The prominent commentator and anti-nuclear activist Praful Bidwai passed away in Amsterdam on Tuesday night. According to news reports, Bidwai was attending a conference in the Dutch capital when he choked on his food and died of suspected cardiac arrest.  Bidwai worked as a senior editor for the Times of India for a number of years before becoming a freelance commentator, writing for publications in India and abroad on subjects ranging from nuclear weapons to corruption, environment to politics.

Born in Nagpur, Bidwai 66, had been a Professorial Fellow at the Centre for Social Development, New Delhi, and also a Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. A Fellow of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam, Bidwai was known for his passionate activism for total disarmament and strongly opposed Pokhran II, the Indian nuclear tests of May 1998. His books include the well-known 1999 South Asia on a Short Fuse. Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament, co-authored with Achin Vanaik.

In August 1998, author Amitav Ghosh interviewed Bidwai for a New Yorker essay that was later published as a book titled Countdown. Here is the unedited transcription of that interview, in which Bidwai succinctly explained his objections to India's nuclear tests.

Amitav Ghosh: What do you feel is the difference between the NPT [Nuclear-Non Proliferation Treaty] and CTBT [Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty]?
Praful Bidwai: The NPT is a fundamentally discriminatory and unequal treaty –  there is a distinction between the five nuclear power states, the five as they existed on the 1st of January 1967 and all the rest; and imposes unequal obligations on the two categories. In one way it is inevitable that if the starting point is different then your obligations are different.

What makes it discriminatory and unjust is the fact that obligations on the nuclear five. Why  are loose, ineffectual and not subject to any international supervision. They are merely asked to undertake in good faith negotiations on the elimination of nuclear weapons under Article 6. Whereas the obligations of the non-nuclear states are effective, immediate, strict and supervised by a multilateral body, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

There is also another contradiction in the NPT – a somewhat minor one but one which may interest you – that the bargain in some sense that the nuclear bomb states have offered is that non-nuclear states will be assured of nuclear technology transfer in the civilian field.

The contradiction as big as this is that the civilian programme can be the ground work for making nuclear weapons and so the temptation then to divert nuclear materials from civilian to military programmes is not something that the NPT can address. We know from experience of the working of the IAEA that the amount of plutonium or highly enriched uranium that cannot be accounted for in the reprocessing plants in similar facilities in Europe alone can exceed something of the order of 100 kilos, in a single year which is enough to make 20. So these are huge quantities which are simply unaccounted for.

The CTBT by contrast is a non-discriminatory and an equal treaty which imposes equal obligations on all states not to undertake explosive nuclear tests – which means that you measure not only horizontal non-proliferation but also vertical non-proliferation, that nuclear states cannot further refine them or build new designs.

AG: But they can do this with computer simulations ?
No. Well this is the conclusion after a long debate and after a fairly detailed examination of the technical aspects of the issue – the reason is this, nuclear weapons and nuclear explosions are highly non-linear systems. So if you change any one parameter like the metal you use or the density of plutonium, the whole system changes – unpredictably.

So you have to generate new computer codes for every minor change you make in one of several dozen scores of parameters, if you have to verify those codes you have to conduct nuclear tests. So even if you manage to develop some new codes based on the virtual data that you may have, their validation requires test explosions.

This is true if you talk about the three stages, like 1) the design stage – that you can do on the drawing board but the second is the validation part which you cannot do without test explosions. Third, which is getting verifiable, reliable yields and complete control over the behaviour of the nuclear explosion. Which is what a General is ultimately going to demand, at least in the nuclear weapon states.

When an American General says that a new weapon is inducted it must perform reliably, at levels of reliability exceeding 90% and so or that sort of stuff you cannot dream of doing without repeated testing of the same design. So it is a barrier against both vertical and horizontal proliferation and therefore answers the question that countries like India have always made i.e. criticisms of the NPT that it bars horizontal proliferation and not vertical proliferation.

In any case the Indian criticism of the NPT is not something I will go along with because it is in some sense based on highly coloured set of assumptions about nuclear apartheid. The Indian argument was also an opportunist one – they didn't want to sign because they wanted to conduct first (Peaceful Explosions). Which the treaty would forbid.

Even assuming that 1974 was one, which I don't think was one (i.e. a peaceful explosion) by any stretch of imagination and Ramanna has clarified that it was the bomb, so what are we talking about? But nevertheless theoretically we have had numerous peaceful explosions by the US and the USSR and then the energy used for building a dam or a reservoir meant what was the point when the whole thing (i.e. the water) was already contaminated?

Anyway, later on, the Indian argument against the NPT served to reject all proposals for nuclear restraint however justified, rational and worthy these might be  –

In a work I had done in 1982 I showed that over 350 workers at Tarapur got a dose of over 5 rads a year that, is excess of the amount stipulated by the Department of Atomic Energy itself.

AG: How did you prove this?
PB: Through documents, records internal to the Department which I had to steal, which people made available to me at great risk to themselves. The story appeared as the lead story in all editions of the Times of India. The CSE [Centre for Science and Environment] Second Report on the State of India's Environment has several references to it.

The chairman of the AEC held a press conference and admitted every single substantial factual point made in that but said those were not harmful, nothing really happens and we are going to try and reduce these exposures over the years.

But again it is established that workers in ADA installations – a first class epidemiological study by VT Padmanabhan that shows that these workers and their families all victims of excessive exposure to not radiation but radio-nuclides working on particular radioactive chemicals known as (rerads?) used in the paint industry is a very tiny quantities but processed in a placed called Alwaye, has exposed many to the toxicity of Indian rerads. So you have a huge incidence of Downs Syndrome among their children. And I think that, that its a conclusive, scientifically proven epidemiological study.

AG: However this one instance is not connected to nuclear establishments.
PB: Rare earths' is part of the DAE – there is nothing particularly dangerous in the rare earths than is about uranium mining. There is some evidence which is not complete – it's partial because there is no baseline data  –  in the most backward parts of Bihar for example who's going build a health centre there or gather information on lives and deaths.

But there is a more scientifically established way of collecting data i.e. through the [stochastic?] method – that don't go by individual exposures but by the overall exposure of a population to a gross total radiation dose and there the International Commission on Radiological Protection has norms which are that gross exposure, irrespective of numbers of individual exposures of 10,000 rads will cause 6 cancer deaths. So if you are going by that, Tarapur has killed 30 people.

In Pokhran, Reuters reported that people complained that within the first two days of the tests, they had burning eyes, itching sensations on the skin – suggesting that there was acute early radioactivity exposure. I would doubt that very much because you would then have symptoms of very high levels of exposure, vomiting etc.

I went there three weeks after the tests and most of these complaints were no longer being aired. It's serious though what needs serious examination and proper study is the charge, the claim that about a decade after the first Pokhran tests, the incidence of cancer are rising in Western Rajasthan in particular Jodhpur and Jaisalmer districts. Cancer of the bone, abdomen and lung – precisely the kinds of cancers your would see from radioactivity exposure though specific radioactive nuclides associated with underground testing. STRONIUM 90, PLUTONIUM 239 etc.

And we have evidence of this from studies by International Physicists in Prevention of Nuclear War. There were studies on Kazakhstan which found a deep correlation between these cancers and the radio nuclides I've just named. In fact the Kazakh Medical establishment claims now that the numbers of early cancers were a result of a test site there which became the most important test site in the Soviet Union after the 1960s.

The Kazakh government is now very enthusiastic about a nuclear weapon-free zone in Central Asia. There's one village alone, Khetolai in the absence of baseline study is difficult to prove. But this doctor's study is based on hard evidence of cancer registers in public hospitals conducted bet '85 and '92.

What happens in underground tests is two things. One is that you have some early ventings if there is no containment. Containment is done through the laying of huge steel sheets – less than a quarter of the plutonium used in a nuclear fission device actually undergoes fission and is expelled with this tremendous underground violence and that penetrates very long distances. it can come through the earth's crust.

Early venting is routine in sites where there is no containment. It would seem that in the Indian case, containment was most unlikely because it was a secret operation-they wanted to cheat the satellites – so didn't start putting huge sheets of steel there. I know that in the '74 explosions no containment sheets were used and its very unlikely that they were used in these tests.

Given the considerations for secrecy, the only reason for containment would be safety and I don't think they are bothered about the safety of those wretched people living in Khetolai. It's not how the DAE works.

So, there could be some early venting but the more worrisome thing about testing is the slow steady release of these nuclides. So it would be unsurprising if there was. So we need independent study – an independent commission – to monitor radioactivity levels, radio-nuclide levels, not just in the air, but in the water and soil, vegetation, animals that feed on that vegetation.

For instance, after the 1974 explosion, the fence that was around the original test site rotted and after sometime they stopped looking after the site perhaps in the belief that India would not conduct any more nuclear tests in the foreseeable future. So cattle would then stray into the very heart of the test site. We had pictures of these, eye witness accounts etc.

We have to look at it very closely and set up a very rigorous scientific study. If this is established that one of the early effects was cracks in the houses of people and the second was cracks in the wells – that means that the water is liable to be affected We need good reliable data which is independently verifiable.