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A Viennese Interlude

A train carrying Hindu karsevaks returning from Ayodhya was set on fire in Godhra in Gujarat on the 27th of February 2002, leading to terrible communal riots. I felt the after-effects of the riots closely since a neighbour, a Catholic Healthcare person, would come and tell us the gruesome stories. I was very depressed by the whole situation, including rumours about Government collusion and the callousness of people towards the events.

Then, I received a call from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna inviting me to take up a position as the Head of its Physics Department to replace the person who had to leave the job suddenly. The assignment was for eight months from September 2002. So naturally, I accepted the offer with alacrity.

IAEA, a UN Organization, is the world’s foremost forum for scientific and technical cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear technology. It contributes to the United Nations’ charter of Sustainable Development. It is the UN’s watchdog to ensure that the member states honour their international legal obligations to use nuclear material and technology for peaceful purposes only. Teams from IAEA had gone to Iraq to search for Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction”.

IAEA came into being in 1957. In the 1970s, the Austrian Government provided a permanent residence called the Vienna International Centre (VIC) on the left bank of the river Danube. The Austrian architect Johann Staber designed the iconic building of VIC on Wagrammerstrasse by the Danube.

I was familiar with IAEA as I had many occasions earlier to visit and work there on week-long assignments. The Director of the division under which my section came was Dr Sood, an expert on Radiation Chemistry whom I had known from his BARC days. My job was to oversee the established programmes and promote new programmes in Plasma Physics and Fusion Research. Coordination of the meetings sponsored by IAEA was part of the assignment. My charter also included liaison with agencies of similar interest, attending meetings and conferences and taking care of routine administrative matters.

Memorable meetings include the 19th Fusion Energy Conference held in October 2002 in Lyon, France, where I had to act as the Scientific Secretary. This is a biannual meeting of great heritage dating back to 1961, when the first meeting occurred in Salzburg, Austria. The meeting with more than 500 participants reported significant developments in the performance of large fusion experiments, advances in critical technologies and new and innovative concepts.

Another event I enjoyed was the Workshop on Plasma Physics jointly hosted by IAEA and the International Centre for Theoretical Physics. This was a place I had visited in the 80s for the Plasma Physics Summer School held in November 2002. I also enjoyed a trip to Washington to represent the Agency at the Fifth Symposium on Current Trends in International Fusion Research. This allowed me to visit my cousin Dr K. V. George (Thonipurackal, Puthupally), who worked with the US Department of Energy.

The major IAEA event is the General Conference, where representatives of the IAEA Member States meet in a regular annual session. The purpose is to consider and approve the IAEA’s budget and to decide on issues raised by the Board of Governors, the Director-General and the Member States. With the General Conference, IAEA regularly organizes a Scientific Forum on nuclear technology and science topics. During the General Conference, the Indian staff in IAEA had an opportunity to meet with Dr Anil Kakodkar, then Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

The Agency played the role of godfather to the ITER Project through its early design phases. The ITER negotiations happened under the auspices of the IAEA. I used my stay at IAEA to gather information on ITER as there were informal discussions in our institute in those days on the pros and cons of being part of the international project to build a thermonuclear fusion reactor. Prof. Kaw was the Chair of the International Fusion Research Council (IFRC), which provided guidelines to the IAEA Secretariat on the fusion R&D program matters.

High-profile visitors to VIC were commonplace. I got an opportunity to hear Hans Blix, a former DG, on not finding the weapons of mass destruction said to be possessed by Iraq. He was the head of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission from March 2000 to June 2003. In 2002, the commission began the search in Iraq for weapons of mass destruction but found none.

Responding to the IAEA Director General’s request for ideas for new initiatives, I proposed the concept of ‘Virtual IAEA: a digital history resource base’. I argued that IAEA has no institutional memory as staff members come and go. I described how a retrievable collective institutional memory could be generated by compiling the memoirs of all the people who had an opportunity to work for the Agency. The idea was quite well-received.

After my wife Minnu joined me for a three-month stay, we decided that we should exploit our short stay to sample the many wares of the city. Austria’s capital offers a unique blend of imperial traditions and stunning modern architecture. In addition, it is renowned for its cultural events, imperial sights, coffee houses, confectionaries, wine taverns, and exceptional Viennese charm. So we used many random walks through the city using the Viennese facility of a single ticket valid for subways, trams and buses.

Vienna’s history dates back to the first century when the Romans established the military camp Vindobona. As a result, today’s cityscape is characterized by the abundance of Baroque buildings created mainly under the rule of Empress Maria Theresia (1740–1780) and Emperor Franz Joseph (1848–1916). They were primarily responsible for the monumental architecture around the Ringstrasse.

Sacher-Torte, the classic chocolate confectionery, is a Viennese invention. So are croissants, associated with the period of failed attempts by the Ottoman Empire to capture the city of Vienna. During the Second Siege of Vienna in 1683, the Turks wanted to plant the Turkish crescent on Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral. A Viennese master baker named Peter Wendler created a crescent-shaped pastry to mock the Turkish crescent.

Belvedere Palace today houses the Österreichische Galerie displaying the most extensive collection of works by Klimt (The Kiss) and Schiele. Vienna’s prime landmarks are the gothic Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral), the Giant Ferris Wheel in the Prater, Vienna’s old recreational park, and the Spanish Riding School with their world-famous Lipizzaner horses.

Vienna has many museums and galleries of international reputation: Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna with the world’s most extensive collection of Bruegel paintings, MuseumsQuartier with the Leopold Museum, Museum Moderner Kunst (Museum of Modern Art), Architekturzentrum (Architectural Centre) and Kunsthalle rank among the city’s most important cultural venues. In addition, the Albertina is home to the world’s most extensive collection of graphic arts and prints (60,000 drawings, 1 million prints).

Inspired by all this art. around me, I revived my watercolour interest. Gordon Mackenzie’s classic “Water Colourist’s Essential Handbook”, acquired in Vienna, revealed the mystery of “Wash”. Wash is the technique of thoroughly wetting the paper so that paint would spread on its own, creating semi-abstract patterns. So, armed with thick, absorbent Acquarello paper and watercolour tubes, I went on an orgy of wash painting. I gave away most of the pictures to colleagues in the Agency.

My interest in waste-to-energy technology made me take the time to visit the Spittelau incinerator. The plant processes around 250,000 tonnes of household waste every year. Around 50 per cent of the energy produced yearly from waste incineration stems from biogenic or renewable sources. It contributes to Vienna’s waste management system. It produces an average of 60 GWh of electricity and 500 GWh of heating, producing energy for around 50,000 Viennese households (and heating and warm water for 60,000). It ranks as one of Vienna’s most striking landmarks, with the huge golden ball on its chimney an integral part of the cityscape. The Municipal incinerator plants rarely become architectural highlights. Friedensreich Hundertwasser redesigned it in his unique style in the 80s after a fire destroyed the original structure built in 1960.

Two Malayali names stand out in my memory of the Vienna days. James Pazhayadath, working in the administrative section, went to great lengths to make my stay in Vienna hassle-free. He was a veteran in Vienna, with his brother working in the Indian embassy. We found that we share a common interest — books in Malayalam. I was impressed by his perseverance and motivation, which helped him to build a beautiful home in the suburbs and convert the compound into a mini-Kerala. Another friend was Dr Alexander Verghese, an economist with UNIDO. I recall many pleasant weekends at his home, meeting many people, including the Indian Ambassador Sri Srinivasan.

My brief tenure at IAEA was great for educational and cultural reasons. I discovered closely how high-profile international organizations work. I learned how to resolve conflicts in meetings with participants from nations with conflicting ideological and political leanings. I knew at close hand how e-office functions. I had to meet and make friends with people from all nationalities. It was a great learning experience.

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