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Fighting the Power (Project) in Koodankulam

by S. P. Udayakumar, 18 Jun 1999

[The Indian Government is preparing to build a Nuclear Power Project in the southern Indian coastal village of Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu. This piece describes the struggle against the project. An edited version of this has just been published in THE HINDU Survey of the Environment '99]

There seems to be an uneasy lull in Koodankulam. Newcomers attract immediate attention at the village square. And talking about the impending nuclear power project pulls a real crowd. There is an ardent fervor in the crowd to pour out their hearts, and an intense anxiety to know about their future.

Most people who engage in conversation are still bitter about the Indian government's land acquisition process for the nuclear power project. They complain that an inadequate amount of Rs. 2,000 was given per acre and a meager additional amount of Rs. 100 was paid for each cashew tree on the land. Many of these people had tamarind trees on their lands that used to fetch them approximately Rs. 2,000 every year. The lands were taken in the 1980's, and for many people these lands were the only assets their families had.

Many residents of Koodankulam acknowledge that they did not know what the nuclear power project was all about and had very little knowledge about radiation hazards. Some were sincerely hopeful of swapping lands for jobs in the lucrative central government sector. Now they are slowly waking up to the reality that not only the jobs and better life are elusive but they could also be evicted out of the area. Most of them are justifiably concerned about the risks and dangers involved in the nuclear power plants.

There are, of course, people in Koodankulam who support the nuclear power project and are very enthusiastic about it. Interestingly enough, many of them have an eye on winning a contract to provide manual laborers and supplies for the construction of the plants and buildings or to undertake portions of the construction itself. The tension between these ambitious entrepreneurs and the anxious landless is very much visible.

Then there is a third group that boasts sanctimoniously with an "I-told-you-so" rhetoric. They claim that they had warned their fellow villagers to be careful about selling their land to the government. They say they knew that nothing good would come to them out of the whole project. And now it is too late to do anything.

As a result of all these divisions and confusions, civic courage gives way to superstitious beliefs and resignation. These 'believers' point out that Rajiv Gandhi, who signed the deal with the Soviet Union to establish the project, was killed later and that Deve Gowda, who revived the project, lost power immediately thereafter. These are enough indications for them that the nuclear project will never come up in Koodankulam.

Unlike the confused and the contended, there are some individuals and small groups in Koodankulam that engage in active opposition to the nuclear power project. Mr. Thangathurai Swami, who manages his family's ancestral Narayanaswami temple on his family land that lies inside the Koodankulam project compound, steadfastly refuses to sell his land to the government. As he puts it, "I cannot sell my God and the temple." Devotees from Koodankulam and all the neighboring villages do come and attend the traditional Sunday worships.

Another Mr. Muthukumaraswamy, a retired school teacher from Koodankulam, is also resisting the government's usurpation of his land by filing a suit in the Tirunelveli district courts. Besides problematizing the inadequate monetary compensation paid by the government for the lands, Mr. Muthukumaraswami also cites the GOs that farming land and burial grounds should not be taken for this kind of large industrial initiatives.

There is also a dormant group called 'Nuclear Power Opposition Group' in Koodankulam but the major activity is just publishing some occasional handbills. The tea-stall discussions and village square debates often do not amount to much.

If Koodankulam is this indecisive, the surrounding villages and towns are not doing any better. There is a plethora of social service organizations in neighboring villages such as Thisayanvilai, Meignanapuram, Nanguneri, and other places in Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Madurai districts.

In Kanyakumari district, for instance, the Social Action Movement (SAM), an umbrella organization for quite a few social work agencies, carries out some awareness raising campaigns on the Koodankulam issue. Just like Mr. D. Mathias of SAM, Rev. Y. David of the Samathuva Samuthaya Iyakkam (SSI), loosely translated as Social Equality Movement, has also been educating the public about the dangers of nuclear power projects since 1988. Quite a few organizations that concentrate on an assortment of social issues also discuss the Koodankulam project. The Palmyrah Workers' Development Society (PWDS) of Dr. Samuel Amirtham, the Peace Association for Social Action (PASA) of Dr. Gnana Robinson and other such organizations take interest in the nuclear power project issue.

An important actor in the anti-Koodankulam mobilization is the National Alliance of Peoples' Movements (NAPM), that works in close association with many farmers' unions, fishworkers' groups, and the local chapters of the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF), and the Tamil Nadu Fishworkers Union (TNFU). The NAPM conducts periodic seminars and occasional workshops on various issues including the nuclear project. Recently the NAPM organized workshops in Madurai, Tirunelveli and Nagercoil on the safety aspects of the VVER light-water reactors that are going to be installed in Koodankulam.

Although fears of radioactive contamination figure prominently in many of these groups' campaigns and pamphlets, environmental dangers, health risks, nuclear waste disposal issues are also often raised. The impending diversion of Pechipparai dam water for the Koodankulam nuclear power project is also causing grave concern among the farmers of Kanyakumari district and adjacent areas.

Another popular issue that political parties often resort to is providing job opportunities for the people of Koodankulam. On February 9, 1999, the local Tamil Manila Congress MLA, Mr. Appavu, headed a dharna in Koodankulam with the singular demand of giving job opportunities to the people of his constituency that includes Koodankulam and other nearby villages.

One can also encounter handbills and pamphlets put out by many nameless and faceless groups such as 'All College Students' Federation,' and 'Koodankulam Nuclear Reactor Opposition Group' etc. Although the English press publish articles by prominent writers and thinkers such as Buddhi Kota Subbarao, S. Ambirajan, Prema Nandakumar, G. Balamohanan Thampi, Dhirendra Sharma, T. Shivaji Rao, and Iravatham Mahadevan arguing persuasively against the Koodankulam project, the local Tamil newspapers are strangely indifferent.

Despite the fact that all these social, political and intellectual entities are sounding alarms, they are relatively dispersed and dissimilar. The various social movements have not made much inroads in educating the public, or making a dent in the policy making processes. The ideological and organizational discordance among some of these groups and leaders, financial issues, the insistence on one's own group getting the limelight are some of the handicaps they seem to have. There are also groups that do not want to jeopardize their government funding by being too much proactive on the Koodankulam issue.

Some of the anti-Koodankulam movements adopt a narrow 'not-in-my-backyard' approach. They just do not want a nuclear power project in their vicinity and do not care what happens next or where it is moved to. However, some other groups take a principled stand and adopt a broader approach on the issue by stretching their interest to other nuclear power projects such as Kalpakkam near Chennai. They highlight the disastrous effects of the Kalpakkam reactors on the neighboring coastal areas and the fishworkers' livelihood in those villages, and demand either closure of the plants or specific modifications.

Some of the nuclear power project denunciations betray anti-urban and anti-elite sentiments also. One such argument proposes that nuclear power projects should be built in or around the national and state capitals because that is where the elites live and work. The proponents of this plan wonder why the Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) office is situated in Nagercoil instead of Koodankulam itself. They question why the Prime Minister visited Pokhran not on the same day of the nuclear tests but almost after a month. The implied contention is, of course, that the elites know how to take care of themselves and safeguard their interests by being away and insulated from these potentially dangerous projects. It is the poor who bear the brunt of all these projects and pay the heavy price.

Many people in and around Koodankulam think that the government will go ahead and establish the nuclear power project in Koodankulam and will eventually close it down if and when there is an accident. Dr. S. Thasan, a retired Tamil Professor of Marthandam Christian College, reasons that it is the general trend of our times that people ignore advice and warnings but feel sorry and make amends when disasters strike.

The Indian government is turning a deaf ear to all the local concerns and protests, and pressing ahead with the project. Dr. Rama Rao, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, claimed in November 1998 that the site evaluation for Koodankulam had been done (The Hindu, November 6, 1998). A former member of the 'safety committee' constituted by the Central Government for the Koodankulam project claimed in April 1997 that the environmental issues had already been studied (The Hindu, April 7, 1997). Intriguingly enough, government officials rarely mention this environmental impact study on the project, and individual efforts to get a copy of this study from New Delhi authorities have proved to be futile.

In the meantime, the Indian nuclear establishment has been organizing workshops and seminars to mobilize the public opinion in favor of the Koodankulam project. A two-day workshop in July 1998 on "Atoms in the Service of Mankind" sought to educate school teachers about the various aspects of the country's nuclear program and other current issues such as CTBT and NPT (The Hindu, July 25, 1998).

In a November 1998 seminar attended by the representatives of the Russian and Indian nuclear departments and academics, the Indian nuclear authorities revealed the entire structural and safety details of the VVER reactors. At the Indo-Russian seminar, Mr. Bulat Nigmatullin, Deputy Nuclear Energy Minister of Russia, said: "It [the seminar] is intended to inform the Indian public at large, mass-media bodies, independent experts and other possible seminar participants about Russian know-how and our many-year-old positive experience of operating and maintaining NPPs in the fullest possible and most objective manner. We also plan to inform them about other aspects of building, operating and maintaining nuclear power facilities in Russia and other countries, linking this with the projected Koodankulam NPP" (The Hindu, November 6, 1998).

Furthermore, the Department of Atomic Energy has established a Homi Bhabha Chair for Nuclear Science and Rural Society at the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Chennai, with the primary objective of disseminating information and mobilizing peaceful usage of nuclear energy for the benefit of communities living in the regions adjoining the nuclear power plants (The Hindu, December 11, 1998). If anyone from Koodankulam or surrounding villages were invited to any of these rather technical events could not be independently verified.

The lack of coherence and focus among the various movements on Koodankulam is painfully obvious when we consider the fact that some of these latest developments are not widely discussed or problematized. Another pertinent issue that has been overlooked by the Koodankulam movements is the handling of the spent fuel.

According to Dr. Y. S. R. Prasad, Chairman of the Nuclear Power Corporation, the fuel for Koodankulam reactors would be supplied by Russia, but the spent fuel would not be sent back. It may be reprocessed to extract Plutonium, a key fuel for the fast-breeder projects that will be established in India in the future. When asked if a reprocessing plant would be set up at Koodankulam, Dr. Prasad said that it was too early to think about that (The Hindu, November 5, 1998). There is hardly any debate on the implications of this ambiguity, the additional dangers of this reprocessing plant, the added risks the local people face and so forth. No one is questioning if the local people do not have a say in this issue.

Most importantly, the various Koodankulam movements hardly debate the alternatives to nuclear power in the larger framework of national development. It is quite ironic that the proposed site in Koodankulam for nuclear power project is surrounded by numerous wind mills that produce electricity quite profitably. The viability and rewards of such renewable energy systems are also not highlighted by the protest movements.

It is true that the southern districts of Tamil Nadu are industrially backward and they could use some economic boost. But what are the concerned people's interests? Do they want to industrialize at the cost of traditional agriculture? Are they interested in a modern 'big bang' solution for the intractable problem of underdevelopment? There is a troubling silence on these issues.

In the final analysis, this unorganized fight against the nuclear power project in Koodankulam is by no means a powerful fight. At least, not yet!

S. P. Udayakumar is a Research Associate and Co-Director of Programs at the Institute on Race and Poverty, University of Minnesota.

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