Life at Ground Zero

Documenting the effects of nuclear testing on Pokhran’s residents

Anjali Gogali, a young resident of Pokhran, continues to complain about noise caused by the testing of missiles at the Pokhran firing range.
Anjali Gogali, a young resident of Pokhran, continues to complain about noise caused by the testing of missiles at the Pokhran firing range.
01 May, 2019

IN AN IMAGE CAPTURED BY the documentary photographer Chinky Shukla, a nine-year-old girl stands in front of a fence and gazes into the camera. Her head looks slightly enlarged and disproportionate to her body. The photograph is from “A Curse in Disguise,” Shukla’s series on people who experienced adverse health conditions following a nuclear test, code-named Operation Shakti, that was held at Pokhran, Rajasthan, in 1998.

The test involved five nuclear-bomb detonations, and was the second of the two nuclear tests India has conducted at the Indian army’s test range in Pokhran. The first, code-named Smiling Buddha, was held in 1974. At the time, people from villages surrounding the range were largely unaware of the explosion until it was announced on the radio. But the 1998 test was carried out on a much larger scale, and army personnel instructed villagers to evacuate before the explosion. Despite these precautions, the scale and severity of the test affected villages located between two and five kilometres from the range, including Khetolai, Loharki, Odhaniya and Chacha.

“At around 3 pm on 11 May 1998, we felt tremors of an earthquake,” Nathu Ram Bishnoi, the village head of Khetolai, recalled to Shukla. “A gigantic cloud of dust went up in the air at the Pokhran firing range.” Mud huts developed deep cracks, and rainwater tanks and wells were damaged. According to Shukla, a study conducted by the former joint director of medical and health services in Jodhpur found traces of nuclear radiation in the soil, underground water and even trees in the villages near the testing ground.

Operation Shakti had a severe impact on the villagers’ health, Shukla noted, when she visited the regions near Pokhran, in September 2017. “Bhagwati Bishnoi, a resident of Khetolai, died within a year after the test,” Shukla said, adding that Bishnoi’s mother claimed that her daughter began to develop health complications after the test, was diagnosed with blood cancer and eventually succumbed to it. In the months following the explosion, many villagers said they felt skin irritation and a burning sensation in their eyes and noses. Over time, cases of cancer, cerebral palsy and mental illness cropped up among the area’s residents, who incurred large amounts of debt in treating these illnesses.

In 1974, the government compensated villagers for what they had experienced, and paid them between three and four rupees for each bigha of land. Those with 500 bighas received 2,000 rupees. In the aftermath of the 1998 nuclear test, only people living in houses that had sustained damage were compensated. According to Shukla, the villagers claimed the compensation was too little to mend their houses or treat the diseases, and that their demands for a well-equipped hospital and a pension for the handicapped went ignored. She recalled a conversation with Nathu Ram Bishnoi, the sarpanch of Khetolai, who claimed that “the government officials who conducted the nuclear test do not want to take any responsibility for the effects of the aftermath on the lives of villagers.”

This is not Shukla’s first time working on a photo series that explores the health repercussions of radioactive material. In her previous work, “Jadugoda: The Nuclear Graveyard,” she examined the impact of uranium mining and radioactivity on the residents of Jadugoda in Jharkhand. Produced in 2012, Shukla’s photographs focussed primarily on visible physiological manifestations, many of which were congenital deformities, such as an enlarged chest or six toes. In “A Curse in Disguise,” however, Shukla’s images depict more than ailments apparent to the naked eye; they include portraits of victims with cancer, mental disability and heart disease. One photograph, for instance, depicts a young girl against the backdrop of a bush. Somewhat unusually, she appears to be merging into the background, almost as if her surroundings are permeating her body; Shukla uses the technique of multiple exposures here to allude to the impact the environment, and its pollution, may have had on the girl’s health. The girl, Anjali Gogali, is a student in the seventh standard who complains frequently about the overpowering noise from the Bofors firing range, a little over two kilometres from her house in the village of Khetolai. Through such portraits, Shukla’s series stands as evidence of the continuing effects of India’s nuclear testing on life in Pokhran.