On 11th & 13th May 1998, Pokhran II commenced with five underground nuclear detonation tests by India, termed ‘Operation Shakti’. India conducted the first nuclear test in 1974, codenamed ‘Smiling Buddha’. Following Operation Shakti, India became the sixth nuclear power in the world; a step which was widely condemned by many nations for threatening world peace. Since then, 11th May has been observed as ‘National Technology Day’ to commemorate India’s scientific advancement.

The tests achieved the main objective of giving India the capability to build fission and thermonuclear weapons, the latter remains doubtful, and of course a sense of pride at the domestic, regional and global front.

India tried to make the case that the decision to conduct the tests was primarily driven by regional security concerns, particularly in light of perceived nuclear threats from neighbouring countries; China and Pakistan. It was promoted that India unequivocally put forward security as the overriding motivation for conducting the nuclear tests. Another stated motivating factor behind the 1998 nuclear tests was the assertion of India’s strategic independence while signalling a strong notion that India would not rely on other States for its security.

Additionally, the role of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at that time also played its part in politicizing the very determination to develop nuclear weapons capability and to shore up domestic support by showcasing India’s military might and technological advancements. International recognition of India as a nuclear power was another compelling factor. There was a strong sense that India’s pursuit of becoming a nuclear state would potentially elevate the international standing amongst the elite nuclear club of great powers. The ‘Prestige’ factor has always been the overriding consideration in India’s nuclear endeavours.

Over the past 26 years after Pokhran II or Operation Shakti, the villages in the vicinity of the Pokhran test range have long fallen out of the international spotlight. The Indian government has done little to wipe out the fears of the villagers. In the perpetually hot, dust-blown highway between Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, hidden amidst babul trees, is a road that leads toward a village that has begun to call itself ‘shakti stal’. The inspiration behind the name is India’s second nuclear test in 1998, which went by the code word Operation Shakti.

The heavily guarded site of the underground explosion is a mere 3 km from Khetolai, a village of roughly 5000 people near the town of Pokhran. India’s first nuclear test, which happened under Indira Gandhi in 1974, was conducted about 10 km away.

After the tests of 1974 or Pokhran-I, a surge in the rate of cancer and genetic abnormalities, birth defects or developmental delays, has been observed. In this region of Pokhran, it seems that nearly every family has a story of a loved one suddenly lost to cancer. Following ‘Smiling Buddha’, the whole destruction of land and homes was seen, crops turned white, skin and eye irritation began, and soon diseases struck. The same occurred in the aftermath of Operation Shakti-1998 but on a much larger scale.

The effects of radiation have compounded over decades in the villages because groundwater was contaminated. Residents ingest radiation from both the 1974 and 1998 tests and genetic mutations are passed through generations. A village leader in Khetolei estimated that 56 people had died of cancer every year since 1998. The population is only about 3,000 people. The cancer mortality rate seems to be four times the national average.

Children seem to be particularly at risk. Rates of childhood cancer and mortality seem to be increasing. Birth defects and genetic abnormalities, even in children born years after the tests, are common. Many children have never learned to walk or speak. High rates of breast cancer have also been reported. Unfortunately, this is to be expected: ionizing radiation, which is released in a nuclear explosion, disproportionately affects rapidly growing and dividing cells, which are generally found in women and children.

Despite the severe and very obvious impacts of nuclear testing, the Indian government only provided compensation for land damaged immediately after the tests. There are multiple reports where there is mention that the rate of cancer and other health issues in the specific region of Pokhran have increased but establishing a direct link or pointing to the nuclear tests can be challenging for the sufferers due to various domestic/political factors.

A report published by the World Health Organization, GLOBOCAN, in 2012, concluded that there were five lakh deaths due to cancer in India. A rough calculation suggests that one in 2,500 people in India dies because of cancer. In Khetolai, the same calculation suggests that one in 500 people succumbs to cancer, four times the national average.

India is a nuclear power but the people at whose cost it has been possible are not amused. Prahlad Ram, who as a former army man knows the ‘might’ that nuclear weapons bring a nation, said, “Nuclear weapons have projected the country as a powerful nation globally. Very good!! But what we want to know is why are they choosing our villages again and again for the nation’s development. At the cost of our health, lives and livelihood! Why can’t they leave us alone? Is there no other land left in the country for development?

The fallout of India’s nuclear tests is numerous ranging from impacting its international relations, regional security dynamics, domestic politics, and nuclear policy.

However, addressing the needs and concerns of affected villagers living near Pokhran is essential and must be a priority for the upcoming government to ensure their well-being and mitigate the adverse effects of nuclear testing on local communities. India while claiming to be a responsible nuclear power must behave responsibly and pay attention to the plea of the villagers as the sound of explosions still echoes in the ears of the villagers not letting them get over the fears associated with radiation even after decades of nuclear testing.

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