The Hindu

Reaping the whirlwind

Friday, November 13, 1998
National Section

By Kalpana Sharma

KHETOLAI, (Rajasthan), Nov. 12.

Exactly six months after the nuclear tests were conducted at a site just five kilometres away from their village, the people of Khetolai in Jaisalmer district are an unhappy lot. Young and old, men and women, complain that they have been virtually ignored since the tests brought their village into the limelight.

Khetolai is unaware that at this very moment, a study of the health impact of the test, to be conducted in great secrecy, is being planned in Jodhpur. According to reliable sources in Jodhpur, the Government is worried that the recent spurt of rain might have led to some contamination of the underground aquifers around the nuclear test site. As a result, discussions are under way to set up a secret study of the area to test whether radioactivity can be detected in the soil, water, grass or animal milk.

"The Prime Minister said that some people should be prepared to sacrifice. In that case, they might as well as line us all up and shoot us,"says Mr. Jagmalram Bishnoi, one of a group of old men who sit in the village square taking in the morning sun. What do they feel six months after the tests? "Our houses have cracks, the rain has further weakened them and some of our people are complaining of unusual health problems, particularly khujali (itching)," says Mr. Dharmaram Bishnoi. As we talk, another man walks up and shows his scalp which is flaking. Another shows his fingers, which are covered with rashes. Both say the doctors prescribe ointments which give no relief.

Others complain about animals being sick. But none are able to show an animal that is sick. "The authorities have allowed us to graze our animals near the boundary of the test site as of the last 15 to 20 days," says 79-year-old Mr. Shurtaram Bishnoi. With the recent rain, that area is now covered with grass.

The villagers recall May 11 when Army personnel came to them in the morning and told them to remain outside their homes. They were given no explanation of why they were asked to do this. From 11 in the morning until after the test, they stood outside in the blazing May sun. The older men say they remember 1974, when the first nuclear test was conducted, and therefore guessed that something similar was going to occur. But some of the youngsters say that they thought their village was going to be attacked.

Ms. Bhanwari Bai says that she remembers that the ground shook and "we saw a cloud of smoke which seemed yellow in colour". She does not yet understand fully what happened but she also says that in the last six months many people are complaining of itching.

Asked if any Government doctors have come to take any kind of health survey since the tests, the villagers say that nothing of the kind has happened yet. One of their demands to the Prime Minister, Mr. A. B. Vajpayee, when he visited the test site was that a health monitoring centre be set up in the village.

"We are really upset that the Prime Minister never came to our village," says the headmaster of the local school, Mr. Sohan Ram Bishnoi. He recalls, as do others, how they had made a banner supporting the test in the hope that the Prime Minister would come up to them and listen to their demands. But, they waited in vain. Later, when some of them tried to go to Pokharan for his public meeting, the level crossing on the road to Pokharan was shut and thorns were placed before it so that they could not go across, they recall bitterly.

"We have wept in front of the media and told everyone of our problems. People think we are shamming. We realise now that there is no point in that," says Mr. Sohan Ram Bishnoi. "Our fight is with the Government and we will fight directly with them."

This anger has manifest itself directly in the decision of the village to support the Congress(I) in the coming Assembly elections. They echo the feelings of Mr. Madanlal Vyas, a chowkidar at the old fort in the centre of the city of Pokharan, sub-divisional head quarters of Jaisalmer district which is 24 km away from Khetolai. It also felt the tremors after the test. "I am a BJP-wallah," he says, "But this time I am going to vote for the Congress(I)." Why? "Because we have gained nothing from them," he says.

"When we say to the authorities that we want to see the nuclear test site, they say you cannot. When we ask why, they say you will get sick. But if we will get sick, why did they do this," asks Mr. Madanlal Vyas.

"Yeh to parmanu aur pyaz ka election hai aur jeetega pyaz (This is an election between the nuclear test and the onion and it is the onion that will win)," claims Mr. Manohar Joshi, a local journalist and Congress(I) activist. He says that in previous elections, the BJP had coined the slogan: Congress ke sashan mein, namak milega ration mein (During the Congress reign, salt will be sold in the ration shop), but instead this is precisely what is happening under the BJP. People, he says, see the price rise as the main issue and are unimpressed by the nuclear tests, particularly in Pokharan and the areas around the test site.