme.
Nearly 50 years later, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and its parent, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), are again trying to cope with untimely deaths of key personnel — this time, in a spate of suicides. A DAE response to an RTI query filed by activist Chetan Kothari said 197 employees committed suicide across the Department’s 32 centres in the years between 1995 and 2010 (March). Those who died were between 29 and 50 years of age.
At BARC alone, three scientists committed suicide in March-April 2010. The issue found voice in Parliament, where it was flagged in Lok Sabha by Independent MP Inder Singh Namdhari and the Congress’ Anto Antony in 2011. But apart from the stray questions in the legislature, the high number of suicides has not stirred the national consciousness. Nor has it provoked debate among a public which is otherwise taken up with Bhabha’s legacy. Startlingly little has been done to investigate these deaths in a community that is integral to India’s defence capability and energy security (See: Of mysterious deaths).
The issue raises some questions: Do the high number of deaths reflect the seemingly dark work environs of the Indian nuclear programme? Or does it reflect the frail side of the Indian psyche?
In December 2010, CPI(M)’s P Rajeev asked in Rajya Sabha whether the number of suicides was increasing at nuclear facilities and whether the departments had conducted inquiries into the matter, one of the few times when the matter came up for a debate at the national level. V Narayanaswamy, the then Minister of State for Planning and Parliamentary Affairs responded that the cases of unnatural deaths between 2005 and 2010 in the DAE had been analysed to find an answer. He said that of a total of 29 deaths, 22 were alleged to be suicides. Of the 22, one person had committed suicide as a result of work-related discomfort and the others because of personal or family reasons, the Minister added.
In the same year, a member of the Shiv Sena picked up the issue and quoted Kothari’s RTI’s figure in the Maharashtra Legislative Council, saying it was important to get to the bottom of the matter.
To cite a few cases: At BARC, five scientists committed suicide by hanging: Avdesh Chandra in 2000; Titus Pal, Ashutosh Sharma, and Soumik Chowdhary in 2010; and Uma Rao, a retired scientist, in 2011. Apart from them, Akshay P Chavan, an employee, allegedly committed suicide by jumping from the balcony of his flat in April 2010. Likewise, Subhash Sonawane, a tradesman of the waste management division, was suspected to have committed suicide in April 2010. According to BARC officials, Sonawane was undergoing treatment for schizophrenia. His body was recovered from a well in Mumbai’s Anushakti Nagar.
A slew of suicides has been witnessed in other DAE centres as well. In 2008, Jaswant Rao, an assistant mechanical engineer in Indian Rare Earths, was suspected to have taken his life. Scientist Dalia Nayak of Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, allegedly committed suicide by swallowing mercuric chloride in 2009. A year later, Tirumala Prasad Tenka, a scientist with the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology at Indore, hung himself at his residence. In a suicide note he had alleged abuse by seniors.
Finding the reason
Sekhar Basu, Director of BARC, argues that the percentage of suicides among the fraternity is in keeping with the national average. Referring to data from 19 centres of the DAE, while speaking toBusinessLine, he says, “The number of deaths due to suicide is less than 100 (69 to be precise) over a period of 20 years and over 60,000 employees work at the DAE. So, this would amount to about six deaths per lakh per year. To the best of my knowledge the number of suicides is much more in the Indian population, involving different ages, regions, demographic backgrounds and gender.”
The rate of suicide in India (2012 data) is 20.9 per 100,000, across all age groups, according to the WHO’s Preventing Suicide report. Given this, around 200 suicides occurring over 20 years does not seem statistically alarming.
Psychiatrist Lakshmi Vijaykumar, member of WHO’s International Network on Suicide Prevention and Research, and one of the editors of the report, agrees. At the same time, for an organisation as important as DAE, the chain of events should be worrying. Hence, she believes that each suicide is important and the underlying reasons need to be looked into.
Vijayakumar, who is also the founder of Sneha, a suicide prevention organisation in Chennai, says, “The reasons for committing suicide are complex, there is no ‘one’ cause for it,” she adds, “since suicide is multi-determined and results from the interplay of various factors”. These include biological (genetic disposition to mental disorders), psychological and environmental stressors (work and family-related).
According to the National Crime Records Bureau there is no single reason for suicide. In fact, ‘other causes’ (34.8 per cent) dominate family problems (24 per cent), illness (19.8 per cent), and failure in romantic relationships (3.3 per cent). For about 40 per cent of the suicides there is no identifiable cause. “Hence, we tend to rely on what are called psychological autopsy studies, which look at each suicide from psychological and social angles to arrive at some conclusion,” she adds.
As for the nuclear fraternity, Vijayakumar says individuals predisposed to depression and suicidal tendencies may find these exacerbated or triggered by the stress of working in a high-pressure job, as well as by the chemicals and materials he or she interacts with in the work environment. It is no secret that the work environment at many of India’s organisations that are conducting sensitive operations is stressful .
‘It’s a bit like a pressure cooker’
A first-person account of an ISRO employee on the challenging working environment
What is it like to work for a sensitive programme crucial to the country’s strategic interests? Between 1995 and 2010, 684 employees of the Indian Space Research Organisation died. These numbers were furnished by the space agency in response to a query by RTI activist Chetan Kothari in 2011. However, Kothari adds, ISRO chose to withhold the causes of death. Since “work-related” pressure was one of the reasons for suicide, as revealed by the government,BusinessLine spoke to an ISRO employee to get a glimpse of life in the space agency.
View from within
This is what Surinder (name changed) had to say about his job:
“Life is pretty routine, just like on any other campus, where people work and live within the same precinct. The day starts early and ends around 6 in the evening. However, we often take work home to meet the deadline. Work-wise, like all other jobs, there’s the usual scramble for promotions, the conflicts with the boss, and the work deadlines that keep everyone on their toes and on the edge. I am forced to be taciturn not only owing to the nature of the work, but also because competition is stiff. One is eligible for a promotion every two years, and missing a promotion is a huge setback.
“I know someone who hasn’t been promoted in six years! It’s very disconcerting. Promotions depend on the number of courses one has taught and how many journals one has contributed to. One constantly faces cut-throat competition since opportunities to do these things are few and far in between. Apart from the job, the politics at work and the lack of recreational opportunities compounds the stress.
“There are absolutely no means of entertainment on campus, and the nearest city is a distance away. There’s no way to relax and unwind after a day at work. I can’t speak to my family about these problems, and there is also no counselling centre for employees.
“It’s all a bit like a pressure cooker.”
Mindful of the increasing number of suicides, the DAE has since 2010 made it mandatory for all job applicants to pass a psychological test before being hired. But it is unclear if anything has been done to check on mental health once people are hired.
Of mysterious deaths
Apart from suicides, the DAE is also losing its men in puzzling circumstances
Besides the suicides, there has been a series of other unnatural deaths involving employees of the DAE. At least 10 DAE employees lost their lives between 2009-2013 in murders and mysterious fires. Some employees have also disappeared only to be found dead later.
It is hard to get similar data on the nuclear programmes of other countries, especially those of superpowers such as the US and China. At most, there have been rare reports on suspected deaths of scientists (See: International incidents).
As recently as October 2013, KK Joshi and Abhish Shivam, engineers connected with building the indigenous nuclear-powered submarine INS Arihant, were found dead on railway tracks in Visakhapatnam. In 2012, Mohammad Mustafa, a scientist at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam (IGCAR) was found dead with his wrists slashed. In early 2010, BARC’s Mahadevan Padmanabhan Iyer, a scientist, was found dead at his home. It was initially deemed a suicide and later declared a murder. In February 2010, S Ananthanarayanan, a scientist with IGCAR, after going missing for several weeks, was found dead on a railway track in Chennai. In 2009, Umang Pal and Partha Pratim Bagh died in a fire on BARC’s premises.
L Mahalingam, a scientist with the Kaiga Atomic Power Station, went missing in June 2009. His body was later found in the Kalindi river in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka. However, according to reports, police sources said that it was not clear whether he had accidentally fallen into the river or if it was an act of suicide. Police didn’t rule out the possibility of murder. A couple of weeks before Mahalingam went missing, another employee of the Nuclear Power Corporation India Ltd, Ravi Mule, went missing and was later declared murdered — his brother made his own efforts to investigate after police failed to make any headway.
As in the death of DAE founder Homi Bhabha, conspiracy theories abound. “The issue needs to be viewed from the perspective of a security threat, both internal and external,” says Madhav Nalapat, Director of the Geopolitics and International Relations Department at Manipal University, who has closely monitored the community as a journalist. “There are strong forces on the outside that are looking to derail India’s nuclear programme,” he adds.
However, BARC’s Director Shekhar Basu says: “We are not in a position to comment on Madhav Nalapat’s observations, because we are not aware on what basis these comments are made.”
The instances of unnatural deaths have led to experts like D Dhanuraj, Chairman, Centre for Public Policy Research, to call for a specialised security agency to protect the installations and the people working there.
Be it a suicide or a murder, the country can’t afford to lose precious talent. But, points out Nalapat, “These are all unsolved cases and are completely off the radar of the Government. There is still no protection provided to the nuclear fraternity,” he adds.
Deaths of scientists in Iran and the UK remain unexplained
Since 2007, according to a 2011 article in The Telegraph (UK) by Chief Foreign Correspondent David Blair, five Iranian nuclear scientists and the head of the country’s ballistic missile programme have died in mysterious circumstances, while another scientist was wounded, and another has disappeared. Apart from them, the country’s Deputy Defence Minister had disappeared.
Owing to these incidents, Iran had decided to bump up security for its nuclear scientists and made a very public announcement of the same. While Iran blamed Israel for these attacks, deciding whether foreign agents should be held accountable for the unnatural deaths of India’s nuclear scientists is a matter of pure speculation. The former Prime Minister of the UK, in November 2009, according the UK’s Mail, had been urged to intervene in an investigation into the death of British nuclear scientist Timothy Hampton.
Hampton fell to his death from the 17th floor of a UN building in Vienna in October.
While local police and UN officials had suggested that Hampton, who was involved in monitoring illegal nuclear tests by Iran and North Korea, killed himself, forensic tests commissioned by his family had raised doubts about these findings. The family suggested instead that he may have been murdered.