The government’s repeated statements of commissioning the first two nuclear reactors at Koodankulam has not deterred local the protestors in any way. Local people have been on continuous struggle for a year now, which includes the ongoing relay fast as well as the intense, indefinite fast in the month of March 2012 in which thousands participated. Our visit to Koodankulam and Idinthikkarai on 24th July 2012, our meeting with people from both these villages and the large number of people who had assembled at the protest site at Idinthikkarai, was clear proof of the people’s determination to put an end to the government’s nuclear plans on their land.
Together in Struggle: Aruna Roy and Dr. S P Udayakumar
When we reached Koodankulam, members of the Struggle Committee, Ganeshan and Rajalingam met us at the main gate of the KKNP plant. We walked through the Koodankulam village which is just 1.5 kilometres away from the plant, where about 20,000 people live. A quiet, coastal village, mostly inhabited by the Nadar community who are engaged with trade of various kinds. Amongst the people we met, four were elected representatives of the Koodankulam grama panchayat (three of whom were women members). The women and men we met as we walked through the Koodankulam village, groups of women sitting together and rolling beedis, shop keepers, passers-by, all of them had one consistent story to narrate- the story of how the police harassed them for protesting against the nuclear plant. All the people we met, including the panchayat members, had been charged with police cases for being a part of the protest against the nuclear plant. The situation is no different in the Idinthikkarai village. The women and children in Idinthikkarai were as vociferous as their sisters in Koodankulam. We spoke with Udayakumar, Pushparayan and other struggle leaders. Udayakumar and Pushparayan have been on self-imposed exile at Idinthikkarai for almost five months now. If they move out of Idinthikkarai, they may be arrested by the police. They have been confined to the Parish Priest’s Bungalow where they have been staying these past few months and the front porch of the St Lourdes Church where the relay fast is staged. In anticipation of the police arresting these two leaders, women and children sleep in large numbers around the Parish Priest’s Bungalow. The youth of the village, whom we met that day, also sleep on the village outskirts. In short, people are on the alert day and night. People from the neighbouring village of Koodankulam also take the responsibility of providing security to these two leaders.
It is an irony that while India plans to increase nuclear power generation from the existing – to by 2032, basic living conditions are still a dream for a majority of the poor in India, both rural and urban. While the country has pumped in crores of money into the KKNP, a small stream let that flows through the Koodankulam village has degraded into an open sewage channel with stagnant water. It would undoubtedly be the source of many communicable diseases in the area, particularly amongst the children. Such instances of sheer neglect makes us disbelieve the claim that energy security will improve the living conditions of the poorest in our country. The Tamil Nadu government offered a 500 crore development package in March 2012, soon after it withdrew its support for the local struggle. It was evident that the underlying motive behind providing this development package was to detract the local people from protesting against the plant. It is sad that the government was prompted to assure the people of houses and roads only when they expressed their strong dissent against the plant. More so that the government believes that it can negate people’s dissent in such a manner. One of the main components of this development package is the provision of cold storages that will enable the fisherfolk of the surrounding villages to store their fish catch. If the plant is to function, the daily release of water used to cool the plant is bound to affect the fish catch. The fish will also be exposed to routine doses of radiation. That of course does not appear to be a concern of the government.
Dr. S P Udayakumar interpreting Aruna Roy’s speech in Tamil
As most of us know, the protest against KKNP heightened following the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. Since August 2011, people from the neighbouring villages have been on continuous protest, a strong, non-violent protest. The government and the KKNP have on their part shown no inclination to engage in a dialogue with the people. The only response from the side of the government has been to charge the peaceful protestors with police cases, which includes non-bailable charges of sedition. There are people who have been charged with as many as 200 cases. Aadilingam, a visually challenged sixty-year old man from Koodankulam village had been charged with 200 cases. Selvamani, Ward Member of Koodankulam panchayat says she has no clue about the number of cases that she had been charged with. Swayambhu Nadar, a resident of Koodankulam village, an old man with severe diabetics and hypertension, barely able to walk, was imprisoned for 15 days. During this period, he had to be hospitalized. Each one had a similar story to share. Residents of the neighbouring villages of Vyravikenaru, Kurunjikulam, Vijayapathi, Aavadiyalpuram, Kamaneri, Kadutala, Tillainagar, Arasarkulam, Puthenkulam and Puthenpuli, all of which are located within a 30 km radius of the plant fear the consequences of a nuclear plant located in such close proximity. A total of 1.2 million people live within a 30 km radius of the plant.
No matter what the safety claims of the KKNP be, the fears and apprehensions of such a large population of people cannot be wished away. The KKNP has taken care to locate the staff quarters 10 kilometres away from the reactors. The Koodankulam village is just a kilometre away, and even closer is the tsunami rehabilitation colony that was built after the tsunami affected the area in 2004. In the fishing village of Idinthikkarai, the thatched sheds in which the fisher folk keep their nets face the two large domes of the reactors. If the plant functions, water released from the nuclear plant will wash the shores of Idinthikkarai in no time. Does this fall within the safety definition of the government and KKNP? People were angry about the mock safety drill that the KKNP conducted last month, which was a mandatory requirement. Instead of conducting it in the villages of Koodankulam or Idinthikkarai, they conducted it at a location 10 kilometres away. While the authorities did not intimate the local people, they brought people from outside for this exercise. When the local people questioned them, they said that they were conducting a survey of the incidence of dengue fever in the area. It is a shame that our institutions make a mockery of all regulations and assume that people will believe their claims. It was evident that people have lost all trust in the government, disillusioned and dismayed at the manner in which their legitimate dissent has been negated. And each step taken by the government aggravates this distrust. What kind of governance is this? On the one hand we talk of local self governance and panchayati raj. On the other hand, the government negates any form of self governance.
While the intensity of the struggle heightened during the past one year, discontent and dissatisfaction has been brewing ever since the KKNP acquired agricultural land for the project. Land on which they grew various varieties of pulses, beans, cotton and tamarind, was taken up by the KKNP. Some of them fought court cases, but the land was acquired. They were paid a meagre amount as compensation, ranging from Rs 200-1200 per acre of land that was acquired. They were promised jobs and development, but none of this was fulfilled. Deprived of agriculture, today a large number of women in Koodankulam earn a living by rolling beedis, getting Rs 100 for every 1000 beedis that they roll. They earn Rs 1000-1500 a month.
All the villagers- the women who roll beedis, the fisher folk, small traders like Perumal who owns a shop selling electrical equipments, the grocer, the vegetable-seller, contribute 10% of their weekly earnings to the movement, in order to meet the campaign expenses. Most villagers have joined in, except for a few contractors. While a few rich households do not openly participate in the protest, they contribute money. It is these regular contributions and of course, the conviction of the people, that have kept the movement going. People have continued to work while the normal pace of their lives has been thrown apart by police arrests and intimidations. And despite this, the Prime Minister alleges that the movement has been instigated by foreign funds.
Aruna Roy Talking to women in Idinthakarai village
Women were present in large numbers at the protest site. We were moved by the conviction with which they spoke. Said an elderly woman, “We have lived more than half our lives. We may not be around for long. But what about our children and theirs?. How can they live in such unsafe conditions?’. It was when the Fukushima disaster took place that they were convinced about the potential danger that lurks less than a kilometre away. ‘Those two domes began to frighten us’, says Poomani. ‘For a year now, coming to the samara pandal has become a daily ritual. We are forgetting how we used to lead normal lives’, said another. It is a common sight to see children sleep in the samara pandal, while their mothers attend meetings. Their exemplary behaviour in the samara pandal, as though the children had completely understood what was required of them in these difficult times. Young men and women were also present. One young man broke out into tears as he spoke with sorrow and anguish, saying that all they thought of during the past one year, was of police arrests. They were living in fear of their leaders getting arrested. There are innumerable cases where passports of local people, (including young persons absent from the struggle and protests, but inhabitants of the area) have been impounded and where fresh applications for passports have been turned down. The youth feel that they have nothing to look forward to if this plant is commissioned.
Truly, this is one of the most remarkable struggles that India has seen. If the government is serious about governance, then they should be courageous enough to place all information, facts and figures about the Koodankulam nuclear plant before the local people. Let there be an open debate on the issue. Let it not think that it can silence people’s demands for justice. What the people fear most, is the fatal consequences of exposure to radiation. Can the government assure them of a safe future?
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