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September 5, 1999


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Campaign Trail/ Chindu Sreedharan

In Khetloi, the nuclear tests have a negative fallout for the BJP

Sun, sand and seething anger.

That describes Khetloi, the village most affected by the Pokhran nuclear tests. The sun and sand are nothing new here, but the anger against the Bharatiya Janata Party is only 16 months old. Ignited in May last year, it is still burning -- and burning bright.

Sample this: "Who wants to see their ugly faces? It is a good thing that they didn't come to campaign. Where were they when we needed them?"

And this: "On August 22 (External Affairs Minister) Jaswant Singh wanted to come here. He wanted to ask us to vote for his son (Manvendra Singh, the BJP candidate)! We told the local BJP leader that we didn't want to see him."

Also this: "Not a single vote from here will go to the BJP. We are for the Congress. Have always been. Will always be."

Khetloi, like Pokhran town, is in Rajasthan's Jaisalmer district. It falls under the mammoth Barmer Lok Sabha constituency. Being the nearest to the nuclear test site, the blasts had damaged many houses and water tanks here. The villagers -- there are about 2,000 votes here -- turned down the compensation the government first offered; it was too little, they felt.

"We got around Rs 14 lakh recently. Even that is much too less, and we had to fight to get it," Bajnaram, a village elder, says. He adds, "We got the money only after Ashok Gehlot became chief minister."

The fact that the compensation was from the Centre cuts no ice with him. To him, Gehlot can only do right -- and the BJP, only wrong: "Woh, kisan ka beta hain. crorepati ka nahin. (He is a farmer's son, not a millionaire's). He can understand our problems."

Gehlot, for his part, seems to be milking the anti-Vajpayee sentiment well. He recently built a school in Khetloi, thus cementing the villagers' loyalty to the Congress.

As important a reason for the anti-BJP feeling here as the compensation issue is the illnesses that Khetloi seems to have fallen prey in the last one year. Ram Karan died of blood cancer, many, including children, have developed skin rashes, cows and camels frequently get sores on their body... The villagers admit they are not sure whether these have been caused by the tests -- but if not Pokhran II what else caused it, they ask.

That they have been suffering for the last year is unquestionable. But are things being blown out of proportion? For instance the reports about increasing number of cancer cases?

Yes, claims the BJP. "The number of cancer cases in the area is not above average. (Villagers admit there have only been about 10 deaths since 1974 when the first tests were conducted.)," says Manvendra Singh, "I can guarantee you that nobody has been medically affected. According to those who conducted the tests, the current MP (Sonaram Chaudhary, against whom Singh is contesting) motivated the people to campaign for compensation."

Which the villagers deny. Chaudhary comes here often, true -- but he is a good man, who, unlike Jaswant Singh, tried to help them in their hour of need. "When Vajpayee came, Chaudhary tried his best to get us an audience. But he didn't have any voice there," they say.

Listen to these voices from Khetloi:

Balwantaram, a village elder
'Where will people like me get Rs 30,000?'

"See this? (Points to the mouth of an underground water tank.) Look inside. There is only a little water at the bottom. The blasts spoilt my tank. There are fissures in it. Though I got some repair done, the water continues to leak out.

"This tank is our lifeline. We bring water from far and store it here. Every house has such tanks. Every house has 10, 15 cows. So we need a lot of water. You can go without food, but how long can you go without water?

"The government gave me Rs 4,000 as compensation. Rs 4,000! And it takes at least Rs 30,000 to repair this tank! The people who came for the estimate made some mistake. You please write about this. Maybe that will help. Where will people like me get Rs 30,000?"

Harish Vishnu, a youngster
'I will vote once for Sonia. If Priyanka also contests, I will somehow cast one more for her'

"The BJP was foolish by not coming here. The first mistake was (former chief minister Bhairon Singh) Shekhawat's. He knew our village to be Congress. When the prime minister came here soon after the blasts he didn't let us see him. Vajpayee came just 4 km away. We had all gone there. But Shekhawat was afraid we would create trouble, wave black flags or something. He instructed the police to keep us away. Had Vajpayee helped us then, quite a few would have voted for him. Some might even have joined the BJP.

"The BJP again erred by not campaigning here. Probably they thought that we would give them a piece of our mind and if the media reported that it would be bad publicity. But they should have risked it.

"I agree, there may be a few bhakts who may vote for Hindutva. But they will do it only underground.

"Who will I vote for? Why, the Congress! I will vote once for Sonia Gandhi. If Priyanka is contesting from Lucknow, I will cast one more for her. Yes, that happens here... Since the whole village is going to vote for Congress, what is wrong in voting for someone if he isn't around? Last election, we polled over 95 per cent -- in fact, we had to be careful that we didn't touch 100 per cent!

"Sonia Gandhi's origin? That doesn't make any difference. You see, the whole village is fida (crazy) over the Gandhi family. Rajiv Gandhi brought her here. She is one of us."

'The doctors have not been able to figure out what is wrong'

"I own 120 camels. They are my livelihood. Since last May, sores have been breaking out on their skin. (Yes, they were perfectly fine till then.) In 10, 15 days they become skeletons and die unless treated with this (displays a vessel with yellowish mixture). This is mustard oil and sulphur. I rub it on their skin for six, seven days. Usually they get better. But they again fall sick later.

"While the government has give compensation for houses and water tanks, I have not received any for the camels. Blood and skin samples have been sent to the laboratory, but the doctors have not been able to figure out what is wrong."

Jagmalaram, another elder
'It's only after the blasts that this illness started'

"For the last five months I have had skin sores. No, right now there aren't any on my body. The sores arise on the fingers, feet, head and chest. They itch and I feel like electricity is being passed through my body.

"No, I have not seen a doctor. But I saw the compounder in the dispensary. He gave me some tablets. Now the electric feeling comes only when I sleep. It is only after the blasts that this illness started."

Ram Ratan, son of the villager who died of cancer
'I can't say for sure that father developed cancer because of the tests'

"He had been ill since 1994. We took him to the Tata Memorial hospital in Bombay. He died on November 20, 1998. I can't say for sure that my father developed blood cancer because of the tests (in 1974). But that is what the people say..."

A few kilometres away, in village Charcha, the mood is, again, anti-BJP. But not so much as in Khetloi. The people here say their houses were also damaged. But no compensation has been paid to them. The majority is Muslim, traditional Congress supporters.

In Udania, another village said to be affected by the tests, things are, however, very different. Mostly comprising brahmins, it is as saffron as any you are likely to see. Hear this voice, probably an extreme one:

Harish Paliwas
'Our hands go automatically to the lotus'

"The nuclear blasts were for India's good. We don't mind the damages nor that we haven't got compensation. Damages happen even in an earthquake.

"We are people who are ready to vote for the Shiv Sena. Our hands go automatically to the lotus. So everyone here will vote for Vajpayee, except for the Mohammadans. They eat here, sleep here -- but they support Pakistan! When there is a cricket match, you should see them. They should be made to stand in a line and beheaded. They are traitors, all of them!"

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