YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


There's Nowhere to Hide in India, Pakistan

Security: Neither nation has readied its citizens in the event of nuclear war. Officials pass the buck on who's responsible for civil defense.


NEW DELHI — The angry rhetoric flying between Indian and Pakistani leaders has forced their people to face a frightening reality: If nuclear missiles ever rain down, there is nowhere to hide.

During the darkest days of the Cold War, when the U.S. and Soviet Union were on the brink of a nuclear war, Americans built backyard bomb shelters, tested air raid sirens and used Bert the Turtle cartoons to teach their children to "duck and cover."

In India and Pakistan, which are on the brink of war over the disputed region of Kashmir, the only people with any hope of finding shelter from a nuclear attack are top political and military leaders and, if regular rules apply, people with enough money to ease their way into a bunker.

Across this subcontinent of more than 1.2 billion people, virtually all residents are on their own if the unthinkable happens.

Several Indian officials in local and national departments that are responsible for handling emergencies passed the buck when asked about civil defense planning.

Shiva Ramakrishnan, New Delhi's director of civil defense, steered calls to more senior officials, who apparently were out the country.

An aide to Ajit Nimbalkar, special secretary for home affairs in the federal government, said Raj Kumar Singh, India's joint secretary in the Home Affairs Ministry, was responsible for civil defense.

When Singh was asked for an interview on how the Indian government was planning to protect its people in the event of a nuclear strike, he replied, "Utter nonsense," and hung up the phone.

Over the last month, Pakistan's Interior Ministry has run drills for police, fire and hospital workers, but it hasn't educated the public on how to increase chances of surviving a nuclear attack. In the capital, Islamabad, there are said to be fallout shelters for the generals and politicians, but none for ordinary people.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf have both said repeatedly that they don't want war, certainly not a nuclear one. But experts warn that the two countries have slipped steadily closer to Armageddon since testing nuclear weapons in 1998.

"You can't really say that they're going to have a nuclear war, of course," said Achin Vanaik, an Indian writer. "All you really can say is that the likelihood of a nuclear conflict in this part of the world is greater than anywhere else."

Anti-nuclear campaigners such as Vanaik have long argued that civil defense is a waste of money and that the only way to prevent mass death from nuclear war is to get rid of the weapons altogether.

Instead, the opposite is happening as India and Pakistan continue to build up their arsenals and test new missiles to deliver them farther and more accurately.

The countries' people, meanwhile, haven't been told the most basic precautions, such as how prevailing winds would carry the fallout plume or how iodine tablets could help them survive radioactive poisoning.

India's defense department did announce last month that the military is deploying battlefield nuclear shelters designed by its research branch. Each shelter can protect 30 people for 96 hours, has water tanks, chemical toilets, a pump for sewage disposal and can be transported on a 3-ton truck.

And two front-line cities held small-scale civil defense drills this week.

Jammu, the winter capital of Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir state, tested its sirens Tuesday night while residents stayed in their homes. Lahore, Pakistan's second-largest city, followed with a limited drill Wednesday.

New Delhi, India's capital and a prime target for what nuclear strategists call a "decapitation strike" by Pakistani missiles, has no air raid sirens, no fallout shelters for the public and no known evacuation plan for almost 13 million residents.

In 1999, the municipal government proposed a phased plan costing more than $240 million to handle the aftermath of a nuclear attack, which assumed that the blast would create a "dead zone" with a radius of 14 to 30 miles.

The plan included emergency medical bunkers, a disaster alert system, more than 200 protective suits for emergency workers and 750 decontamination and first aid kits, the Hindu newspaper reported in November 1999.

But there is no evidence that the plan was implemented, Vanaik said, and nuclear activist Nallukunnel Damodaran Jayaprakash called it bogus.

"People are making money out of this, nothing else," said Jayaprakash, an executive member of the Delhi Science Forum.

"It's not going to protect anyone," Jayaprakash said.

Last week, New Delhi's health minister, Dr. A.K. Walia, took a small step toward preparing for the worst. He ordered hospitals to prepare 2,500 extra beds, which was a little like ordering more buckets when cracks are spreading across the dam.

Indian hospitals are notoriously overcrowded and understaffed, and health care is worse in Pakistan. There is only one doctor for every 2,337 Indians, compared with one physician for every 406 Americans.

Los Angeles Times Articles