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Forty-five years ago, a joint Indo-US espionage mission lost five kilograms of plutonium high up in the Himalaya. It’s still missing—but the government has decided to ignore the ongoing threat.

An Article by Vinod K. Jose
(Executive Editor of The Caravan)
Nanda Devi (Image source Wikipedia)

Nanda Devi (Image source Wikipedia)

I

ONE MORNING IN EARLY AUGUST, in a tiny village in the upper Himalayas, Karthik Rana heard a warning come over All India Radio—heavy rains were on the way. The 80-year-old shouted at his wife, daughters, daughters-in-law and grandchildren: “Get the sheep home! The clouds are going to open!”

I had arrived at Lata Kharak earlier that morning, a few hours before heavy rains and avalanches descended on the Himalayas. A few hundred miles to the north, in Leh, 200 people were killed in a massive cloudburst; across the mountains, in China, landslides claimed 1,000 lives.

The sound of thunder atop Lata Kharak, 2,370 metres above sea level, set heartbeats racing: in a matter of seconds, sheep, cows and naked toddlers emerged from the bushes, frantically running for shelter.

Two villages, Lata and Reini, are the highest inhabited points on Lata Kharak; above them no human beings or tamed animals are to be found. Further still lies the mighty Nanda Devi, India’s second highest peak, towering overhead at 7,816 metres above sea level.

Karthik Rana, a short, toothless man with an athletic body, boyish enthusiasm and a very sharp mind, belongs to a nomadic shepherd tribe of Tibetan origin, the Jad Bhotia. When British surveyors, anthropologists and mountaineers began exploring these hills a century ago, they turned to the men of the tribe to work as porters. Today, Rana is among the oldest porters in Reini—old enough to remember the details of a fateful expedition on Nanda Devi 45 years ago.

Karthik Rana, an 80-year-old porter who participated in the CIA-IB search operations between 1966 and 1968, but missed the initial climbing expedition to Nanda Devi in 1965.

Karthik Rana, an 80-year-old porter who participated in the CIA-IB search operations between 1966 and 1968, but missed the initial climbing expedition to Nanda Devi in 1965.

On 1 September 1965, two junior officers from India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) came to Lata to recruit porters for a joint Indian-American espionage mission on the mountain. “Luckily,” Rana said, “in the early summer of 1965, I was hired by Japanese mountaineers to climb another peak, Trisul, so I missed out when Indian saabs came calling.”

The mission was to scale Nanda Devi and install a terrestrial communication interpreter, powered by a nuclear electrical generator, at the summit. In 1964, China had conducted its first nuclear tests in the western province of Xinjiang, stunning American intelligence agencies, who thought the Chinese were still years away from nuclear capability. The remote sensing device atop Nanda Devi was intended to gather information about any future Chinese atomic tests.

The first major joint operation conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the IB was facilitated by the tense geopolitical developments of the period: only three years earlier, India had faced a humiliating defeat in its war with China, which erased Jawaharlal Nehru’s unadulterated faith in the communist bloc—until then, slogans like ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai’ had sounded a promising post-colonial world order. The Americans, for their part, were anxiously waging military and ideological wars against communism. Over the course of 1965, 200,000 US soldiers were sent to fight a futile and costly war in Vietnam.

China’s sudden emergence as an atomic power represented a serious new threat to the Americans, who hatched a plan to install a spying device in the Himalayas to monitor Chinese nuclear tests. But the Americans were convinced that the mission could not succeed without the help of Indian climbers and the country’s defence and intelligence agencies. Beginning in early 1965, American officials devoted all their energy to enlisting the co-operation of their Indian counterparts. By the time the IB men arrived in Lata, the most difficult work was already done. All that remained was to hire and train a team of porters to carry the payload.

Thirty-three Bhotia men from Lata and Reini were hired for the expedition; nine Sherpas, members of a tribe of elite mountaineers, were brought from Sikkim for their expertise in climbing glaciers. The mission would be led by some of India’s most legendary mountaineers—drawn from a team of climbers who had scaled Everest earlier that year.

Capt Manmohan Singh Kohli, the fateful expedition’s leader

Capt Manmohan Singh Kohli, the fateful expedition’s leader

Manmohan Singh Kohli, a Navy commander assigned to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), was the expedition’s leader. With him were four officers from the IB: Harish Rawat, Sonam Wangyal, Gurcharan Singh Bhangu and Sonam Gyatso—all were well-trained mountaineers, and winners of the Arjuna award, India’s highest recognition in sports.

Kohli was in daily radio contact with Rameshwar Nath Kao, who would later become the founding director of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). At the time, Kao was the director of the Aviation Research Centre (ARC), a branch of the IB, and reported to the man known as the pitamaha of Indian intelligence, Bhola Nath Mullik, the first director of the IB after Independence. Mullik and Kao remain the two most important intelligence officers India has ever produced.

Mullik and his CIA counterparts supervised the expedition from Washington and New Delhi, and a CIA case officer in India, Bill McKniff, was stationed at a base camp on Nanda Devi. Three American mountaineers had been hired by the CIA to accompany the Indian team.

The joint Indo-US covert mountaineering mission was the largest and the longest the world has seen, involving an army of porters and Sherpas, twin teams of mountaineers, nuclear experts, intelligence officers, and signal experts. But it would end in disaster: in October 1965, the onset of winter weather forced the mountaineers to abandon their climb. The material intended for the summit of Nanda Devi was deposited at a camp along the ascent, where the climbers expected to find it at the start of the next season. But that winter the equipment—including a 17-kilogram nuclear assembly—was swept away by an avalanche. When Kohli and his team returned in 1966, they discovered that the five kilograms of plutonium 238 and 239 that powered the nuclear device—only one kilogram less than the quantity of plutonium used in ‘Fat Man,’ the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki—were nowhere to be found.

It may not have been the worst failure in the history of Indian and American intelligence, but it would prove to be the one with the most long-lasting consequences. After three consecutive years of searching for the missing nuclear device, the CIA and the IB decided it would never be retrieved. Today, 45 years later, the generator is still at large in the vicinity of Nanda Devi.

The precise dangers still present are unknown: in the worst-case scenario, one of the headstreams of the river Ganges that begins at the Nanda Devi glacier could carry the nuclear material, if it surfaces, down from the Himalayas and into the Ganges basin, home to millions of Indians. If the device is found by someone who doesn’t understand its origins, it could be dismantled and distributed as scrap, spreading the risk of radiation to everyone who comes into contact with it.

The Nanda Devi expedition and its failure remained an official secret until 1977, when a report appeared in an American adventure magazine, Outside. Indian legislators then raised the issue in Parliament, forcing Prime Minister Morarji Desai to acknowledge the mission and order a scientific inquiry into its possible consequences. Six eminent scientists were convened to produce a dense technical report on the risks posed by the loose nuclear material, but their recommendations have been ignored for three decades.

The IB records are locked up. Mullik and Kao are now dead. And the Americans have remained silent. In 2002, Kohli co-authored his own account of the mission, a memoir called Spies in the Himalayas, which was published in a small edition by HarperCollins India and the University of Kansas Press. But Kohli’s memoir, which emphasised the intrigue and adventure of the climb, neglected the outstanding political and scientific questions. From a political perspective, how had a few intelligence officers been able to authorise a risky operation under suspicious circumstances? Had they taken advantage of a window of opportunity that followed Nehru’s death in May 1964? The scientific issues, meanwhile, have been conveniently buried. Desai’s expert committee had presented a series of precautionary suggestions that included the advice to “monitor the environment on a continuing basis to watch for radioactive contamination of any significance.” Needless to say, there is no effort today to monitor the area around Nanda Devi, the water entering the Ganges, or the adjacent fields. The consequences of this intelligence failure are still with us—but the government has elected to pretend they no longer exist.

II

1965 WOULD PROVE TO BE A CRUCIAL YEAR for Indian mountaineering. Twelve years after the British first climbed Mount Everest—followed by the Swiss and the Americans—MS Kohli and his team were feverishly preparing for India’s fourth attempt at the summit. But in February, two days before they were to depart for Nepal, Kohli received an unexpected visitor in Delhi who would set in motion the chain of events that led to the disaster on Nanda Devi.

Barry Bishop was a 33-year-old American who had climbed Everest with the US expedition in 1963. He was working as a photo editor at National Geographic magazine, but his surprise visit to Kohli had nothing to do with pictures. Bishop wanted Kohli to abandon his preparations for Everest and come immediately to Zemu Glacier, at the base of Kanchenjunga, the tallest peak in India, situated on the border between Nepal and Sikkim.

Kohli was astonished. Bishop was well aware that the Everest climb was only days away. “I asked him, ‘Are you mad, Mr Bishop?’” Kohli told me. But Bishop insisted, and that made Kohli all the more suspicious. After Bishop departed without having succeeded in his mission, Kohli penned a short note to Mullik—the ITBP, in which Kohli served, was under Mullik’s oversight at the IB.

“Dear Mullik,” the note said, “I met a very famous American mountaineer, Barry Bishop. To me something looks fishy. Please keep an eye on him. MS Kohli.” Two days later Kohli left for Nepal and the summit of Everest.

Barry Bishop mapping  with a theodolite 1961Photo (c) Barry Bishop & The Bishop Collection

Barry Bishop mapping with a theodolite 1961
Photo (c) Barry Bishop & The Bishop Collection

Bishop, who grew up in the midwestern state of Ohio, had already become an accomplished mountaineer by the time he crossed paths with another Ohioan: General Curtis LeMay, then the Air Force chief of staff. One of the most controversial officers in the history of the United States military, LeMay had led the most destructive aerial bombing campaigns of World War II, which dropped incendiary bombs that killed some 500,000 Japanese civilians over the course of six months in 1945. LeMay was a noted proponent of the use of nuclear weapons, and clashed several times with President John F Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the early stages of the Vietnam War, arguing that he should be allowed to bomb America’s rivals “into the stone age.” LeMay’s urge to start a third world war was legendary, and he was regarded in some circles as a “dangerous screwball.”

Asia had been LeMay’s workshop, and given that the US Air Force was responsible for tracking nuclear tests around the world, China’s detonations in Xinjiang were at the top of his agenda.

It was Bishop’s association with LeMay that launched the expedition. The Chinese were conducting their tests in a region where the Americans had no means to conduct satellite espionage—that technology was still being developed. When Bishop explained that the Himalayan peaks had an unobstructed view into China, the plan took flight.

General Curtis LeMay, the US Air Force chief of staff from 1961 to 1965, who helped conceive the Nanda Devi spy mission

General Curtis LeMay, the US Air Force chief of staff from 1961 to 1965, who helped conceive the Nanda Devi spy mission

But it was the CIA, rather than LeMay’s Air Force, that would have to secure Indian support for the mission. By 1964, the American intelligence agency had begun to build a relationship with the Indian government, facilitated by India’s defeat by China in the 1962 war, which shook Nehru’s faith in the Communist bloc. Nehru let the CIA into the country where, among other things, it formed the ITBP in which Kohli served, set up the ARC that Kao directed, and raised a commando force of Tibetan refugees—but he was careful to prevent India from becoming an American client state like Pakistan, vulnerable to the whims of the American security establishment. But Nehru’s intelligence chief, Mullik, was known for his pro-Western sympathies.

Jawaharlal Nehru inspects preparations for the 1962 war with China at an unknown location

Jawaharlal Nehru inspects preparations for the 1962 war with China at an unknown location

It was Mullik, in fact, who had sent Bishop to see Kohli before the Everest trip. The details remain locked up in secret documents in Washington and New Delhi, but the American mountaineer was on an assignment from the CIA, with Mullik’s approval.

 

III

WHEN KOHLI RETURNED FROM EVEREST—as a national hero—he was met by another unexpected visitor. But this time Kohli could not say no.

On 23 June, a vintage Indian Army Douglas DC-3 landed at Delhi’s Palam airport, carrying the triumphant Indian Everest team. Kohli was the first to deplane, waving his hand at the assembled crowd; eight others followed. The mission had set a record that stood for years, placing nine men on the peak of Everest, and the mountaineers were met by a roster of dignitaries. Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri was on a foreign trip, but the home minister and defense minister, along with the top officers of Indian intelligence, waited for the plane on the burning tarmac. They garlanded the mountaineers with marigolds and presented each with tricolour shawls.

The front page of The Sunday Tribune on 23 May 1965, which announced Kohli’s triumph on Mount Everest alongside the latest grim news from the war in Vietnam

The front page of The Sunday Tribune on 23 May 1965, which announced Kohli’s triumph on Mount Everest alongside the latest grim news from the war in Vietnam

The DC-3’s engines had not yet stopped roaring when a senior intelligence officer, Balbir Singh, pulled Kohli aside.
A deputy to Mullik within the IB, Singh was also the Inspector General of the ITBP; he had noticed Kohli’s mountaineering skills and brought him to the border police from the Navy.

“One Mr Kao is waiting for you behind the plane,” Singh whispered in Kohli’s ear. “Go and meet him.”

Kao, who would lead RAW for nearly a decade, was still a deputy to Mullik—the only man who had a greater influence over the development of India’s intelligence agencies. As the director of ARC at the IB, Kao was already renowned for his polished habits, intelligence and ability to manoeuvre within the political system. Mullik was grooming him to head RAW—where Kao would captain a series of daring foreign assignments, such as the formation of Bangladesh and the annexation of Sikkim to India, before going on to serve as the national security adviser to Indira Gandhi.

Kohli had no idea then what awaited him, but his conversation with Kao marked the beginning of an intense three years of collaboration. Behind the plane, Kao told Kohli, “It’s of serious national importance. We want you and your team to leave immediately for America. We’ve made your passports.”

Kohli, who did not hold a passport, was stunned when Kao told him one had already been prepared, something which in those years in India would take several months of wading through the bureaucracy.

Kohli immediately r recognized that something serious was afoot, but he was reluctant to let go of his moment of post-Everest glory.

“How can we leave so soon? There is a meeting fixed with the Prime Minister when he comes back, and with the President. And I’m invited to speak at the Parliament,” he protested.

Kao paused for a moment, and said, “Ok. But soon after you finish with the receptions, you should leave. Anyway, come and see me in the office tomorrow.”

The next day, sitting in his ARC office in RK Puram, Kao explained that there would be a joint Indian-American expedition to Kanchenjunga—the peak that Barry Bishop had discussed with Kohli—in order to leave “something” at the summit. Kao said he had “no idea” what that something might be. “But you have to do it for the national interest,” he told Kohli. “The Americans will tell you the rest.”

Kohli didn’t ask for further details. “What was that ‘something’? We never bothered to ask. We were mountaineers,” he told me. “Whatever we did it was for the nation. I never wanted to know the details. I simply followed orders.”

The Indian team was brought to America in a special plane, escorted by CIA agents conversant in Hindi and Punjabi. “We were not taken through immigration,” Kohli recalled, “and in our 40 days in the US, the CIA men did not leave us for a moment.”

After some obligatory sightseeing in New York and Washington, the Indian climbers were taken to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, where they were briefed on the mission and conducted mountaineering drills on Mount McKinley, the highest peak on US soil.

The leader of the American team in Alaska was none other than Barry Bishop. By the time Kohli and his team arrived, the Chinese had tested a second nuclear device in Xinjiang: this time they dropped a bomb from an aircraft, and the Americans were convinced that a missile test was around the corner. The pressure on Bishop to rush his team back to India increased by the day.

In the officers’ club at Elmendorf Air Force Base, the Indian team met Bishop and his recruits. The mission was a daunting one: the climbers would carry five loads to the summit of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest peak at an elevation of 8,579 metres. The cargo included the assemblies for a communication interpreter and an accompanying generator. Both would be installed at
the peak.

A CIA technician who was introduced as Gordon Sleeper demonstrated the interpreter and the generator: the sensor had four transceivers to relay information to a base station elsewhere in India, and a six-foot-tall antenna to collect data from the Chinese test site. The generator, known as SNAP 19C—System for Nuclear Auxiliary Power—converted radioactive heat into electricity.

SNAP 19C had five elements: a hot fuel block, radioactive fuel capsules placed in its core, thermometric generators mounted around it, insulation material, and the block’s outer casing. The only extant account of the device is found in the 94-page scientific study commissioned by Prime Minister Morarji Desai. In the report, 9 pages are spent describing the device:

The fuel, an alloy of Plutonium and Strontium—Pu-238, Pu-239, and Sr-90—was divided in seven capsules. Each capsule had an inner cladding of tantalum (0.5 mm thick) with sufficient void space for accumulation of helium gas, the gas emitted on radioactive decay. The heavy-walled outer cladding of the capsule was of a 2.5 mm thick alloy—Haynes-25, which is composed of cobalt, nickel, chromium and tungsten, and possesses high temperature and corrosion resistant properties as well as high structural strength. The fuel capsules were installed in a hexagonal graphite block along with other accessories like thermocouples, thermal insulation material etc.

Those were the early years of the atomic age, and thermoelectric power generators based on radioactive decay had only been developed in the early 1960s. They were used mainly in remote meteorological stations, but in safe and retrievable conditions. The danger of losing a nuclear generator in the snowy Himalayas seems not to have occurred to the American team until it was far too late.

SNAP 19C was not a bomb. To explode, it would need a trigger, which it did not possess. But it was powered by radioactivity, and it would be toxic to any human who encountered it: the plutonium radiation cripples the bones and makes even plants radioactive.

When Sleeper’s presentation came to an end, Kohli was alarmed—but not because of the nuclear material.

“Five loads? 125 pounds?” Kohli exclaimed.

“First, Kanchenjunga itself was a difficult proposition,” he later recalled. “Even a camera looks very heavy at that height. To put the loads on top, and spend couple of hours installing it… I found it was a stupid proposition.”

“I was surprised Bishop suggested such an idea. It was shocking; someone at that level of experience and knowledge in mountaineering should know what was possible and what wasn’t.”

But Kohli never raised his concerns with the Americans. As an obedient Indian officer, he completed the itinerary marked out by Bishop, came back to India and took up the matter with the IB.

“I went straight to Kao and Mullik,” he said, “with a letter written for Mullik.”

But Mullik was a man who did not take no for an answer, particularly from his subordinates. He was regarded as a perfectionist who never wanted to hear an operation was impossible. After reading Kohli’s letter Kao knew Mullik would be furious.

“As India’s leading mountaineer,” the lettter read, “I would be failing in my duty if I didn’t bring this to your attention. It is absolutely absurd and impossible to put all the CIA installations on top of Kanchenjunga. It is not possible, not practical.”

Kao asked Kohli: “How long have you known Mullik? If you knew him well, you wouldn’t write a letter like this.”

Kao tore up Kohli’s note. But Kao went to Mullik himself and convinced the chief that the mission should shift its focus to another mountain. Mullik eventually agreed, but would settle for nothing less than Nanda Devi; taller than Kohli’s suggested alternatives, but not as daunting as Kanchenjunga. Now all that remained was to reach its peak.

 

IV

NANDA DEVI IS A TWO-PEAKED MASSIF, encircled by a dozen equally tall peaks, like a rim that protects something precious in the centre. The western peak, the higher of the two, is known as Nanda Devi, while its shorter sibling is usually called Nanda Devi East. Until the early 19th century, it was regarded as the highest mountain in the world; after modern survey methods came into use, it became the 23rd-tallest in the world, and the second highest in India. For the CIA, only an Indian peak would suffice: the agency didn’t consider Everest, or any other mountain in Nepal or Pakistan; they feared an intelligence leak to the Chinese.

The climb from Lata village to the summit of Nanda Devi stretches over about 125 kilometers  and the teams had divided the distance into seven intervals: from the sanctuary to the base camp, on from there to four more intermediate camps, and finally to the summit. The porters from Lata and Reini carried the rations—purchased locally—to the base camp, and brought the five loads into which the sensor had been divided up to camp two. From there to the summit, the critical equipment would be in the hands of the Sherpas.

According to Kohli, the porters and Sherpas competed to carry the generator: because it gave off heat, they regarded it with a kind of reverence. The CIA technician told them it was safe, but as Kohli recalled, he had also pinned a white badge to each of their jackets, and explained that it would change color if exposed to excessive radiation. The badges remained white for the duration of the climb.

Kohli was the best-qualified person to lead the operation. He was a highly disciplined, energetic officer and mountaineer who understood what his seniors in the government wanted, and knew equally well how to lead his subordinate climbers. From the Nanda Devi base camp, Kohli would stay in radio contact with Mullik and Kao in Delhi. On the ground, he would direct the climbers, porters and Sherpas, and decide what each one of them was to do at particular points of time. Since Kohli was the expedition leader, the American climbers were also placed under him.

Contrary to Bishop’s earlier plan, only three American climbers finally committed to the Nanda Devi expedition: Lute Jerstard, Tom Frost and Sandy Bill. Bishop was not among them. The CIA case officer, Bill McKniff, was stationed at the base camp, while Gordon Sleeper, the technician who had demonstrated the nuclear generator in Alaska, set up a relay station nearby to transmit the information gathered by the sensor to New Delhi and Washington.

The climbers made slow but steady progress between 24 September and the second week of October. The climbing season was nearing its end—normally the mountaineers would have attempted this ascent earlier in the summer. But Kohli and his team had spent the better part of the season scaling Everest and then training in Alaska. As winter began to fall, they battled against time.

Kohli’s plan was to send a team of Sherpas from the fourth and final camp to the summit: they would deliver the cargo to the peak and return. Then a second team, with two Indian and two American climbers, would ascend to the summit and assemble the device. It was 300 metres from the fourth camp to the summit—no more than a five-hour climb on a clear day. But by 16 October, snow was falling at a steady pace: visibility was dwindling, and the danger of an avalanche was serious. The men were beginning to show signs of exhaustion and headaches, and coughing fits and dizziness were widespread. Kohli conferred with Jerstad, a veteran of the 1963 American Everest team, and they agreed the lives of the men were now in real danger. It would be impossible to climb any further with the equipment. Kohli radioed to Delhi to deliver the news. Bringing down the climbers meant abandoning the expedition until the following May, but the officers in Delhi unhappily consented: the ascent would resume at the start of the next climbing season.

Kohli also got permission to secure the generator and the sensor at camp four, so they didn’t have to carry them all over again next year. “It sounded sensible then,” Kohli said.

Bhangu and six Sherpas found a suitable rock cavity. Half the loads were sheltered there and the rest secured to the rock with nylon ropes.

After a full winter’s rest and lots of planning, Kohli’s team returned to Nanda Devi in early May 1966. In the meantime, China had conducted a third nuclear test—this time with a warhead mounted on a missile. Tensions rose in Delhi and Washington, where the failure of the previous year’s climb meant continued lack of information about Chinese nuclear activity.

The plan was to climb back to camp four, unburdened by the loads; the team would pick up the equipment where it had been secured the previous year, and simply take it on the final ascent to the summit.

But when Bhangu and the Sherpas reached the spot where they had deposited the equipment in October, they got the shock of their lives. The loads were missing, and the rock to which they had been secured was gone as well. It was clear that an avalanche had swept away the rock—and the equipment—during the winter, leaving behind no trace of the generator. The radio message announcing the missing equipment sent shivers through Delhi and Washington.

“The Americans were very upset about the generator,” Kohli recalled. “How they made it, how the capsules were loaded, all these were top-secret things. They didn’t expect to lose it. The Indians were worried by the first response from the American scientists, who told Mullik that millions of Indians would die if it reached the Ganges.” This may have been an exaggeration, Kohli suggested—to scare the Indians out of any complacency in the search. But even the unflappable Mullik was seriously concerned by the prospect of a nuclear catastrophe in India.

For two more years the CIA and the IB would dispatch search teams to find the missing equipment; the Americans sent the best technology available in the 1960s—metal detectors and neutron sensors. The device was never located.

 

V

LAST JULY I WENT TO SEE Captain MS Kohli in Nagpur, where he now lives with his wife, Pushpa, in a two-storey house in a posh neighborhood just off National Highway 7. The walls of his house are decorated with neatly framed photos of his mountaineering achievements. It was raining heavily when I arrived, and Kohli led me to the first floor, where he pulled two plastic chairs in front of a window in the bedroom for us to sit and talk.

Kohli is a fit 79: every day he gets up at four and heads out for a walk on the highway to one of the three hotels he now owns—the other two are in South Delhi, adjacent to Lady Sri Ram college, and in Goa, near Baga Beach. (The hotels are decorated with king-size posters of Kohli receiving awards from Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and each of the rooms is named after a legendary climber or mountain.)

“My younger son’s sandhi is from Nagpur. And his father-in-law said Nagpur is an upcoming city and a good place to invest. So we bought some land on the highway,” Kohli said.

After spending nine years in the ITBP and acquiring a captain’s rank in the Navy, Kohli asked for a second deputation in 1972 and moved to Air India as a manager, first in Mumbai, then in Sydney. “I was very tired after the tedious mountaineering assignments, and could not take the Himalayas any longer.”

I took out my recorder and notebook.

“Good—you are recording it? This will become a historical record. After all, I being in the twilight of my life, there won’t be many opportunities for such long recordings.”

In an interview that took four sittings over two days, Kohli recreated the entire operation—going beyond the adventure story to elaborate the planning, the dialogues and the scenes. Kohli thinks it would be wrong to portray him as a spy.

“Look, we weren’t spies, but adventure men. For us, it was a mountaineering expedition with a special purpose.”

Before answering every question, Kohli paused for a while, and went systematically from one point to another, like a dexterous, well-organised climber.

“You should write about the uniqueness of the mission—the Nanda Devi joint operation was the biggest in the world. Biggest, because of the number of people that took part in it. Besides the military of porters and Sherpas, we also had nuclear experts, intelligence officers, specialized agents like communicators, which is not the case in regular mountaineering expeditions. Then this expedition was the longest one. Normally an expedition takes only four months, including Mount Everest. But this lasted for four years. In the season you are on the mountain. In the off-season you are in Delhi, preparing for the next year’s search expedition. Thirdly, it was the most secretive mission. See how many years this has remained a secret. And fourth, it was the most expensive expedition. Besides helicopters and communication equipment, even the blankets provided to us by the CIA were the kind used in the space missions. We had everything fancy for the expedition.”

“How much did you get paid for your efforts?”

“Not a single penny was paid to any of the Indians. All Indian climbers were government servants. So we got only our salaries.”

“The Americans?”

“Ha, Americans wouldn’t do such an assignment for a song. They must have been paid heavily. All their climbers were professionals hired by the CIA. But I have no idea how much were they paid.”

“Did you ever regret the fact that you were part of an operation that ended up so messy?”

“Why should I? I was following orders from my seniors, Kao and Mullik. We were told that this was a mission of national interest for both India and America.”

“When you knew it was a nuclear generator, and weren’t sure if the risk factors were taken into account, did you not doubt the logic behind the mission?”

“My role was limited—it was that of a mountaineer. I didn’t go into the scientific details. I didn’t want to.”

“Was this the case with others in your team?”

“Yes. My colleagues were members of the 1965 Mount Everest expedition. This was another expedition for us. They had no idea how the signals in that equipment would help the Americans get information on the Chinese nuclear programme, or how the location of the Chinese nuclear site would help. That was all science and technology, which we did not understand. We were not bothered about any of it.”

“What level of political approval did the mission have?”

“It had approval from the highest level—Nehru.”

But Kohli’s suggestion that Nehru approved the operation is contradicted by the dates: the first Chinese nuclear test, which led the Americans to formulate the plan for the expedition, took place in October 1964; Nehru had died in May. It is possible, of course, that Nehru approved the operation before his death, but if that had been the case, the expedition would have departed in 1964 rather than 1965; the Americans were in a great hurry, and they would not have let an entire climbing season go to waste.

It seems almost certain, therefore, that the decision was taken between October 1964 and May 1965—when Lal Bahadur Shastri was prime minister. Shastri was known as a weak PM, and it is possible that Mullik simply took the decision himself. But none of these deliberations are part of the public record, and they seem likely to remain classified for years to come, making it all but impossible to determine conclusively who authorized the operation, and more importantly, whether there was any consideration of the risk of installing a nuclear generator at the top of Nanda Devi.
 

VI

AFTER THE FIRST ACCOUNT of the failed expedition was published in Outside magazine in 1977, it came to the attention of Indian parliamentarians, who brought it to the floor of the house and forced Prime Minister Morarji Desai to address the operation. The first questions came from Jyotirmoy Bosu, a communist who supported Desai’s socialist government, but several members of the Congress, who were then in the opposition, lent their support to Bosu’s enquiry. Chaos soon reigned in the house, and Parliament devoted an hour on 17 April 1978 to debating the Nanda Devi expedition.

Desai rose to address the house, and attempted to demonstrate that his government had made serious attempts to investigate the matter. “As soon as it came to our attention,” he said, “we expressed our grave concern to the US authorities and have subsequently been in touch with them in New Delhi and in Washington. We have also made thorough enquiries at our end to obtain as complete details as possible in the last few days. In the light of the international situation prevailing at that time and scientific developments which were taking place both far and near it was decided by the Government of India and the Government of the United States of America at the highest level that a remote sensing device with nuclear power-pack should be installed near the highest point of Nanda Devi with the object of securing information about missile developments.”

Desai continued uninterrupted for 30 minutes, and the members of parliament listened to him like children hearing a fairy tale. At the end of his account, he promised there would be a scientific inquiry “to make ourselves triply sure.”

But several leaders feared a free and accurate scientific study was impossible. K Lakkappa, a Congressman, worried that Indian scientists lacked the guts to stand up to Western pressure. “The scientists of this country are guided by outside forces. It is a great concern to this country whether we should have an independent thinking, an understanding about the sophisticated science and technology that has been deliberated by our scientists.”

Another Congress MP, KP Unnikrishnan, doubted that the government was revealing the entire story. “The Prime Minister’s attitude,” he said, “reminds me of the Chinese monkeys, the famous three monkeys? Hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil—and more so if it is about the CIA. It was not a minor scientific expedition in search of something. What is important is that the CIA exists as a grave danger to the national security of this country and other developing countries. And this political aspect has been totally neglected.”

Morarji Desai concluded the debate: “I do not know what other assurance my honourable friends want. We are truly and properly non-aligned and we want to be friends with all.” The House then moved on to discuss a public accounts committee report.

In less than a fortnight, Desai signed the order to form a six-member scientific committee to investigate the events of 1965. It was led by Dr Atma Ram, Principal Scientific Adviser to the prime minister, along with Homi Sethna, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission who spearheaded India’s first atomic tests in 1974; Prof MGK Menon, the Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister and Director General of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO); Dr Raja Ramanna, the director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), who also designed and installed several of India’s nuclear reactors; Dr V Ramalingaswami, the Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research; and Dr AK Saha of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics. They were the six best Indian scientists in the nuclear and public health fields in that era.

The team relied almost entirely on documents provided by the US because there was nothing else on which they could base their investigation 13 years after the expedition had taken place. Their 94-page report deconstructed SNAP 19C, its individual components and their half-lives, hazardous effects and accident conditions.

The team’s first recommendation to the government was to periodically monitor the environment near Nanda Devi to detect any radioactive radiation in the air, water and soil. The second recommendation was to develop new techniques for locating the device. The committee report suggested that the possibility of an accident involving the missing generator was minimal, based on the partial details about SNAP 19C that were made available to the committee by US agencies, but the scientists still thought it was critical to continue to attempt to secure the missing equipment.

Thirty years later—and 45 years after the radioactive material was lost—there have been no further efforts to locate the generator. Another search seems unlikely: no one in the government today has shown any concern for the whereabouts of the sleeping box.

VII

THE GANGES, one of the largest rivers in the subcontinent, has many headstreams. And one of them, the Rishi Ganga, originates from the Nanda Devi glacier, not far from the village of Reini, where it is fed by melting ice and rain from the Nanda Devi sanctuary.

To reach Reini, I traveled up National Highway 58; during the monsoon months, most of the 250-kilometre stretch between Rishikesh and Joshimath looks like a mucky village road.

Landslides are very frequent along the highway carved from the edges of the mountains. Several metres down the road, in the deep ravines, the Ganges flows in full force. Landslides bring with them massive quantities of rock, mud, uprooted trees, and even plastic bags to the road. Traffic is stranded for hours, and some cases even days. The road here is controlled by the military’s Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which quickly attends to roadblocks.

Caterpillar excavators are operated by khaki-clad men of the BRO. Teenage boys from Jharkhand, working for BRO sub-contractors, do the final clearing with shovels and spades.

The road is opened when just enough space is made for a vehicle to creep through. Ten vehicles from one side will go first, then ten from the other side. Muddy waters spread particles across the road, and tyres creak and crunch over the debris. One slip, and you’re 300 or 400 metres down the cliff and into the Ganges. At that height, in non-stop rain, you can’t hear the Ganges. But you can see its ferocity. Cusecs of water gush from one rock to another, in humps and downs, and there is tremendous energy in the flow. If the SNAP 19C generator, carrying its load of plutonium, made its way from the Nanda Devi glacier into the river, it would be carried downstream at great speed.

My destination was the furthest human habitation on the Rishi Ganga—Reini village. Reini is 25 kilometres from Joshimath, a Hindu holy town famous as the location where the 8th century revivalist Shankaracharya set up one of his four mutts. But today, the town of less than 15,000 people is dwarfed by the army and paramilitary forces. Stationed in the town are the 9th Infantry Brigade, Garhwal Scouts, Engineers Corps, Signal Corps, Sashastra Seema Bal (Border Guards) and the ITBP. After the 1962 war with China, this border town with Tibet became crucial for India.

As the sun sets, soldiers of the lowest order, the sepoys, take the puppies of their officers out in green Maruti Gypsies. The jeeps stop wherever the road is widest so the sepoys can take the animals out to relieve themselves; the officers watch from the front seats.

Three hours and several landslides after leaving Joshimath, I arrived in Reini: clusters of small houses stood out from the alpine trees. The dwellings, people and trees were at the height of the clouds. Unadulterated sunlight lit everything up in Reini.

Reini is home to about 800 people, almost all from the Bhotia tribe. Besides shepherding, they work in subsistence farming. Pulses, apple trees and pumpkins grow on neatly ploughed terraced land. Most houses are little more than two-room huts and are roofed with slate shingles, which help withstand the heavy snowfall in winter. The rooms have no ventilation, but the moment you step outside amongst the butterflies and dragonflies, breathing the cleanest air on earth, the aroma from the wild flowers is therapeutic.

In 1982, Nanda Devi was declared a national park and closed off to visitors. Eighty-five-year-old Inder Rana, a veteran porter, asked if I was an officer from Dehradun, visiting to see if the park could be opened.

The Nanda Devi sanctuary is rich with over 300 rare species of vegetation—firs, birches and junipers—and 80 species of rare animals like the snow leopard, the Himalayan black bear and the Himalayan musk deer; it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988. The entire sanctuary and its summits are off-limits to everyone, including the Bhotias, and criminal cases may be filed against trespassers—but the military occasionally sends its men there for climbing drills.

There are two ways to reach Nanda Devi: you can go back up the Rishi Ganga to its origins, or you can go overland via the adjacent village of Lata. But there’s only one way for SNAP 19C to leave its hiding place: if the glaciers melt or break, the ice and water can carry the box to the Rishi Ganga.

Reini’s people live a few hundred metres up the mountain from Rishi Ganga, but it is their water source for drinking, cooking, bathing and irrigating their crops, brought up from the river through plastic tubes. “For centuries that’s been the case, and we want it that way in the years to come,” Rana told me.

He was the second veteran porter who recollected the three-year search operation on Nanda Devi to locate SNAP 19C. The box was lost several kilometres from here, at a much higher altitude of about 7,500 metres, but Rana, and others who knew that there was an incident where “something important was lost,” did not know precisely what it was. Nor can they imagine the potential danger it could cause if that ‘something’ were to come flowing down theRishi Ganga.

The first recommendation of the scientific committee was that “monitoring should be of all elements of the environment (air, water, local flora and fauna as well as of soil and cross sectional samples of sediments in the water beds).” Clearly, no radiation monitoring is taking place here.

It is not just Reini that lies in the way of a potential catastrophe. The Rishi Ganga joins the Dauli Ganga, the stream that comes from China, and they flow together to the river Alaknanda at Vishnu Prayag, which eventually joins the source of the river Bhagirathi to form the mainstream of the Ganges. Thousands of people depend on these streams, and millions more on the Ganges. The initial alarms given by the CIA to the IB in 1966, soon after it was known that SNAP 19C was lost, suggested that there was great reason for worry—“people up to Calcutta could be vanished,” according to the CIA. But the information later furnished to the scientific committee by the US was significantly less alarming: it suggested that the generator would be unlikely to cause a nuclear catastrophe—it would do minor damage, and only to those who came into direct contact with the radiation in the Himalayas; if the material made its way to the Ganges Basin, the scientists were told, it would be diluted to a very low concentration.

But the impact of radiation, especially at low levels, is never immediately apparent: slow deaths from radiation exposure could go entirely undetected. Medical officers in smaller towns along the Ganges would have no capacity to diagnose radiation as a cause of death, because it would only be fatal months, if not years, after the initial exposure.

In my own search for porters who were hired by Kohli and his team for the initial mission—the men who carried the nuclear generator on their shoulders—I found that all of them had died. According to Karthik Rana and Inder Rana, the two senior porters in Reini, the original porters had died while still in their 30s and 40s, though their peers who missed the trip in 1965 are still alive today, in their 80s. But after all these years, it is impossible to prove definitively that the radiation from the generator caused the premature deaths of the porters who carried it.

It is difficult today to determine the extent of the danger still posed by the missing generator: the American government provided the only information available to the scientific committee in 1978, and there has been no further research into the case. If efforts had been made to monitor the area around Nanda Devi—as the committee recommended—we might now know whether the missing device is a major or merely a minor danger. But no monitoring has been conducted, and the present government clearly has no intentions to start doing so now.

VIII

THERE ARE SEVERAL GOVERNMENT OFFICES that could turn their attention to the outstanding danger posed today by the unsecured nuclear material, including the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) to the Government of India; the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC); the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE); Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC); the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB); the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA); and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). The Indian nuclear bureaucracy, in other words, is a big one.

At least four of the above institutions are headed by nuclear scientists-turned-technocrats. For a month I attempted to make appointments with the chiefs of all these institutions. Two of the offices denied my request by demanding to know why I was investigating this story to begin with. “This is an old story, and no officer would want to be seen commenting on a 45-year-old sensitive issue,” one secretary said. After several attempts, the head of one important office listed above agreed to a meeting—on the condition that I not name him or his institution.

On the morning of the day before Gandhi Jayanti I passed through multiple security checks and reached this un-nameable office. The man who I met has occupied almost every important position related to India’s atomic programmes, both in civilian energy and defence.

The un-nameable chief tried to persuade me not to write about the missing device. He said, “As far as the Government of India is concerned, it is a closed chapter.”

I asked him about the failure to follow the recommendations of the scientific committee report—most of whose authors had been his mentors. Why, I asked, were periodic radiation measurements not being conducted?

“It is an old story,” he said. “Don’t ask me anything about it. Don’t dig it up.” Instead, for most of the hour-long meeting he attempted to provide alternative story ideas about nuclear energy that he felt would make for better—or less politically damaging—articles.

The problem with a messy, unresolved 45-year-old nuclear story is that after one or two generations of scientists have considered the situation and moved on, the files have been declared closed: there is no hope that anyone will demonstrate the will to reopen the investigation. A scientist today who tries to take up the recommendations of Desai’s committee faces massive risks and no rewards; the government considers the matter dead, and there are no prizes for opening and then closing a case that everyone has agreed to ignore.

“I can only tell you this much,” the un-nameable scientist finally said. “This particular nuclear device used in Nanda Devi is under the earth. In 1974 and 1998, we conducted nuclear tests, which was also under the earth. So nothing is going to happen. It is buried.”

But the Indian nuclear tests were conducted under the deserts of Rajasthan. “The Nanda Devi device,” I pointed out, “is under ice, and glaciers move and melt. It could surface one day, right?”

He paused for a few seconds, and said, “I told you whatever I can tell you. Don’t ask me anything more.”

As far as the nuclear scientists are concerned, the generator is buried, and it doesn’t matter where. But glaciologists disagree. Unlike the deserts in Rajasthan where India’s nuclear tests were conducted, the Himalayan glaciers are not standing still. They move. The Nanda Devi glacier, in fact, travels a few centimetres every year.

“It is the sudden surges that you need to be afraid of,” said Dr Milap Chand Sharma, one of the very few glaciologists to have studied Nanda Devi. Glaciology remains a nascent discipline in India, and there are only a handful of experts in the country today. As I searched for a specialist on the Nanda Devi glacier, I was inevitably told to contact Dr Sharma, a professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, who admits he only began studying Nanda Devi recently.

The contrast between the deserts of Rajasthan and the Himalayan glaciers is even more dramatic from a seismic point of view: not only do these glaciers move, they are located in an area with a history of earthquakes and tremors.

Seismologists identify the Himalayas as a ‘seismic hazard’ area. As the Indian plate continues to hit the Asian plate, a massive tremor is inevitable on the Gangetic Plain, according to a paper published in the prestigious journal Science in 2001, which noted that:

Over centuries immense pressure has built up along the underground faults beneath the front ranges of the Himalayas, and one or more earthquakes will occur in India in the near future… The data indicate that the slip zone located about 12 kilometres underground between the Indian and Asian plates is comprised of hot, steam-like fluid. The temperature, pressure and the amount of fluids affect the entire seismic system.

But such complications are unwelcome news to the nuclear technocrats who advise the government today. Their approach is resolutely single-minded, and they have no interest in the insights provided by seismologists and glaciologists. They refuse to believe that the missing nuclear device, which they insist is buried, could ever resurface.

 

IX

MGK MENON is the only one of the six scientists who served on Morarji Desai’s 1978 committee still alive today, and has a legendary reputation among Indian scientists. After completing a PhD in particle physics in Britain, he returned to India soon after Independence. In the decades that followed, he played a major role in shaping India’s scientific institutions while continuing to conduct his own research into nuclear emulsion techniques and cosmic rays. As an acknowledgement of his contributions to space research, a minor planet in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter was named in his honour. He was Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, a scientific adviser to Rajiv Gandhi, and Minister for Science and Technology under VP Singh.

The 1979 scientific committee report, whose recommendations have been ignored by every government since its release

The 1979 scientific committee report, whose recommendations have been ignored by every government since its release

Menon is now 82, and mostly restricted to his home and his private office in South Delhi, where I went to meet him in September. His hair and beard have gone grey, and he wore a blue cotton kurta and spoke softly. We sat across a big table illuminated by a small lamp, and Menon maintained constant eye contact throughout our conversation.

I asked him what he remembered about the Nanda Devi expedition and the scientific committee report.

After a long gaze, he said, “That’s all long ago. There was a device; there is no question about that. But the details, it is difficult for me to recollect.”

I took out a spiral-bound copy of the 1979 report from my bag. From across the long table, Menon extended his hand. Turning the pages like an interested student, he said: “This must have been a secret document. Where did you get it? It would have been marked ‘confidential.’” For the next several minutes, he flipped the pages silently.

“All of them are dead and gone—Atma Ram, Sethna, Ramanna, Ramalingaswami, Saha. I’m the only one alive? Hmm…” A long silence followed, and he continued to patiently flip through the pages of the report.

“It is not a bomb, so no cause for alarm. It is a device running on plutonium, which can cause radiation. All that one should do is to monitor the area periodically, and use technology to locate it.”

When I replied that these recommendations—to monitor the area and search for the device—had been ignored, Menon had a clear and concise response: “Someone in the government should look into it.”

I asked Menon about the information that was provided to the scientific committee by the United States: had it been possible, I wondered, for the committee to correctly assess the danger posed by the equipment on the basis of the American disclosures?

“We relied on the documents given to us. Our mandate was limited. It was a generator to power ‘something.’ We had to look into that. We didn’t know what that ‘something’ was, or if that ‘something’ had any nuclear material in it. What that consisted of, we were not told.”

Menon said he did not remember seeing any evidence that the government had conducted risk assessment reports before ordering the operation in 1965—though such assessments are mandatory. “See, it is difficult for me to recollect it now, so I’ll leave it at that.”

Menon remained careful and guarded, and flipped through portions of the report in silence again for a while.

“See, the danger is if this device leaks and plutonium gets into the water…it can kill people. Plutonium is not something you want to get into the human system. It is toxic and radioactive, and if it enters the body, it ends up in the bones.”

“What do you think the government should do now?”

“Keep looking for it. The terrain mapping can be done. We roughly know the place. You can complete it in a few years.”

“But it is going to be costly.”

“Well, if you lost something dangerous, you should locate it, or at least monitor the area so that you act responsibly to the people.”

Menon is not the only person who thinks the government needs to reverse its course and monitor the area around Nanda Devi for signs of nuclear radiation. In Delhi’s political circles, the story of Nanda Devi occasionally resurfaces, and those who have never heard it before are inevitably shocked. When Satpal Maharaj, the MP for Garhwal—the area of Uttarakhand that includes Nanda Devi—learned about the expedition and the missing nuclear material in his constituency, he immediately wrote a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Singh replied back with a perfunctory, one-sentence acknowledgement: “I have received your letter of 26 August 2009 regarding a reportedly missing nuclear device on Nanda Devi. With regards, Yours sincerely, Manmohan Singh.”

Sixteen months later, there has been no further action. When I met Maharaj, who is now the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, he insisted the government needed to act.

“Scientists and the intelligence people can feel embarrassed about it and not address it,” he said. “But we represent the people. It is a matter of great concern. That is why I took it up with Manmohan Singh-ji.”

“What is your demand?” I asked.

“My first demand will be to find it. If that is not possible, then at least to monitor the river. That is doable, and is a must. From Reini village up to Rudraprayag, you have to monitor.”

“But so many months later, you still haven’t heard anything from the government?”

“I plan to take it up again.”

The last search operation was in 1966-68, when the Americans and Indians conducted a panic-driven survey of the area around Nanda Devi. The technology they employed—metal detectors and neutron sensors—was cutting-edge at the time, but science has advanced considerably in the intervening four decades. Today a search could employ ground-penetrating radars and hyperspectral imaging to locate what lies beneath thick rock and ice.

“Technologically it is possible,” I was told by a nuclear scientist who works for the government. “Theoretically it is possible. But it would be hard for the government to justify the cost.”

The Americans, of course, could be asked to share the burden of funding a new search operation. But given that they have refused to acknowledge that the expedition ever took place—even after Morarji Desai admitted the partnership in the Indian Parliament in 1978—it would be naïve to expect the US to help pay for a new search. The entire incident—the initial failure, the subsequent unsuccessful attempts to locate the device and the ongoing refusal to monitor radiation in the area—is a major political embarrassment for both the Indian and the American governments. Nobody wants to take credit for a spy operation that failed, and even less so for the mess that followed.

X

EVEN IF THE GOVERNMENT SCIENTISTS are correct and the missing nuclear device is unlikely to be swept from a glacier into the headwaters of the Ganges, there are still several scenarios in which it might be unearthed and moved by anyone who finds it. If the generator is taken apart by a scavenger, the risk of radiation exposure would multiply, creating a danger for anyone who comes into contact with even a single component of the device.

An incident that took place in Delhi earlier this year demonstrates precisely how such a disaster could arise: when a quantity of highly radioactive material was brought from Delhi University into a scrap market, one worker was killed and two others suffered serious illnesses from exposure.

In 1968, the chemistry laboratory at Delhi University imported a nuclear power-pack from a Canadian firm, with Cobalt 60 as its main nuclear material. After a few years of use, it was abandoned on the university campus, where it sat out in the open for several decades. Last year, the university sold it to a scrap dealer, who had no idea of its contents. He melted it down and broke it up, releasing radiation into the entire scrap market. Even the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board had no idea that the nuclear material had passed into civilian hands. “It was a mistake on our part, from the regulator,” I was told by a very senior nuclear scientist with the government.

The worker at the Mayapuri scrap market who broke open the material died after being exposed to a high dose of radiation. Two others, the owner of the shop and his friend, who kept tiny parts of the fancy-looking nuclear material in their purses, survived because they were lucky enough to get their burns diagnosed as nuclear radiation. With local papers carrying front-page stories, government agencies were under pressure, and now the Cabinet has approved a set of recommendations for stricter standards in dealing with scrap material.

But would it be possible, elsewhere in the country—in the villages on Nanda Devi, for example—to diagnose nuclear exposure as quickly as had been done in Delhi?  I talked to Maj Gen (Dr) JK Bansal, Member of the National Disaster Management Authority, who supervised the treatment of the Mayapuri victims. The facilities to study radiation contamination in humans, he told me, are available at DRDO in Delhi and at BARC in Mumbai.

“So, outside these cities, how equipped are our doctors to diagnose and treat cases of nuclear radiation and chemical toxicity?”

“They will need help from the specialized people.”

In other words, if a nuclear incident happens in India, the medical response will be slow and inadequate.

Dr Bansal showed me gruesome pictures of the radiation’s effects on the Mayapuri victims, which have not been made  public. The burns on their faces were deep black patches, and the ones on the buttocks had several orange bubbles, like miniature volcanic eruptions—the victims had kept the nuclear material in their pants’ pockets, and under their pillows at night, bringing the radiation into direct contact with their body parts.

Today along Rishi Ganga, local residents still find the detritus of past mountaineering expeditions, washed ashore along the riverbanks. A river brings interesting things with it. It brings smooth pebbles in various shapes formed thousands and millions of years ago. It brings roots and wood from trees that you have never seen.

Rishi Ganga also brings the waste of past expeditions—the human waste of about ten or 20 climbers and 30 or 40 of their porters—and hundreds of such expeditions took place before the Nanda Devi Park was closed to outsiders. Tins, boxes, leather shoes, gas cylinders, torches, pressure cookers, ropes, rubber, axes, plastic bags, thermal flasks—Rishi Ganga carries them all. “Our children collect all sorts of strange things and bring them home,” Gopal Singh Rana told me. “That’s how I got my pressure cooker.”

Vinod K. Jose is the Executive Editor of The Caravan.

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