|Photo: Saif Ali|
Recently, a Mumbai-based activist who has been opposing nuclear power wrote on a listserv that India’s streets were far safer than its hospitals, since more people die in the latter. Implicit in this, the activist seemed to be asking, should we stop building hospitals?
The question would seem out of place unless you read it alongside a statement made by Srikumar Banerjee, the Chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission. ‘Driving or walking on New Delhi’s streets is more of a risk than the country’s nuclear reactors,’ Banerjee had stated in an interview a few days earlier. He was arguing that, despite the unfolding crisis in Japan, there was no cause for concern about India’s programme to expand its nuclear-power generation. Indeed, according to assurances by S K Jain, the chairperson of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), the expansion was well on track – from 4680 megawatts today (less than three percent of the country’s installed power-generation capacity) to 63,000 MW (roughly seven percent of projected capacity) by 2032.
In particular, the Indian establishment has sought to play down the hazards of nuclear power in the face of large-scale protests against a 9900 MW plant in Jaitapur, in coastal Maharashtra. In the wake of the blasts at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, themselves a result of the 11 March earthquake and tsunami, the protest spilled out onto the streets of Mumbai. Among the five nuclear-power projects announced after the 2005 Indo-US civil nuclear deal, the Jaitapur plant is at the most advanced stage of initiation and construction. Spread over 968 hectares, it is alleged that the project will jeopardise the livelihoods of about 40,000 people, and will cause grave ecological damage, according to reports by the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) and the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).
The New Delhi government has dismissed these warnings as misplaced, and maintains that all is well – and it is not difficult to see why. Unlike in the case of proposed nuclear projects at Mithi Virdi in Gujarat, Kundankulam in Tamil Nadu, Kovvada in Andhra Pradesh and Haripur in West Bengal, in Jaitapur the land acquisition for the plant is complete on paper, and the agreement for supply of two of the six reactors has been signed with French giant Areva. Thus, the Jaitapur plant has become a harbinger: a success here will mean that India retains the good investment climate regarding nuclear power generally, while a strong resistance could scuttle other proposed projects. According to the CNDP report, Jaitapur is a ‘test case for the success of popular movements against projects that forcibly acquire people’s lands, wreck their livelihoods, and inflict irreparable damage on the environment.’
Riding the ‘monster’
In fact, the assurances of officialdom do not hold up to scrutiny. The government claims that land acquisition for the Jaitapur project is complete, yet villagers here say that only 217 of the 2375 affected families (a number that is itself understated) have accepted compensation cheques. ‘Most of the people who have accepted cheques are ones who live outside, in big cities like Mumbai and Pune,’ says Amjad Borkar, a resident of Nate, a fishing village across the Jaitapur creek. ‘They have nothing to lose, and much less to fear in the event of a Fukushima-like disaster.’
Residents around the proposed plant site have clearly been following events unfolding in distant Japan. ‘The crisis there has strengthened our opposition to the nuclear-power project,’ says Pravin Gavankar, a resident of Madban, one of the ‘affected’ villages. ‘The Japan crisis has exposed the monster we are fighting,’ says Neeraj Jain, the convenor of Lokayat, a Pune-based grassroots organisation that has been working with the resistance movement in the Jaitapur area.
The establishment’s attempts to undercut the ill-effects of the ‘monster’ have been many. Chief among them, perhaps, is the designation of only five villages and 2375 families as ‘project affected’ – these are villages and families on whose land the actual plant will come up. The categorisation overlooks the fact that each of those families employ many people to work in their fields; further, NPCIL’s claim that two-thirds of the land is ‘barren’ is outrageous. In addition, there is a thriving fishing economy in the area. About 40,000 tonnes of the district’s annual 125,000 tonne fish catch comes from Nate alone. This brings in a large number of people, such as Abu Bakr from Mangalore. Bakr trades in dried fish; he lives in Nate about half of the year, and employs more than a dozen people in his workshop, drying fish. He pays them INR 250 and three meals per day. The annual turnover from fishing in villages around the plant site is about INR 150 million, according to a local newspaper.
Once the nuclear plant comes up, it will regularly release 52 billion litres of hot water into the Arabian Sea. As the Bombay Natural History Society notes, water discharged from the plant will be 5°C hotter than the ambient sea temperature, but ‘even a 0.5°C of continual thermal stress will lead to mortality of marine species.’ That means a virtual death sentence for the fishing industry.
Still, reining in the ‘monster’ means not taking any of these linkages into account. It means showing only 2375 as project affected, whereas CNDP estimates that the project will ‘jeopardise the livelihoods of 40,000 people, including 15,000 dependent on fishing’. The fisherfolk do not even have the consolation of a compensation package. Bakr says the people in Nate will never allow the project to go into operation. He mentions an instance in which the police, stationed to ensure law and order in the area, were beaten up by a mob after a police vehicle ran over a local’s motorbike. The government responded to this with a series of arrests on trumped-up charges and repressive measures, including banning the assembly of more than four people. Gavankar, who was arrested after this incident, notes that while in jail the police tried to ‘communalise’ him, saying that he should not ally with the Muslims of Nate, the majority population in the village. ‘They said the Muslims are not reliable; they will desert us as soon as they are able to wring out some benefits for themselves,’ says Gavankar.
The Hindu-Muslim angle is played up by Jayendra Parulekar, as well. ‘The resistance in the area is fuelled by outside forces,’ he says, mirroring what the chief minister of the state, Prithviraj Chavan, has been saying. Curiously, Parulekar, who has been fighting a slew of proposed large thermal- and gas-based power projects along the Konkan coast, had aligned himself with the resistance movement in 2006-07. He had participated in many anti-Jaitapur-plant meetings and morchas, irrespective of the fact that he himself was an outsider – based as he is in Sawantwadi, some nine hours away by car. Later, however, he made an about-turn, and started talking in favour of the project, arguing that nuclear energy is the only ‘clean and safe’ option, and in the process raising speculations that he had ‘sold out’ to the establishment. ‘The opposition to the project is weakening in the actual project-affected villages,’ he says, adding that activists from outside are now focusing on organising villagers in Nate. ‘The people in Nate are Muslim, and [therefore] militant in nature. They are intimidating the Hindus around them to join in the protest.’
Little to none of this animosity and intimidation seems to exist on the ground, however. Instead, the intimidation is clearly visible from the establishment’s side, with police stationed at regular intervals. It is also apparent in the fact that local leaders who were invited to talk at a local public meeting being addressed by the chief minister on 26 February this year to discuss the proposed project were asked to get off the dais when they started speaking against it. Freedom of speech is thus being curtailed, as is freedom of movement and assembly.
The ‘communal’ propaganda, however, seems to have penetrated the minds of some locals. Prakash (name changed), a matka (gambling) operator in Jaitapur village, mentions that the ‘Muslim leaders could sell out any time’. He says he participates in dharnas and morchas against the proposed plant since ‘you can’t keep quiet when people all around are agitating – it does not seem right.’ He alludes to societal pressures and the role they play in any movement. As does Mudassar, a fisherman from Nate. He says that people in Jaitapur village (though the project is called the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant, Jaitapur village is not among those considered project-affected) were not part of the resistance initially. They started joining in only when ‘we started taking our morchas through their village.’
Not a chemical reactor
The ‘outsider’ argument is a favourite among various ministers in the state as well as the Centre and bureaucrats connected to the project – it is always ‘outsiders’ who instigate locals. But it might be interesting to ask who these outsiders are, exactly, in the context of a nuclear-power plant. As the Japan crisis shows, people in Tokyo are now exposed to radiation risks due to a disaster in faraway Fukushima. A similar disaster in Jaitapur could spell great risks for the population in Mumbai and Pune. Should the people there, then, be considered outsiders at all?
Further, says Neeraj Jain, the convener of Lokayat and the author of the forthcoming Nuclear Energy: Technology from Hell, locals cannot possibly know about the hidden truths of the nuclear industry. Immersed as they are in ordering their daily lives, resistance to the project is but one aspect of their livelihood; they cannot devote endless days to the unearthing and analysis of facts – for instance, about the cost of the Jaitapur project, the nature of reactors to be installed and the safety mechanisms to be put in place. ‘The nuclear power industry is abysmally secretive,’ says Jain.
While the national media has given some attention to public protest against the Jaitapur plant, government representatives and people in the big cities and have generally been unmoved. In fact, it took a crisis in Fukushima to bring people out on the streets of working-class neighbourhoods in central Mumbai in mid-March. Under the banner of Konkan Vinashkari Prakalp Virodhi Samiti, a coalition of 15 organisations working in diverse areas like environment, human rights, developmental issues and trade unions, demonstrators demanded the scrapping of the Jaitapur project. The Fukushima crisis made the government sit up and do some damage control, as well. That is when desperate, disparate statements, such as the one made by Banerjee, started coming out – statements that sought to downplay the Japanese crisis, that allege that the anti-nuclear lobby was spreading a canard based on some harmless ‘chemical reactions’, and that India’s reactors are safe and Jaitapur will go ahead as planned.
One only needs to look more closely to understand the rationale behind such statements. At stake is not just Jaitapur, but another four projects – each involving six to eight reactors having 8,000-10,000 MW in installed capacity, and slated to be imported from US or Russian energy giants. These projects arising out of the India-US nuclear deal alone are worth USD 150 billion, estimates Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. Also at stake are two indigenous nuclear plants, to be built inland at Fatehabad district in Haryana and Chutka near Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh. Problems in the Jaitapur project could mean huge roadblocks for what Chellaney refers to as the ‘single largest money-making scheme ever unveiled’ in modern India.
Activists on the ground also realise this and now the challenge will be to battle this government-business nuclear nexus. That is why there are now attempts towards building countrywide resistance against nuclear power, involving people from all the proposed and existing plant areas as well as uranium and plutonium mines. Such attempts have been made earlier as well. Jain recalls that in May 2009, the leaders of the resistance movement at the Kundankulam nuclear plant brought together various organisations working in areas of proposed and existing nuclear plants and mines. The coalition, called National Alliance of Anti-Nuclear Movements (NAAM), organised a rally in Delhi in October 2009, but became inactive thereafter. This past month, however, saw renewed efforts at forging a pan-Indian coalition. Representatives from all proposed and existing project sites and mines came together for a meeting in Delhi on 9 April, and then for a motor rally from Tarapur (the site of an existing nuclear plant) to Jaitapur on 23-25 April.
Jaitapur, then, clearly seems to be at the centre of all attempts to halt the nuclear juggernaut. And juggernaut it is, since locals in the area vouch that they would not have opposed the project so vehemently had it not been a hazardous nuclear plant.
~ Aritra Bhattacharya is a freelance journalist and a programme executive with Jnanapravaha, Mumbai.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
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