The Lourdu Matha Church on the beach at Idinthakarai in Tamil Nadu’s Thirunelveli district is the nerve centre of protests against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant. About 5,000 people—men, women, and children—have made the church their home. They go to their homes in the morning, spend an hour or two, cook food, feed the elderly at home, and come back. A community kitchen in the church compound serves two meals a day. They live, feed their children and sleep under the sky on the beach, waiting for instructions from their leaders on what next. “Either we will die, or the nuclear plant will run,” says Rosamma, a 58-year-old woman of Idinthakarai village.
Though the people around here have been protesting for more than two decades now, it is only recently that their struggle has entered the limelight. It all began here in 1988, the year that the power project was signed between India and the Soviet Union. In these 24 years, Koodankulam locals have held demonstrations, public meetings, seminars, signature campaigns, foot marches and hunger strikes. The Government, meanwhile, went ahead with its construction of the plant, which has now reached the final stage—of fuelling the reactors. Last year, the protestors intensified their agitation by going on indefinite hunger strikes. Alas, it did not make the Government change its mind, and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board has also given its go-ahead to begin fuelling the reactors.
On 9 September, the agitation took a bloody turn. Around 6,000 people marched towards the plant. The police responded with a lathi charge and firing of tear gas shells. A fisherman was killed and several others injured. The days that followed showed how the State was at war with its own people.
A journey through the villages of Koodankulam, Tsunami Colony, Perumanal, Bhairaavikinar and Idinthakarai offers a tour of police brutality. On 10 September, the day after the lathi charge and firing, the police barged into each and every house in these villages and wreaked violence. This correspondent reached half an hour after a raid in East Kamaraj Nagar Colony in Koodankulam, only to be met with broken window panes, and damaged bicycles, rickshaws and jeeps. Gopinath, a 12-year-old, was lying semi-conscious in his home. There were injuries on his face and he was still bleeding. His left arm was broken. He had been beaten up in the presence of his father Dharmapandi and mother Bala. “When the police arrived, we tried to close the door. They forcibly opened it and started beating up my husband who was sleeping. When I cried, a policeman kicked me with his boot. My son tried to prevent the cops from beating up my husband. Then they turned to him,” says Bala. Dharmapandi was taken into custody. Of the 300 odd houses in the colony, few were spared.
Thankamani, who is 80 years old, was asleep at home when the police barged in. They asked her where the men were hiding. She tried to tell them that there was no one at home. “They kicked me in my stomach,” she says. That Tuesday, around 20 men were picked up in Koodankulam village. From Tsunami Colony, which is within a 2 km radius of the plant, residents fled fearing further police violence. Even the elderly and the sick took refuge at the Lourdu Matha Church. On Wednesday, 11 September, I could see only abandoned houses in the Colony. Inside, I spotted broken television sets, kitchen utensils and clothes strewn around. The police later denied any role in the chaos and attributed the violence to protestors.
Robin, son of Roslin and Britto of Idinthakarai, is seven years old. He had an injury on his face. Asked about it, he takes a minute to find his voice. He tries, but only ends up weeping. His grandmother Violet then narrates their story. Robin was among those injured by the police the previous day. When the lathi charge started, young Robin got lost in the scattering crowd and was trapped right in front of the police, who were loading tear gas shell launchers. Robin was so close to the police that a launcher hit his face after a shell was fired. It might not have been an intentional attack, but they ignored the injured boy who’d fallen down, and continued firing shells into the crowd.
Journalists were not spared. Times Now cameraman PS Sujesh was roughed up by the Rapid Action Force (RAF) and Tamil Nadu Police commandos. Sujesh had been capturing belligerent cops battering bikes parked along the seashore. After they saw him, the RAF men kicked him and struck his forehead. They snatched and smashed his camera.
Rajesh Das, Inspector General of South Zone, refuses to answer questions on the police vandalism. “Many cops were injured in the violence committed by protestors,” he says, “A policeman would have died if we had not reached on time.” Asked for specifics—when and how the policeman was attacked and what his name was—Das says this is ‘not being polite’ and a little too under-appreciative of the police’s role in maintaining law and order. “Write whatever you want to write, I don’t bother,” he says, asking me to leave.
MP Jasuraj, a member of the coordination committee of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), which leads the agitation, says that the police top brass had warned them that they would smash the colonies if their leaders did not surrender. “We got a clear message from them,” he says. The day after the crackdown, Dr SP Udayakumar, the agitation’s leader, announced his decision to court arrest. Despite the village being completely cordoned off, he made a dramatic appearance at the satyagraha venue to huge applause. He said that a national leader would arrive by evening and that both Udayakumar and, another leader, M Pushparayan, would court arrest in his presence. The leader turned out to be Arvind Kejriwal.
The rest of the day was a study in how people subvert their leaders’ best laid plans. Udayakumar could not finish his emotional farewell speech, as a crowd—mostly women—rushed onto the stage, wailed at his feet, hugged him, and begged him not to surrender. Udayakumar and Pushparayan were rushed to the beach by a crowd. Press photographers who followed were blocked by a human chain that suddenly took form. They did not want the media to know where he was being taken. He was then whisked away on a boat.
Kejriwal, who arrived late at night, had nothing to do but declare solidarity and request Udayakumar not to surrender. “The Government is waging war against people,” he said, “Udayakumar should not surrender. The police should disclose the charges against him and the others.”
The legality of the police action remains hazy. The Koodankulam protestors have no clear idea of the number of people arrested or detained. An idol of Mother Mary at Lourdu Matha was found in pieces. Protestors allege that the police had barged into the church and smashed it.
House-to-house searches continued late into the evening on 12 September. Protestors also say that drinking water and power supply to their villages has been cut off since 10 September. That’s not all. As a pressure tactic, according to PMANE activists, even water tankers have been blocked by the police. It’s bad enough that the villages were in complete darkness for two days.
The least that PMANE expects the Government to do is address legitimate questions about the plant’s environmental impact, safety and viability. “Only six out of 17 safety measures have so far been implemented even in this final phase of fuel loading. The Government resorts to the strategy of cracking down on our protest instead of engaging us,” says Udayakumar, chairman of PMANE. “Reports of environmental impact assessment, site evaluation or safety assessment have not been shared with either the people or the press.”
Protestors are also keen to invite those suspicious of their ‘funding’ to stay with them for a few days. “Why do we need foreign funds?” asks F Jayakumar, an activist. “People here are living on the bare minimum. They eat only twice a day, they do not need luxuries or entertainment.” Villagers contribute Rs 10 a day to the common pool. “Do you think that a people’s movement to which the people contribute a portion of their daily income would ever face a shortage of funds?” asks 50-year-old Sharlet, a fisherwoman who is now a PMANE activist.
That it is a genuine people’s movement is beyond doubt, by the evidence all around. This correspondent saw farmers coming in from neighbouring districts like Thoothukkudi and Kanyakumari in trucks loaded with rice and vegetables. They are aware of the issue, and are agitated about the nuclear plant. And despite the State’s strongarm tactics, they are determined to keep up their agitation.
On 12 September, the 395th day of the indefinite struggle, 3,000 odd people—half of them women and children—moved to the sea. This jal satyagraha came to a temporary halt after Francis Sahayam, a 38-year-old protestor fell off a seaside rock as a Coast Guard aircraft passed closely by. He succumbed to his injuries on 13 September, and PMANE activists objected to a post-mortem, as the police had not filed an FIR against the Coast Guard. This standoff was resolved only later, once an FIR was registered and the district administration agreed to order a judicial enquiry.
The agitators are unlikely to give up. In fact, their methods of protest are turning more inventive by the day. On 15 September, locals of Kootapuli near Idinthakarai dug symbolic mass graves for themselves on the seashore, and around 500 of them buried themselves partly in the sand to signal the fate they believe awaits them. Laying siege to the plant site is next on the agenda, as Udayakumar said on 18 September, re-appearing in public after a week. Clearly, it’s going to be one long battle.
Why PMANE is Saying ‘No’
The Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) reactors are being set up without sharing the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), Site Evaluation Study and Safety Analysis Report with the people.
» Tamil Nadu Government G.O. 828 (29.4.1991 – Public Works Department) establishes clearly that “area between 2 to 5 km radius around the plant site, [would be] called the sterilization zone.” This means that people in this area could be displaced. But the KKNPP authorities promise orally and on a purely adhoc basis that nobody from the neighboring villages would be displaced.
» More than one million people live within the 30 km radius of the KKNPP which far exceeds the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) stipulations. It is impossible to evacuate this many people quickly in case of a nuclear disaster.
» The coolant water and low-grade waste from the KKNPP are going to be dumped in to the sea which will have a severe impact on fish production and catch, affecting the food security of southern Tamil Nadu and southern Kerala.
» The plant would be emitting Iodine 131, 132, 133, Cesium 134, 136, 137 isotopes, strontium, tritium, tellurium and other such radioactive particles into air, land, crops, cattle, sea, seafood and ground water.
» There have been international concerns about the design, structure and workings of the untested Russian-made VVER-1000 reactors.
» The then Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh had announced some months ago that the Centre had decided not to give permission to KKNPP 3-6 for violating the Coastal Regulation Zone stipulations. It is pertinent to ask if KKNPP 1 and 2 are not violating CRZ terms.
» Political leaders and bureaucrats say there will be no natural disasters in Koodankulam area but how can anyone ever know? The 2004 December tsunami did flood the KKNPP installations. Since a nuclear disaster cannot be effectively dealt with, it is more prudent to prevent it from occurring. Germany has decided to phase out nuclear power plants by 2022. Switzerland has decided to shun nuclear power technology. In a recent referendum, 90 percent Italians voted against nuclear power. Both United States and Russia have not built a new reactor for two to three decades since the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents. In India, the Mamta Banerjee government has stopped the Russian nuclear power park project at Haripur. Like West Bengal, even Kerala has decided not to host nuclear power projects.
» The Indian Prime Minster himself has spoken about terrorist threats to India’s nuclear power plants.
» The issue of liability for the Russian plants has not been settled. Defying Indian nuclear liability law, Russia insists that the Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA), secretly signed in 2008 by the Indian and Russian governments, precedes the liability law and that Article 13 of the IGA clearly establishes that NPCIL is solely responsible for all claims of damages.