INDIA; Mastering advanced technology

Forty miles east of Bangalore in Southern India lie the Kolar gold fields. There the Bharat Gold Mining Company has been extracting ore for over 100 years. The remaining ore is not rich -- only 5 milligrams of gold per kilogram of ore ( 5 parts in a million) -- and is only worth mining now that the gold price has increased.

Eight thousand feet down in the mines, 4,000 feet below sea level, is a cosmic-ray-research laboratory operated by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay. Here, Indian physicists are ''mining'' a different kind of wealth -- scientific knowledge. Here, in April, 1968, they were the first to record a neutrino arriving among the cosmic rays from outer space. Neutrinos are particles which interact very weakly with matter. Most of them pass through the earth without stopping. It is hard to observe them among other cosmic ray particles that are much more easily visible; therefore it is necessary to be deep in the earth to study them.

Today the mine is being used for another experiment at the frontier of science -- a search for the decay of the proton which is the major building block of matter. We know that this decay must be very rare, or we would disappear. An extension of the unified theory of electromagnetism, and radioactivity, for which Abdus Salam, Sheldon Glashow, and Steven Weinberg were awarded the Nobel Prize three years ago, predicts that the proton has a lifetime of 1032 (10 followed by 32 zeros) years. While this is very much longer than the age of the universe, it does mean that, in a block of matter with 1032 protons ( 300 tons), one proton will decay every year. This decay must be distinguished from the hundreds of cosmic rays that will pass through the block every second.

Here again, scientists work underground to screen out the bulk of the extraneous cosmic rays. India has made itself a world leader in this field of advanced physical research.

The group from the Tata institute, joined by Japanese scientists from Kyoto and Tokyo, has seen five events in the last year that might be decays of a proton. In January of this year they sponsored an international conference in Bombay to discuss this and eight other experiments in various stages of construction throughout the world.

It was a visit to this conference that reminded me of the contrasts in Indian science and technology.On the one hand, the Indian scientists are second to none in ability, although the facilities they work in are few and often seem very roughly made.

On the other hand, the technology that is seen every day in the streets seems very backward. One of the reasons for the backward appearance is the insistent demand to use local technology whenever possible. Only in the civil aircraft of Indian Airways was I aware of foreign technology.

Their cars are Indian made. I traveled in cars and taxis labeled Ambassador that are copies of 10-year-old Morris cars. Their commercial vehicles made by Tata seem better. It was this wealthy industrialist who provided the money for the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1945.

Nowhere is the desire to show independence in science and technology more apparent than in nuclear energy.

I talked to Dr. M.G.K. Menon, secretary of science and technology in the Indian central government, who was a participant in the conference, and to Dr. P. Iyengar, director of research of the Bhaba Atomic Energy Center in Bombay, who was in charge of the nuclear explosion in 1954.

One of the reasons for this explosion was to demonstrate dramatically India's ability to master any technology it chose. I was told that orders for Indian technology from Arabian Gulf countries increased thereafter.

However much we may deplore this explosion -- and there are many Indian scientists who also believe it was a mistake -- we must admit that the US granted more prestige to Great Britain and France after their explosions and admitted them more freely to American discussions on world affairs. The psychological benefit India has gained through exploding a nuclear device is thus largely of America's making.

Though India is proceeding slowly, if at all, toward a stock of deliverable nuclear weapons, the cost to their nuclear electric-power program of US disapproval has been high.

The controversy about the agreement -- now contrary to US law -- to supply fuel to the Tarapur reactor is well known. India has built itself two 200 -megawatt power plants in Rajastan, which have operated for five years. Two more in Madras are ready to operate, but await a supply of heavy water that the world is unwilling to sell until India signs the non-proliferation treaty. India is making its own heavy water, but delivery is a few months away.

Six more reactors of this type, a modification of the Canadian design, are in various stages of design and construction. They could, if they chose, be used to obtain bomb-grade plutonium. Installed, they cost $900 a kilowatt, which is cheaper than European or American power stations, even though there is no economy of scale. India, also trying to be independent of foreign uranium supplies, plans to make breeder reactors to utilize the extensive thorium deposits the country possesses. As with uranium, a breeder reactor can turn thorium into nuclear fuel. A small experimental breeder reactor will be in operation in one or two years.

If India signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) now, it would retain all the advantages from the demonstration of its technological competence. All Indians I met believe their country should not do so. They say that NPT is discriminatory, and they asked why India should be treated differently from France, which also has not signed.

What little pressure we still can apply will disappear as India's technology improves. The best hope is for a regional agreement with Pakistan not to make nuclear weapons, yet to recognize each other's ability to do so if they choose.

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