On March 11, 2011 as people in Koondankulam and Idinthakrai, two coastal villages in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, watched the unfolding nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan on TV in horror, they couldn’t help but think — this could happen to us.
Photo by Kebinston Fernando
Now a year later, thousands of local villagers and anti-nuclear activists are locked in a tense face off with the Indian State over an unfinished nuclear power project in the area that’s been three decades in the making.
Since the late 1980s the mostly fisherfolk and farmer population in this remote area on the southern tip of the Indian peninsula have been fighting a plans for massive nuclear energy project near their homes. The unfinished Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP), an Indo-Russian venture, was begun in the 1980s and shelved when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It was taken up again in 1997 and since then, despite local opposition, Russian nuclear equipment vendor, Atomstroyexport, has built two massive 1,000-megawatt reactors at the site. The $2.5 billion project is set to have six reactors and, once completed, will be India’s largest power-generating complex.
Last year’s Fukushima disaster strengthened the local anti-nuclear movement that had sort of lost steam in the intervening years. It received further impetus when, less than four months later, KKNPP carried out a “hot run” of its first reactor. Plant officials sent out a mock emergency drill notice to villagers living nearby which, locals say, basically translated to “cover your nose and mouth and run for your life!”
That was enough to get people out on the streets again demanding the plant be scrapped. Since last August villagers from communities around Kudankulam, led by People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), a local nonprofit, have come together with renewed force to protest the project citing environmental and safety concerns. They’ve mounted a series of sit-ins in front of the plant, blocked roads and sea routes to the project site, and gone on hunger strikes.
The agitation bore some fruit — work on the plant was put on hold for eight months while state officials alternately tried to negotiate with the protestors or crack down on them. Over the past months the Indian government, which is facing a coal supply crisis and is in desperate need of power to keep its economic growth on path, has charged hundreds of protestors with “sedition” and “waging war against the country.” Protestors say they have been stalked by intelligence officials, subjected to physical and verbal abuse, and received death threats. (India has big nuclear ambitions. There are 20 nuclear power plants currently in operation in the country, producing around 5,000 megawatts of electricity. Seven more reactors are under construction across India. The country aims to fulfill 25 percent of its electricity needs through nuclear power by 2050.)
“The Government of India does not want to acknowledge the simple fact that even ‘ordinary citizens’ of India have a mind of their own, can take a stand on policy issues and ‘development’ projects that affect their lives, and stand up for their rights to life and livelihood,” PMANE leader SP Udayakumar, a local schoolteacher, wrote on the nuclear watchdog website DiaNuke.org, after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh alleged the protestors were received illicit foreign funding from the U.S. and Scandinavian nonprofits.
Things came to a head last Monday (March 19), after Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha (a state chief minister is equivalent to a state governor in the US), who had so far been supporting the protestors, gave the project a go-ahead. She claimed her officials had studied experts’ reports and deemed the plant safe. More likely, the chief minister simply gave in to pressure from the federal government.
Photo courtesy International Atomic Energy Agency
Once news broke, the face off was perhaps inevitable. Thousands of villagers and anti-nuclear activists gathered near the plant site, as did thousands of security personnel in riot gear. Work on the project resumed amid tight security. The State imposed a curfew. Police squads blocked every road leading to Koodankulam and Idinthikarai, and several hundreds were detained. But many hundreds more managed to slip through the barricades. They are still there today, men, women and children, camping out on the grounds of a century-old local church. Fifteen activists, including S P Udayakumar and M Pushparayan — the two top PMANE leaders, have gone on an indefinite hunger strike. More people are being arrested everyday and there have been allegations that the police had stopped essential supplies like milk and drinking water from reaching the area. Villagers, in turn, are digging trenches around their villages in order to keep government officials out.
Excerpts from an update Udyakumar emailed on Thursday:
“The situation here is still grim. There are some 10,000 people from coastal and interior villages. Most of them are women including pregnant women and nursing women. I myself saw many nursing women feeding their babies sweetened water as there was no milk coming to the village. More people are coming by boats and on foot as the access roads are all blocked by police. There is no bus service to this place. There is no sanitary complex and women bear the brunt of it. No public health official has ever come to help the people.”
“The governments and the police treat and speak of me as if I were Osama bin Laden and our people some mindless terrorists. We resent this inhuman and brutal treatment . … We are a group of simple people who have been fighting nonviolently and democratically against an untested foreign reactor with all kinds of problems and hiccups. We have not done any harm to anybody or anybody’s property in our eight-month long struggle.
News reports from India indicate that following allegations of officials trying to starve out the protests, some of the police barricades were lifted on Friday and food supplies and were being allowed in.
With neither the State nor protestors willing to back off, the stalemate continues.