The strong resistance against the proposed Haripur nuclear power plant in the Indian state of West Bengal has forced the state government to reject the union government’s proposal. Shamik Sarkar, associated with a Bengali small scale grassroots newspaper called Songbadmanthan,  summarises the key lessons of the struggles. A detailed Citizen’s Report on the proposed plant can be read here.

A Nuclear Power Station in the province of West Bengal is long due. The effort started in 1970s, during the tenure of Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister of India. Primarily preferred locations included Dantan and Khejuri in the district of Medinipur. Later the location changed to Sunderban. But the nuclear catastrophe in Three Mile Island (USA) and in Chernobyl (USSR) created awareness about disastrous effect of nuclear power, through the campaign by people’s science movements in West Bengal. A section of the rural people of Sunderban, urban activists and ruling CPI-M party (Communist Party of India Marxist) members opposed the idea of setting up the nuclear power plant in Sunderban. The proposal has been kept in abeyance.

Since 2000, nuclear power business saw a scope of revival throughout the world. Nuclear power has been put up as an alternative to thermal power which is partly responsible for Global Warming phenomenon. Nuclear corporates labeled the worst form of power as the ‘green energy’ in their campaign. They took the pro-corporate political elites in their fold, bought a large section of big media. We have seen Manmohan Singh, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and Amar Singh-s are equally enthusiast about the prospect of Nuclear Power. We have seen that the parliamentarians are bought in Cash-for-vote scam for voting in favour of the India-US nuclear power pact or 123 deal (Revealed through the US diplomatic cables, made public by Bradley Manning via Wikileaks). Who bribed? That is a secret. We can well assume that the money, amounting crores, came from Nuclear Corporates. We don’t know whether PM-CMs were also favoured by the nuclear corporates. Nobody accused them. Till now.

News of a proposal for a fresh Nuclear Power Plant in West Bengal first appeared in an influential big newspaper on 18th August 2006. The initial place was rumoured to be Egra in East Medinipur. Popular science movements and organisations launched protests, workshops, road blockades, signature campaigns locally. In the meanwhile, some Government Officials visited the coastal village called Haripur, took samples of soil, and made a mark of ‘zero point’ near the house of Sitangshu Jana.

On 15th November 2006 villagers got the news that a team from NPCIL (Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited) was coming to Haripur for inspection. The whole village, comprising peasants and fisher folks, organised themselves to resist the team. The villagers were afraid that they would be evicted now. On 17th hundreds of villagers including elders and children blocked the entrance to Haripur. The NPCIL team, headed by Shri S K Jain, came in the afternoon, along with a police force. Villagers blocked them. The team members initially tried to pursue the villagers by saying that they wanted to walk at the sea-beach. Villagers asked why the ‘tourists’ came with the police force! The team returned back. In the afternoon local Block Development Officer came to the spot with a police force. Villagers resist them also. MLA Subhendu Adhikary reached the spot. But villagers did not bend.

On the following day, more villagers gathered at the entrance of Haripur. An all party meeting held a few kilometers away. MLA led the NPCIL team to the spot as the all-party-meeting decided that the team should be allowed to visit the place as it would be a dishonour to the State if a Central team is sent back like this. Political society is very keen to safeguard the State protocol than to represent the popular voice. But the villagers didn’t spare an inch for the visiting team and assessing the mood of the people, MLA changed his opinion. The inspection team returned back to Delhi. The villagers made a bamboo barricade at the entrance of their village (on the sea-dyke), burnt a culvert in order to prevent police cars from rushing in. The vigil started and lasted for months. For next couple of years, Haripur was a pleasant destination of anti-nuclear scientists and activists. The solidarity with the Haripur villagers grew all over West Bengal. A couple of NGOs, Popular science movements and Little magazines took the lead. To note, Haripur is close to Nandigram where great people’s uprising took place, against the land acquisition for a Special Economic Zone in January 2007.

Political society’s response was mixed one. Ruling CPI-M tried to say that the project and the site were selected by Central Government, which may not be a lie. But at the same time they maintained that the Nuclear Power is the option for future. People’s anger was primarily directed against the possible eviction from their lands. The fear of nuclear radiation was not the primary concern. The main opposition party TMC (MLA belonged to this party) assured that once they came to power they would cancel the Plant. Haripur’s village level representative was from Socialist Party which was a very small partner in the-then ruling coalition. He supported the movement. Local CPIM members broke the party ranks and joined the movement. The village stood united. But no established political party called for the complete abandonment of nuclear power. Some NGOs (including National Fishermen’s Federation and Khetmajur Samiti, who were part of the movement from the very beginning) and science organisations took the stand. Constant intervention for months from the anti-nuclear activists and these organisations made a headway into the minds of the villagers about the special danger associated with Nuclear. I have heard that the people, still concerned mainly for their lands and fishing, saying that ‘a burst in the nuclear plant would destroy us’ in the month of March 2007.

The political situation changed in West Bengal dramatically after the people’s resistances against land acquisition for industries held across the state, and particularly in Nandigram. The 34 year electoral supremacy of CPIM coalition eroded away very fast. In 2008, most of the village level represetations went in favour of the TMC. In 2009 TMC won majority of the members of parliament from the state. In 2011 legislative election, CPIM coalition has been defeated miserably. The newly appointed minister of power of ruling TMC announced that there will be no nuclear power plant in Haripur or elsewhere in West Bengal.

This is a welcome development. But the announcement may not be a guarantee of the nuclear-free West Bengal. There can not be a nuclear-free province when nuclear establishments are frequent in other provinces. Jadugora Uranium mines, located in neighbouring Jharkhand state, are getting fresh lease, and continue to contaminate river streams those are flowing down to West Bengla as well. Radioactive particles, leaked systematically from nuclear installations, spread throughout the world riding on the wind. Radioactive nuclides from Fukushima plants reached the entire Northern Hemisphere within a couple of weeks. South Korians locked themselves in their houses once rain started in April this year, fearing that they would be exposed to the radio-isotopes of Fukushima coming down through rain. Thus, we need to be alert, pro-active, and aggressive for a nuclear free planet. The announcement by a minister must not be received as a ‘win’ to the anti-nuclear movement. There is no ‘win’, as it is not a game or politics of power.

The anti-nuclear awareness in the society is not overwhelming in West Bengal. In fact, educated urban youths are much favourable to Nuclear power. During a signature campaign for complete abandonment of nuclear power in post Fukushima days, we encountered a lot of questions from this section. The notion of ‘development’ plays a great role in making a pro-nuclear populace. The most popular question we faced was like this one : How to feed the development when fossil fuel is limited? And the options of renewable energy resources may not be sufficient to address this. There is a definite lack of understanding about the disastrous aspects of nuclear power. People think of nuclear-safety as simple as a gas cylinder-safety. Some of the most educated ones don’t understand that safe-nuclear is a utopia. And villagers are mostly unaware of the devastating capabilities nuclear energy has got. Energy-intensive paths of development seem to be the only course people can foresee. Anti nuclear movements should focus on the aspects of nuclear catastrophe and socio-economic courses which require less energy.