India Is Building a Top-Secret Nuclear City to Produce Thermonuclear Weapons, Experts Say via Foreign Policy

The weapons could upgrade India as a nuclear power — and deeply unsettle Pakistan and China.

CHALLAKERE, India — When laborers began excavating pastureland in India’s southern Karnataka state early in 2012, members of the nomadic Lambani tribe were startled. For centuries, the scarlet-robed herbalists and herders had freely crisscrossed the undulating meadows there, known as kavals, and this uprooting of their landscape came without warning or explanation. By autumn, Puttaranga Setty, a wiry groundnut farmer from the village of 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 of 1.25 billion down to the grassroots.

Karianna asked officials with India’s state and central governments why the land inhabited by farming and tribal communities was being walled off, but they refused to answer. So Karianna sought legal help from the Environment Support Group, a combative ecological advocacy organization that specializes in fighting illegal encroachment on greenbelt land. But the group also made little progress. Officials warned its lawyers that the prime minister’s office was running the project. “There is no point fighting this, we were told,” Leo Saldanha, a founding member of the advocacy organization, recalled. “You cannot win.”


The Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change approved the Mysore site’s construction in October 2012 as “a project of strategic importance” that would cost nearly $100 million, according to a letter marked “secret,” from the ministry to atomic energy officials that month. Seen by CPI, this letter spells out the ambition to feed new centrifuges with fuel derived from yellowcake — milled uranium ore named after its color — shipped from mines in the village of Jadugoda in India’s north, 1,200 miles away from the Rare Materials Plant, and to draw water from the nearby Krishna Raja Sagar dam.

Finding authoritative information about the scope and objectives of these two massive construction projects is not easy. “Even for us, details of the Indian program are always sketchy, and hard facts thin on the ground,” a circumstance that leaves room for misunderstanding, a senior Obama administration official said in Washington.


A culture of quiet

Like the villagers in Challakere, some key members of the Indian Parliament say they know little about the project. One veteran lawmaker, who has twice been a cabinet minister, and who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the topic, said his colleagues are rarely briefed about nuclear weapons-related issues. “Frankly, we in Parliament discover little,” he said, “and what we do find out is normally from Western newspapers.” And in an interview with Indian reporters in 2003, Jayanthi Natarajan, a former lawmaker who later served as minister for environment and forests, said that she and other members of Parliament had “tried time and again to raise [nuclear-related] issues … and have achieved precious little.”

Nonetheless, Environment Support Group lawyers acting for the villagers living close to Challakere eventually forced some important disclosures. The region’s parliamentary representative heard about plans for the park from then-Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony as early as March 2007, according to a copy of personal correspondence between the two that was obtained by the group and seen by CPI. (Antony declined to comment.)

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