Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant, Democracy and Sedition

The protest over a Nuclear Power Plant at Koodankulam (KKNPP) started soon after India and Russia signed an agreement on the project, way back on November 20, 1988. In May 1989, ten thousand people gathered to oppose the project. Police disconnected mikes and opened fire.

A lull followed due to the collapse of the Soviet bloc and also the assassination of India's PM, Rajiv Gandhi. The project was revived in 1997 and linked to the purchase of T-90 tanks, SU-30 planes and the Admiral Gorshkov submarine from Russia. It took ten years to hold a public hearing on the project - seven thousand people attended. This meeting was abruptly discontinued when people protested that the proceedings were not conducted in the local language.

The protest movement around the nuclear plant, People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), gained enormously in strength and support, following the Japanese nuclear disaster at Fukushima, leaping into national visibility and much wider public prominence. The protesters set up an independent, technically savvy expert committee of PMANE to challenge the State and India's nuclear establishment with tough questions.  Their opposition to the project revolved around some very simple and basic positions:

Nuclear industry is associated with well documented hazards - even in normal operations -. which are harmful to the health of humans and environment. People living in the vicinity of the KKNPP had a right to protect their own lives, and the lives of their future generations, and rejected this hazardous technology from operating in their backyards - they also opted not to need its benefits.

The heat dump from the nuclear power plant would significantly increase the temperature along their shoreline - where they fished, and endanger the traditional livelihood - on which they were dependent. They intended to protect their livelihood mechanisms, which could not be guaranteed once the reactor became operational.

Safety of any nuclear plant against a serious accident cannot ever be guaranteed. While suppliers of India's planned, imported nuclear plants scuttled behind and demanded further dilution of India's liability clause, Russians were fully exempt from shouldering any liability in case of a future accident at KKNPP - even if due to their own faulty technology. People around KKNPP  realised that they were being required to risk their lives, while the providers of the technology risked nothing - not even a financial loss.

PMANE demanded scrapping the entire project, arguing on the basis of geologic unsuitability of the site, technical issues related water availability - crucial to the running of any nuclear plant,  large and adverse impact on livelihoods of local fishing communities, and the high population density around the plant - making evacuation a virtual impossibility - in case of a catastrophic accident.

PMANE opposed the Koodankulam nuclear power plant with an ever increasing strength and following of women, men, young and old, across religious, caste, class, and state boundaries. It drew observers, and enlisted solidarity and support from students, professionals, scientists, journalists, as also from people's movements and activists spanning  political ideologies, and developmental paradigms. The movement aroused curiosity, interest and sympathies from the thinking and the comfortable, educated class, and thereby initiated a process of inquiry into India's development, and questions of who sacrifices and who gains. It soon became one of the two largest people's movements in India's current history - the other being Anna's movement against corruption. However, unlike the latter, which was fragmentary in nature and confused in goals, the PMANE movement stood out for its singularly clear demand of a Nuclear Free Koodankulam, Nuclear Free India and Nuclear Free World. The movement belonged to those people who were the chosen victims for India's irrational nuclear ambitions; and they had no option, but to fight - to live.

The protesters sat in peaceful dharnas and observed long periods of fasts - en mass - drawing public and state's attention to their plight. Each day drew crowds of thousands, all fasting, to a village center.  All shops were closed - small fraction made it under the shades of plastic awnings - volunteers carried around buckets with water sachets for free distribution. Women with children sat, under scorching sun or pouring rain, sometimes with a sagging umbrella, listening to their leaders talk, and they spoke themselves - on mikes - with a rare confidence in clarity of purpose - to save themselves, their families and their communities from the immediate danger of a monstrous nuclear reactor. It was uplifting to see their faces - alive, alert, listening - after all what was being spoken about dealt with their future, their combined fates.This group of mostly women, young and old,  succeeded in blockading the entry to the KKNPP in Oct. 2011, till the Tamil Nadu state finally agreed to not allow any further work to proceed on the plant - till all their doubts and fears were allayed.

On March 20, 2012, Jayalalitha - the chief minister of the state ofTamil Nadu, in a clearly political bartering with the center, approved the KKNPP for operations. About 6000 heavily armed police force guarded the the entrance to the reactor site and immediately arrested several hundreds, including key leaders of the people's movement PMANE. Overnight, people who were in active dialogue with the state officials and leadership, became criminals with a large number of cases foisted on them. Today, more than 55,000 people have FIRs filed against them, and more than 6800 are charged with waging war against the state and on grounds sedition - more than filed ever before, in a single police station, in such a short period of time. Udaykumar, the coordinator of PMANE is charged with murder, along with many other serious charges and remains in Idinthakerai - the crucible of the protest movement.

People's opposition to the KKNPP and the excessive, repressive reaction by the state against the protesters, requires that we, the citizens of this nation, ask ourselves some tough questions - on rights of the state versus the sovereignty of people - in a constitutional democracy. It demands that we understand and appropriate our constitutional rights which include right to life, right to livelihood, and right to protest - peacefully. This is what the protesters against KKNPP have been doing. Peaceful protests, like the ones conducted in Idinthakerai and other villages around KKNPP are touchstones of any vibrant, active, healthy democracy. These are processes for creating truly representative governments which act in trusteeship of  people and their interests. To demean a movement like PMANE as being either vested, or anti-national, or anti-development, is to deliberately mislead the people of this nation from the real issues that drive these protests. To further criminalize a peaceful, democratic, opposition movement as waging war against the state or as Seditious (i.e. dis-affectionate or dis-loyal to the State) goes  completely against the democratic principles on which this country is founded. One must remember that issues of democracy, do not require and cannot operate on the basis of either affection or loyalty towards state - it is precisely this act of disaffection or lack of loyalty that enables each of us, as individuals to remove, via the electoral process,  persons or party who no longer represent our interests. To charge peaceful protesters in a free and democratic India, with an act expressly constructed and applied by the British to repress India's freedom movement - is indicative of the harsh reality and repressive culture of India's political climate today. If protesters seeking to safeguard personal and community safety are now criminals waging war against the state, then it is time we, we all, really woke up to the reality of the State we live in - a State of Fear!

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