Lalita Ramdas has inspired a generation of activists working for social and environmental justice. Through her engagements with Greenpeace and other prominent organisation, she has provided immense help and direction to a wide-range of social causes. She is a leading member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace and has visited the Koodankulam movement recently.

We interviewed her recently about the ongoing grassroots movements against nuclear energy in India:

 

What do you think has been the most important trigger behind the upsurge against nuclear energy – loss of livelihoods, concern for environment or fear of nuclear accident after Fukushima?

I believe that this upsurge against nuclear energy, both globally and within India, has been the result of a combination of several factors. We will look briefly at these:

  • Top of the list is clearly the tragic accident at Fukushima and its continuing fall out, which has catapulted issues of safety, radiation and alternative energy options right on to the list of topmost priorities.
  • Also this coincidentally, has been an outcome of a global growing awareness of the acute economic and environmental crises enveloping us from every side.
  • Last but not least, with economic disparities, lack of jobs, in ever possible sector, and the horror of displacement on account of a range of activities from mining to SEZs, the loss of livelihoods is a serious concern.

Agitations in Koodankulam and Jaitapur have seen huge participation of women, what do you think is the reason?

In any situation of large scale upheaval or displacement, or indeed any developments which pose a potential threat and danger to their life and that of their children, their immediate environment and their means of survival, it is women who bear the brunt. This results in an instinctive almost primeval response to come together and rally around a cause.

In the case of Koodankulam in particular, although the agitation and protests have been carrying on over several years now, from all accounts it was the experience of the Trial Run conducted by the KKNPP in August which triggered an immediate reaction and which in turn was mobilized imaginatively and creatively by the local leadership.

However the significant lesson to be learned in the case of Koodankulam in particular, is how outstanding leadership has built on the fundamental reaction by women in the community, to create a solid awareness and knowledge base about the causes and solutions to the concerns about Nuclear plants and Nuclear Energy. So these are no longer women who can be bullied or pushed around, as is often the case with political parties and their followings, but intelligent, articulate women who believe in what they are doing and are willing to defend it.

We hope that this example will serve as an excellent model for other movements and protests in our democracy – demonstrating that dissent and protest can be conducted in an orderly, non-violent and responsible manner.

Women have developed skills in organization, in management, in activism and above all in assuming leadership. More importantly, this has emerged organically and therefore in partnership with their menfolk, not in an aggressive or competitive manner. We have so much to learn.

This is outlined in greater detail in our Koodankulam Diaries, and I hope more of you will read them.

How has the larger civil society reacted to the anti-nuclear cause?

If there is one area of concern and disappointment, it has been this – that with the exception of a relatively small number of thoughtful people coming from a cross section of society, and now increasingly from those who are directly affected by the nuclear projects in different parts of the country, civil society as a whole have largely remained silent on the question of nuclear – be it weapons or energy.

While there is a somewhat wider circle of concern after Fukushima, unfortunately this still remains limited – and typically excludes the bulk of the middle class, most civil service and government related persons, and, significantly, our parliamentarians and members of the Legislatures.

As far as the majority of our people are concerned, their immediate concerns are with matters of livelihood, unemployment, access to education, health or shelter, acute distress around agriculture, and looming fears of displacement on one or other account. Therefore, awareness or concern about Nuclear matters is still very remote, since it does not touch their day to day lives and existence.

One important aspect must be factored into the complex question of attitudes to matters Nuclear in India – and that is the subtle but strong linkage which has been created in the public perception, namely that being a nuclear state and having nuclear weapons and by extension, nuclear power, is a sign of India’s power on the global stage and therefore bound up with nationalism and patriotism. Several of us have had to deal with open accusations of being anti-national, even traitors for coming out openly against Pokhran II in 1998. And since then there has always been a not so creative tension between the departments of nuclear power and all those perceived to be against nuclear at all levels.

An additional complication has been the strange dichotomy in attitude among certain political groupings who have been stridently against nuclear weapons, but equally strident in favour of nuclear energy. This has affected organizations like the CNDP (Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace) in being able to publicly speak out against nuclear power, until very recently.

The anti-nuclear movement has been accused to be Luddite and anti-development. What is your take?

The Hindu paper this morning, Jan 11 2012, carries an interesting centre page piece by Justice Markandeya Katju which is entitled Four People’s Principles – only modern science can solve the many problems that India’s masses face….And he goes on to expound at some length on what he sees as the overriding need for harnessing science for the benefit of our people. He is totally clear that by science he means “that knowledge by which we understand nature and harness it for our benefit”…Justice Katju highlights the need for and the interlinkages between, Science, Democracy, Livelihood and Unity of the People . He also minces no words when he points out that the rich in India have become richer, and the rich poor divide has increased – with economic growth benefiting only the handful. So for him, the nation using all its resources, has to find ways of raising the standard of living of the masses – and he is least concerned with whether we call the system – capitalism, socialism or communism, as long as this end is achieved.

This is a long winded answer to your question – but the very use of the term Luddite to denounce uncomfortable dissent from a unilateral definition of what constitutes development – is both unscientific and unwarranted – and totally irrelevant. Those who are serious about our overall objectives of a sustainable earth and equitable growth for all, will never term the widespread and growing opposition to the vulgar consumption patterns and the totally skewed expenditure on atomic weapons and nuclear energy as anti-development or Luddite. The present definition of `development’ and ‘harnessing nature’ by the government, and the corporate and nuclear lobby is largely based on destructive and dangerous exploitation of nature rather than a constructive one.

None of those opposing Nuclear energy are for a moment taking a position against India’s legitimate energy requirements in the coming year. But yes what we are saying is that the availability of energy for ALL, need not be predicated upon large scale grids and super expensive nuclear power or dirty coal – and that our energy needs can be more than fully met through a mix of renewable energy sources like solar, wind, small hydel, tidal energy sources.

We need to re-examine our priorities urgently and spread the word that those against nuclear energy are basically arguing for safer, cleaner, and a far less expensive energy system based on renewables, which will address both the critical problems of impending climate change and global warming in addition to being less hazardous , and far less expensive. We are also arguing for growth with equity, and not growth at all costs which ignores the needs of the larger majority and the masses, in favour of huge benefits for the few.
Bottom line – tell them to stop misquoting Ludd and the Luddites! And probe answers to the question – Development for Whom? Development for and of what? Development By Whome? And Whose definition of what constitutes development?

Why do you think the government is so obsessed with nuclear energy? Vested interests, misconceptions about growth and development, international pressures to buy nuclear reactors or some other reasons?

I wish I could answer this question – it is one that many of us keep asking over and over again – and the conjectures and possible scenarios we throw up are varied and complex!

You have already provided some possible answers: and it might be useful to flesh them out

“Vested Interests”? – a nice, vague and convenient phrase with which to obfuscate some of the underlying issues and contradictions. It is an open secret that there are several vested interests as far as Nuclear Plants are concerned . These would include the Nuclear Industry as a whole; their corporate and business collaborators; the governments in the major nuclear power producing countries together with their counterparts in the Nuclear power using countries; nuclear scientists and bureaucracy; and ofcourse media who, as we have seen in the case of Japan post Fukushima, have been spokespersons for the nuclear establishment and continue to be looked after very well.

Any visit to a website of the Nuclear industry would show us the kind of money power and influence they wield.

“Misconceptions about Growth and Development” – I would not be so kind as to term these as misconceptions. Those in charge in the corridors of power have enough and more experience and access to information and facts regarding the ground situations in a country like India to seriously harbour `misconceptions’ about growth or indeed about development’. For a Prime Minister of India to express shock and shame about a report that confirms that 42 % of children in India are severely malnourished, is disgraceful to say the least – and indicates more than anything else does how skewed our priorities are in this country.

“International Pressures” – yes without doubt – and it seems clearer and clearer that our leaders and policy makers are dancing to a tune, and working to an agenda whose priorities are set elsewhere and certainly not keeping the Indian people in mind. Why would a so-called leading scientist earlier this year, when quizzed about the deal with the French and US – in Jaitapur and the Indo US nuclear Deal – speak about keeping in mind the commercial interests of foreign countries? Sadly it appears that we are willing to sell ourselves to the highest bidders – and if it means wreaking havoc on our people, their land, waters and forests – so be it.

OTHER REASONS – one can only guess at what those might be

What comes to my, suspicious, mind, is that the over riding imperative for India to become a leading regional power, and to occupy a seat at the high table of the Security Council, is one dominating factor in all our foreign policy initiatives. And in that quest, India needs to be recognized as a nuclear power with capacity in weapons as much as in nuclear power generation.

Let us never forget that there is a very close link between nuclear power generation and the creation of raw material for nuclear weapons. Perhaps this stubborn belief in nuclear energy has to do with this?

What are the strengths of the grassroots movements and how does the larger society need to support?

In a general situation of some gloom and frustration, many of us see hope and derive our optimism from the thousands of small but strong grass roots movements across India at any given time. Koodankulam is just one example, and there are many – fighting big dams, SEZs, coal mining, destruction of forests, degradation of the oceans, battles on water as much as on violence against women, the fight against GM food, and the list goes on and on.

Moving to live in village India nineteen years ago, and the series of choices we have made since then, have taught us lessons that no text book could have. We have moved from being rather typical middle class service types, to walking a different path altogether – a path of resistance, of dissent, of protests, of raising our voices, of being called anti-national, unpatriotic , and verging on so called seditious behaviour in the eyes of the mainstream.

We are learning that our democracy is fragile and immature; and that the levels of openness and tolerance in the Indian State to suggestions and dissent are tottering on the verge of increasing authoritarianism. And we are seeing that the way ahead will be tough and will challenge each one of us to examine our consciences and make choices as to whose side we are on. It will not be easy – but at one level it is simple – as Lao Tsu the great founder of Taoism somewhere in 600 BC said

“Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say “We have done this ourselves”.”

Can there be a better definition of Democracy? But it is the hardest lesson of all…….

 THANKS !