The movement gathered momentum only after women took an interest

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The otherwise subservient womenfolk of Koodankulam were the strength behind the movement against the government, finds Jeemon Jacob

Villagers, especially women, came to join the protests in droves
Photo: Rajesh

The men in and around coastal villages of Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu always believed that they were the ones in control and never spared a thought to the contribution that their women make. Yes, you call that patriarchy. The men happily went about their daily activities, dominating the economic sphere, leaving the women in charge of home and hearth. However, the recently concluded protests against the Koodankulam nuclear plant has changed the traditional scene. Not only did the women dominate the protests but also reduced the role of men in the event to a bare minimum.

The men, mostly fisher folk, slowly woke up to the active role that the women have been playing in the activism. “Koodankulam protests have given a new space to the women to air their views and concerns and be socially active,” said Sahayam Raj, a local businessman, who participated in the 12-day long hunger strike. “Look at the crowd, women outnumber men in the agitation,” he added with a grin.

Hotbed of dissent The nuke plant at Koodankulam

Forty-five-year-old Raj feels that the protests have transformed the women in the coastal villages. “They have become bold, fearless and assertive. It’s a fast transformation,” he revealed. However, Raj is just not talking about the alteration women in his hamlet underwent. He confesses that participating in the agitation has changed him too. “I used to take Rs 200 worth of alcohol every day. I’ve not touched liquor over the last 12 days. I’ve saved Rs 2400 that I’ve donated to the movement,” he announced with pride.

J Anton (28) reveals that the anti-nuclear movement has not only liberated women in the village but also has brought about prominent behavioural among the men. “Earlier domestic violence was part of our daily lives. After a few pegs, the fishermen enjoyed beating their wives. But now it’s only a rare happening,” said Anton.

Selvam Moni has something interesting to share about the transformation within her family and in her husband after she joined the protests. “We have been married for more than 13 years. He has never cooked or cleaned my house. But he started cooking and doing all household duties after I joined the indefinite hunger strike. It really surprised me,” a beaming Moni said.

Moni’s victorious smile tells a long story of gender bias in the coastal areas of South India where men are a preferred lot. “Just five years ago, we could not think of our women coming out of houses and joining the protest with men. But now they have learnt the art of struggle. Because the nuclear plant is a real threat just 500 meters away. Now, our day begins by looking at the plant, which is going to kill us and our night ends with the fear of losing our soil and water. In such a situation, men women and children have all joined to work in tandem,” said Joseph Lucas from the protest group.

Over the last two weeks, women in Idinthakarai and other villages have been very busy. They were involved in forming support groups in every village and organised neighbourhood meetings while their men were mobilising funds for the long struggle. The team leaders of women’s groups visited every house in the village and briefed all women about the strategy. They also handpicked 20 women to observe the protest fast.

“Our movement gathered momentum after women took active interest. Now it’s almost taken over by them,” commented Dr SP Udayakumar, Convener of People’s Movement against Nuclear Energy.

According to Udayakumar, active participation of women in the protests helped his team to control the mob with ease. “Normally the fishermen community doesn’t believe in non-violent form of agitation. By nature, they are inclined to violent protests. They are prone to become hyper-emotional and go on a rampage.

However, after the women insisted on non-violent struggle, the men agreed. “Women were holding the remote control of Koodankulam struggle,” said Udayakumar. With the anti-nuke protests in Koodankulam being almost successful in stalling work on the plant, the women have proved that they are not only good at being in charge of their homes but also are adept at shaking governments.

Jeemon Jacob is Bureau Chief, South with Tehelka.
[email protected]


“Who wants to die like dogs and live with cancer?”

People power short circuited work at the Koodankulam nuclear plant. Although the respite isn’t permanent yet, it’s a beginning, says Jeemon Jacob

In the fast lane 127 people went on a hunger strike to stall work at the Koodankulam nuke plant
Photo: Rajesh

Forty-one-year-old Initha Antony Michael looks triumphant. She has returned home to Casa Nagar in Idinthakarai, Tamil Nadu after 12 long days of protesting against the upcoming Koodankulam nuclear plant, 400 metres from her residence. The protests and the indefinite fast held at Lourde Matha Church grounds were called off after Chief Minister J Jayalalitha passed a Cabinet resolution requesting the Centre to stall all ongoing work at Koodankulam unless fears of locals about its safety were allayed.

“We will continue our battle till they close down the Koodankulam nuclear plant. This is only a short break. Any day we can resume our protests. I’m ready to join the protests again if it’s necessary,” said a determined Initha, one of the 127 protesters. The 12-day-long protests organised by People’s Movement against Atomic Power gathered enough storm to make the Union and the state government rethink their decision on the plant. The plant, set to be commissioned in December, has work going on it for a decade now.

Melnet Raj (42), a semi-literate housewife, was in the forefront of the protests over the last two weeks. “I’ve high blood pressure and diabetes. But when our people protested, I didn’t want to sit at home. We have won the first phase of our struggle against Koodankulam nuke plant,” she said jubilantly.

Melnet, who lives only 500 metres from the plant, is worried for her children. “My fight is for them and I want them to live in a safe environment,” she said listing out her priorities. The poor woman had visited Kalpakkam to understand the threats involved in living near a nuclear plant. She had stayed with a family in Kalpakkam and heard tales of their misery. Her trip had convinced her that living near the nuclear plant would ascertain slow death.

“Who wants to die like dogs and live with cancer? The radiation from the plant will spread across a 30km-radius and will affect around one million people. Nobody can assure the safety of the nuclear plant. All these assurances have only meaning till a disaster hits us. We know what happened at Fukushima after the tsunami in March early this year. Why could Japan not ensure the safety of its nuclear plant?” she asked. “There is no safety. In 1986, Chernobyl disaster killed thousands and the people are still living in its aftermath. So how can we believe Russian technology when they could not ensure its safety in their nuclear plants?” she added.

The villagers ended their hunger strike after Dr SP Udaykumar, convener of People’s Movement, briefed them about the delegation’s meeting with the CM and her assurances. The People’s Movement, however, has decided to hold a state level consultative committee meeting at Madurai on 25 September.

On 22 September, Bishop Yuvon Ambroise of Tuticorin Latin Catholic Diocese addressed the crowd and explained that their protest would continue till the Koodankulam plant is shut down and this was only a break in their long drawn struggle. “We have come a long way and we have to carry out protests if they don’t act according to our expectations,” the Bishop said. The Bishop then offered juice to the protesters who then broke their fasts. A 10,000 strong crowd cheered when the Bishop honoured the 127 individuals observing hunger strike with shawls.

Idinthkarai hadn’t witnessed such massive protests before. The protest ground was filled with villagers. They came in two wheelers, cycles, trucks and mini buses to be a part of history. Some of them even walked 10 kilometers to join the protest and to express their solidarity. What was different about this protest was the complete absence of police personnel. “Since September 11, we have not allowed police to enter our village. When the Union Minister V Narayanswami visited us, only two policemen accompanied him. Idinthkarai is our world and when we are on protest, policemen or government officials are not welcome here,” said villager J Anton.

Idinthakarai has been struggling against the Koodankulam nuke plant since 1988. Six villagers were injured in police firing in 1989. All their struggles to save their water and life were sidelined and tagged by the Government as occasional protests. In the beginning, only people from Idinthakarai protested, as Koodankulam was pro-nuclear thanks to the enormous number of jobs it generated for the locals. However, things have changed over the years. Now, Koodankulam villagers have also joined the protest fearing a disaster.

V Sandal Muthuraj, District Panchayath Councillor representing Koodankulam, explained why people in the village have undergone a change of heart. “Who wants to live in the shadow of death?” asked the 35-year-old leader of Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK). Muthuraj had joined the hunger strike.

Now that the protests have been called off, Idinthakarai is back to resembling a peaceful village from being a battleground only two days back. However, the apparent calm is only temporary, the mood assures.

It will not be easy for the Prime Minister or the state government to tackle the $3.5 billion project as a graffiti in Idinthakarai clearly states what the people there think: “Nuclear plants are nuclear bombs, stop them. Don’t kill us and our children.”

Jeemon Jacob is Bureau Chief, South with Tehelka.
[email protected]

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Koodankulam fallout: People demand a fresh EIA for Jaitapur

Away from the anti-nuclear protests in Koodankulam, at Jaitapur, the Indian People’s Tribunal (IPT) on Environment and Human Rights has released its interim findings and recommendations after conducting a three-day hearing organised to allow the locals, affected by the Jaitapur nuclear plant, voice their grievances. The Jaitapur nuclear power park is the world’s biggest with a planned capacity of 10,000 MW from six European pressurised reactors (EPR).

The three-day conference held between 17 and 19 September saw project-affected people from Jaitapur and other nuclear plant sites—Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Meghalaya, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and also other parts of Maharashtra—speak.

The three-member panel of IPT comprising JC Kala, former Chairman of National Environment Appellate Authority, Director General Forests and Secretary to Government of India, Dr SM Paranjape, a physicist and Dr Shanta Ranade, highlighted the flawed Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report and the environmental clearance based on the same. The panel has stated that, “environmental clearance has been accorded based on inadequate EIA report as it failed to assess correctly the existing ecology in the environs of the project and the impact thereon, as exemplified by outdated data, methodology; lack of modeling, various alternatives, mitigation measures during failures, decommissioning – impacts and costs, and impacts on various eco-systems including socio-economic aspects, etc.”

Kala told TEHELKA, “The recommendations will be sent to the Ministry of Environment and Forests and probably the state government too. What came across clearly during the hearing was a sense of distrust about the administration. If the beneficiaries of the project have problems, the state should take a serious look at it.”

The three-day hearing saw a turnout of 300 people testify in front of the panel. Janhit Sewa Samiti’s Pravin Gavankar, a key protest leader from Madban village said, “The Koodankulam protest has given us a lot of inspiration and hope. The locals will be fasting for a day on 2 October, Gandhi Jayanti. Unlike Jaitapur, the work there was almost done and the plant was going to be functional soon. Against all odds, the people have made the government take notice.”

Nikhil M Ghanekar is a Correspondent with Tehelka.com.
[email protected]

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Bureau Chief, South

Jeemon Jacob has been a journalist for 26 years both in print and television, as of 2011. He was a Reuters Fellow and spent nine months in Oxford University as visiting scholar in 1994-95. He has headed the political bureau in New Delhi of the Rashtra Deepika group of publications and later joined News Express in Brunei Darussalam as Features Editor. He won the Statesman award for rural reporting in 1987 for his seven articles that exposed a brown sugar racket in Kumily, Kerala.

In 1990, he won the state award for best reporting and in 1992, his article on social alienation of people with HIV/AIDS won the prestigious PUCL Award for human rights reporting in 1992. Jeemon is a graduate in English Literature and Journalism and has exposed the corruption behind the DMK government’s allotting prime land to high court judges, senior civil servants, and the kith and kin of politicians under the government’s discretionary quota. He is based in Thiruvananthapuram.

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