Unanswered questions: ‘Many deaths were covered up...Something is wrong somewhere’

Ashish Mehta, the lawyer who has filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Bombay High Court on the mysterious deaths of India’s nuclear scientists, says the government should acknowledge there is a crisis and act accordingly. In an interview to Ashwin Punnen, he says reports have suggested that over 3,000 nuclear scientists have died over the past 10 years and this is a “systematic elimination of our scientists...”
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You have filed a PIL with Bombay High Court in 2015 on the deaths of nuclear scientists. What is the status of the case?

Currently, the PIL is waiting for admission. The replies have been filed. Now we have to take up the matter before the Bombay High Court for admission. After we filed the PIL, the government has taken a number of adjournments and also made replies. And the government replies are portraying that everything is normal and there is no threat as such. But our stand is that there is a perceived threat to our institutions and manpower and proper safety measures need to be taken. Our PIL is backed by lots of facts which have now come out in various national and international publications. We have also gathered information from the government through RTI. We want the court to go through the case and give appropriate orders.

What are the directions that you are seeking from the court?

The PIL is seeking the setting up of a special investigation team (SIT) to look into the mysterious deaths of nuclear scientists. It has been reported that more than 3,000 nuclear scientists have died over the past 10 years. And this suggests that there is a systematic elimination of our scientists. Who is behind these deaths we don’t know. There could be sabotage, and involvement of foreign players. We know that it is a huge allegation to make. We are asking the court to set up an SIT to look into these mysterious deaths, why no proper investigations and reports are not done. There are cases where the bodies of nuclear scientists were found on railway tracks. We are not suggesting that each and every death is a mysterious case. But there is evidence suggesting that there is sabotage. There is talk that there is a larger conspiracy involving foreign agencies at play. India is becoming a major nuclear player so sabotage cannot be ruled out. The truth has to come out.

The PIL talks about safety issues in our nuclear facilities. Can you elaborate?

There have to be safeguards. The nuclear establishments should have proper safety measures. So, we want the SIT to look into the safety aspect and suggest to the court what are the lacunae in the system and measures to improve safety, especially from radiation.

The material evidences we have placed before the court suggest that there is an issue which needs to be looked into by a panel of experts. Every time it can’t be a coincidence that a senior nuclear scientist is found dead in mysterious circumstances. There have been many deaths in Tamil Nadu, Mumbai and other places, it can’t be coincidence.

The question is why the government is not talking about it. Why the Atomic Energy Commission, which comes under the Department of Atomic Energy which is under the PMO is not talking about the development. The Prime Minister is the head of the Department of Atomic Energy as there is no separate ministry.

We have to protect our scientists. The issues are not openly discussed unlike in other developed countries. We need nuclear power and to ensure that our scientists, who are the real brain behind this development, should be protected. It is a very super specialised area and we need the best brains to run these nuclear facilities.

The government should appoint a high level investigation team of experienced people from the atomic energy department or top CBI and  forensic officials, preferably experienced retired people (to investigate the deaths).

Do you suspect a kind of cover up by the authorities?

The indication is that the real truth is not coming out. Something fishy (is happening). The whole investigation report is not coming out. In many cases FIRs are not filed. There are several instances where offences are not registered.

The Department of Atomic energy should come out with a report of how many accidental deaths have taken place over the past 20-30 years. How many deaths were caused by negligence, how many were mysterious deaths. These facts should come out.

The petitioner has send 30 different queries to various institutions  and agencies dealing with nuclear energy which comes under dept of atomic energy.

The information we received from these sources suggests that these agencies are not maintaining data properly. Many institutions have replies like date of death unknown; cause of death unknown etc. This is very basic. The information we gathered from these institutions through RTI suggests that many deaths were covered up.

That is why we have gone to the High Court to constitute an SIT because it is a major national security issue. The possibility of foreign hands can’t be ruled out. The court can constitute an SIT and seek the report in a sealed envelope considering this is a sensitive national security issue. Here the department is directly under the PMO so the PMO can directly set up a committee to look into the issue.

Our prayer before the court is that these issues need immediate attention because they concern national security This is not something which can be taken in a casual manner.

Another issue highlighted here is that there is a high number of deaths due to radiation. Is there a safety issue?

This is a grey area here. The information we gathered through RTI suggests that such deaths are covered up. That is the reason why we have gone to the honourable high court to set up an SIT to look into all these issues and suggest suitable measures to deal with the problems. It should be probed from a national security angle also as it involves crucial scientists involved in nuclear space. Nuclear power is a very sensitive area, the best brains work here. The news reports are suggesting involvement of foreign hands and spy agencies. The government should take it as a serious issue. The possibility of foreign hand cannot be ruled out and as a lawyer I am very well aware that even if such facts are there it should not be publicly disclosed. But when this is happening on a very regular basis there is some problem. So the problem has to be identified where the court appointed SIT can probe to get to the bottom of the matter.

The matter comes under the highest level of the executive body. The PMO is directly involved. There is no need for the government to wait till the court direction comes. The PMO could form a committee to look into the matter. Our limited prayer to the court is that these things require serious attention because it concerns national security. This is not something that could be taken lightly.

You filed the PIL about two years back. No action has been taken. Why this delay?

What has happened is that after we filed the case, the government has taken number of adjournments, after which it has filed replies. The government in its replies is trying to portray that everything is normal. According to the government there is nothing relating to a threat kind of thing. Our stand is that there is a perceived threat for which safeguards have to be in place. Our manpower has to be given proper protection. This not an assignment where anybody could be put in that position. If you see the last 10-20 years, there have been 3500 deaths of nuclear scientists.

We are telling the court that you can’t differentiate between various personnel involved in this area. It is a collective effort. A person may have died either because of radiation or accident in the nuclear facilities or some mysterious accidental death. The fact is there is a high number of deaths. There are a lot of deaths due to cancer. Is it because of high radiation levels in these facilities? Then there is a body of the International Atomic Energy Agency which regulates atomic power all across the globe. Then there safety measures, guidelines are not followed strictly. The atomic energy commission needs to look into. This is not some adversial litigation. This is done looking at the national interest where we are requesting the court to take up the issue thread bear.

The petitioner is an RTI activist who has applied to all the 30 institutions and collected the data on deaths. He has also taken up various issues with the government related to public interest. The intention behind this PIL is to bring to the notice of the honourable High Court the very sensitive area of nuclear power plants and (tell) people involved something undesirable is happening. What is it? May be it is an apprehension or there is something behind it. All this will come out only when a probe is conducted by an experienced set of people. We are laymen in the field. We are trying to bring to the notice of the court that something is not right and needs attention.

What is the kind of feedback you are getting from people who are affected?

The people who are working in such institutions as per the service conditions are not allowed to publicly talk about the institutions. We are only using the data furnished by these institutions under RTI. It raises a concern as a huge number of unnatural deaths have happened. There is a huge number of deaths on account to cancer, accidents and suicide. Something is wrong somewhere. We got to know that whether there is some kind of internal pressure on people working in these institutions.

Columnist: 
Ashwin J Punnen