Bombing Lahore will kill lakhs in Amritsar, too

First Published on: June, 1998

JUNE 1998: India under the National Democratic Alliance (I) government (under prime minister Vajpayee) followed by Pakistan (under Nawaz Sharif) entered into ‘the bottomless pit of nuclear rivalry.’ This piece authored by the late veteran peace activist, author and journalist, Praful Bidwai was Communalism Combat’s cover that month. We bring it to our readers now at Sabrangindia, with an accompanying piece by scientist, Zia Mian, to urge restraint and sanity in the region.

Nuclear weapons act like boomerangs on both India and Pakistan

For more than the one and a quarter billion people who live in South Asia, the world has been radically, horrifically, shockingly transformed. After the nuclear tests of India and Pakistan in May, they now live under the shadow of the Mushroom Cloud — that is, to put it bluntly, the threat of mass annihilation, unspeakable destruction, and epochal devastation. Unless India and Pakistan stop their descent into the bottomless pit of nuclear rivalry now, they will inflict unlimited damage upon their societies, states and, above all, their peoples.The bulk of the blame for this terrifying development must be squarely laid at the door of communalism. The nuclear obsession of a particular party was imposed upon a billion people on May 11, when the BJP–led minority government made a violent break with a policy with a 50–year–long continuity — of opposing nuclear deterrence and not exercising the nuclear weapons option. The BJP altered this radically, undemocratically, without the pretence of a strategic review, and without even the fig leaf of a security rationale.

The BJP’s decision to put India on the dangerous path of nuclearisation deeply offends all notions of civilised public conduct. It degrades, it does not enhance, India’s security. It has propelled us into a confrontation with our neighbours and lowered our global stature. India is the object of reprimand, reproach, and humiliating sanctions from the world community. Nuclearisation will promote the profoundly undemocratic values of militarism, secrecy, jingoism and male chauvinism. And it could prove economically ruinous. Most of all, it is fraught with unconscionably destructive human consequences.

Let us look at some of these on the basis of a scientific analysis. To start with, India and Pakistan are likelier to fight a nuclear war than the two rival blocs came close to at any point during the Cold War barring perhaps the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Even a limited exchange would result in the killing of lakhs of people in the two countries in ways that will make Genghis Khan look like an angel.

If a single nuclear weapon is exploded over a major city such as Bombay, Karachi, Lahore or Delhi, it could result in the death of up to 9,00,000 people, depending on factors such as population density, height of airbust and prevalent wind velocity. Apart from these early deaths, there would be hundreds of thousands of cancer and leukaemia victims due to radiation, besides a host of other serious illnesses and disorders. As Nikita Khrushchev once said: “The survivors would envy the dead”.

That is not all. The damage would be carried to a number of future generations. Some of the worst effects would be caused by plutonium–239, named after the God of Hell, and the most toxic substance known to science, which has a half–life of 24,400 years which means it will not decay fully for millions of years. A few millionths of a gram of plutonium, if ingested or inhaled, can cause cancers of the lung and the gastrointestinal tract over a period of time. The victims of a nuclear explosion would experience a series of effects.

Professor Karl Z. Morgan, former chairman of the International Commission for Radiological Protection, describes these as follows:

The first effect is an intense flux of photons from the blast, which releases 70 to 80 per cent of the bomb’s energy. The effects go up to third–degree thermal burns, and are not a pretty sight. Initial deaths are due to this effect.
The next phenomenon is the supersonic blast front. You see it before you hear it. The pressure front has the effect of blowing away anything in its path. Heavy steel girders were found bent at 90–degree angles after the Japanese bombings.

After the front comes the overpressure phase. This would feel like being under water at a few hundred metres’ depth. At a few thousand metres under the sea, even pressurised hulls implode. The pressure gradually dies off, and there is a negative overpressure phase, with a reversed blast wind. This reversal is due to air rushing back to fill the void left by the explosion. The air gradually returns to room pressure. At this stage, fires caused by electrical destruction and ignited debris, turn the whole area into a firestorm.

Then come the middle term effects such as cell damage and chromosomal aberrations. Genetic or hereditary damage can show up up to 40 years after initial irradiation. In a nuclear blast, with a crude, first–generation Hiroshima or Nagasaki–type bomb, everything within a radius of 0.8 km would be vaporised, with 98 per cent fatalities. There would be firestorms raging at a velocity of 500 kmph and an unbearable overpressure of 25 pounds per square inch. Within a radius of 1.6 km, all structures above ground would be totally destroyed, and the fatality rate would be 90 per cent.In the next concentric circle, with a radius of 3 km, there would be severe blast damage. All factories and large buildings would collapse, as would bridges and flyovers. Rivers would flow counter–current. Winds would blow at 400 kmph. The fatality rate would be 65 per cent.

Next comes severe heat damage within a radius of 4 km: everything flammable burns. People would suffocate because most of the available oxygen would be consumed by the fires. The likely wind velocities: 200 kmph. Likely fatalities: 50 per cent. Injuries: 45 per cent.

In the fifth zone, with a radius of 5 km, winds would blow at 150 kmph. People would be blown around. The fatality rate would be 15 per cent plus. Most survivors would sustain second– and third–degree burns. Residential structures would be severely damaged.

A huge electromagnetic pulse would be produced by the radio-radar portion of the multiple–wavelength discharge of radiation. The EMP effect increases the higher you go into the atmosphere. High–altitude explosions can knock out electronics by inducing a current surge in closed circuit metallic objects — computers, power lines, phone lines, TVs, radios, etc. The damage range can be over 1,000 km.

All these effects would be magnified roughly 25 times if a thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb with an explosive yield of one megaton is burst over an altitude of 8,000 ft (i.e. about 2,500 metres). India claims to have developed just such a bomb. If a 20 megaton device — which is not difficult to make once the thermonuclear technology is learnt — is used, the destruction would be roughly 100–fold greater.

After a nuclear blast, all water bodies within a radius of 100 to 300 km would be dangerously contaminated. As would all vegetation and the soil. Cattle would be so severely exposed to radiation that milk could not be consumed. Underground aquifers would remain polluted for years. Not just cities, but whole regions, comprising anything between five and 20 districts, would become wastelands.

Millions of people would be severely traumatised and will never be able to live normal, sane lives. Children would be the worst affected, with lasting physical and psychological damage, most of it irreversible.

In the South Asia context, a nuclear attack would have clear trans-border consequences. Bombing Lahore will amount to signing the death warrant for half of Amritsar’s population. Radioactive fallout from Jalandhar will not leave Pakistan’s Punjab unaffected. And Bombay’s bombing could have devastating effects in Sindh. Nuclear weapons will act like boomerangs on both India and Pakistan. Using them would tantamount to committing suicide.

Among the early casualties in a nuclear explosion would be the civil defence and medical infrastructure. As International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War say, First Aid would be reduced to Last Aid. There will be, can be, no defence against a nuclear bomb. These are not fanciful scare–mongering scenarios, but sober estimates based on hard–core physics and biology, developed by Nobel Prize–winning scientists and physicians. These estimates must be treated with the utmost seriousness and gravity.

The threat of megadeath today hangs over India and Pakistan. The very circumstance that a nuclear war between the two is possible should alarm us all. But the situation may be even worse: an India–Pakistan nuclear exchange appears likelier than an East–West nuclear attack at any time during the Cold War except perhaps the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. This is not because Indian and Pakistani politicians and nuclear scientists are more irresponsible than those in America and the former USSR. It is more because South Asia is the only part of the world which has experienced a relentless hot-cold war over 50 years. It bristles with mutual hatreds, suspicions and hostility on so many counts that any of them could turn into a flashpoint — the Kashmir Valley, the border dispute in the eastern sector, military exercises getting out of hand, as happened in 1987 under Gen. K. Sundarji.

The very fact that the two states continue to sacrifice hundreds of men in fighting an insane war at Siachen — the world’s highest–altitude conflict, where it costs Rs.1.5 lakh to reach one chapati to a soldier — speaks of the profound irrationality that mark their relations. And today, their politicians are actually talking about using nuclear weapons — witness Dr Farooq Abdullah’s statement of June 8. Equally worrisome is the likelihood that both are working on battlefield-level tactful nuclear weapons.(Hence the sub–kiloton tests). These considerably lower the danger threshold.

There is, besides, the horrific likelihood of accidental, unauthorised or unintentional use of nuclear weapons. This is not some fantasy, but a real possibility. More than 100 such incidents occurred during the Cold War in spite of scores of confidence-building measures and precautionary procedures adopted by the two warring blocs. These included multiple hot lines, permissive action links (PALs, which are computer chips with codes for authorisation), early warning systems, false alarm filters, efficient radars and expensive control and communications systems.

A Brookings Institution study says that it was sheer luck, not nuclear deterrence, or fear of unacceptable damage that prevented a nuclear war between the two blocs.

At the height of the Cold War, the lag time between the NATO and Warsaw Pact was never less than 30 minutes. Their strategic missiles would take that long to reach their targets. In the case of India and Pakistan, the missile flight–time would be just two to three minutes — grossly inadequate to take remedial action or activate war–prevention procedures. And given that virtually no interception of missiles is possible, a nuclear warhead could almost certainly be delivered across the border before there is time to react — with devastating results.

Nuclear weapons and missiles are highly complex systems with strong coupling between different subsystems and processes and hence a high chance of accidents. There is no way that their accidental or unauthorised use can be reliably prevented. There is, besides, the real possibility of a group of overzealous officers launching an attack on the “enemy” on their own. Pakistan, for instance, has had a series of army coup attempts by Islamic fanatics. If they have access to nuclear weapons, they could play havoc.

You just cannot take chances with nuclear weapons. They are too destructive to be left with even an infinitesimally low chance of use. That is why they must never be made, leave alone deployed, especially in this subcontinent where the two governments are working up bestial responses to one another and indulging in open war–mongering.

All of us citizens who do not wish to be roasted to death and turned into radioactive dust must act to prevent nuclear weapons from being made or deployed. This is too important a task to be entrusted to governments, least of all governments led by recklessly irresponsible fanatics and bigots. We must act by building a citizens’ movement that mounts pressure on our government to stop in its tracks and get them to retrace steps.

They must commit themselves never to test again, and drop all plans to make nuclear weapons, leave alone think of using them or threatening to use them under any circumstances.
We must act NOW. Or it could soon be too late.

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 1998, Cover Story



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