Research Programmes

Frontline, November 1, 1996

The “herbal fuel” hoax
P. Ramar and his cauldron of tricks

by V. Sridhar

On September 25, P. Ramar, the self-proclaimed discoverer of a herbal petroleum substitute, failed his first – and only – completely scientific validation test. The test was organized by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India, at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Chennai, and the unanimous verdict of the scientists present, and of the DST officially, was that Ramar had failed and had resorted to dishonesty. The entire proceedings were videotaped.

In a statement on September 27, the DST announced that Ramar failed to produce fuel using water, herbs and other ingredients. Ramar’s claims were further discredited when Dr. V. S. Ramamurthy, Secretary, DST, announced on October 1 that Ramar had resorted to “dishonest” means; he attempted to introduce the fuel using a hollow metal stirrer (see accompanying story).

Later, further evidence available with Frontline revealed that Ramar had failed a series of tests conduced by J. K. Bajaj of the Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai. Bajaj wrote to the DST on September 14 revealing that Ramar’s “small-scale” demonstration on January 1995 “resulted in output weight of the whole demonstration materials exceeding the input weight, by roughly the amount of oil that was produced.”

Bajaj informed Ramarmurthy that the Centre conducted a “more controlled experiment on a somewhat bigger scale” between January 29 and February 2, 1995. An “accurate record of all inputs and outputs” was maintained by a group consisting of a physicist, a chemist, a metallurgist and a microbiologist who observed Ramar’s demonstration closely. Though Ramar started his demonstration with two vessels, he “more or less abandoned one vessel on the fourth day saying that the experiment had gone wrong for that vessel.” On this occasion also the output weight exceeded the input weight by the amount of oil produced, raising the suspicion that “extraneous material may be entering the experiment.”

On February 6, Ramar repeated the demonstration “under fully secure conditions, with all access to the experimental vessels being observed and guarded.” Ramar abandoned the demonstration on the third day and promised to return in a couple of days. He never did.

Following the wide publicity given to Ramar after his performance at the IIT, Delhi on September 5, the Prime Minister’s Office asked the DST to give Ramar a chance to prove his claim. Detailed preparations were made for the demonstration: a group of distinguished scientists assembled in Chennai for the first validation test to be conducted under completely scientific laboratory conditions. Ramamurthy told Frontline that because of Bajaj’s letter, “we were prepared for any sleight of hand.” At the validation test, as the accompanying story shows, Ramar was caught red-handed as fueld leaked from a waxed-sealed stirrer that Ramar had produced from his kit, and weighing revealed that the fuel was introduced from the stirrer. Ramamurthy told Frontline that Ramar pleaded for another chance the next day, and that he would use herbs from the IIT campus itself. Arrangements were made and the laboratory was kept ready, but Ramar did not turn up.

Ramar reacted to failure at the IIT, Chennai with contradictory statements. While he told the scientists present at the demonstration that it failed because the leaves used were not ‘potent’, back home in Idayankulam he suggested the vessels used for the experiment may have been contaminated.

On September 27, the day the DST released news of the Chennai fiasco, Ramar performed in front of Dhanushkodi Adithan, Union Minister of State in charge of Human Resource Development. In an interview he gave Business Line, published on September 28, Ramar challenged the scientists to prove him wrong, and offered a bet of Rs.1 lakh; this was increased to Rs.10 lakhs the following day. He also ruled out the use of vessels other than his own for producing the fuel, saying that he had “serious reservations about their (scientists’) sincerity.”

On October 5, speaking to the media at Chennai airport on his way back from Hyderbad after ‘a successful’ demonstration, Ramar suggested that he was hustled by the scientists present at the IIT, Chennai and the he was not given sufficient time. He complained that the scientists were not able to give him a categorical assurance that the “secret will not be revealed.” He told reporters that his process was not like making idli or dosai” and accused the scientists of trying to “demolish his 17 years of work in one minute.” He added that although he was approached by people from several countries he wanted the Tamil people to benefit first from his discovery.

Ramar also made much of the visit of a scientist from the DST to Idayankulam. He told the media that the scientist spent several days there and returned satisfied about the authenticity of his process. However, DST sources said that the scientist, who is from the same region of Tamil Nadu, went entirely on his own and not at the instance of the DST.

Ramar brazen through yet another high-profile performance after the IIT, Chennai unmasking. On October 3, he performed before an audience of over 500, including Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu. The event, which was organized by the Sanghi group, the proprietors of the Telugu daily Vaartha, offered no scope for serious scientific scrutiny. Special Chief Secretary to the Andhra Pradesh Government V. K. Srinivasan played the role of a moderator, reportedly “coordinating the interaction of Ramar with the audience.” In effect this may have offered Ramar protection from the watchful eyes of the skeptics, particularly scientists. (Later, when Ramar came under increasing pressure, Srinivasan called for a new committee of senior science administrators to look afresh at Ramar’s claims.)

However, several actions and statements of the DST remain unclear. Why did the DST go ahead with the high-profile demonstration at the ITI, Delhi after the results from CSIR laboratories indicated that Ramar’s fuel was very similar to that available to almost everybody else? Why did Ramamurthy have to say that “we (the DST) have no doubt that we are sitting on something big” and that the claim was “worth pursuing” when he had reason to be skeptical about Ramar’s claims? Why did the DST say on September 17, a day after it received the letter from Bajaj, that Ramar’s patent application is likely to be filed in a week?