India's Chernobyl moment

·Former National Spokesperson, Indian National Congress party
·5-min read

My friend and colleague Milind Deora ( one among several woefully underutilized assets of the Congress party) described India’s current pandemic mayhem as ‘India’s Chernobyl moment’.

It was an astonishingly brutal comparison with what happened at 1.23 am on April 26, 1986 in what was then known as USSR ( Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). Chernobyl for those who may not be aware is the world’s worst nuclear disaster in history.

Till today, thirty-five years later, it remains an evacuation zone where contamination exists. And radiation effects are unavoidable were one to overstay the restricted tourist trip or indulge in some frivolous trivialization of the dangerous ecological damage. The human catastrophe is incalculable. Unofficially up to 93,000-200,000 casualties were reported (3.5 million affected ) in that Ukrainian-Belarus territory including for those who died of long-term side effects such as cancer, heart attacks, blood poisoning, organ failure, stunted growth and pulverized organs .

The USSR’s official count: 31.

Many children never made it beyond their teens. Women produced deformed children, the chemical poison unleashing havoc on their unprepared biological defenses.

So does Milind hit the bull’s eye through his damning indictment of the Narendra Modi government or is it just a sound-byte friendly unwarranted castigation of the besieged NDA by a die-hard Congressman? Why don’t you judge for yourself? So here goes.

The roof of the nuclear reactor (it weighed 1,000 tons or three 747 Jumbo jets) no. 4 burst in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant when it’s test went horribly wrong. The key technological parameters did not respond and its back-up emergency buttons malfunctioned which only exacerbated matters.

But the seminal questions were: Who was in charge of the nuclear plant? Were people fully aware of their responsibilities during the test? Were the decisions taken for personal aggrandizement, in the process taking outrageous risks much beyond defined safety protocols? Was there hubris in their decision-making, an irrational conviction that everything would be ultimately sorted even if they went transitorily awry?

Weren’t the engineers, miners, safety teams who were pressed into fire-fighting rescue operations almost akin to guinea pigs in a laboratory testing awaiting death? Was there a deliberate media black-out to conceal the truth transparently to the world? Wasn’t the state of Soviet Union guilty of being an accessory to the ghoulish event? The political leadership that appeared clueless was yet determined to massage death numbers, was it not? And worse of all, were the people resident in the city of Pripyat , Chernobyl lied to, facts obfuscated and wilfully withheld making them like innocent lambs being led to a deathtrap ?

As you can see, there are spine-chilling similarities with India’s COVID crisis mismanagement.

As India’s daily positive cases diminished from 98,000 in September 2020 to less than 9,000 in early February 2021, celebrations began. The BJP passed a resolution praising PM Narendra Modi for the preternatural achievement that even advanced western nations had failed to do so. Modi himself gave condescending homilies to global leaders. It is an endgame, announced the Health Minister.

The coronavirus had been apparently checkmated by Dr Harshvardhan’s King’s gambit. A trifecta of human fallibilities hit a government inebriated by its authoritarian dominance of India’s politics: arrogance, incompetence and complacency. India was doomed.

There was imminent danger lurking in massive second waves around the world. But India was blindsided. Vaccine orders were not placed. Serum Institute of India took its own risks with AstraZeneca but a government that had given a tax bonanza of Rs 145,000 crore to India Inc did not provide a measly Rs 3,000 crore to SII needed to boost production of a life-saving drug.

India’s Finance Minister haughtily remarked that we would see a budget like never before. The virus according to her had been clearly slayed as she forecasted a V-shaped economic recovery. BJP CM of Uttarakhand talked of God’s eternal faith that would salvage lakhs of Hindu devotees taking a holy dip during the Maha Kumbh at Haridwar. Uttarakhand has record cases today. In the meantime election campaigning mounted and BJP’s juggernaut, its ruthless campaign machinery could not prevent Bengal’s positivity rate to rise from 2% pre-elections to 22%. India was hit by a diabolical virus deluge; in April it had 69 lakh new infections, 48,768 deaths ( more than five previous months aggregated ) and a positivity rate in many cities above a disquieting 30%.

Stressed out doctors are burnt out, some even committing suicide to escape the excruciating appointment with daily human losses. Death numbers are fudged; pyres burn, the crematorium metal rods are melting with the remorseless arrival of body bags. We have paid a huge price for political ineptitude. The self-proclaimed pharmacy of the world has a vaccine shortage.

It is when desperate citizens suffocated to death because there was no oxygen supply in prestigious private hospitals that India’s comatose conscience got a rude awakening . It has been an apocalyptic collapse since. The system is broken. I have never seen my fellow Indians, all of them, live in such trepidation as they have. In 2020, India feared the virus. In 2021, Indians fear that their cold-hearted, callous state will not even allow them to breathe. Can you see the similarities with Chernobyl? The government dropped the ball.

India will never be the same again. What we are all living through today is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, an Armageddon of sorts.  

But there is one big difference between Chernobyl and India’s covid catastrophe: The nuclear engineers were not aware of the technical fault-lines in an unstable reactor; they were just foolhardy. But India should have known. 

This is an avoidable meltdown. Our psychological scars are permanent; the fear, anxiety, helplessness, desperation. And unlike physical wounds, they rarely heal. There is after all no vaccine to cure emotional grief.

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