Dr M.V. Ramana is a physicist and lecturer at the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and Programme on Science & Global Security at Princeton University. Without exaggeration, he could be described as the foremost researcher of Indian origin on the hazards of nuclear power – for uses both peaceful and otherwise.
His last book The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India (Penguin, 2012) examines the actual performance of this much-vaunted source of energy, the holy grail sought by each and every government in this country since independence and almost as eagerly pursued by the elite.
He has shared an award from the American Physical Society, which recognised his “outstanding contributions to promote global security issues through critical analyses of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy programmes in India…[and his] efforts to promote peace and nuclear security in South Asia through extensive engagements and writings”.
He addressed a meeting called by the Dr Asghar Ali Engineer Memorial Committee (named after the late indefatigable campaigner for secularism and peace) in Mumbai on August 27. He began with a short tribute to the late journalist Praful Bidwai who, it might be said, was Ramana’s counterpart as an anti-nuclear activist and journalist.
He traced the beginnings of India’s programme to an Atomic Energy Bill introduced by Pandit Nehru in the Constituent Assembly as long ago as in 1948. Nehru advocated that this domain be the exclusive responsibility of the state because India, he stated, had become “a slave country” because it didn’t develop steam power. (For several reasons, as Amitav Ghosh notes in his new book on climate change, The Great Derangement: Climate Change & the Unthinkable. An ancestor of Rabindranath Tagore had been plying a steam-powered boat on the Hoogly river in the late 19th century, but the British throttled this infant enterprise at birth.)
India’s programme, spearheaded by Dr Homi Bhabha, included mining uranium, fabricating fuel, manufacturing heavy water and reprocessing spent fuel to extract plutonium. The CIRUS reactor was established at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai in 1960 with Canadian and US assistance. Five years later, a reprocessing plant came up there.
Nehru, who was clear-sighted a leader as any in the world, was always aware that the so-called peaceful uses of this energy could be turned into a bellicose form. “I do not know how to distinguish between the two,” he admitted.
The first Chinese nuclear test in the 1960s sparked off a global debate about nuclear weapons, including security, morality, cost and prestige.
Mrs Indira Gandhi presided over India’s first nuclear test at Pokhran in Rajasthan in 1974. While safety may have been an underlying reason for the desert location, the fact that it wasn’t far from the Pakistan border would certainly have unnerved our neighbour. The victory over Pakistan in the 1971 Bangladesh war was a contributory factor but, as Ramana observes, the demonstration of India’s superior strength in conventional warfare should have negated the need for nuclear weapons.
India didn’t follow the trajectory of the UN Security Council’s permanent members (P5+1) in the 1980s in developing its nuclear power. But it refined its weapons programme, lobbied for more tests and set up a missile programme where the late A.P.J.Kalam played a pioneering role in developing delivery systems. He spent four decades in the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which is why he came to be known as “India’s Missile Man”.
The 1990s saw increased activity by the global bomb lobby, which succeeded in getting India to vote against the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). India’s justification was that it was a non-proliferation -- as distinct from a disarmament -- measure. Ramana records how this also saw the rise of the Hindutva party and the BJP coming to power.
Under Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, there were nuclear tests on May 11 and 13, 1998. According to Ramana, nuclear scientists had been pressing for such tests, but these were resisted till the BJP formed the government. The US halted its nuclear cooperation as a consequence.
The development of the nuclear power programme in Pakistan followed a somewhat similar route. In the 1950s, the US had a strategic partnership with it as its Cold War ally. Pakistani scientists were trained in the US under the “Atoms for Peace” programme. The elite saw the “atomic age” as the future.
After the 1965 war, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then only a politician, in an interview with the Manchester Guardian, said memorably that if India built the bomb, "we will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own".
In 1968, Pakistan refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), citing India’s refusal to do. This is crystal-clear proof of how the possession of nuclear weapons triggers off escalation, which snowballs into the most serious security risks imaginable. In 1972, Bhutto, just a month after becoming President, launched the nuclear weapons programme.
It took till “Pokhran-2” for Pakistan to detonate its own bombs, literally days afterwards, on May 28 and 30, 1998. The US imposed additional sanctions on Pakistan.
As Ramana records, there was a period of “consolidation” in both countries after 1998. Both countries developed doctrines and command structures. The military gained greater control over nuclear weapons in India, a departure from Nehru’s policies. Now both countries are the world’s nuclear pariahs for being the biggest flashpoint in the world as hostile neighbours brandishing this deadly power.
In 1999, India’s National Security Advisory Board put out a draft nuclear doctrine which had no official status but has guided policy ever since. It has talked of “credible minimum deterrence”, underlining no first use, as distinct from mutually assured destruction. The architect of this policy was K. Subrahmanyam from the government-sponsored Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
By the end of 2014, India was estimated to have a stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium of 590 kg ± 200 kg. Just 4-8 kg is sufficient for one nuclear weapon. By contrast, at the same date, Pakistan was estimated to have a stockpile of 3.1 tonnes ± 0.4 tonnes of highly enriched uranium, 25kg of which is more than sufficient to produce one nuclear weapon, all part of a secret programme.
Worryingly, Pakistan has missiles with a delivery system ranging from 300 km to 2500 km, which puts all of India at extreme risk. It also has land-based Nasr nuclear missiles with a range of 60 km to use against Indian troops in battle.
But India is one up in its nuclear capability. It has aircraft, mobile land-based missiles and sea-based assets. The aircraft comprise Jaguars and Mirages; the Agni 5 missile has a range of 5000 km and there is the Arihant submarine. There are reports of two missile-tracking radars installed near New Delhi.
The most terrifying danger of any country’s nuclear armaments is the possibility that some leader will press the trigger first. As Ramana asserts, the very possession of a nuclear arsenal exposes a country to retaliatory attacks. India has also prepared for “effective intelligence and early warning capabilities”.
Just imagine if Donald Trump comes to office or, nearer home, the military takes charge in Pakistan once again. Ramana cites how several years ago, the US defence system mistook a formation of geese flying in the air for aircraft and scrambled to put its nuclear counter-attack in place.
As Ramana and his colleagues Zia Mian and R. Rajaraman have pointed out, Sargodha airbase in Pakistan is only 581 km from Delhi and the total flight time, after allowing one minute each for boost and re-entry phases, is eight minutes.
Correspondingly, the Agra airbase is just 608 km from Lahore and the time is also eight minutes. From Agra to Karachi will take only ten minutes, while Mumbai is 1470 km from Sargodha with a delivery time of 11 minutes. From an airbase near Karachi, a missile can reach Thiruvananthapuram, as much as 2000 km away, in 13 minutes flat. In other words, no one in either country – the most explosive nuclear confrontation in the entire world – is safe from a devastating attack, several times more powerful than Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Kargil conflict in 1999, we must all remember, was the first large-scale military engagement in the world between two nuclear states. The so-called justification for nuclear weapons – their presence being a deterrence -- completely failed. There were a dozen plus threats to use such weapons by senior officials on both sides. In fact, there were reports that nuclear weapons were actually prepared for use.
Ramana concludes by tracing how India is increasingly turning to the US after the Indo-US nuclear deal, while Pakistan is getting to rely on China. As Condoleezza Rice stated in 2000, “India is an element in China’s calculation and it should be America’s too. India is not yet a great power, but it has the ability to emerge as one.”
In 2005, former US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill said: “It is now anachronistic or worse for Washington to limit its interaction with India’s civil space efforts because of concern that US technology and know-how will seep into India’s military missile programme. Why should the US want to check India’s missile capability in ways that could lead to China’s permanent nuclear dominance over democratic India?”
During his visit to India in January 2015, President Obama cited the “Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian ocean region…especially in the South China sea”. India now has the US support in joining the elite club known as the Nuclear Supply Group or NSG.
Ramana concludes: “A four-way military and nuclear race is playing out. India and Pakistan continue to build nuclear arsenals.”
The stage is set for a growing confrontation with countries both west and east of our borders. This only renders India even more vulnerable to virtual annihilation if either neighbour uses its nuclear weapons against us or we press the trigger first.
If Amitav Ghosh points to the imminent catastrophe from climate change, this may well be preceded by nuclear holocaust in the region. This is a derangement on another front.