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Naga chilli, army's revolutionary new weapon

By Ajai Shukla in Tezpur, Assam
May 04, 2009 10:56 IST
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The Defence Research and Development Organisation offers intellectual challenges, but not an adventurous image. A DRDO director is perceived as a man in a white coat working in a laboratory or gazing at computer monitors. But the Defence Research Laboratory in Tezpur, tucked away in the northeast, is far removed from these stereotypes.

DRL's Director, Dr RB Srivastava, will spend time next month sitting in the jungle on a machaan, observing how rampaging elephants react to his revolutionary new weapon: the Naga chilli, or bhoot jolokia, which DRL had proclaimed in 2001 as the hottest chilli in the world.

Chilli power is measured in Scofield Heat Units (SHUs); a spicy Indian green chilli logs in at about 100,000 SHUs. Most people, even Indians, would be reduced to tears by eating anything above 200,000 SHUs.

The Naga chilli, DRL discovered, measured 855,000 SHUs, far higher than the reigning champion, the 577,000 SHU Californian Red Savina chilli. When the sceptical Chilli Pepper Institute in the USA examined this claim in 2005, they found the DRL had underestimated. The Naga chilli actually measured over a million SHU.

DRL, Tezpur is harnessing all this spice into military applications, such as high-effectiveness tear gas. Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund asked DRL to explore the possibility of using Naga chilli to keep wild elephants away from villages and fields.

The DRL's solution -- a nylon rope coated with Naga chilli placed across paths leading towards human habitation -- will be tested in May and June.

Dr Srivastava laughed as he told Business Standard: "The WWF says I will have to be on the machaan when we test the chilli garland. I told them, God knows how the elephants will behave!"

DRL is also experimenting whether Naga chilli, as a food supplement, might help soldiers cope with high altitude environments? The laboratory is also working out ideal cultivation practices -- how much water, how much shade, etc -- that will add more zing to this chilli.

What makes DRL Tezpur different from every other DRDO laboratory is its sharp focus on the specific problems of northeast India. And for jawans deployed here, few issues are as important as the provision of clean drinking water in remote posts separated from each other by days of marching across mountains and jungles.

Water in the northeast suffers from chronically high iron content. In most places it is 10-20 parts per million (ppm), going up to 30-40 ppm in many areas. DRL took on the challenge of bringing this down to the World Health Organisation (WHO) permissible limit of 0.3 ppm.

DRL's first developed a portable water testing kit, with which soldiers could test water wherever they moved. The kit monitored 11 parameters, including pH level, hardness, and iron content. Initially it lacked an arsenic detector; that was developed and patented last year. The technology for the water testing kit was transferred to three private companies. It proved highly effective during the floods around Nasik last year.

Next, DRL's Water Chemistry Division developed the simplest of technologies -- using sand, marbles etc -- to bring down the iron level to 0.3 ppm. The Iron Removal Units (IRUs), which cost just Rs 30,000 each, purify 300 litres per hour without using electricity. The commercial alternative was ceramic-based filters, costing Rs 3-4 lakh each, which could only reduce iron to 5 ppm.

Even as the army orders IRUs by the hundred, DRL has just put out an improved Mark II version. Using fibre-reinforced plastic (FRP) technology from the Light Combat Aircraft programme, this weighs just half of the earlier steel IRU. The army has accorded its ultimate accolade, fitting three of these filters in the Tezpur Inspection Bungalow for visiting VIPs. A hundred more are on order.

By 2012, DRL plans to develop a portable filter that jawans can carry in their haversacks. This will bring down iron content to safe levels, as well as arsenic, fluoride and manganese contents, all chronic problems in the northeast.

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Ajai Shukla in Tezpur, Assam
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