Challakere, India — When laborers began excavating protected pastureland in India’s southern Karanataka state in 2012, members of the nomadic Lambani tribe were startled. For centuries, the scarlet-robed herbalists and herders had freely crisscrossed the undulating meadow there, known as kavals, and this uprooting of their rich landscape came without warning or explanation.
By autumn, Puttaranga Setty, a wiry groundnut farmer from Kallalli, encountered a barbed wire fence blocking off a well-used trail. His neighbor, a herder, discovered that the road from this city to a nearby village had been diverted elsewhere. They rang Doddaullarti Karianna, a weaver who sits on one of the village councils that funnel India’s sprawling democracy down to the grass roots.
Karianna recalls being baffled and frightened by the news. He said the 365,000 residents of the farming and tribal communities that live in over sixty villages alongside the kavals believe they are protected by a female deity that rises from the pasture, and so the “thought of not having [access to] the kavals was terrifying; like saying there will be no Gods.”
Officials with India’s state and central governments refused to answer his questions. So Karianna sought legal help from a combative ecological-advocacy group in Bangalore that specializes in fighting illegal encroachment on greenbelt land. But the group’s lawyers were also stymied. Officials warned its lawyers that the prime minister’s office was running the project from New Delhi.
“There is no point fighting this, we were told,” Leo Saldanha, a founding member of the advocacy group recalled. “You cannot win.” Indeed, an unprecedented election boycott and protests by thousands of local residents, some violent, have had no effect.
Only after construction on the site began that year did it finally become clear that two secretive agencies were behind a project that experts say will be the subcontinent’s largest military-run complex of nuclear centrifuges, atomic research laboratories and weapons and aircraft testing facilities. Among the project's aims: to expand the government’s nuclear research, to produce fuel for India’s nuclear reactors, and to help power the country’s fleet of new submarines, one of which underwent sea trials in 2014.
But another, more controversial ambition, according to retired Indian government officials and independent experts in London and Washington, is to give India an extra stockpile of enriched uranium fuel that could — if India so decides — be used in new hydrogen bombs (also known as thermonuclear weapons), substantially increasing the explosive force of those in its existing nuclear arsenal.
Such a move would be regarded uneasily by India’s close neighbors, China and Pakistan, which experts say might respond by ratcheting up their own nuclear firepower. Pakistan in particular considers itself a fierce military rival, having been entangled in four major conflicts with India, as well as frequent border skirmishing.
New Delhi has never published a detailed account of its nuclear arsenal, which it first developed in 1974. Until now, there has been little public notice, outside India, about the construction at Challakere and its strategic implications. The government has said little about it, and made no public promises about how the highly enriched uranium to be produced there will be used. As a military facility, it is not open to international inspection.
But a lengthy investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, including interviews with local residents, senior and retired Indian scientists and military officers connected to the nuclear program, and foreign experts and intelligence analysts, has pierced some of the secrecy surrounding the new facility, parts of which are set to open next year. It makes clear that it will give India a nuclear capability – the ability to make many large-yield nuclear arms – that most experts say it presently lacks.
And if these tasks require the trampling of the kavals, so be it.
The independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that India already has between 90 and 110 relatively low-yield nuclear weapons, as compared to Pakistan’s estimated stockpile of up to 120. And China, to India’s north, is estimated to have more than 260 warheads.
China successfully tested a thermonuclear weapon — involving a two-stage explosion, typically producing a much larger force and far greater destruction than single-stage atomic bombs — as long ago as 1967, while India’s scientists claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear weapon in 1998. But test site preparations director K. Santhanam said in 2009 it had “fizzled,” rendering the number and type of such weapons in India’s arsenal uncertain to outsiders.
India, according to a recent report by former Australian nonproliferation chief John Carlson, is one of just three countries that continue to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons (the others are Pakistan and North Korea). The enlargement of India’s thermonuclear program would more clearly position the country alongside Britain, the United States, Russia, Israel, France, and China, which already have significant stocks of such weapons.