M.G.Devasahayam


Shri M. G. Devasahayam is a former IAS and Managing Trustee, Citizens Alliance for Sustainable Living, Chennai

Article Courtesy: G Files

Proclaiming that ‘bread is more important than freedom’, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency in June 1975 extinguishing democracy and fundamental rights. The reverberating voice of Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) thundered in retort:

         “Freedom became one of the beacon lights of my life and it has remained so ever since…. Above all it meant freedom of the human personality, freedom of the mind, freedom of the spirit. This freedom has become a passion of my life and I shall not see it compromised for bread, for security, for prosperity, for the glory of the state or for anything else”.

At the electoral battle in 1977 people rejected Indira Gandhi and upheld JP.  In today’s India of mammon-worship, people might have forgotten JP, but can they abandon freedom and democracy for the sake of a few hundred megawatts of nuclear power? This is the moot question in the farmer-fisher-folk struggle against the Russia-built Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) in the southern tip of India. No doubt, basically the struggle is to oppose ‘destructive’ nuke-power. But the battle at ‘ground zero’ is more about draconian laws, repression and suppression of freedom and fundamental rights.

Faced with such a situation, in May 2012, civil society groups formed a Jury headed by Justice AP Shah, former Chief Justice of Madras and Delhi High Courts. Wide range of project affected and concerned citizens including farmers, fishermen, homemakers, students, shop-keepers, professionals and journalists testified before the jury about the repression they faced in the form of arrests and threats by state machinery when they chose to oppose the KKNPP.

The jury found severe restrictions on freedom of speech and movement, and denial of access to information, food, education and health of the project affected people (PAP). By preventing effective transport from reaching the villages and making children walk long distances, especially when they were writing their annual examination, their right to education was badly affected. Restriction on movement also impacted on right to health of the residents as they could not get adequate and timely medical help. PAP have not been able to carry out their normal livelihood activities because of indiscriminate and arbitrary arrests and terror tactics indulged by the police.

Over 8000 ordinary, peaceful citizens have been charged with draconian offences under IPC Sections 121 (Waging war against the state) and 124 A (Sedition).  Out of them 54 persons (Women–7; Youth-2 and Men–45) continue to rot in jail. Even children were not spared.

Another jury headed by Justice BG Kolse Patil, former judge of the Bombay High Court went into the incidents on September 10 and 11, when a 7000 strong police force indulged in brutal lathi-charge and tear-gassing on the PAP protesting peacefully on the sea coast followed by raiding of villages, homes and huts.

Women spoke of the abusive and vulgar remarks of the police whenever they were accosted. One disabled woman gave evidence of physical molestation and another spoke of police chasing the women into the sea and making obscene gestures. Mothers have seen their sons and husbands beaten and dragged off by the police. Jury was of the view that these incidents of public humiliation were bound to leave deep wounds in the psyches of the victims and those who witnessed it, particularly children.

All these freedom-killing activities were to commission a Russia-FDI funded1000MWe nuclear power plant borne of illegality, lie, deceit and skullduggery. To start with the plant has no valid, legally mandated Environment Clearance (EC), rules for which were framed under the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) only in the nineties. Only a No Objection Certificate (NoC) was issued by Union Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) on 09-05-1989. Site clearance for the project was given by Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) on 10-11-1989 meaning that when NoC was issued, the plant site had not even been finalised! This is gross illegality.

The original agreement with USSR was signed in 1988 on the premise that the spent-fuel would be shipped back to that country for treatment and disposal. In the Supplemental Agreement signed with Russia in 1998 it was agreed to retain the spent-fuel in India. Since spent-fuel is highly radioactive and very toxic, its handling and storage involves very high risks and serious environmental implications. Approval under EPA was not obtained, construction went ahead, fuel was loaded and the plant is on the verge of commissioning when Supreme Court on 17 October 2012 asked the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL): “Where would the nuclear waste go and what impact would it have on environment and people’s health if it is transported to other places? How much and how long can such waste be stored?” Even this basic safety issue has not been addressed and instead harsh repression was let loose on the PAP to commission the plant!

Originally it was stated that cooling water for the project would be drawn from a reservoir, but was later changed to seawater desalination plant even to keep the spent-fuel in safe storage. This is totally unsustainable and warranted fresh clearance under EPA and Coastal Regulation Zone Rules. This has not been done.

As per safety standards, every nuclear plant has to have an ‘exclusion zone’ of 1.6 km radius where no person can reside. At least 4,000 people live in the KKNPP ‘Exclusion Zone’. Besides, there must be a ‘sterlised zone’ of at least 10 kms where at the most 5000 people can reside. In fact, more than 40,000 people live within 5-km radius of the plant. All this has been ignored. Even basic requirements under the Disaster Management Act-2005 like off-site emergency preparedness drill before commencement of fuel-loading have not been complied with.

Russian reactor manufacturing company has refused to share any part of civil liability in case of an accident due to defect in the reactor and Government has meekly caved in. This is a matter of intense debate.

AERB, the Regulatory body, is not independent. CAG has come out with scathing observations about the ‘lapses in safety measures’ by the AERB posing ‘grave threats.’ Several lapses by AERB have been highlighted: Non-preparation of a nuclear and radiation policy; no safety documents as recommended by two expert committees; no decommissioning plan which is extremely critical for public safety and non-adoption of international safety standards and practices. Typical example of AERB’s servility is the fact that NPCL went ahead with fuel-loading without implementing 11 of the 17 safety measures recommended by the post-Fukushima taskforce appointed by the Government of India at the instance of AERB!

A la Indira Gandhi, Manmohan Singh is saying: “Nuke-power is more important than Freedom” and has let loose Emergency-type repression and oppression against those who dissent. Long ego, Prime Minister Nehru used to exhort his countrymen: “Freedom is in PerilDefend it with all your Might”. Present-day PM exhorts thus: “FDI is in peril, crush Freedom with all your might”. Like they did in 1977, it is for the nation and its people to make the right choice and take note of Thomas Paine’s famous words: “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”