This week, a bench of the Supreme Court (SC) cleared the commissioning of the nuclear power plant at Koodankulam, against which the residents of the area have been protesting for the last 630 days. We find this verdict to be highly unfortunate, and feel that it doesn’t take into account the value of Indian lives.
Ten days before the judgment, our supporters Poovulagin Nanbargal (friends of the earth) filed an affidavit before the Court that ZiO-Podolsk, which has supplied much of the equipment to the plant, is a discredited and corrupt company. Sergei Shutov, the procurement director of the company, was arrested in February 2012 on charges of using substandard metal in their equipment. When we filed an RTI with Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) this January, they denied having received equipment from ZiO-Podolsk, and it was only after repeated enquiries that the NPCIL was forced to admit the truth. This is a very serious matter; if anything were to go wrong, crores of lives would be lost. Yet, the SC refuses to consider this issue while announcing its verdict.
Even accepting, for the sake of argument, that this matter came to light after the Court reserved its judgment, and thus cannot be admitted, what about waste management? The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) told the Court that the waste would be buried under the Kolar gold fields in Karnataka, but the plan was dropped after the residents protested. And that was that. The Court didn’t ask again what alternative the DAE had, and passed its judgment without settling the question. So what happens to this highly toxic waste?
As for liability, an inter-governmental agreement of 2008 holds that the Russians would not be liable in case the faulty equipment malfunctions. What a great deal! You buy whatever rubbish they give you, and you exempt them from liability. So much money has been stolen by both rich Indians and Russians, and the poor locals have to bear the brunt of the greater risk. Who is liable? Is Manmohan Singh liable? He might not be in power two months from now. Would it be the DAE? The KKNPP site director Kasinath Balaji has disappeared, and someone else is in his post. The NPCIL? SK Jain, who was the chairman, is now leading a cushy life in Tokyo as the chairman of the governing board of the World Association of Nuclear Operators. Who will be here to answer for something going wrong? We do not trust these bureaucrats and officials, and now we can’t even trust the SC. If the SC cared about Indian lives, it should have asked these questions.
But no, the Court says that a balance has to be struck between the right to life and sustainable development, that the larger public interest should prevail over minor inconveniences caused to local people. If the inconvenience is really minor, why don’t they build the plant near Parliament? The “larger public interest” it speaks of is nothing but the interests of large corporations for which poor fishermen, women and children should apparently sacrifice their lives and livelihoods.
Regardless, our struggle continues. We may not be successful in closing the plant tomorrow, or in the next few months, or few years. We are patient. We shall persevere. For we have persevered despite the government’s campaign to spread lies and libel us. They have claimed that those who oppose the Koodankulam plant are foreign stooges and that we receive money from abroad. VS Achuthanandan, the former chief minister of Kerala, opposes the plant. Did he take money from abroad? Dr A Gopalakrishnan, the former head of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, has written extensively against the plant. Does he do so for foreign money? Admiral (Retd) Ramdas opposes the plant. Medha Patkar is against it. So is Aruna Roy. Who paid them? Why, when such luminaries have stood up against the government’s anti-people stance, should nameless, faceless Udayakumar be singled out by the Americans for payments?
I don’t take the government’s vilification seriously, because I have nothing at stake. I am not trying to join politics, and I don’t need a certificate of approval from anybody. It’s not me anyone should be worried about, but the people of Idinthakarai, of Koothankuli, of other villages that will be affected, who have lost so much because they chose to take a stand. They have lost their incomes, they have been arrested, they have been attacked by the police. With the opening of the plant, things will only get worse.
But we persist, because we firmly believe that we are fighting for the good of our country, for which we have an enormous amount of love. India needs development, we agree, but in seeking that development, we must not undermine our natural resources, or the basic health of our people and our nutrition security. What are our priorities, after all? Half of our population lives under 20 a day, half of our population barely has any sanitation. We don’t have the basic necessities. People are dying for want of safe drinking water. Instead of addressing these issues, why does our government persist in its obsession with nuclear power, which only adds to the suffering of the poor? Yes, we need electricity, but there needs to be leadership in how we go about harnessing it. If a country like Germany can develop so much electricity from solar power, why can’t we? We have been vilified as fighting against the interests of our country. We have been called Luddites standing in the way of progress. But it must be made clear that we are not against electricity, only nuclear power. We are not against development that benefits Indians, but against that which benefits corrupt Russian companies. We want our people to live as human beings, in a State that does not compromise their safety or on the basic necessities of life.
The greatest challenge we have faced in the course of our protest is the power differential between the people and the State. We celebrate our country as the world’s largest democracy, but its people are hopelessly powerless. Nobody listens to the people. The Parliament wastes our time, energy and resources. Even to ask a question in Parliament, we must bribe MPs, and even when they ask the question, it is just a ritual. No serious debate takes place. This democracy we speak of is a sham. It works only to cheat the poor of their rights.
As told to Ajachi Chakrabarti