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The Rediff Special/Priya Solomon and Kirti Pandey
'Everything will melt like butter'
May 13, 2003
Five years after the Pokhran tests shook the subcontinent, rediff.com examines how far India has come along the nuclear road. This is the second of a multipart series. Click to read the first part.
How prepared is India to withstand a nuclear attack?
Priya Solomon and Kirti Pandey posed that question to officials in New Delhi and Mumbai.
The answer they got is scary: If attacked, there is little hope for Delhi and Mumbai.
"Most of Delhi will incinerate in explosions," Solomon summed up. "The city's disaster management system, which is equipped to handle only conventional catastrophes, will crumble and the attack will haunt generations to come."
Added Pandey, "Between 130,000 and 2.1 million people will lose their lives in Mumbai, and with nuclear reactors in Tarapore and Trombay, the possibility of a Chernobyl-type accident is high."
'There is hardly anything we can do'
In New Delhi, bursting with 16 million people, there are only three disaster management centres -- in east, north and south Delhi.
The centres are in fire station premises. Though with world-class equipment from Europe, fire brigade officials say these will be of little help against a nuke attack, when everything would "melt like butter".
The utter lack of preparedness is not just in disaster management, but in medical facilities as well.
"There are guidelines for general disaster management, but nothing for nuclear disaster management," said Dr Shakti Gupta, public relations officer at the premier All-India Institute of Medical Sciences. "We are hardly prepared for such an attack that would turn everything around us into ashes."
In 1999, a high-powered committee was formed under bureaucrat J C Pant to review the preparations for a natural disaster. It brought nuclear, biological, chemical and industrial disasters under its purview.
The Delhi government has acquired three specialised vehicles that can help in a chemical attack. Haz-Mat, which stands for hazardous material, can de-contaminate rescue material. The Haz-Mats have a centralised computer system that can pick up atmospheric content, analyse it, and find the poisonous gases in the air.
A senior bureaucrat in the Delhi government said the city has updated its contingency plans to include nuclear attacks -- only, it "remains mostly on paper".
An officer of the Indian Army, which might eventually end up managing nuclear disasters, said Delhi has been divided into sectors, and each sector has been assigned to a unit. But the units do not have nuclear-biological-chemical suits, nor sufficient training to deal with such disasters.
A senior Indian Air Force officer said his fighters would protect New Delhi from air intrusions. But if it is a missile attack, the IAF may not succeed, "unless we have sophisticated anti-missile systems in place".
"The bottom line," he said, "is if Delhi is attacked with nuclear weapons, there is hardly anything we can do."
'No plans for nuclear shelters as of now'
Mumbai, like Delhi, has disaster management centres and contingency plans -- but, again like Delhi, none that can face up to the nuclear challenge.
"There are no plans to make nuclear shelters as of now," said Maharashtra Home Secretary U K Mukhopadhyay. "It's too expensive a proposition for a city the size of Mumbai. We have a crisis management cell, but that only covers evacuation and rescue."
Mumbai Joint Commissioner of Police Javed Ahmed is sure his force could do a lot in a conventional attack, but very little in an unconventional one.
"At ground zero nothing can be done," he said. "It's not only handling casualties, there is radiation also to contend with... We have the peripherals in place, but no strong system to deal with a nuclear attack."
Does the police have any protective clothing? "Nothing yet," Ahmed said.
Civil Defence and Home Guards Inspector General Raj Khilnani said 4,800 of his personnel have been trained for an unconventional catastrophe, especially in evacuation and assistance after attack.
He considers chemical and biological weapons a bigger threat. "As far as a nuclear arsenal goes," he said, "we can only show citizens photographs of the weapons of mass destruction and educate them about the aftereffects."
But Bombing Bombay, a study by the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, a Nobel Prizewinner fighting for world peace, finds that Mumbai needs to be prepared.
For one, being India's financial capital, it is an obvious target. Two, what a nuclear attack -- which is accompanied by explosions, overpressure, firestorms, and radiation -- can do to this crowded city of more than 10 million is way too devastating:
* Between 130,000 and 2.1 million people will be killed.
* Many buildings, especially the older ones, will collapse.
* Forty per cent of Mumbaiites live in slums. These, because the tenements are mostly made of inflammable material, will go up in smoke immediately.
* There are not enough doctors or hospitals in the city to begin with. In case of a nuclear attack, medical infrastructure will be damaged, further limiting Mumbai's ability to reach out to survivors.
* Mumbai houses India's highest concentration of chemical industries (about 2,000) in the trans-Thane creek area, and leaking chemicals could prove deadly.
* With nuclear reactors in Tarapore and Trombay, the possibility of a Chernobyl-like accident is high. If the area is bombed, it will set off a series of accidents causing widespread damage.
Part 1: 'The retaliation will be within minutes'