People being what they are, all over the world, prevention fatigue sets in if there is no continuing and visible presence of a hazard. The same phenomenon was repeatedly witnessed in several countries while the Covid-19 pandemic was raging around the world. In India, for instance, when the infection started galloping in early 2020, the public heard harrowing accounts of how the disease could rapidly escalate from an innocuous-looking cough to severe breathing difficulties culminating in death.

Incidents of infection and even death began to appear within people’s own neighbourhoods and among acquaintances. The public was sufficiently frightened that they readily cooperated when the government imposed lockdowns and restrictions on people, requiring them to wear masks and keep social distancing. The government also launched a vigorous campaign of tracing and isolating infected individuals. As a result of all this, the pandemic was gradually contained, albeit with some hiccups. The number of daily infections in India peaked around September 2020 and came down from nearly 100,000 to less than 10,000 by February 15, 2021.

In the process, however, the public developed considerable fatigue from restrictions on their movement and social activities. So, once the infection counts began to come down, people gleefully threw caution to the winds, violating social distancing and discarding their masks. They once again started going to movie theatres and attending large gatherings and religious festivals with gay abandon. Sure enough, the infection rate started growing again in March 2021, this time much more steeply than the first time. With the development and availability of Covid-19 vaccines, the prospect of getting vaccinated soon exacerbated public recklessness. The government tried once more to reimpose its earlier regimen of restrictions and Covid-appropriate social behaviour but found it much more difficult the second time.

A similar pattern was seen in the UK and in different parts of Europe and the US. However, it would be a digression for us to devote any more space here to the Covid-19 pandemic. In any case, the COVID-19 story is an ongoing one. We brought up Covid-19 only for its role as a phenomenon with which people are far more familiar and which shares with nuclear civil defence the problem of public fatigue setting in the process of taking preventive measures. Besides, as we will see below, there are also important differences between defending against the two threats.

Returning to nuclear civil defence, there too, after a decade or so of getting used to the existence of nuclear weapons on both sides of the Iron Curtain with no actual nuclear bombings anywhere since Nagasaki, the American public lost interest in maintaining nuclear civil defence measures, drills, sirens, etc. The basements in homes went back from being nuclear shelters to storing washing machines and dryers. It is worth noticing that while this feature of letting the guard down when the threat appeared to subside and recede into the back of public consciousness is common between nuclear civil defence and Covid-19 defence, there are also major differences.

In the case of Covid-19, abandoning defensive practices (such as social distancing, wearing masks, etc.) enhances the threat – the nuclear epidemic returns with a vengeance. In contrast, the continuation or abandonment of nuclear civil defence measures does not significantly affect the threat coming from the enemy’s nuclear arsenal. That is decided by very different political considerations at the domestic and geopolitical levels. It would be an altogether different matter if, as distinct from civil defence, you enhance the defence of your military bases, missile launch platforms and infrastructural installations or develop BMD.

Successfully bombing those facilities in a counterforce attack can then require the adversary to develop stronger nuclear firepower. So the purpose of setting up nuclear civil defence is not to reduce the threat of a possible attack but only to protect one’s people should the threat materialise. Therefore, although the major nuclear powers seem to have put nuclear civil defence measures on the back burner, that need not necessarily stop us in India from reaching our own conclusions under the conditions prevailing here. The matter is far too important to be dismissed without serious consideration – the lives of lakhs of people are involved.

To start with, we must keep in mind that a Ghauri missile will take only 6-8 minutes to travel between the Sargodha airbase and Delhi, so the warning time is absurdly small. No matter how well civil defence procedures may be planned in India, executing any aspect of the plan – even issuing warnings to the public over radio and TV or turning on missile raid sirens – will be near impossible in the short time after the incoming missiles have been reliably detected. Not only does the civil defence infrastructure need to be set up much earlier, but the public has to physically get under their protection well ahead of and in anticipation of an attack.

An important barrier in India against any realistic civil defence measure is our state of denial about the humongous damage that nuclear weapons can cause. Such denial was often reflected in the statements by our officialdom, both major and minor, in the immediate aftermath of the 1998 nuclear tests. In the spirit of nuclear euphoria prevailing at that time, there were attempts by individuals in India’s central and local governments to reassure the public that they need not unduly worry about nuclear dangers – that they would be protected in the event of a nuclear attack from outside.

Assorted spokesmen all the way from municipal and public safety agencies to defence and atomic energy departments issued comforting statements from time to time that reliable nuclear civil defence measures were already in place or well on their way to being completed. For example, it was reported that “the Delhi government has prepared a blueprint on how to go about things in the event of a nuclear attack on the capital … keeping in mind the measures adopted by certain Western countries.” The Hindustan Times reported that Delhi’s civil defence mechanism has been reorganised to meet “any kind of calamity” and a possible nuclear attack has also been kept in mind.

Similarly, Dr AK Walia, Delhi’s health minister, was quoted as saying that “we have 2,500 extra beds ready to be stationed at various hospitals and in make-shift outdoor hospitals if the need arises. Mobile X-ray units, ultrasound units and operation theatre equipment are being brought in. Also, Delhi hospitals have been told to stock extra medicines for emergency purposes for up to six months.” As our discussion of the effects of nuclear weapons earlier shows, over a hundred thousand people will die and many more injured if even a single 20 kt nuclear weapon explodes in a city like Delhi. A few thousand extra beds in hospitals and a “six-month stock of extra medicines” will barely make a dent in the requirements of that medical calamity.

We have quoted these government sources not to embarrass them but only to provide some concrete examples of comforting statements based, however, on ignorance about what nuclear weapons can do. Although issued with good intentions, such statements do a grave disservice to the public whom they are trying to reassure by grossly understating the seriousness of the problem and inducing dangerous complacency about the real hazards of nuclear arsenals. My intention is not to shame the specific sources that I have quoted. In fact, barring a few exceptions, such ignorance prevailed among most of our bureaucracy and the military at the time of our going nuclear and for some years after that.

If those few in the governing circles who knew better did nothing to contradict such false reassurances, their crime was more serious. There is also the danger that authorities themselves begin to believe in their own reassurances that such patchwork measures will protect the citizenry of a major metropolis from a nuclear attack. The resulting complacency can cost thousands of lives. A realistic appraisal based on what we know about the effects of a nuclear explosion and the largely unsuccessful civil defence plans by the US, the UK and the USSR would tell us that we are not in a position to save most of the population in the target city. Nevertheless, every measure that is taken will still mitigate the disaster and possibly help thousands of lives. This may be only a fraction of the total population of 12-18 million in any of our metropolitan cities. Irrespective of that, saving the lives of thousands of people is no small matter.

Therefore, let us see if any of the nuclear civil defence measures attempted in other countries would be feasible in India. Many of the conclusions will hold equally for Pakistan. As a rule, civil defence programmes in South Asia will be much more difficult to install and implement than in the West or the Soviet Union. There are many additional challenges in our part of the world to contend with.

Excerpted with permission from Critical Mass: Decoding India’s Nuclear Policy, R Rajaraman, Bloomsbury India.