Battleground Jaitapur: beyond the BJP-Shiv Sena tug-of-war

DiaNuke correspondent

The nuclear project Jaitapur is back in the news as the Shiv Sena, the regional right-wing party in Maharashtra has opened a front against the central government headed by Mr. Modi. Last week, the Shiv Sena made a public announcement to intensify its agitation against the 9,900MW project, which would be the world’s largest nuclear power park consisting of 6 European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs) designed by the French nuclear giant Areva. Reportedly, the Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackrey has been taking personal interest in the issue and he summoned key leaders of his party last week to devise a strategy.  The Sena chief is quoted to have said that he firmly believes that the project would be hazardous for the Konkan region. Citing examples of Germany and Japan, he reportedly said, “They are phasing out nuclear power projects and we are promoting them in our state.”

Protest by Jaitapur farmersOn the other hand, the Modi govt in the centre has reiterated that there is no going back on Jaitapur. The PM himself has apparently clarified that the question of a re-think does not arise. Besides justifying the project for bringing foreign investment and being essential for energy needs, the central govt has also argued that now there is 25% more compensation by the Maharashtra state govt available for the farmers.

The complete shift in the BJP’s stance on the Jaitapur issue is remarkable. The party was against the hurried green clearance awarded for the project during the Congress regime in 2010 and strongly demanded an environmental re-assessment. Sushma Swaraj, the present Minister for External Affairs and the then leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha, had demanded a thorough and independent review of the total nuclear energy programme, “….and till such time there should be a halt to all ongoing projects.”

Shiv Sena, on the other hand, has become a little more vocal and active. Earlier, its stance was that it will stand with the local farmers and fisherfolk and in case they get convinced about the merits of the project, it would have no problem in supporting it. Recently, the Shiv Sena leaders have raised larger questions about the safety of the project, the high cost, and highlighted the reversal of nuclear programs in other countries.

While the strong grassroots opposition had led to a pressure on the local leaders of Shiv Sena to stand with the people since the beginning, what seems to have changed now is that the issue is now being articulated by the top political leadership while Shiv Sena is not really active on the ground. A local activist who has been part of the grassroots movement since 2010, quips: “Shiv Sena seems to be enjoying the leverage it has on the ground being the only major political force opposed to the project. The recent ebb in the protests locally for various reasons has also meant that Shiv Sena can claim the leadership and negotiate with the central government on behalf of the people.”

Local communities in Jaitapur face the challenge of tight-rope walk today of  leveraging Shiv Sena’s political clout while knowing that it is an unreliable ally. They are apprehensive of a political party, that has its own interests, larger dynamics and compulsions, capturing the initiative.

protest in sakhri nate jaitapur1The initial phase of the movement, in 2010 was mostly around the land acquisition. Although the awareness about risks of having a nuclear power park in the area was much wider, those who had the chunk of land going into the project assumed the leadership. This became a weakness as after the govt succeeded in acquiring land – using both sticks and carrots – it declared that the local opposition is over. The villagers of the area who are genuinely concerned with the dangers of the massive nuclear plant, and the independent environmentalists, experts and concerned citizens, have no real leverage at their disposal to influence the course of events. The fisherfolk community in the Sakhri Nate village, whose land is not being acquired but who will lose their fish-catch due to the project, have no real way to claim their stake except agitating. It is not less of an irony that  an entirely muslim-populated village is behind the Hindu-majoritarian Shiv Sena to save its livelihood.

People in the area are also warned by the fact that the local leadership of the Shiv Sena is not very active on the ground.

Satyajit Chavan, a young activist based in Mumbai, visited Jaitapur in the weekend and spoke to the local people. The people have had serious and wide-ranging questions about the project – the local environmental and livelihood issues, the dangers of nuclear energy per se, the non-independence of nuclear regulator and poor safety culture in India, and the global post-Fukushima shift away from nuclear energy. They are also aware of the more recent developments like the French nuclear regulator raising crucial questions regarding EPR’s safety, Finland abandoning the EPR projects and Areva’s terminal financial crisis.

The local communities are resolute to fight and they consider the current situation as just a phase in the struggle when hopes are pinned down on the BJP-Siv Sena strife and the declining fate of Areva. The people of Jaitapur would continue to fight, while the leadership, strategies and dynamics might keep changing. The real energy and imperative for the Jaitapur comes from below.

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