India Clamps Down on Villagers’ Anti-Nuclear Protests

In their eagerness to power the country’s growing economy, Indian authorities are treating opponents of nuclear energy as enemies of the state

If the chief minister of Tamil Nadu has her way, democracy would be dispensed with in the southern Indian state. On two separate occasions this year, chief minister J. Jayalalithaa let loose battalions of armed police on thousands of fisherfolk and farmers to crush their months-long non-violent protest against the unfinished nuclear power plants in Koodankulam and Idinthakrai, two coastal villages in the state.

phophoto of demonstrators on a beach facing a reactor contianment building Photo courtesy DiaNuke.orgSince last year, at least 10,000 people have been charged with sedition and waging war against
the state. The state’s campaign to intimidate villagers protesting the Koodankulam nuclear
power project has drawn strong criticism from human rights and environmental advocates.

In March, when she sent out security personnel to quell the protests, police squads blocked roads leading to villages and stopped essential supplies like milk and drinking water from reaching the area. (Read our earlier report on the conflict here.)

More recently, on September 10 and in the days that followed, security forces violently dispersed more than 3,000 men, women, and children who had gathered on the beaches near the Koodankulam nuclear power plant to voice their protest. Caught between an aggressive police force wielding batons, stun grenades, and tear gas shells on the one side and the sea on the other, many unarmed villagers were driven into the sea. Television images have caught policemen firing tear gas shells and throwing rocks at those attempting to swim back to land. More than 50 people, including three children, have since been arrested on serious charges including sedition, waging war against the state, and attempted murder. In response to the police crackdown, protests broke out in several places in Tamil Nadu. One fisherman was shot and killed by the police in the neighboring district when people from a fishing village took to the streets to protest the police atrocities.

The police violence and the state’s campaign to intimidate the protesting villagers have drawn strong criticism from human rights and environmental advocates. A non-governmental fact finding team that visited area found that police personnel had seriously injured many protestors, inflicted physical and verbal sexual abuse on several women, and at least two children had been stripped and tortured. (One boy is so traumatized that he has not uttered a word since the incident, says Prof. Samuel Asir Raj, a member of Teachers Against Nukes a grassroots group that was the first to attempt to contact the boys who were incarcerated a juvenile home.) “People were afraid to step out of the village to seek medical help for fear that they could be arrested,” the team’s report said.

It’s pretty clear now that in their eagerness to harness more energy to power India’s growing economy, the governments of India and Tamil Nadu will treat all opponents of nuclear energy as enemies of the State.

Between September 2011, when anti-nuclear protests began gathering steam in Koodankulam, and June 2012, serious criminal charges have been slapped against more than 150,000, mostly unnamed villagers. (It is quite normal for charges to be filed against unnamed persons in India. For instance, the charge report for a mass protest can state “Udayakumar and 2000 others.”) Of these, at least 10,000 people are charged with sedition and waging war against the state. Because the accused are unnamed, people fear that anybody can be picked up at any time and slapped with the charges in any one of the more than 200 cases filed against the villagers.

Foreigners, of course, are even more suspect. Earlier in the year, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went as far as to allege that the protestors had received illicit foreign funding from US and Scandinavian nonprofits. And 10 days ago, three Japanese peace activists were interrogated at the Chennai International Airport and deported because they had signed an international petition against the Koodankulam nuclear plant. In an open statement, the three activists said:

“We had come to India in peace, to extend our peace and to extend our learnings about the dangers of nuclear power. As Japanese, we should know what the problems are with both the military use and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. We are aware that in India, your government has organised international meetings of the nuclear industry, where the people interested in selling nuclear equipment have been invited as state guests to come and flaunt their wares. We have nothing to sell, just our stories about the dangers and pains that nuclear energy will bring you. It is unfortunate that your Government denied us the hospitality that the people of India were extending to us. In a democracy, and particularly with controversial technologies like nuclear energy, it is important that free and fair debate is conducted in a fear-free atmosphere. It is clear that the nuclear establishment in India is not prepared for such a free and fair debate.”

The farmers and fisherfolk in Kookanakulam and other nearby villages have been opposing the construction of the massive nuclear energy complex near their homes since the late 1980s when the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project, an Indo-Russian venture, was first begun. The project was shelved when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and then taken up again in 1997. 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 nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan revived the local anti-nuclear movement that had lost steam in the intervening years. As villagers here followed the 24x7 coverage of the trauma of evacuation and the inability of the Japanese to cope with the fallout, they realized the magnitude of danger the reactors posed and came out against the project in droves.

Their protests have triggered a national debate on the safety of nuclear energy in India. However, the Government of India – which has offered the Indian nuclear market to US, Russian, and French reactor manufacturers – appears unwilling to brook any dissent on nuclear energy.

Last year, former Indian department of atomic energy secretary Anil Kakodkar put his mouth where the money is when he told a vernacular daily: “We also have to keep in mind the commercial interests of foreign countries and… companies … America, Russia and France were the countries that we made mediators in these efforts to lift sanctions, and hence, for the nurturing of their business interests, we made deals with them for nuclear projects.”

However, the latest wave of police violence has only strengthened people’s resolve to defeat the nuclear project and usher in a serious rethink of energy sources and use, say activists with The People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, a local, grassroots group that has been spearheading the protests.

Indeed, the exaggerated reactions of the state and federal governments to the villagers’ protests have served to mobilize public sympathy and solidarity for their cause. Appeals filed in the Supreme Court, the highest court in India, challenging the nuclear plant have also gained some traction. The Supreme Court has made it clear that it will not hesitate to stop the plant despite the substantial investment already made if it is not convinced about the plant’s safety. And there’s enough evidence to indicate that so far the project hasn’t implemented all of the 17 safety measures recommended by the Indian Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.

Meanwhile, villagers assert that regardless of which way the judicial winds blow, they will continue to with their non-violent civil disobedience action to safeguard their livelihoods and their future.

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