Since August 2011, the state of Tamil Nadu in south India has been witnessing renewed protests against the commissioning of the first of two 1,000 megawatt (MW) power plants as part of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP). While protests against the project have been occurring since the proposal was mooted in 1988, the impending commissioning of the reactors has rightly triggered a wave of concern in Tamil Nadu and throughout India, especially in light of the devastating and uncontrollable nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan.
People’s Protest and Resistance Campaign
People from the Kanniyakumari, Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi districts of Tamil Nadu have been protesting against the KKNPP for over two decades now. People in and around Kudankulam (also spelled Koodankulam) are worried that the hot water discharged from the plant into the sea will adversely affect the marine life and fish catch. Nearly 100,000 people living within a sixteen kilometre radius of the plant fear displacement. And people are immensely concerned about nuclear risk and radiation in the event of accidents at the plants or during the movement and storage of radioactive material.
The People’s Movement against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), spearheading the movement, has put forward a comprehensive criticism of the project on environmental, safety, economic and human grounds, but the mainstream media and policy makers continue to see it as merely a public relations (PR) problem. Calling the people’s assertion in Kudankulam an overreaction to Fukushima, the ‘experts’ show themselves to be detached from the life of this country and are only insulting the struggling masses. While urging the national government to halt the construction work, Tamil Nadu’s Cabinet has only requested the national government to ‘allay the apprehensions of the people’ before proceeding.
From the beginning, the fight against the plant has been more than just ’fear’ and ’apprehensions.’ The people’s movement against the plant started in the late 1980s when the plan was disclosed. Now it has grown into a strong mass movement centred in Idinthakarai and adjacent villages and has adopted democratic means of protest such as hunger strikes, relay-fasts and road blockades.
Fishing communities living in Idinthakarai village in Kudankulam, who are at forefront of the struggle, have been keeping up a brave front for more than two decades to save their lives, their livelihoods, and their natural surroundings, with which they have inextricable links. These fish workers continue to demonstrate against the project and are afraid to leave their village for fear of being arrested and jailed. Many of them are still languishing in jail, and their bail is being denied or delayed.
While the nuclear accident in Fukushima did have a deep impact and reinforced the urgency to fight, the people of Kudankulam people have, over the years, learned about the harmful effects of the nuclear fuel cycle and the insurmountable risks inherently attached to nuclear technology. In the past, they have attended public hearings and other meetings in large numbers and have presented informed questioned to the authorities. Their lifestyle provides a sense of belonging, and they are the ones who are able to identify their real priorities. The Kudankulam movement is their struggle for alternative development.
Repression by the State Continues Unabated
The Tamil Nadu police are abusing legal tools and employing force to subvert the movement, which has engaged only in peaceful protest. Not a single instance of violence has been reported since the first phase of the indefinite strike began in September 2011.
False cases have been filed against the protesters, as their leaders have been charged with sedition and waging war against the government. Prohibitory orders have been issued within a seven kilometre radius of the plant. The police shot down an unarmed man named Anthony John in the coastal village of Manappadu. Several people including a small baby are said to be missing. The police station has registered fabricated cases against more than 50,000 people. At least twenty-one sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) have been used, including Section 121 (Waging War against the Government of India), which has been used against 3,600 people and Section 124A (Sedition), which has been used against 3,200 people. These arrests have led to a number of disturbing effects. In some instances, both parents were arrested, leaving the children alone. A mentally challenged person was arrested despite documentary evidence of his mental illness. The aged and the physically challenged too were taken into custody; no one was spared.
Gross Violations of Human Rights
A fact-finding team led by B. G. Kolse Patil, a former Bombay High Court judge, slammed Tamil Nadu police for desecrating Saint Lourdes Matha Church in Idinthakarai by breaking an idol of Mother Mary and urinating inside the church premises.
In its most damning finding, the team, which included Kalpana Sharma, a senior journalist, and R. N. Joe D’Cruz, a noted Tamil writer, said that the desecration of a church by the police was a "dangerous and deplorable act." Police officers had barged into the church looking for protesters there.
The team said that the use of force against peaceful protesters was unjustified. Police had used their batons to beat protesters who wanted work on the nuclear plant to be stopped. The team also found that police, while trying to control the agitation, looted and damaged private and public property.
Justice Kolse Patil’s team also said that charging the protesters with sedition and waging war against the state was irrational and that police action had created a ‘fear psychosis’ in Idinthakarai, especially the Tsunami Colony neighbourhood, as well as in Vairavikinaru, Kudankulam and the Juvenile Home in Palayamkottai.
In the Tsunami Colony, the fear was palpable. Most houses were locked as people were afraid to return to their homes. Villagers showed their houses, whose window panes had been broken, cupboards ransacked and doors damaged allegedly by the police who entered the village on September 10, 2012. For the next several days, a police force camped in the village. As a result, even today many of the residents of the village are afraid to spend the night there and instead sleep in the tent outside the Lourdes Matha Church in Idinthakarai.
Fear was also evident in Vairavikinaru village, where villagers showed the evidence of the destruction to houses when the police party raided the village on September 10. Nine people were arrested including a 16-year-old boy and a 75-year-old man who was almost blind. Villagers in Kudankulam were even more terrified as they live closest to the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project. On September 10, a large police contingent entered the village, arrested 34 people, broke into houses where the frightened residents hid, and destroyed property and vehicles. Now, villagers said they are so afraid that they lock their doors after dark. Many cannot sleep and are fearful when they hear a vehicle entering the village.
In all these villages, one common factor was that each of those arrested was charged under identical sections. These included 124A (Sedition), 121A (Waging War against the State), and others.
The other more disturbing testimony was from the women in all four villages. They spoke of the abusive and sexist remarks of the police when they came to their village and also when some of the women went to the police station. One disabled woman gave evidence of physical molestation and another, who was part of a protest on the beach near the plant, spoke of police chasing the women into the sea and making obscene gestures.
Despite this situation, villagers expressed their determination to oppose the project. In addition, they repeatedly asked why no one from the government or from the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited was prepared to hold a proper public hearing in which they heard the apprehensions of the villagers and presented their point of view. They asserted that as the people living closest to the nuclear plant they had a right to question and to know all the facts.
State Adopts ‘Divide and Rule’ Policy
India’s chest-thumping “nucleocracy” wants to play the death game, with peasants and fisher folk as pawns in the gamble. The staunch and united protests by farmers, traders and fish workers in Tirunelveli, Kanniyakumari and Thoothukudi have scared the nuclear establishment.
Faced with the real prospect of having to abandon the project, the government, led by the Congress party, is doing what it does best: divide and rule; set different communities against each other; and allege that foreign hands are at play.
At different times, the nuclear establishment and India’s Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh have said different things: that Tamil Nadu’s industrialisation will falter without the project; that India cannot do without nuclear energy; that our nuclear plants are 100% safe; that abandoning the project at this stage could prove dangerous.
When it comes to explaining the consequences of a major disaster, Indian scientists, including former President Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, have behaved more like astrologers than rationalists. How can anyone predict that no major earthquake will hit this area or that this human-made technology cannot fail?
The fears of Fukushima and the fears about continued electricity shortages have raised a number of conflicting emotions and doubts in people’s minds. The conclusion of this article aims to dispel some of the misconceptions about the safety of nuclear energy, and answer some frequently arising questions.
Supreme Court Questions Nuclear Power Plant’s Safety Measures
On 20th November 2012, the Supreme Court made it clear to the government that all safety measures for handling disaster must be put in place at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant before it is operationalised, saying there can be no compromise on this issue.
A bench of Justices also asked the government to submit a disaster management plan and directed the Tamil Nadu Government to carry out mock drills covering all the 40 villages situated within a 16-kilometer radius of the nuclear plant. The justices added that these drills must be repeated after every two years, and all 40 villages have to be part of the disaster management scheme. The bench made it absolutely clear that all the guidelines and safety measures for handling disaster must be put in place before the plant is commissioned. The apex court’s observation was based on reviewing many petitions filed by anti-nuclear activists challenging commissioning of the plant on the ground that all the safety measures have not been put in place.
Nuclear power is not the only option for generating electricity. There are a number of conventional and non-conventional sources of energy that can be explored for generating electricity. It is a fact that in more than 60 years of post-independence industrialisation and modernisation, the contribution of nuclear energy to the total electricity generation is less than 3%.
Renewable energy sources already contribute more than 10% of India’s electricity and large hydroelectricity projects deliver about 22%. Large dams, though, have exacted a devastating toll on the environment and lives of adivasi (indigenous) communities.
For India to emerge as a true leader, we have to be careful not to destroy our natural capital: our waters, lands, air and people. By saying “No” to dangerous, risky and expensive technologies like nuclear power, we create opportunities to develop cleaner, saner and less dangerous forms of electricity generation.
Increasing the available electricity can also be achieved by conservation and demand-side management strategies. For every 100 MW of electricity generated in India, more than 40 MW is lost because of inefficient transmission and distribution (T&D).
Industrialised countries like Sweden have a T&D loss of less than 7%. In other words, of the total 180,000 megawatts of electricity generated in India, 72,000 megawatts (40%) is lost, wasted. That is equivalent to shutting off all power plants in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
If efficiency were to be increased to, say 90%, the savings would be the equivalent of setting up a 60,000 MW power plant – or about 60 plants the size of the Kudankulam plant that is currently at the heart of a controversy – with a fraction of the investment, and none of the risks.