Pokhran’s historic moment is lost on the people of Khetolai, the last human habitation near the nuclear blast site of 11 May, 1998. The young in this village vaguely recall the day when the blasts catapulted India into the orbit of countries with nuclear capabilities. The elderly take it with a pinch of salt.
“It took place on our land and made history. But what did it give us?” asks Ramlal, a schoolteacher in the local senior secondary school. Pokhran is 26 km from Khetolai; the 1998 blasts took place just 3 km from the village. A vast stretch of forbidden desert expanse separates the village from the heavily guarded blast site on the other end.
The villagers have lived on promises made to them by the Centre and the state government after the blasts.
Ten years have gone by and the promises still remain unfulfilled! And yet, the 250 odd families that live with a high literacy rate of 80 per cent and have a third of their adult population serving as government teachers, rarely discuss the atomic blasts with their children.
“Our livestock suffered from the radiation during initial days, fissures opened up in every single house in the village after the tremors that followed the blasts. The government made almost a tourist place out of Pokhran but locals suffered,” Ramesh Chand who grew up in Khetolai said. He has moved out of the village to work in nearby Phalodi.
Lt Colonel NN Joshi, army spokesperson based in Jodhpur, said the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) were going to celebrate the occasion as National Technology Day. “We have received a recent communication which holds up the day as a symbol of technological empowerment,” he said.
Ramlal says people take pride in the event but are disconnected from it. How would the younger generation relate to the incident, he ponders, adding: “If only the government would have given us a desperately needed hospital in Pokhran and named it Shakti Sthal (name given to the blast site), the children would have known.” Khetolai has a primary health centre but doctors come there rarely, allege villagers. Army doctors don’t cater to the local population.
Far from being obsessed with Pokhran, people here have learnt to live with the army watching over them on three sides. The sandy stretch separates the village from the watchtowers guarding the ’98 blast sites. People are forbidden from wandering into the area. Visitors are allowed till only a km ahead of Shakti Sthal.