Ground Zero: Jaitapur, Maharashtra
Post Fukushima, agitations against the Jaitapur nuclear park have turned violent amidst political wrangling, finds Nikhil M Ghanekar
THE ANGER hanging like an invisible mushroom cloud over Jaitapur is not going to dissipate soon. Residents of Madban, Karel, Mithgavane, Sakhari Nate and Niveli affected by the proposed 9,900 MW nuclear power park have been opposing the project for the past four years. But the sequence of events for the past month-and-a-half has worsened the situation on the ground every passing day. And now, it has reached the tipping point.
In four years of protest in this scenic region of Ratnagiri district, Maharashtra, there have been innumerable arrests, jailbharo andolans, marches, candle-light vigils and two major incidents of violence. But not a single life was lost. Now, Jaitapur has unfortunately witnessed that too.
On 18 April, a mob of around 100 people led by Shiv Sena MLA Rajan Salvi and supported by locals pelted the police with stones at the plant site in Madban. The police retaliated by hitting them with batons.
News of the police retaliation reached Sakhari Nate village, where women and youth took to the streets and attempted to burn a police station. Almost simultaneously, three vans with securitymen were on their way to the village to block the road to the plant site, bypassing Nate village. They entered houses in the village. Male constables thrashed unsuspecting women, live rounds were fired. In the end, six sustained bullet injuries while fisherman Tabrez Soyekar, 32, from Nate village, succumbed to three police bullets on the spot.
The whole village of Nate was present on 20 April to condole Soyekar’s death. Around 4,000 people gathered in the village square as last prayers were offered.
SOYEKAR’S FATHER Abdul Sattar, 50, sat outside his house slumped in the front yard as his neighbours stood in solidarity; women from his family sat inside wailing in remembrance. “Tabrez was hardworking and involved in the protest,” says his uncle Samir Soyekar. “His father has not been keeping well and he was the sole breadwinner, his father used to make and repair fishing nets. His mother has not spoken since his death, but let me tell you, we will not let his sacrifice go in vain.”
As a mark of solidarity, Nate village observed a complete shutdown for three days. Fishing too was stopped for three days.
Nate has been a Congress bastion owing to its 100 percent Muslim population. TEHELKA asked Majid Mirkar about being stuck between the party of their choice and project opponents, Shiv Sena, who are on their side. He replied with a hesitant smile, “What you pointed out is correct. Narayan Rane promised us a Konkan package and asked us to vote for his son Nilesh, which we duly did and made him an MP. However, Rane has backstabbed this village and region. He will pay the price for it.”
Ever since Soyekar died, people of Nate and neighbouring villages have been seething under their stoic exterior. It all started when Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and Industries Minister Rane visited Karel village. Their aim was to “reach out” to the villagers. But far from doing that, the duo discredited the huge local opposition and leadership by terming it as “misled” and backed by “outsiders”.
Locals like Dr Milind Desai, who called the government “shameless”, paid the price for antagonising the might of Rane. Among the cases slapped on him, the most astonishing is ‘attempt to murder’.
Soon after Chavan visited the region, the second major event happened. The horrific Fukushima disaster occurred on 11 March. An earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale and a tsunami standing 14 m tall thrashed the nuclear plant at Fukushima, Japan. The Japanese stood on the brink of a nuclear disaster, once more. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited allayed fears of such calamity striking India. Former Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Anil Kakodkar briefed the Maharashtra Assembly on how a tsunami will never strike the Jaitapur plant although it falls under seismic zone IV.
The opponents of the plant are worried about no confidence-building measures being adopted. Vaishali Patil of Konkan Vinashkari Prakalpa Virodhi Samiti during an anti-N plant rally in Mumbai had said, “Such a huge calamity has occurred but the authorities did not order any review. There is no call for a review by experts or any clarifications on the Jaitapur plant.”
The Shiv Sena was conspicuous by its absence in the whole debate till November 2010. Then it decided to support the agitation
If the disaster was not enough to complicate matters, the issue has taken the most lethal but obvious turn: politicisation. The Shiv Sena was conspicuous by its absence in the whole debate on the Jaitapur plant till November 2010. They realised that supporting the protest movement on the ground will work best for their interests in the Konkan region, a former fiefdom currently under Rane’s influence.
Interestingly, it was the Shiv Sena-BJP government that chose the 938-hectare at Madban in 1995. It should also be recalled that the Sena that had promised to “throw the Enron project into the Arabian Sea” for the cause of Konkan, later took it up when they came to power.
The third major event was the Shiv Sena show of strength on 9 April, attended by around 50,000 in Mithgavane. Most senior party members from Thane, Raigad, Ratnagiri, Mumbai and Sindhudurg districts were present at the rally where executive president Uddhav Thackeray dared the government to go ahead with the project work without facing obstacles.
The 18 April incident was a direct outcome of the rally. A local leader spoke to TEHELKA during Soyekar’s funeral on the condition of anonymity, “By the time we could warn the youth not to support the Shiv Sena-led mob, a few groups had already left from Nate. When the news of police retaliation reached the village, spontaneous reactions could not be stemmed. Even today, when the funeral is on, these (Sena) leaders have come to hog the limelight. They should understand the sentiments of the people.”
These events have kept the Jaitapur issue hanging fire. Local protest leaders Pravin Gavankar of Janhit Sewa Samiti and Amjad Borkar of Macchimar Jagruti Samiti say that they welcome any political party that supports their cause. But they know the perils of supporting violent agitations.
The state administration, though, has benefited immensely from the Sena’s intervention. The politicisation of the debate has meant that real issues of environmental safety, livelihood problems, land acquisition, police oppression and setback to the economy have been completely isolated. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board too is yet to release any statement on the status of review of the Evolutionary Pressurised Reactor, being provided by Areva.
As summer nears its peak, the mango farmers in Jaitapur are busy. The alphonso produce has been disappointing this season and with the protest taking a violent turn, every tide is against their path.
Protest leader Pravin Gavankar sums up the mood: “A few days ago, some French channel came to interview me. For more than a day, they drained me mentally and physically,” he complains. “I am busy most of the times in my mango farming business. I am tired of protesting, I want to see some impact now. All the ongoing work at the site should be stopped. We won’t let this project come up in front of our eyes.”
Nikhil M Ghanekar is a Correspondent with Tehelka.com.
THE FIRST objection to the Jaitapur nuclear project is that the Evolutionary Pressurised Reactors (EPRs) to be set up have not so far been built and commissioned anywhere in the world. Its potential problems are totally unknown even to Areva, its developer, let alone to the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL). Even though Areva claims it has combined various best design features of other reactors in conceiving the EPR, at least one such reactor has to be built and put through various performance and safety tests before it can be accepted for purchase. Until then, the reliability and safety of the EPR will be considered extremely low.
Secondly, the promoters of this project (NPCIL and Areva) are silent about the serious problems that India, and especially the local community, has to face in the future after operations start and the spent-fuel starts accumulating at the site. The higher burn-up spent-fuel from the EPRs has its own unique hazards at the storage and transportation stages, unlike in the case of current Light Water Reactors (LWRs), which use lower burn-ups. Besides, the reprocessing of such fuel will be complex and the per MW-day production of usable plutonium from this plant will be low. These two reasons will make the EPRs least useful as plutonium producers for India’s progress towards the eventual thorium based indigenous fast-breeder reactors we plan to build.
Thirdly, we are buying into all these high risks at an enormous cost to the taxpayers. An EPR will cost no less than Rs 20 crore per MWe, if the government does not hide much of the costs under invisible subsidies. As against this, an Indian Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) will cost at the most Rs 8 crore per MWe. If we need nuclear power, why not import natural uranium alone from abroad and build a number of 700-1,000 MWe PHWRs, for which India does not require any technology imports?
Today, there is little public trust in the various atomic energy organisations in this country and their heads, unlike when Indira Gandhi or PV Narasimha Rao were prime ministers and Homi N Sethna or Raja Ramanna were Atomic Energy Commission chairmen. The ethical standards in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), NPCIL and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) have fallen considerably, especially since 2004, because of the current prime minister’s direct interference with these institutions to meet his political objective of getting the Indo-US nuclear deal passed in Parliament. All along, these nuclear agencies have also colluded with, and were assisted by, major Indian and foreign corporate houses and their federations interested in obtaining a share of the sizeable nuclear power business they are helping to establish in India.
Even in the evaluations and negotiations of cost, safety, performance and liability issues of imported reactors, our nuclear agencies are operating hand-inglove with corporate houses and their federations.
Under the circumstances, the PMO, DAE, NPCIL and AERB must be visibly delinked from corporate influences first and made truly independent, before the public can be expected to believe any of their assertions. It is also necessary to urgently constitute a high-level independent commission to openly review India’s nuclear power policies and recommend corrective actions.
A Gopalakrishnan is former chairman, AERB