Dehradun: Villagers of Raini Village in Tapovan area of Chamoli that lies near the areas which saw the maximum destruction caused by the result of heat being produced by a radioactive device in 1965 during a secret expedition to Nanda Devi.
The expedition was conducted by the American intelligence agency CIA and the Indian government’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) to plant nuclear-powered surveillance equipment on the summit of Nanda Devi, India’s second-highest mountain range (after Kanchenjunga) for spying on China.
However, the mountaineering team conducting the expedition got caught in a blizzard and had to return, leaving the device at the base of the mountain. A year later, when they went back to the area, they could not find it; subsequent expeditions have also not been able to trace the device, which has a life span of 100 years and is believed to be still somewhere in the area.
On Sunday, the day the flash floods struck the area near Raini village, which is situated in the buffer zone of Nanda Devi Biosphere, villagers said they noticed an extremely pungent smell in the air as muck and rubble and fell into the Rishiganga river. “The smell was so intense that we were not able to breathe for some time. Had it only debris and snow, it would not have carried such a smell. this has triggered concerns in our village that the long lost radioactive device — about which our elders used to tell us — may be behind the incident,” said Deveshwari Devi, a resident jugju village, from where several men had served as porters during the 1965 expedition.
Incidentally, Amrita Devi, wife of one of the porters of the expedition, Kartik Singh Rana, who is 90-year-old, also died in Sunday’s flash floods after being swept away in the raging waters of the Rishiganga.
“All the villagers are living in the fear that one day, even we might get swept away in such a deluge. The government should conduct an investigation and find out the status of the radioactive device and whether it has triggered the flash floods. Only then shall we feel at ease.,” Kartik Singh’s son Prem Singh Rana was quoted as saying by TOI.
The villagers’ concern about the radioactive device also stems from the fact that the Nanda Devi (West) base camp is situated right at the spot where the Rishiganga gorge is located, from where The Rishiganga river emerges.
“During the 1965 expedition, we are told that the mountaineering team faced bad weather while they were above the base camp and they had to leave the device at a safe place there. If the device is buried under the snow somewhere in the area and is radiating heat, then of course there would be more melting of snow and further avalanches. We urge the government to immediately start a search operation for the device before there more disasters,” said Sangram Singh Rawat, a villager who along with his family has been spending the night in the forest near Raini village ever since Sunday’s disaster.
Meanwhile, a senior scientist in the chemistry department of the Forest Research Institute (FRI), Dehradun, when queried on whether the radioactive device could be generating heat that may be melting snow as is being alleged by villagers, said, “Since it is a radioactive element, it is natural that it would be emitting radioactive rays that have potential of harming the water and other elements in its vicinity. However, we can assume that since it was being transported as part of an expedition, it would be taken in a sealed chamber, and therefore, there are less chances of any radiation emitting outside.”
Nanda Ballabh Sharma, DFO of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, told TOI that in light of the 1965 expedition incident, a survey of the area is conducted every 10 years since the 1970s by a joint team of the Indian Army, ITBP, forest officials as well as scientists of prominent institutions like the GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment & Development to check that there is no harm to the flora and fauna in the area. The last such survey was conducted in 2016, he added.
Interestingly, in 2018, state tourism and irrigation minister Satpal Maharaj had raised the issue of the radioactive device polluting the snow trickling down from the Nanda Devi range into the Ganga and had urged PM Modi to take urgent action in the matter. On Tuesday, Maharaj told TOI that after Sunday’s natural disaster, the necessity of the device’s retrieval is even more important