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|May 31, 2002|
The Rediff Special/ Sheela Bhatt
It is a contemporary irony that though India can launch a nuclear attack, it cannot defend itself against one.
"We do have a printed disaster management manual, but it is three decades old," says All India Institute of Medical Sciences spokesman Bijoy Kumar Dash. "We have little knowledge regarding the handling of a fallout of nuclear attacks -- we are not oriented to handle it, that is the defence ministry's problem."
Is that right? As per the existing structure, it is in fact the health ministry that has to deal with the fallout of a nuclear strike, or even a biological attack. The AIIMS and National Institute of Communicable Diseases are the two nodal centres identified by the ministry for providing emergency services.
But neither department has been brought into the loop as yet. In fact, while discussing with the media the issue of preparedness to handle the possible fallout of a nuclear strike, Union Health Minister Dr C P Thakur said on May 23 that the ministry has identified possible centres to monitor nuclear fallout and biological attacks, and to isolate targeted populations. He added his ministry is in touch with the Department of Atomic Energy in this connection.
The more you delve, the more you realise that far from being ready to cope with nuclear fallout, various Indian government ministries are trying to figure out just where the buck stops.
Meanwhile, on the ground, preparedness levels are non-existent. "We have two magnetic resonance machines," says Dr Rama Jayasundar, the Cambridge-trained nuclear physicist and associate professor at AIIMS, "but even now, the waiting list for patients is six months. If there is a nuclear attack, many more such machines will be required, to detect the effects of a nuclear fallout on the DNA of those affected."
Asked to hypothetically imagine the aftermath of a nuclear strike, Dr Jayasunder said, "Burn injuries, an environmental disaster, psychic and gynaecological problems at best, to total destruction at worst. You know us Indians, we are never prepared, we take things as they come. We are not prepared to handle the fallout of a nuclear war, we have not even thought about it."
Dash goes a step further, and argues that there is, in any case, not much anyone can do in such a situation. "If a nuclear attack takes place, no level of preparedness is good enough," the AIIMS spokesman argues. "In fact, our doctors might run away if asked to serve in such areas. The army will manage emergency health service requirements in such areas."
That pretty much sums it up as far as official thinking goes -- it may not happen; and if it does, it is some other department's problem. Meanwhile, the defence ministry is not forthcoming, and civilian experts are unprepared.
One problem with preparing, say experts, is that they don't know what to prepare for. "Our knowledge is based on what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki," argues Dr Amit Roy, director, Nuclear Sciences Centre. "From those two instances, what do we know? That there will be a blast that releases tremendous amounts of energy in less than a millisecond, with temperatures going up to several million degrees Celsius; that this will create a hot sphere of air -- the famous fireball -- that will rise up like a hot air balloon; that everything in the target zone will get vaporized; that thermal and nuclear radiation will follow."
As per information made available to them, says Dr Roy, Pakistan's nuclear warheads range from 10 to 20 kilotons, which are about the size of those used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
"If that is true, then in a one kilometre area around the detonation site, nothing can be saved," says Dr Roy. "Beyond that, people will be affected by radiation, the degree lessening as we go further out. I would suggest that, in case of a nuclear attack, there are very few precautions anyone can take. At best, we can keep teams ready to handle radioactive fallout. Second, individuals can start living in bunkers that are more than two metres deep. Thirdly, you can immediately wash the body with water, then contact specialist doctors. But I must repeat that if you are anywhere close to where the bomb hits, then nothing can save you. That is a catastrophe, and I don't think too many nations in the world are prepared to handle something of that kind."
The refrain is unanimous -- no, we haven't thought about it; no, we are not ready to handle it; no, there is no point in preparing anyway.
"We as scientists are not ready. The general public is not ready. The government is not ready. As far as I know, no special teams have been formed," says Dr Roy. "I am sure the government must be taking some steps, now," he adds, optimistically.
Also read: Dos and don'ts in case of a nuclear disaster
The Rediff Specials
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