Indian defense spices things up
BANGALORE - Red-hot chili peppers could soon come to India's defense. The country's defense scientists are working on using the world's hottest chilies in hand grenades for use in counter-insurgency operations and riot control.
An important ingredient in Indian cooking, hitherto chilies have been confined to kitchens. They seem poised now to storm another bastion. If ongoing field trials are successful, chilies will soon make a grand entry into India's defense armory.
The plan is "to harness the pungency value of chilies to make hand grenades that can be used in riot control and counter-insurgency situations", R B Srivastava, director of life sciences in the government-run Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), told Asia Times Online.
Unlike its explosive-filled counterpart, the chili grenade is non-lethal. It works quite like tear gas. While it will not kill, it triggers tears and could put the victim in a semi-conscious state. "It will be useful in forcing militants out of their hideouts," he said.
Even ordinary chilies cause severe itching and burning of the eyes. The chili that the DRDO is thinking of using - the bhut jolokia - is no ordinary chili.
Grown in India's northeastern region, it is a thousand times more pungent than the hot chilies used in Indian cooking. The word bhut means ghost and those who have eaten it say that the chili was aptly named. It would scare even a spirit away. When you bite into a bhut jolokia, it bites back at you. Eating a bhut jolokia is an all-out assault on the senses.
The hotness or pungency of a chili is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHUs), that is, the amount of capsaicin (a chemical compound that stimulates nerve endings in the skin) present. Thus a bell pepper, which contains no capsaicin, would have a SHU rating of zero, while commonly used varieties like jalapeno or Italian peperoncino would log in less at than 5,000 SHUs. Until recently, it was the fiery hot Red Savina Habaneros developed in the United States with a rating of 350,000-580,000 SHUs that was regarded the king of the chili world.
Then in 2000, the DRDO's Defense Research Laboratory (DRL) at Tezpur in the northeastern state of Assam claimed they had discovered a chili with a pungency of 850,000 SHUs. That claim was met with much skepticism abroad.
In 2005, Paul Bosland, a professor at the New Mexico State University in the US, decided to test the claim. He found that the DRL was wrong. It had underestimated the pungency of the bhut jolokia. Its pungency, he found, measured a scorching 1,001,304 SHUs. Bhut jolokia had toppled the Red Savinia to emerge as the hottest chili in the world.
It is this heat that India's defense scientists are looking to harness for a variety of purposes.
Besides using chili grenades to deal with rioters and terrorists, India's scientists are exploring the chili's pungency for use on other enemies, some of them more formidable than terrorists.
Elephants have for long posed a huge threat to the Indian army's camps in the northeast. Many of the camps are situated near reserve forests and wildlife sanctuaries and elephants routinely storm the camps.
Army officers say they have tried every trick in the book to keep elephants away. But every one of them has failed. They even put up electrified fences around army camps hoping a mild shock would keep the elephants away. The elephants simply knocked down the poles, bringing down the fences. But recently, scientists discovered that the mammoths are scared of the smell of chili.
Preliminary investigations by the DRDO's DRL at Tezpur indicate that "elephants are scared of the bhut jolokia and they stay away from it", said Srivastava. "We are thinking of applying a coat of bhut jolokia paste on nylon ropes along the boundary walls of army camps."
This little chili is expected to help the army keep the mighty elephant away. If the experiment in Assam succeeds, the army is planning to deploy the bhut jolokia to fight elephants at bases situated near elephant habitats in other parts of the country.
The bhut jolokia is also expected to help soldiers combat extreme cold in high altitude terrain. It raises body temperature and is likely to become a part of their diet to help them keep warm. For soldiers deployed in the icy heights of the Siachen Glacier, the world's highest battlefield, where temperatures drop to minus-40 degrees Celsius and blizzards touch speeds of about 300 kilometers per hour, the bhut jolokia will provide some respite.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.