Dossier People’s struggles on Urban and Energy related issues

Nuclear Shadow Over Delhi: the Struggle against the proposed Gorakhpur Nuclear Power Plant

, by Intercultural Resources , DUTTA Soumya , JAN VIGYAN JATHA Bharat

India’s capital city of Delhi, with its population of more than 17 million, and the teeming National Capital Region with its many big and medium-sized cities, will soon come under the shadow of nuclear danger. The Government of India and its nuclear power arm – the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) – in cooperation with the Haryana State Government, is pushing to establish a huge nuclear power plant in Fatehabad district in the state of Haryana, about 160 kilometers from Delhi. This proposal was floated before the devastating nuclear disaster in Fukushima in Japan, as part of the government’s aggressive nuclear power goals of reaching an installed capacity of 62,000 MW by 2032. As of July 2012, the installed nuclear power capacity in India was only 4,780 MW, and this is after 43 years of commercial nuclear power generation in the country.

The government’s nuclear power push is actually intensifying, even after the worldwide rethink and large-scale abandonment of nuclear (fission) power by many countries in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Occurring almost exactly on the 25th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear power disaster (to date) at Chernobyl, the Fukushima accidents brought nuclear nightmares into the 21st century.

In this backdrop, we must understand the Indian government’s designs of placing large, multiple-reactor ‘Nuclear Power Parks’ all over the country, in the garb of generating ‘clean energy’ for the fast growing economy. Several factors played key roles in this. First, public memory is short, and the horrors of Chernobyl had faded. The last 15 years of ruthless industrialization in post-liberalization India – uprooting and displacing millions, poisoning and damming hundreds of rivers to make them dead-waters, destroying thousands of hectares of forests to extract all of kinds of ‘natural resources’ – has also made the tapping of nuclear (fission) energy much more acceptable to the high-consuming class that dominates policy making, media and power-corridors.

The specter of fossil-fuel driven global warming and the emerging climate change crisis has given nuclear energy an excuse to raise its ugly head in a new avatar – that of being climate-friendly energy technology, though this claim is based on many false premises. Further, there is the real possibility of reaching peak oil in the coming few years, with the resultant oil-price spike likely to derail the global capitalist economy, dependent as it is on cheap and concentrated sources of energy.

Location of Proposed Plant

After a visit in early 2010 by a high-level land selection committee from Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) to Fatehabad district, the final site for the proposed nuclear power plant was approved. Two reactors are planned in the first phase. Most of the land to be acquired is from Gorakhpur village, where religious guru Baba Gorakhnath spent time for his meditation. A temple to Baba Gorakhnath in the village is a vibrant pilgrimage place. Fatehabad is an important centre for agricultural trade, and the district thrives on a well-developed farming economy.

The Nuclear Power Plant

The proposed township for the plant will be built on land acquired from Badopal village (population 20,000), on the main road to Fatehabad town (population over 60,000). This is a violation of AERB (Atomic Energy Regulatory Board) siting norms, as no habitation of over 10,000 people should be within the ‘sterile’ zone. This will pose grave risks to hundreds of thousands of people in case of any major radioactive leakage. A total of over 1500 acres of land is being acquired, about 1313 from Gorakhpur village, about 185 from Badopal village, and 3-5 from Kajal Heri.

The project will use indigenous NPCIL reactors; four such reactors are proposed for this site, each of 700 MW capacity, totaling 2800 MW. Till date, India does not have such a large nuclear power plant, though many of the new proposals (mostly with imported reactors) are even bigger. NPCIL has not managed to complete a single 700 MW reactor till date, and is trying to scale up its 540 MW reactors with potentially risky modifications like raising cooling water temperature.

Genesis of Resistance

The in-principle clearance for the project was given in October 2009. At the beginning, some of the villagers welcomed the project, thinking that their land prices would go up, but from August 2010 they have strongly resisted the project, and the Kisan Sangharsh Samity (Organization for Farmers’ Struggles) was formed, and has held a continuous sit-in protest in front of the mini-secretariat at Fatehabad town from August 17, 2010 onwards. In Haryana, there are very few cases of farmers fighting to keep their land on a principled ground. Large tracts of farmland have been taken over, not only for industries, but for fast-spreading urban sprawls, and the landowners here are accustomed to the sudden increase in their monetary wealth as a result. The sale of alcohol, cars, bikes and other goods is driven largely by compensation money from land acquisition. Almost all earlier protests against land acquisitions in Haryana were for higher compensation amounts.

Therefore, this particular struggle is unique, and is a result of a slowly developing awareness about the dangers of a nuclear power plant in the vicinity, largely due to the campaign spearheaded by the Haryana Parmanu Sayantra Virodhi Morcha (Haryana Anti-Nuclear Power Front). In spite of the Haryana government increasing the compensation offer, the Kisan Sangharsh Samity was determined not to give land for the nuclear power plant.

Unexpected Outcome of Social Progress

There have also been social changes as a result of this struggle. Rural Haryana is still in the grips of strong caste biases, as well as restrictive and often retrograde customs, where both the so-called ‘lower castes’ and women are heavily discriminated against, and kept out of any public function outside of religious and family boundaries. In meeting after meeting that we attended in villages around the area, women were few and far between. In the same area, when the Parmanu Sanyantra Virodhi Morcha called for a protest march in Fatehabad town last year, large numbers of women came out of ‘purdah’ and their village homes, walked side-by-side with men, and spoke with confidence to the higher officials of the district administration, demanding the scrapping of the nuclear power plant proposal. Men and women talked about this land being their mother, and selling one’s mother is unthinkable.

A Threat to a Vibrant Farming Economy

The economy of Fatehabad district is largely agricultural. The primary agricultural products are wheat, mustard, rice and cotton, sustaining agro-industries like rice mills, cotton ginning units, oil extraction mills and so on. Fruit and vegetables are also grown. In spite of being a low-rainfall region, land in the region gets three crops, primarily because of the Bhakra branch canal’s plentiful water supply, which is the lifeline of the whole area. The tree cover in peripheral areas is also much denser than comparable areas in Haryana.

With the proposed nuclear power plant, the agricultural economy that supports tens of thousands of people is likely to collapse, as much of the water from the Bhakra branch canal will be sucked in by the plant for its cooling requirement.

Lush Green fields – irrigated by canal water, near the proposed site

The huge water requirement of the plant will be entirely dependent on the Bhakra branch canal, as the area has no perennial rivers and no big lake. The Fukushima plant, which is cooled by an unlimited amount of seawater, dramatically demonstrated the critical importance of a continuous cooling source for a nuclear reactor. The Bhakra branch canal is the main harbinger of farming prosperity in the region, in stark contrast to many other water-stressed agricultural regions. What happens if farmers draw more water, not leaving enough for cooling, or if they obstruct the flow in protest against their fair share being denied?

Wild Life

Another direct benefit of the lush green environment is the abundance of wildlife in the area, compared to relatively bio-diversity-barren landscapes of most of Haryana. Large numbers of birds including a variety of kingfishers inhabit the area. The area also boasts the presence of several hundred black bucks and antelope. This area deserves to be declared a people’s wild-life sanctuary, in view of its bio-diversity importance in Haryana. If the plant is allowed to come up, all these remnants of a beautiful landscape will be lost forever.

“Dilli dur nahi” (Delhi is not far)

As the proposed site is hardly 150 kilometers from Delhi, any accident or major radioactive leakage will carry its effects to the doorstep of Delhi and the National Capital Region. Radioactive fall-out in the case of the Fukushima reactor accidents was minimized because of the Pacific Ocean and the prevailing winds. Gorakhpur in Fatehabad is surrounded by thickly populated villages & towns. The district of Fatehabad has a population of well over 800,000, and the wind – whichever direction it blows – will carry all that radioactive contamination into densely populated areas, including Delhi.

Realizing these grave dangers, many groups – both from Haryana and from elsewhere in the country – have gathered to support and strengthen the resistance struggle led by the farmers of Fatehabad district. A large number of meetings in villages around the site, and also in many towns of Haryana, have been organised to make people aware of the extreme dangers of nuclear power and the imminent threat to the vibrant agro-economy of the area. Nearly 30 villages have passed resolutions opposing the proposed plant. Many prominent citizens in Fatehabad and other districts of Haryana have also joined this struggle. In the weeks and months to come, the outcome will be decided by how many more groups and people rise up and resist this dangerous plant.

Democratic Deficit & People’s Initiative

The Government is deaf to all these protests. The notice to acquire land was served nearly two years ago, but in the recent past, the pressure on the farmers to accept the compensation money and part with their land has increased. District authorities and the Haryana Pollution State Control Board have attempted to organize a Public Hearing on the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report without giving a summary of the report in Hindi to the affected people 30 days in advance, as required by law. In the public hearing, attempted on the 17th of July 2012, thousands of villagers turned up in protest and scuttled the program. In spite of this, the “authorities” are carrying on with the process.

Politics of Money & Opposition Space

And it is not only the government and NPCIL which are pushing this. As in any such area, a group of people with vested interests has also come into being. The dream of urban development, with wider roads, factories and other urban facilities, are good lures to entice some. Others – including ruling party workers and moneyed people – bought up large tracts of nearby land at the lower prices that prevailed at the beginning of the process, with the hope of reaping a big harvest once the power plant and associated township comes up and land prices shoot upwards. These vested interest groups have continuously thwarted the efforts of the anti-nuclear campaigners, tried to threaten and persuade protesting farmers to sell their land, and even tried to attack the campaigners during public meetings on the issue.

As the Indian National Congress, the ruling political party in Haryana, is pushing this project, the opposition space has also attracted a number of parties. The Gorakhpur area was a strong base of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and a former Member of the Legislative Assembly has turned up in occasional protest and activist meetings, lending support, albeit softly. During last year’s Parliamentary by-election, the main opposition candidate, Kuldeep Bishnoi of the Haryana Janhit Congress, was approached by both the Kisan Sangharsh Samity and the Haryana Parmanu Sanyantra Virodhi Morcha, and he openly supported the struggle against the Gorakhpur plant, declaring that if his party comes into power in Haryana, this project will be canceled. He won the Hissar seat, and has reiterated his support for the farmers’ struggle.

The situation in Gorakhpur and nearby areas is turning critical. Of late, several farmer families, who have hitherto resisted the temptation of large amounts of money, have turned towards the increased compensation. After all, the lure of compensation amounts in the tens of millions of rupees is not easy to resist for farmers who have never seen large amounts of money, and who always face the uncertainty of agriculture. People in the surrounding villages are getting angry. Political parties are also trying to strengthen their support base in the highly populated and prosperous area. A large protest meeting was held on the 17th of August 2012. However, the project is moving forward, and a boundary wall for the plant was completed in February 2013. The resistance continues as well, as farmers and activists are determined to stop this dangerous, ecologically damaging and potentially catastrophic project.