K.Ramachandran

K. Ramachandran is a pioneer anti-nuclear activist of India and has been among the leaders of the Peringome struggle in kerala where people’s resistance suceeded in getting a nuclear power project scrapped.

Ramachandran is now associated with Public Health Forum, Payyanur;Kannur Dist, Kerala. He can be contacted at: [email protected].

The Peringome Struggle has been held up as a singular instance of success in India in scrapping a proposed nuclear plant. This was possible by the pressure mounted by the campaign based on the socio-political and educational status as well as the demographic and geographical peculiarities of the state. The environmental consciousness promoted and spread by the ‘silent valley’ movement and the general apprehension about radiation health hazards generated by  discussions about the Chernobyl disaster fresh in the minds of the people, helped the resistance to gain such momentum. Now that about two decades have elapsed, I think, it is proper to make a few possible generalisations, especially when we are exploring chances of better networking and cooperation among anti-nuclear groups all over India. Of course there are lessons to be learnt from both the positive aspects and drawbacks of our struggle.

A very brief account of the Peringome struggle appears to be relevant, to give an idea to new activists and to refresh the memories of the old ones. When an earlier attempt to establish a nuclear power plant at Bhoothathankettu in southern Kerala was defeated by the protests of the people, renewed and more vigorous efforts were on to try nuclear luck in Kasragod, the northern most district of the state which was comparatively the least ‘developed’. To make matters worse, at that time the districts of Kannur and Kasaragod were experiencing acute power shortage and extreme low voltage.Under the pretext of this ‘energy crisis,’ the NPC, bigwigs of the Atomic E nergy Commission and the Government of      Kerala ,its ruling parties and  their trade unions orchestrated a gigantic propaganda campaign to convince the power starved people that a nuclear plant at Peringome was the only solution to the problem. A debate followed. The Anti- nuclear activists had to do hard work to convince the really worried people that there were viable solutions to the existing problem and that the nuclearists were only trying to exploit the situation by their clever disinformation campaign to get social consent for the most anti human project. The usual scenario followed. Nuclear experts “educated’ the people on the benefits of the nuclear route and its comparative advantages over other options; activists were dubbed as anti-development luddites who wanted to turn the clock back, while the ‘new’ technology would usher in heaven on earth. Activists came forward with sensible and practicable suggestions to solve the immediate crisis: 1)Topmost priority should be given to extend the220 KV HT line at Trichur to Kannur and Kasaragod so that the voltage problem at tail end could be overcome 2) Transmission losses (it was about21% at that time), if reduced just by half, would save much more power than would have been available from the proposed reactor,3)  mini- micro hydels, solar and wind options could be viable alternatives in a decentralised and democratic set up for solution of real energy needs as against the inflated projected demands of vested interests. Any how the nuclear option was unacceptable as it would harm even future generations; economically it would destroy us and politically it could endanger the very basis of our democracy; even if we had to go without power we no more wanted any Chernobyl in spite of the complacent assurances of the nucleocrats. Even the nuclearists’ norms for siting could not be met anywhere in Kerala as the density of population was too high.

The plant was to be located at Peringome in Kannur District, about 70 KMs away from the District capital. It was surrounded by thickly populated areas including towns.; Karataka state also will come under impacted area if at all there is radiation  leak What we did was to form the Peringome Anti nuclear Forum, a broad platform into which  social, cultural, environmental and public health activists of all hues, opposing a nuclear plant could be brought. Widespread house to house  campaigns in and around the proposed site and its neighbourhood was undertaken. Attempts to educate the people on the effects of nuclear radiation were undertaken. At the same time, viable and rational options to tackle the low voltage and power shortage were suggested. Several meetings, demonstrations and rallies were held .Eminent personalities including writers, artists and scientists participated in these campaigns to promote mass awareness on the monstrosity of the project. Mainstream political parties were all chauvinistically in favour of the project and they depicted those who opposed the projects as no better than primitives or monkeys who did not want electricity. A boost in employment was promised to all the unemployed, as  the dream of abundant electricity was about to be realised if the plant materialised

 In the meanwhile, we tried to educate all the legislators of the state also giving detailed pamphlets along with our Representations and memoranda to abandon the nuclear plant. Meetings, seminars, slide shows, film exhibitions, street plays, symposia, debates etc were conducted throughout the state .It was at this time that we came to associate with the Anumukti team .Dr. Surendra Gadekar and Dr Sanghamitra Gadekar of the SKV,vedcchi lent their full support to our efforts and involved in all our activities. They organised a cycle rally and pedalled all the way from Vedcchi in Gujarat to Peringome.

The agitation was started on 26th April 1990.Chernobyl day was observed in Peringome .On Hiroshima day in1991 all the govt offices at Peringome were picketed by thousands of people. Yet, the authorities were in no mood to give up the project

Protests continued and culminated in the great Peoples March to the Kannur collectorate, starting from Peringome on first November1991, the state formation day,and reaching Kannur on 4th Nov. People turned up in large numbers from all over Kerala .The spirit of solidarity and ovation with which the march was welcomed by people at different centres on its 70 Km route was quite inspiring and overwhelming.

People from all walks of life, cutting across party affiliations joined the March and proclaimed a resounding “NO’ to the nuclear plant. Artists, writers, professionals media personnel and ordinary people –all joined hands in solidarity and made the march a memorable experience. A charter of demand was submitted to the Collector at the conclusion of the march requiring the govt to declare in unequivocal terms that the nuclear plant would be abandoned. “ In order to guard the future generations’ right to live we shall struggle against the nuclear plant till our last breath’-This pledge was administered by the poet-environmentalist Sugathakumari and echoed by thousands who  had gathered for the valedictory meeting

The ruling front at  last realised how strong popular sentiment against the plant was, and they did not want to risk its winning prospect in the election by antagonising the sympathies of a large section of the population, especially as, in Kerala, always a small percentage of shift in voting patterns could swing the whole chances of winning from one front to the other. Thus eventually a silent burial was given to the proposal.

The leadership of this struggle was quite different from the conventional hierarchical mould. In fact, there were no ‘leaders ‘as such , no ‘shepherd’ or ‘flocks’ but only organisers who took the initiative to convince people from all walks of life to join the struggle. There was an air of spontaneity altogether in people’s participation in the agitation.

The campaign consciously desisted from exaggerations, cooked up statistics, and sentimental methods appealing to religious, caste or party loyalties. It wanted to be objective, logical and efficient in its presentation of facts as far as possible and democratic in implementation of decisions. The reading public became well informed of the nuclear issue as several books, leaflets and campaign materials were published, exhibited and displayed during the agitation. Factual descriptions and accounts of struggles elsewhere such as Kaiga, Kakrapar and Rawathbhatta were given to the public. The media also contributed to the discussions and kept the debate alive.

Instead of ‘lobbying’, what we did was to try to convince even all the MLAs of our assembly with enough reading material on the nuclear issue. It was a sincere attempt to remove nuclear illiteracy which existed even among the educated.

Advertisements by the NPC, declarations by AEC stalwarts, and articles in the media by pro-nuclear propagandists were answered or responded to promptly and effectively. The tall claims, half truths and outright lies used by the nuclear lobby were exposed.

Solidarity was established with several organisations in the country, fighting against nuclear plants and similar other anti –people and anti environment projects.

We demonstrated that issue based co operation as a group is possible though difficult, even among people, ideologically different and with loyalties to opposing political points of view.

When we look back, what helped us very much, especially later in several other environmental campaigns is, the credibility we gained from Peringome struggle:

The 220 KV HT line which materialised later and attempts by the KSEB to bring down transmission losses, and a realisation of the need for conservation rather than adding megawatts even among officials, have proved true what we had predicted with conviction during the days of the struggle. Now there is no voltage problem or power crunch in our district even though no nuclear plant was built.

The campaign has made search for alternatives more serious. It has been taken up by people at large, and decentralised forms of local power generation are now being tried widely, though on a small scale.

The nuclear debate has helped in questioning the present paradigm of development and in promoting people friendly and environment friendly attitudes and technologies. Many people have started thinking of other unobtrusive ways of life.

There have been drawbacks and challenges we could hope to overcome only through collective efforts on a national level

Issue based cooperation, and interest in a specific issue, often depend on the efforts of certain activists with missionary zeal. Naturally it cannot be sustained for long. When similar projects come up elsewhere many of us cannot act at all; nor can we act with the same old vigour and enthusiasm.

As there is no ‘movement’ as such to co-ordinate and unify protests and to infuse a sense of belonging, the enthusiasm fritters away,. Even though there may be a few individuals to be “warriors’’ in many of these losing battles, it should not be forgotten that individuals have limitations.

In spite of the best efforts of CANE and other activists Kaiga was a lost battle. Even the dynamism and charisma of the writer Dr Sivarama  Karanth who contested an election on Kaiga as the issue , could not deter the govt from going ahead with the plant. Perhaps, this points to the fact that the peculiarities of each state or each region and the preferences of its people need to be taken into account on a micro level, while devising oppositional strategies. Struggles everywhere, though the objectives may be similar, cannot be alike. How to factor in this aspect also into strategies for struggle is a challenge which activists face.

A broad platform for coordinating and networking among activists and organisations is a must. But, in spite of fast technological strides in communication, this doesn’t materialise or doesn’t become very effective.  I think, we have to come up with some   formal body that can help in piercing the thick wall of people’s apathy and indifference.

It is worth remembering in this context that people in general suspect or refuse to take into confidence many organisations with tendencies towards ’NGO-isation’ or ‘bureaucratised voluntarism’. Organisations need to become more transparent and credible so that people can put faith in them and lend participatory support to their campaigns.

Now, above all, the larger question of how to deal with the powerful alliance between strong corporate capital and a growingly militarised govt, in order to wrench our just demands, has become a formidable one, in the present neo-liberal regime. Struggles are going on, be it at Plachimada, Narmada valley or elsewhere; but solutions have become increasingly elusive. We have to discuss the prospects of antinuclear advocacy in the post Indo –US Nuclear pact scenario and strategies for intervention in a challenging situation in which nuclear hawks are all in a beeline to colonise our country.