Dr. Roger Bilham, a US geophysicist who has warned against underestimating seismic hazards at the Jaitapur nuclear plant site, now says he was deported from India earlier this year not because of visa violations, as claimed by Home Ministry officials at the time, but because he figures in a list of foreigners not allowed to visit India. Dr. Bilham was deported back to the U.S. from the New Delhi airport soon after landing on May 19 around midnight when he was on transit to Bhutan.
At that time, Dr. Bilham was apparently told by the customs authorities that his name was on a certain list of persons denied entry into India and was given no other reason. “The State Department,” Dr. Bilham has claimed, “has twice been informed that I am on a list of foreigners not allowed to visit India. The list includes terrorists and journalists and one other scientist. This one other scientist wrote about voting machine insecurity in India.” The State Department has, however, not been told why his name is on the list.
Dr. Bilham is well-known for his extensive work on Himalayan seismicity, much of it carried out with a reputed Indian geophysicist, Dr. Vinod Gaur, the former director of the National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI), Hyderabad. In January of this year, he addressed a press conference by Greenpeace on the potential seismic risk to the proposed 9900 MWe nuclear power plant complex at Jaitapur, Maharashtra.
Challenging the version given by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) at the time of his deportation, Dr. Bilham has revealed new information through email exchanges after the story of his deportation, which was hitherto not widely known (see, however, The Hindu, August 12 and Sunday Guardian, May 27), hit the international headlines through a December 6 report in the journal Science.
The Science story, quoting the MHA, said that Dr. Bilham was denied entry because, while travelling on tourist visa, his “activity” was “not commensurate with the type of visa granted”. Dr. Bilham, who has a multiple-entry ten-year tourist visa and has made several visits to India since the 1960s, has, however, stated that the barring of his entry had nothing to do with any visa problem. “My visa has not been revoked. It has not been cancelled. No mention of a visa problem has ever been made,” Dr. Bilham stated in his email. “My flight to Bhutan was the next day. I planned to stay overnight in Delhi.”
Dr. Bilham last visited India to attend the ‘Indo-US Workshop on ‘Intraplate Seismicity’ held during January 16-18 at the Institute for Seismological Research (ISR), an institute under the department of science and technology (DST) in Gandhinagar, on an invitation extended to him. Even though he was on a tourist visa, he had been given explicit authorisation to not only attend the meeting but also to travel in the Kutch region by Dr. B. K. Rastogi, director, ISR. He returned on January 18.
The report in Science followed the issue having been raised at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) during December 3-7 in San Francisco. Dr. Max Wyss, director of the World Agency of Planetary Monitoring and Earthquake Risk Reduction, Geneva, in his presentation had likened his deportation to the arrests of seismoligists in Italy, who have been painted as criminals following the L’Aquila earthquake for having not provided the correct advice on the impending earthquake.
According to Dr. Wyss, Dr. Bilham was deported for having co-authored with Dr. Gaur an article critical of the seismic hazard analysis for the Jaitapur nuclear power plant (Current Science, November 25, 2011), and having rendered the opinion that the nuclear plant should be designed to withstand higher accelerations than planned, as well as for his view that the seismic hazard in Kashmir is underestimated. A signature protest campaign in support of Dr. Bilham has already been launched following Dr. Wyss’s presentation.
The MHA officials, however, are not willing to say for what kind of visa violation Dr. Bilham was put on a flight back to the USA shortly on arrival. Repeated efforts were of no avail. It stands to reason that he could not have committed any during his May visit because he was still in the airport. And his last visit was on an official invitation. Both the DST and the Ministry of Earth Sciences are not aware of this incident.
But in an allegation that is hard to verify, Dr. Bilham has further claimed that a senior highly influential Indian seismologist has conspired to have his name included in the MHA list. This he has even officially communicated to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) while declining the institute’s request to be the external examiner for adjudicating a Ph. D. student’s thesis.
In his October 17 letter, Dr. Bilham wrote to the IISc Registrar: “I regret to inform you that the Government of India has decided that I am no longer allowed to visit India. This is not a visa issue but a blacklisting issue. The governmental decision was presumably based on recommendations made by one or more influential seismologists in India. The decision is based on a recent article on Indian seismicity similar to that discussed in the thesis that you mention…I am concerned that my presence on the thesis committee…will be detrimental to the future of this talented young scientist.”
His name, Dr. Bilham said in his email, continued to be on the prohibited list until last week when he wanted to make a trip to India to visit the Delhi Archives.