Shiv Vishwanathan

Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.

Article courtesy: The Asian Age

The battle over Koodankulam should have been constructed as a graphic novel. It has the right Manichean touch, where the two sides attribute the worst to each other.

Koodankulam is a play, a drama that nullifies old historic scripts and stereotypes.

Firstly, it is not just about nuclear energy. By forcing it into one domain, the broader ethics of the struggle was lost. Koodankulam is about communities struggling with the nation state. A community as a local entity seeks its own interpretation of the future. It seeks to script its own voice. Koodankulam is not just about free speech but about the right to retain one’s livelihood. A livelihood is more than a job. Jobs might be substitutable in an economic calculus. A livelihood demands a sense of place; it is a way of life and a worldview. Koodankulam argues around the worldview of fishermen.

Cognitively fishing is an amphibian exercise. It thinks from land to sea and sea to land. A sea is a mode of thought, not just a body of water, a dump for waste. It reminds one of what the representative of Tahiti said when arguing against French nuclear testing in the Pacific. John Doom claimed that the sea and the Tahitian islanders need to be represented and understood. Most experts, he said, think from land to sea but the Tahitians think from sea to land. Water was their way of life, their ecology for thought. The Koodankulam argument has shades of this worldview. It is interesting that the protesters have carried the struggle to the sea.

Koodankulam argues that livelihood and the ecology of the beach as an intermediate commons of sea and land offers a perspective beyond mere security. The concept of security summons the blinders of the nation’s state. It is a summons to uniform when a diversity of thinking is essential. Yet, Koodankulam, for all its noise, is a conversation. It debates that mysterious word, insists on opening up the black box of awe that we call “national interest”.

The duo of the words “security” and “national interest” has often been used to suppress debate suggesting that these two words represent the greater good. What Koodankulam playfully and sometimes desperately asks is “who decides?” Is it New Delhi representing the nation state as articulated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and scientists or J. Jayalalithaa as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu? Where does the subaltern voice enter the theories of the nation state? Koodankulam raises wider issues about development and democracy where nuclear energy only becomes a site of a bigger debate. In that sense, Koodankulam is metaphor for a deeper tragedy, both global and Indian.

One has to eliminate three canards that often besmirch the debate. The first was raised in its most obscene form by that wily Shakuni of Indian politics, Subramanian Swamy. Mr Swamy represents pathology as deep as Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. Mr Swamy claimed that the protest is led by Christian priests and nuns, seeking to point out that they are cultural spoilers. Christianity is as old as 51 AD in India. It is part of the syncretism of India. Christian groups have played a major role in politics. One cannot visualise the great fishing struggle without them. Let me also emphasise that the fishing struggle was led by dissenting priests who had to fight both the church and the party.

Fisherfolk and their families protesting at the Tuticorin port against the Koodankulam reactor project.

The second is that old spoiler, “the foreign hand”. Indira Gandhi attributed the Emergency to it and the media showers the word like confetti. The foreign hand is opposed to the invisible hand, the wisdom of the market. One must recollect that the Indian national movement was full of foreigners from Annie Besant and Octavian Hume to Gandhi’s comrades Madeleine Slade and Charles Andrews. If the second national movement began today, New Delhi would suppress it as a “CIA plot”.

Thirdly, S.P. Udayakumar of Koodankulam anti-nuclear movement and other activists are tarred as NGOs. Let us admit that there are numerous NGOs that have to get their accounts in order but let us also add that the disease goes further. A retiring bureaucrat is also a prospective NGO, often already registered in the name of his wife. We need to be open-ended here and apply judgment from case to case. The idealism and commitment of Mr Udayakumar is not in doubt. He is a satyagrahi in the true sense of the term.

Koodankulam is about the imagination of a local democracy where fishermen are asking whether words like safety, efficiency, cost are the preserve of state experts or these are terms to be debated in an open democracy. Does the fact that the technocratic saint Abdul Kalam declare nuclear energy to be safe anoints the term or do we need to unpack the term and debate it all over again? Our experts, especially our economists and our scientists, use technical words to beat down a people. Fortunately, there are enough dissenting scientists especially at IISC Bengaluru, including Madhav Gadgil and the IISC director, to continue the open scientific traditions of Satish Dhawan and an Amulya Reddy.

I want to make one last point. Koodankulam is not just a battle for rights. It evokes rights when the state suppresses the movement but it summons a second imagination which is surfacing quietly in India. Koodankulam evokes the idea of the commons as a complementary imagination to rights. Rights focus on the individual but the commons works the ideas and ecologies of communities, the modes of survival of marginal groups. It claims the sea and the coast are commons. They belong to the people and the future. The state and the corporations cannot appropriate them. It argues that the dam, the mine, the reactor enact the true tragedy of the commons in India and people have to debate this. One cannot ask for more or demand less from these great struggles.