Deep in the rural plains of southern India, a mysterious government construction project is under way. Some allege the site will be a top secret "nuclear city", designed to produce highly enriched uranium and allow the country to develop thermonuclear weapons - devices more than 1,000 times more powerful than those detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki towards the end of World War II.

In response, India's neighbour and decades-old foe Pakistan has vowed to keep pace and build its own equivalent programme, sparking fears that a new arms race is under way on the sub-continent - a race which could bring the region to the brink of thermonuclear war and threaten the lives and livelihoods of half of the world's population.

To find out what is really going on behind the walls of this secret site, People and Power sent Indian journalist Mandakini Gahlot to investigate.


By Mandakini Gahlot

I was 14 years old when India conducted its first nuclear tests in the Rajasthani desert. It was a blindingly hot summer day in May 1998, and I can still clearly recall the euphoria that gripped the nation.

In Mumbai, the city where I grew up, crowds flooded the streets, dancing, singing and cheering as if celebrating a national festival. A few days later, a regional political party even organised a "mock nuclear test", complete with a spoof nuclear device fitted to cardboard missiles. Candy floss and snacks were sold on the sidelines, and entire families came out to watch the spectacle, ordinary citizens who just couldn't get enough of basking in the glory of having become the world's newest nuclear nation.

In contrast, the international community was horrified, and Pakistan's retaliatory tests less than three weeks later resulted in sanctions on both nations. But it didn't matter to those of us who lived in India.

For us, our nation, despite its limited resources, had proved capable of mastering a technology so sophisticated that the West was determined to keep it out of our reach. Western hypocrisy was the defining narrative of the time - after all, what right did a country like the United States, which had more than 10,000 nuclear devices in its arsenal, have to tell our sovereign nation not to develop its own deterrent? And our politicians were quick to capitalise on this sentiment to instil a sense of civic pride and invincibility.

A new arms race is under way on the sub-continent - a race which could bring the region to the brink of thermonuclear war and threaten the lives of millions [People and Power/Al Jazeera] 

Things have changed a good deal since then, and in 2016, it is hard to imagine people celebrating a nuclear test on the streets of Mumbai or Delhi. But that doesn't mean that India's nuclear ambitions have changed. While the country has put a voluntary moratorium on further testing, it has also refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. 

The treaty divides the world into two groups. Countries which tested their devices before 1967 are considered nuclear weapons states, with already functioning and deployable arsenals. But those who did so later are expected to sign the treaty as non-nuclear weapons states, effectively agreeing to halt any attempts to continue perfecting their programmes.

Indian politicians have called the treaty discriminatory, but they have also indicated equally vocally that if the world at large was to demonstrate a genuine commitment towards disarmament, then India would be willing to follow suit, even to lead its region by example. In fact, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi envisaged a plan for disarmament across the world which was repeatedly put before the UN General Assembly, long before India decided to go ahead with its tests in the 1990s.

In the absence of such a commitment, however, the country appears to be moving in the opposite direction. By 2008, India had signed a controversial deal with the United States, effectively ending the country's nuclear isolation and giving it access to a raft of hitherto unavailable technologies.

The deal granted the South Asian nation an important waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to buy equipment desperately needed to kick off its ambitious, civilian nuclear energy programme.

More recently, in August 2016, India made a bid for fully fledged membership of the NSG and received backing from many key Western powers, including the United States. This dream was cut short by opposition from regional rival and thermonuclear power China - a permanent member of the NSG - on the grounds that India first needed to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In the rural plains of southern India, a government construction is under way. Some allege the site will be a top secret 'nuclear city' [People and Power/Al Jazeera] 

While membership was blocked, these deliberations sparked a flurry of media scrutiny into India's nuclear programme. Newspapers and TV channels were openly discussing something that had been classified as covert for decades - an open secret you might say, but one rarely discussed in public.

Some media investigations even suggested that India was developing an enriched uranium programme which could be used to build a new arsenal of thermonuclear weapons.

With tensions in the region, not just between India and Pakistan, but also between India and China, always relatively high, it was easy to see how this level of proliferation could lead to a new arms race in South Asia and potentially catastrophic results for everyone on the planet. It was for this reason that we decided to make this film, hoping to draw attention to the issue and the need for careful deliberation over how to prevent this race from spiralling out of control.

Source: Al Jazeera