Anti-Nuclear Struggle in South India: the Answer is Blowin’ in the Wind

Gabriele Dietrich

Gabriele Dietrich is the Convener of the National Alliance for People’s Movements (NAPM), India.

She can be contacted at

In the present situation, one of the most striking ecological struggles in India is the struggle against nuclear reactors. The Indian government has a policy regarding “peaceful” nuclear energy. This position is, of course, highly questionable, because whoever has studied the history of nuclear energy production would know that it was the nuclear research during World War II which served the interest of producing a nuclear bomb “against fascism” which brought nuclear energy into being. While World War II had factually ended in early May 1945 because of the conquest of Germany by the Allies, the Americans, after the experience of the attack on Pearl Harbour, could not resist the opportunity to try out the explosion of nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. After this incredible devastation, it became difficult to believe in “peaceful” nuclear energy.

In the meantime it has become very obvious, especially since the accidents in Chernobyl in 1986 and the melt-downs in Fukushima Daichi in 2011, that this is an incredibly hazardous technology. Apart from this, the very process of using uranium produces plutonium which creates a problem of nuclear waste which radiates for thousands of years and cannot be safely disposed of. Nobody has as yet claimed to have found a solution for this predicament. The so-called “developed” countries, who have a very high energy consumption, were initially relying quite heavily on nuclear energy, e.g. France used this option for over 60% of its energy needs. Only in recent times there is stronger resistance against this option. Of late, France has imported energy from Germany.

In India, there was an explosion of a “nuclear device” in 1974 under Indira Gandhi. It was not admitted then that this served the development of nuclear weapons. It was only in 1998 under the NDA regime (a coalition), which gravitated towards Hindutva, that a nuclear bomb was detonated with fanfare in Pokhran in the Rajasthan desert under the code name of “The Buddha is smiling”. Of course this was a great insult to Buddhism and to Dalits (who believe that they were Buddhists originally) and the anti-nuclear movement got a new impetus at that time. Despite all this the Indian government under the leadership of Dr. Manmohan Singh, has signed the 123 agreement with the U.S on import of nuclear technology, which serves the expansion of nuclear reactors. This contract became a prestige issue and any serious debate on nuclear options either in parliament, or in public, was strictly avoided. The absurdity is that nuclear energy is depicted as a “clean” energy option as opposed to thermal energy which enhances the burden of CO2 in the atmosphere.

The struggle against the nuclear power plant in Kudankulam has been going on since the late eighties of the last century. It was spearheaded by the fishing community along the coast in the districts of Kanyakumari, Thirunelveli and Thuttukudi in the South of Tamil Nadu. In 1989, a coastal march “Protect Waters, Protect Life” was organised by the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF) under the slogan “Protect Waters, Protect Life”. This march went on from Kolkata to Mumbai respectively during April 1989 and culminated in Kanyakumari on May 1st 1989. Innumerable ecological issues were taken up along the way, focussing on water, chemical pollution and thermal as well as nuclear power plants. The people of Idinthakarai in Thirunelveli District took a leading role in highlighting the plan to build a nuclear power plant in their area, in a village called Kundankulam. This was only a few years after the severe melt-down in Chernobyl in the Soviet Union and the irony was that India was importing the nuclear reactors from that country. Of course the VVER 1000 reactor type is different from the type in Chernobyl, but it was highly doubtful how safe these reactors were. John Hallam, a renowned activist from Australia, was warning against nuclear technology, based on profound research. He had a lot of critical information on VVER reactors. Surender Gadekar and Sangamitra Gadekar of Anu Mukti were campaigning against reactors from the village of Vedhchi in Gujarat. They belong to the Sarvodaya Movement.

The fisher people of Indinthakarai were highlighting their struggle in the NFF demonstration on May 1st 1989 in Kanyakumari, but there was disruption of the procession which ended in police firing, in which six fishermen were badly injured. Police cases were made out against the demonstrators and they had to go to court for over a decade. Due to the developments in Eastern Europe, which led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the contract between India and the Soviet Union was kept pending. It was only much later, when the Russian Prime Minister Boris Yeltsin visited India, that an agreement between him and the then Prime Minister Devegowda was inked in.

The situation became critical again when India exploded another nuclear device under the NDA government in 1998. Since this government was Hindu Nationalist, the military dimension became very visible. Pakistan broke even by testing its own nuclear device in response. It was clear that the situation was highly explosive. In 1999, the Kargill war happened and it was visible that nuclear devices are of little deterrent value and, in fact, enhance the risks of any war.

It was during those years that the struggle against nuclear energy became very active again. Women’s movements were vocal, because it was known that nuclear radiation creates malformations during pregnancies as well as cancer. In fact, the southern districts of Tamil Nadu have high background radiation anyway, so that enhancing the radiation by artificial means creates a greater risk. It was from the late nineties, that anti-nuclear movements picked up again with greater intensity. Over the years, this led to the formation of a National Alliance Against Nuclear Energy, launched in 2008 and to the formation of People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) Other organisations like NFF and National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) were already highlighting the need for alternative energy options all over the country. The Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) had struggled for nuclear disarmament.

The struggle of PMANE has some special features which are worth noticing. The core of the struggle is constituted by the fishing community along the coast. The fishing community knows that the production of nuclear energy will destroy their livelihood. The cooling water will be released into the sea and the rise of temperature will affect the catch. Besides, radiation hazard will affect the food chain and selling of fish as well as consumption will go down. Women became very active in this struggle.

There has never been a proper environmental clearance regarding the two reactors which have in the meantime been built, but are not yet loaded with fuel. There is a plan to enhance the number of reactors to six or possibly eight, but the environmental clearance for the second and third reactors was also faked. While about five thousand people attended the hearing in July 2007, it was hardly possible to depose in front of the hearing, because of the very totalitarian police control, withholding of microphones and crowd control with lathis and water cannons. Nearly all of the people present decided to give their protest in writing, except some people brought by the establishment, who said that they were for the plant. Despite all this, environmental clearance for reactor 3 and 4 was given, after some additional hearings in Delhi, without people’s participation.

After the melt-down in Fukushima Daichi in May 2011, the alarm about nuclear energy became felt worldwide. Radiation had spread to the West coast of the U.S. and populations and governments in Europe took dicisive steps for renewable energy options like solar, wind, tidal and mini-hydel. Mrs. Angela Merkel, the head of government of Germany, a trained scientist belonging to a conservative Christian party, rethought her position and her party policies and took a lead in opting out of nuclear energy within a very limited time frame. The recent elections in France brought a social democratic leader to power whose party also tries to get out of her energy policies relying on the nuclear option.

Over the past one year, the continuous struggle in Idinthakarai has spread over the three Southern districts, where people resisted in the tens of thousands. One of the key leaders, S.P. Udayakumar, a political scientist by background, belongs to an agricultural community, while other leaders belong to the fishing community. There has been massive women’s participation in this struggle. In September 2011, 127 people went on a fast unto death for twelve days, demanding and effecting a halt in the setting up of the nuclear reactor and raising of fundamental questions with respect to the secretive functions of the nuclear establishment. The promises to give full information about the project to the struggling people were not kept and the struggle took the form of relay fast. It went on for months together with people rallying by the tens of thousands on a daily basis. Despite disruption of water and electricity supply for intermittent periods, people held out. Children missed their school exams, sitting in struggle on the hot sand in front of the Catholic Church in Idinthakarai and in hundreds of villages along the coast and spreading inland.

The remarkable feature is that their struggle is strictly non-violent and peaceful along Gandhian lines, while at the same time Gandhian movements have not come out openly against nuclear energy, as their leadership is half-hearted in their support of anti-nuclear struggle.

Political parties have not taken a stand against nuclear energy, except some small Tamil Nationalist parties. The central government has pushed its pro-nuclear stand energetically. The state government, while giving the impression of a critical stand for a few month, made a deal with the centre and took to severely repressive strategies, letting loose thousands of police force against the struggling population. The whole state was under severe electricity cuts. In the police station of Kudamkulam, 56,000 cases have been filed against the demonstrators, out of which about ten percent are cases of “sedition”. The sedition law is inherited from colonial times and entails life-long imprisonment. A national struggle to do away with such laws is also going on, because their application is a murder of democracy. People can be accused of being “Naxalites” and jailed under sedition laws, as happened in the famous case of the paediatrician Dr. Binayak Sen from the Adivasi dominated state of Chhattisgarh, who was jailed for three years for being active in People’s Union for Civil Liberties. It was only through an intensive campaign that he got out on bail, through a Supreme Court Order. His case is still pending. Thousands of adivasis, less famous than Dr. Sen, are rotting in jail without redressal.

A national outcry against nuclear energy was organised on 20th May 2012 by releasing protest statements by prominent intellectuals and representatives of people’s movements. The Delhi protest at India Gate was led by Vandana Shiva, the well known feminist ecologist, while the protest in Mumbai at Chaithya Bhoomi (the memorial of the Dalit leader Dr. Babasahib Ambedkar, father of the Indian Constitution) was led by Binayak and Ilina Sen and film-maker Anand Patwardhan.

A significant aspect of this valiant struggle is the fact that it is entirely secular. Despite the fact that the coastal fisher people are mostly Roman Catholic, the struggle was supported by the agricultural community which is largely Hindu. S.P. Udayakumar is Hindu by background. He has built alliances with all communities, including Muslims. Many catholic priests have been vocal on this struggle and the bishops, both catholic and protestant, have been supportive. This was used by the government to make allegations of Christian domination and “use of foreign funds”. Numerous NGO’s have come under the scanner, accused of siphoning off money for anti-government activity. However, the government has not come out with any proof of such dealings and employs a slander campaign to demonise the movement. Fisher people, traders and people from all walks of life have supported the struggle financially.

Recently a news item came into the public realm, which shows the absurdity of the situation. It came to light that the central government has approached the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurological Sciences (NIMHANS) in Bangalore to “counsel” the people struggling against nuclear energy to give up their stubborn agitation for “the larger common good”. NIMHANS has agreed to survey the situation, look into the psychiatric condition of the struggling people and envisage “treatment” of their condition. This really reminds one of the writings of George Orwell “1984” and “Animal Farm”. Big Brother is watching you. Such initiatives show that the power holders are in total denial of the implications of their policies. Of course, there has been protest against this attempt to manipulate the struggling people. It has also been suggested that the Prime Minister needs treatment.

The anti-nuclear struggle in South India is one of the most impressive mobilisations in recent times. It has shown an extraordinary determination of ordinary village people to defend their life and livelihood and to safeguard the lives of future generations. Significantly, this determination has come from people who live close to nature and have no escape route into the “virtual world” of the technocrats. In this endeavour, the people have received wide support from critical scientists, retired bureaucrats, different people’s movements and international networks alert to the perils of nuclear energy. The media have been suppressed and reluctant to report to a large extent. Forces who try to split and polarise people along the lines of religion and caste have not been able to confuse and divide the people. The movement raises larger questions about the unviability of the massive energy consumption of the “developed” world, as thermal powerplants are also extremely damaging to people’s health and to nature and contribute in major ways to global warming. In India up to 40% of electricity loss occurs in transmission. If decentralised renewable energy production can be developed and the losses in transmission can be avoided, no new mega-plants will be needed. The area around Kudankulam is full of windmills and solar energy is abundant. But people themselves also have to learn not to waste energy.

The other related question is regarding the use of water. During the coastal march of 1989, the Bengal Mime-Theatre accompanied the march with a Pantomime under the title of “Another name for Water is Life”. Nuclear reactors need exorbitant amounts of fresh water on a day to day base to cool the reactor core. Due to global warming, water becomes more and more a scarce resource. The World Bank has predicted since years, that major wars can be expected over water resources. The people of South Tamil Nadu are anxious that the water of Pechiparai dam in Kanyakumari must be available for agriculture. Likewise, the Tamaraparani river in Thirunelveli District is needed for agriculture. People need drinking water and a supply for washing and hygiene.

The area near Kudankulam has soil called ‘karst’, which is unsuitable for building reactors. There are also areas of volcanic eruptions in the sea bed, which make the area geologically hazardous. Surveys have also been done by Dr. Pugazhendi near Kalpakkam, 30 km from Chennai, where an older nuclear reactor has impacted people with cancer, thyroid problems and birth defects among children. For documenting such effects and speaking out on them, the physician has been threatened with encounter death by the local police.

The government at central and state level, is whistling in the dark. They depict the people as ignorant and superstitious. In one press release the Prime Minister termed them as “unthinking”. This is extremely disturbing, because it denigrates the most alert and courageous citizens as fools. The threat of loading the fuel rods by August looms large. People are praying for a miracle to stop this. But the construction of this Tower of Babel by Russian engineers has been resumed. “How many deaths does it take ‘til we know that too many people have died? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”



Reading list:

  • Update Collective: Jadaguda : A Village Struggling Against Radiation, New Delhi, 1999
  • Ambrose Pinto: Nuclearisation of India: Myths, Belief and Facts, ISI, Delhi, 1998
  • Rosalie Bertell: No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth, London, 1985
  • Jonathan Shell: The Fate of the Earth, New York, Avon Books, 1982
  • Stephen Croall/Kaianders Sempler, Nuclear Power Writers for Beginners, Readers Publication, (1980)
  • S.P.Udayakumar: The Kudankulam Hand Book, Nagercoil, 2004
  • Praful Bidwai” South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament, OUP, 1990
  • Info Pack: Nuclear Power The Misplaced Hype, Popular Education and Action Centre, New Delhi, 2010
  • Sailendra Nath Ghosh: Nuclear Energy Path is Suicidal, Mainstream Vol.XLVIII, No.34, Aug 13-19, 2010, p.23.
  • Praful Bidwai: UPA’s Second Great Nuclear Folly, Scrap Nuclear Liability Bill, Mainstream Vol.XLVIII, No.13, Mar 19-25, 2010, p.3.
  • Narayani Menon: VVER Type Reactors: Some Irrefutable Facts, Mainstream Vol.XLV, No.25, June 2007, p.33.



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