As Wazwan country plans massive wedding feasts – a yearly Rs 1879 crore economy, there are concerns about the source of millions of sheep imported mostly from areas closer to Pokhran, the main nuclear testing site. Aakash Hassan reports how after decades medical fraternity and researchers are still debating if the animals are impacted by the radiations
On a fine morning in May 1974, all of a sudden contingents of army started moving into Loharki, a small non-descript village in ‘silent deserts’ of Thar. The unprecedented movement of troops left villages in a fix but nobody knew what was happening. The next day men in uniform came to village with a word of caution: air firing in the area might cause eye and nose irritation tomorrow. However, they were told not to panic as things would “normalise thereafter”.
Next morning, the desert thundered when an eight-kiloton thermonuclear device was set off five kilometers away from the village. Later villager came to know that India has tested its first nuclear device codenamed Smiling Buddha.
The bomb was detonated on the army base, Pokhran Test Range (PTR), in Rajasthan by the Indian Army under the supervision of several key Indian generals.
The explosion was also the first confirmed nuclear weapons test by a country other than five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The blasts that shook miles around made India world’s sixth nuclear power.
The villagers at the time of nuclear test were living at a great risk, over the fear of any accident. However, like every other Indian, they too celebrated the successful tests, but not for long.
As the dust settled, villagers were back to their lives, out of the world gaze. Nobody bothered to check what kind of lives they were living after the tests. Almost a decade later, villages surrounding the test site, started witnessing phenomenal increase in cancer and genetic disorders.
Instantly these villagers became part of a global tragic tale, of those people who live around nuclear test sites.
On a day-to-day basis these villages grapple with the fear of radiation exposure, a 2014 media report says.
The overall productivity of crops in these villages started to show considerable decline. Shortly after the first explosion, crops in Loharki and Khetolai, the villages closest to the site, began to turn white, a Scroll.in report said.
Six months later, villagers started to complain of skin irritation, burning sensation in the eyes and nose and eventually of cancer, genetic disorders and skin diseases in humans and cattle.
Soon cancer patients became a common sight in these villages, both young and old. Different reports by researchers have shown that there is definite rise in cancer, genetic abnormality amongst livestock and skin problems in the villages of inner radius of the test site.
As per a survey conducted locally in the twin villages, there were 37 deaths alone by cancer. Experts say that this has surged up as the figures reveal in 2014.
Moreover, different experts and researchers also say that the ground water of the villages surrounding the test site is contaminated.
In 2012, a report published by the World Health Organisation, GLOBOCAN, concluded that there are five lakh deaths due to cancer in India. A rough calculation suggests that one in 2,500 people in India die because of cancer. But in Khetolai, the numbers are different. The calculation suggests that one in 500 people succumbs to cancer in these areas. It is four times the national average.
In Rajasthan there is large number of rivers that are mostly seasonal. All the floodplains in Rajasthan also serve as vast grazing grounds that support millions of livestock.
There are 14.6 million sheep found in Rajasthan, the largest number in India. This accounts, as per government data of previous years, over one-fourth of the total sheep population of India.
Different figures reveal that these sheep are mostly reared in the areas of Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Chitral and the surrounding areas that are in the terrains where nuclear testing has affected vegetation and ground water.
A large number of sheep are exported from Jodhpur where large level marketing takes place. The people who are associated with this field say that these sheep are then transported to Delhi, Kanpur and surrounding places where sales take place.
There the link is setup with Jammu and Kashmir, the highest meat consumer state. During the financial year 2015-16 the government figures reveal that the total demand of mutton was 534.46 lac Kgs. The import has been stated in the figures as 112.50 lac kgs against a home production of 112.50 lac kgs.
However, the people who are associated with the industry and who supply the cattle to Kashmir disagree with the figures. The home production has been totally shown as false, says and importer. “Almost 70 percent of the total demand is imported in the state.”
There might be some sort of ambiguity in the official figures but it is clear that 70 percent of the total import of cattle is from Rajasthan, says Mehrah-ud-din, general secretary of All Kashmir Wholesale Mutton Dealers.
If government figures are taken into account J&K spends 1879 crore on mutton annually. Most of the mutton imported in the state goes directly to the valley. Because of religious bar, people in Jammu eat less non-vegetarian food.
However, different experts and doctors have raised serious concern on over the origin of the livestock coming to valley.
“It is proven fact that people in large number and cattle have turned victims of the radiation around Pokhran after the nuclear tests,” says a doctor “and the fact is also that most of the mutton comes from that area.” He is of the apprehension that it is one of the factors causing cancers in Kashmir.
The number of cancer patients is increasing in valley each year. Doctors say that the surge in cancer is so much that it has became number one killing disease in the community.
In 2007 the number of cancer patients registered at SKIMS was 3500. Since then the numbers have doubled. In 2016, SKIMS alone saw 7000 cancer patients.
However, doctors say that the pattern of cancer reported in valley was earlier different than other places in mainland India but currently there is not much difference.
The food pipe cancer, doctors say, is common in valley due to increasing smoking habits in Kashmir. But, other cancers are not far behind.
Reports say that stomach, colon and rectum, lung and chest cancer is not much behind.
At the Regional Cancer Center (RCC) SKIMS, the figures reveal that there are around 12 cancer cases registered every day.
Doctors in Kashmir generally blame the changes in lifestyle as one of the major reasons behind the increasing cases of cancer. Besides they say that rising colo-rectal cancer, that mostly can be related with consumption of non vegetarian food. Doctors have also alarmed over the brain cancers in valley. However they say that most of the cases are reported from rural areas and researches have proven that they are exposed to pesticides.
However, besides all these factors, some researchers and doctors are raising alarms about the meat coming from the areas near the nuclear test site. The medcos are puzzled, courtesy: no research.
We don’t know background of these animals and this is not generally a common practice. There are atomic fallouts but it would be difficult for us to say that it is one of the causes in valley. We have not worked on this and if proper research is done maybe we can say approximately what it is, says Prof. Sheikh Aejaz, HoD Medical Oncology at SKIMS.
Another prominent oncologist of valley Dr Abdul Rasheed Lone denies that such situation may be causing cancer. Colorectal cancer has relation with the non-vegetarian diet but there is no part of radiations. “I don’t think that any ways plays a role here.”
However international researches say opposite.
On March 30, 2011, World Health Organization (WHO) released a document on the contamination of food by nuclear incidents.
The document states that radioactivity can “build up within food, as radionuclides are transferred through soil into crops or animals, or into rivers, lakes and the sea where fish and other seafood could take up the radionuclides.”
The study further reveals that: “The main health concern for consumers in the long term due to high radiation exposure is development of cancer.”
Consuming contaminated food will increase the amount of radioactivity inside a person and therefore increase their exposure to radiation, it states, thereby possibly increasing the health risks associated with radiation exposure.
Another report carried in 2011 states that there are three distinct scenarios for radioactive fallout exposure to food producing animals. These are, direct contamination by exposure to radioactive fallout (skin, inhalation, food), another one is exposure via consumption of contaminated feed or forage and exposure from contaminated drinking water.
In 1986 nuclear plant accident in Ukraine called as The Chernobyl disaster was a catastrophic nuclear accident on an April day. In the light water graphite moderated reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat, in what was then part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union (USSR), the tragedy occurred.
Due to this tragedy Soviet officials enacted a 10-kilometre exclusion zone which resulted in the rapid evacuation of 49,000 people and their animals.
In the years since, many countries restricted livestock sale, movement and consumption from that area.
A report by the U.K. Food Standards Agency says that almost 9,000 farms and over 4 million sheep in the area were categorized as restricted.
The radiocaesium is still able to pass easily from soil to grass and hence accumulate in sheep, the report says.
“After the Chernobyl incident such a large number of livestock was categorized as restricted that clearly states the situation,” says a doctor. “By consuming contaminated meat consumers are affected there is no ambiguity in it as international researches reveal.”
These people have been raising concern that proper researches should be done on the matter.
A researcher also says that, the state should concentrate on meeting the consumption rate.
“We are in such geography that it is easy for us to produce more cattle,” says a businessman who is associated with importing the livestock. “But I fail to understand that despite lanky claims and new policy formation the production did not meet the ends.”