The Social Life of Radiation
2010 ought to have marked a watershed in our collective understanding of nuclearisation in India. The death of Rajendra Prasad, a scrap-metal worker in Delhi, was the first time since 1998 that the national mass media carried sustained coverage about nuclear radiation and its effects. An astounding fact for a nation that claims to be the world’s new, democratic, nuclear power.
Prasad was a scrapyard worker in the Mayapuri market who happened to be in a group that broke open a piece of equipment in search of metal. At its core was an unfamiliar substance which was handed over to the scrapyard owner. The latter, unsure of its worth, stored it away. Very soon, however, they were all to be among 8 people who were hospitalised, at least 6 of them for over 20 days. Prasad died an agonising death through multiple organ failure at the end of that time.
Too important to be public
The ignorance of Prasad and his co-workers reveals one of the key aspects of the social base of Indian democracy. The careful insulation of certain elements of state policy from any public life at all. In the 12 years since India has tested nuclear weapons, there is shockingly little sense that Indians as a whole have grown more aware of the ramifications of nuclearisation.
Successive governments have chosen to talk about nuclear issues in one of two ways. They are presented either as having ‘raised’ India’s profile to that of a superpower or as a success of our home-grown scientific establishment. Apart from these two celebratory chords the, Indian nuclear legitimation sitar has also predictably maintained a more doleful drone about regional (read Pakistani) threats. We are told that we are now a great power to be taken seriously and that we have (successfully) tested a range of missiles and other nuclear-capable vehicles. Along the way, at least one Defence minister has reminded all of us on the subcontinent that India could, “take a bomb or two more but when we respond there will be no Pakistan.” In this endeavour, the media too has danced faithfully to the alternately celebratory and alarmist cadences of the state. All of this ‘hardheaded’ (a favourite adjective) and ‘mature’ talk is designed to make us leave nuclear issues to the experts and not identify them as a legitimate arena for social questioning.
Even more chilling, however, than the success of what the state has been able to speak, is what it has been able to stay silent about. One of the most significant of these silences has been about the question of radiation. The aplomb with which the citizenry of a nuclear-capable nation in the midst of an ongoing arms race is able to think of nuclear weapons as just a bigger version of a conventional bomb, is truly remarkable. This is the really big success of the nuclear establishment of India – its ability to obscure the inherent moral evil of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence. The silence on the effects of radiation is just one aspect of this much larger diversion.
Inequality and Radiation
But Prasad’s death also laid bare another aspect of the social life of radiation in India. Though it is deemed worthy of discussion and direction only among the elite, its victims have invariably been among the poor. The state of affairs in communities around power plants in Rawatbhata and mining activities in Jharkhand has been swept under the carpet for many years. A study conducted by the Indian Doctors for Peace and Development in 2007 found that the rates of cancer, miscarriages, stillbirths and congenital deformations in the vicinity of the Jaduguda uranium mines are each well above what was found in control villages 30 kms away. The cause is persistent exposure to low-grade radiation as a result of the worst uranium mining practices anywhere in the world. As the scientist M.V. Ramana has pointed out, workers in Indian nuclear power plants have also been routinely exposed to higher-than permitted doses of radiation during the course of work.1 There are people whose lives have been tragically affected and even cut-short by radiation. Yet, the atomic establishment has consistently refused to conduct baseline studies of health in areas surrounding new facilities that it has proposed, or to commission independent studies of radiation effects around existing ones. The fact that it took an event in Delhi to put radiation into the national imagination reveals much about inequalities in India.
The nuclear establishment in India has over the entire course of its existence been unaccountable, secretive and inefficient. The fact that it is able to continue to do so is testament to the fundamentally un-democratic nature of the nuclear establishment in its conjoined military and civil avatars. As Itty Abraham has pointed out, part of the reason for this is the historical construction of the nuclear public sphere as the exclusive domain of a narrow strategic community.2 In this, nuclear discourse represents the distilled essence of the undemocratic strands of the Indian polity, with almost none of the mitigating freedoms that are visible in other arenas. A more aware and engaged “atomic public”, however, is necessary if the subcontinent is to avoid being the site of the next nuclear nightmare.
2Itty Abraham, South Asian Cultures of the Bomb