‘No, Monsieur Sarkozy, we don’t want your nuclear plant’

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By Nikhil M Ghanekar

Up in arms Sitabai (third from right) is in no mood to give up her land
Photos: Tushar Mane

IF FRENCH President Nicolas Sarkozy had travelled 400 km south of Mumbai to Konkan and specifically Jaitapur, Sitabai Gavankar would have asked him politely, “Mr Sarkozy, why don’t you spare my land and build the world’s largest nuclear park in your country?”

Gavankar is the same woman whose photograph — being dragged by a policewoman — was splashed across national dailies following the massive protest against the nuclear plant on 4 December. She was not allowed entry into her village temple by a female constable and was pushed, pulled and almost knocked down.

At 70, she pictured herself watching her grandchildren learn the ropes of farming. Instead, she along with her husband Ramchandra, 80, grandson Dhananjay, 18, and daughter-in-law Aslesha, 43, are all involved in the protest against the world’s biggest nuclear park to be constructed just 500 metres from their doorstep.

The General Framework Agreement between French nuclear major Areva SA and Nuclear Power Cooperation of India Ltd (NPCIL) for building European pressurised reactors (EPR) was inked on 6 December for Rs. 42,000 crore, along with other agreements on nuclear cooperation just two days after the protest.

In the aftermath of these protests, in which around 7,000 people participated, 663 from Madban and 467 from Sakhri Nate villages were detained temporarily and then let off. Interestingly, in a first of sorts, the fishing hamlet of Nate, with a largely Muslim population, participated in strength in the 4 December protests. Among the 2,000 people who joined the agitation from Nate, almost half were women.

“We have realised the tricky situation we are in,” says former Nate sarpanch Malik Gadkari. “The farmers might get compensation for their land if they take it, but what about us? We have minor land holdings. We are scared whether we will be able to even venture into the sea. Our sea is our life and we want it at any cost. I know that the project will mostly happen, but we want to fight it out.”

The public debate and opposition to the Jaitapur plant has reached a crucial juncture. Following the agitation, the Shiv Sena has jumped into the fray by announcing its support to the villagers.

Veteran activist Anna Hazare is supporting the nuclear project provided the government pays adequate compensation. But the deal between Areva and NPCIL has already been signed, leaving the locals unsure of the impact of their agitation and tired of the police bandobast.

In an effort to curb the protests and opposition to the nuclear plant, the police have been using Section 144 (prohibition of unlawful assembly) quite strategically.

“The police are doing their best to wear out the locals,” says Madban Sarpanch Bhikaji Waghdhare. “They are using the ploy of attrition for some time now. They impose Section 144 at midnight and when people venture out in the morning, they arrest them for violating the order. The policemen also regularly barge into houses stating routine patrolling as an excuse and harass everyone, including women.”

WHEN RATNAGIRI District Superintendent Pradeep Raskar is questioned about the police harassment and false cases, he says, “The officers whom the villagers accuse of harassment are well-versed with the area and are just doing their job. The villagers perceive it as harassment, but I don’t see it like that. About false cases, we are helpless if the complainant has evidence against the villagers regarding the case he has filed.” Gavankar sums it up aptly, “They want to win this war by tiring us out, but we won’t back down. Let them put us behind bars any number of times, it will not deter us.”

The police have arrested and kept Lokshashan Andolan President and former Mumbai High Court Judge BG Kolse-Patil and Vaishali Patil of Konkan Vinashkari Prakalpa Virodhi Samiti under judicial custody. Both violated the externment orders and took part in protests at Nate on 4 December. Fifteen other charges, including rioting, damage to public property, etc., have also been slapped.

Beyond the realm of agitations and jail bharo andolans, local residents had their hopes pinned on the environment ministry, which had taken into consideration their demands for a scientific study of the environmental impact of the nuclear project. But soon after Prithviraj Chavan became the new Maharashtra chief minister, the ministry gave its nod for the nuclear plant.

Activists are planning to file a petition in the Green Tribunal against the clearance for the nuclear power plant

As TEHELKA had reported on 29 November (Activists see red over green signal for Jaitapur N-plant), the environmental clearance met with huge disapproval.

Official intimidation Sarpanch Waghdhare claims the police is harassing them

“We conducted a rapid study of 10 sq km around the proposed site and found it to be extremely rich ecologically,” says Bombay Natural History Society Deputy Director Deepak Apte. “But the old Environment Impact Assessment report, which I’ve seen, does not dwell much on the aspect of ecology and is not comprehensive at all.” Thanks to the study, Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh attached 35 riders, without which the environmental clearance for the project would have probably been faster.

Another concern pointed out by scientists is that the EPR is still an unknown devil. The only two places where it is being built, Olkiluoto in Finland and Flmanville in France, have seen massive cost overruns. The Olkiluoto plant has overshot its budget by Rs. 14,400 crore and, according to a Greenpeace report, experienced around 3,000 quality problems. The process of technological assessment and reviewing of design aspects will begin now.

When TEHELKA spoke to Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) Chairman SS Bajaj on the issue of regulation, he was noncommittal. “The job of acquiring designs and documents from Areva lie with the NPCIL,” says Bajaj. “It is they who will apply for these documents and not the AERB. It is also unlikely that our officials will visit other countries as of now.”

The lack of information in public debates on issues like radiation, safety and design flaws worries the experts. Hence, to challenge the ministry’s environmental clearance, activists from various groups are planning to file a petition in the Green Tribunal before 30 December.

The handling of the Jaitapur project, right from land acquisition to environmental clearance, reeks of negligence and disrespect towards the community. India’s entry into the market of nuclear commerce has been tapped by Areva and GE-Hitachi. But, it is the success, failure or a possible disaster in Jaitapur that will determine whether the country is ready to make the big shift from coal to nuclear energy.

As for Gavankar and her grandchildren, they are a determined lot, willing to die rather than bow down.

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