Combating the Nuclear Lobby in India

Saraswati Kavula

Saraswati Kavula is a Filmmaker-Activist and Farmer. She is also the Joint Convener, National Alliance of People’s Movements, Andhra Pradesh Chapter.

A version of this article was published in “Journalist”, March 2012 edition.

Andhra Pradesh has since a long time been on the Nuclear Map of India. Hyderabad is home to the Nuclear Fuel Complex (NFC), established in the year 1971. The complex is responsible for the supply of nuclear fuel bundles and reactor core components for all the nuclear power reactors operating in India. The next connection is the Electronics Corporation of India Limited, ECIL, established in 1967, by the Dept of Atomic Energy. ECIL supplies Control & Instrumentation products for Nuclear Power Plants; Integrated Security Systems to Nuclear installations and Radiation Monitoring instruments, in addition to the Secured Networking of all DAE units via satellite. The third connection is the Heavy Water Plant at Manuguru in Khammam District, established on the banks of the Godavari River in 1991. As far as nuclear power plants are concerned two attempts were made: one in 1986 to set up a Nuclear Power Plant in Kovvada, Srikakulam district, while the second attempt for a nuclear Power plant happened in 1988 at a site close to the Nagarjunasagar Dam. Both these projects had to be dropped by the then establishment due to public pressure.

Then there have been attempts to start Uranium mining in Peddagattu and Lambapur villages abutting Nagarjuna sagar reservoir in Nalgonda district since 2003 which has been once again put on a back burner due to the local people’s resistance. The strange issue here is that while Dr. Y.S.Rajasekhar Reddy opposed the Uranium Mining in Nalgonda as leader of opposition in 2003, in 2005, as chief minister he changed stance, saying the project was safe. When people demanded to know how he changed his opinion in a span of less than two years, he claimed that he got convinced that the said departments will take all safety measures. However, though the people of Kadapa did protest, they were either lured with a promise of jobs and good compensation or they were threatened with dire consequences if they opposed. It was thus that with a strong political suppression of people’s voices, the Uranium Mining project at Tummalapalle village, in Kadapa District was started in 2007. The impacts of the mining have just begun to show in the surrounding villages’ ground water three years after the mining activity started. Now, after having split from the Congress the leader of YSR Congress YS Jaganmohan Reddy is opposing the Uranium Mining project in Kadapa, and only time will tell about the fate of the people living in the nearby villages. However up until now, the people of Nalgonda district have been able to prevent UCIL from setting foot in the district. The media, especially the vernacular print media took up the issue with great zeal and made the issue one of the most talked about issues in the state and the activists of MAUP (Movement Against Uranium Projects), kept the issue alive conducting regular public awareness activities in other districts like Khammam, Krishna, Guntur districts, which are dependent on the water from Nagarjunasagar.

The biggest lesson from this entire situation is that if people had not been vigilant, the projects at Nagarjunasagar would have been established without any incident or public debate. The entire campaign brought to light one major issue – that as far as major decisions like this are concerned, everything is brushed under the carpet, in the name of National Good, but who is taking the decision? Where does democracy stand? This is something that is a major concern to me. Asides to the issue whether or not, Nuclear Power is safe or unsafe, whether it is cost effective or not, the decision to set up a Nuclear facility, is not happening after an informed public has had a large scale public debate. There are no informed choices happening in this country – be it Nuclear, be it GM Food or anything else.

Coming back to the issue at hand, with the Indo-US nuclear agreement coming into picture in 2008, Andhra Pradesh is once again getting on to the Nuclear Map with a Nuclear Power Park – a set of 6 Nuclear Power plants being proposed in Kovvada village, Ranasthalam Mandal of Srikakulam district. Even after an accident like Chernobyl and Fukushima, our Dept of Atomic Energy and their loyalists continue to tell us that Nuclear is very safe and is a necessity for India’s energy security. People many times, lay persons, who can understand things better from common sense do not agree. But, their arguments are drummed down – in the scientific jargon of the Nuclear Establishment.

But the core question is that when large sums of public money are being spent, when public health is at stake, how can a few people take the decision on behalf of the one billion people? They say that everyone cannot understand nuclear science; hence, it’s not possible to engage lay persons in these debates. If people are not able to understand, then one must make the effort to educate everyone, and impartially. Place all the cards on the table and then take the opinion of the public. But the DAE doesn’t do that – all the time, they try to convince everyone that it’s all very safe and hunky dory. If indeed it’s all so safe, then why the secrecy, why not at least publish the health reports of employees in public domain? All those educated in nuclear science, most of them at least, are employed in the nuclear industry – under the Department of Atomic Energy – so who will bell the cat? Who will speak up for the people of this country? Thus far, it has been under government control, now, they are allowing private corporations. Who will be answerable to us on these issues? If lay people like us question they say, you don’t know the science, you don’t have the facts.

And when someone presents the facts, they say we are lying or they simply shout us down – as has happened in the few interactions we have had with the nuclear establishment. When we started to campaign against the Uranium Mining in Nalgonda, the UCIL people invited us for talks. During that meeting Mr. Raminder Gupta of UCIL tried to paint a very rosy picture of the whole project. When questioned about the contamination from the Uranium mine into the Nagarjunasagar Reservoir, he said that won’t happen as there is solid sheet rock that separates the mine area from the reservoir. But the fact is that in the deep shaft mine, they would be blasting the rocks to get the ore out. Is there any guarantee that the blasting won’t breach the rocks and the reservoir won’t get contaminated? No scientific reply. The second major question was that they were telling the people in the village near the proposed site that it was very safe and they need not shift out of the village. When we questioned him that, when a simply x-ray taken by pregnant women could create disabilities in children, how is that living next to the mine that would release huge amounts of radon gas from the mining of more than 1000 tonnes per day of radioactive materials and the tailing ponds that will have thousand s of tones of radioactive wastes for thousands of years, be safe for the people? At this Mr. Raminder Gupta got worked up and started to argue and shout saying that you people don’t know any science and was seen to be visibly upset. Later, we found that the UCIL had distributed “anonymously written” pamphlets saying that some “people who were receiving foreign funds” were opposing the Uranium Mining project as they don’t want India to be developed. Rings a bell anywhere? Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said something very similar just two days ago, regarding the anti-nuclear protests of Kudankulam!

The second incident was – when the public hearing at Seripally (where the processing plant got shifted – from Dugyal village which was close to the AKBR reservoir – citing that as this water could get contaminated with radioactive materials), the UCIL was presenting the project at the public hearing speaking about all the development they brought to Jadugoda in Jharkhand. While they were making their presentation, I was displaying pictures of people and children affected by cancer, genetic mutations due to the radiation impacts in Jadugoda, to the people who assembled there. One of the employees of UCIL got upset with that and simply tore the posters from my hand. They did even better during the public hearing at Peddagattu where they managed to get the people on their payroll (like the local political leaders – sarpanch etc) to beat up the villagers of Lambapur, who were opposing the project.

While at the public hearing of Tummalapalle in Kadapa, the MAUP activists, women were hurled with the most abusive language and stones too were pelted at them, one of which missed Dr. Surendra Gadekar, eminent physicist and anti-nuclear activist, else it would have injured his head. So, these things happen in the presence of the district collector, who will be sitting around watching the fun. This then is the democratic ways in which our Nuclear Establishment functions. The third encounter I had was with one Mr. Srihari who was the then spokesperson for the UCIL. When the Tummalapalle mine was being opened, a Telugu TV Channel asked me and Dr. Babu Rao (former deputy director of IICT) to speak along with Mr. Srihari on a live debate. Mr. Srihari very clearly says that the Uranium mine in Kadapa is absolutely safe and there is no problem about it. The Channel also gave more space to Mr. Srihari than to us, thus we were unable to present our case very strongly. When we got out, I asked this gentleman as to what would he attribute the cancers and genetic mutations in Jadugoda, and he had a very benign argument- “they eat tendu leaves that is why they are getting those diseases”. I was shocked to say the least – since when was chewing tendu leaves become responsible for genetic mutative diseases in children? That same year I had met the chief designer of Kalpakkam nuclear plant in a meeting that was meant to promote Nuclear Energy, and when we were debating about nuclear his reply was, “the number of people who die due to nuclear radiation is far less compared to those who die in motor accidents”. This then is the attitude of the people in the nuclear industry. They just don’t care about human life.

Whenever people had demanded them to disclose their health reports they would not do that. It is all covered up under the Atomic Energy Act, which makes it impossible to question the nuclear establishment, under the pretext of National Security. However, a couple of years ago, a RTI activist Chetan Kothari managed to get a health report from BARC, in April 2010, which revealed that between 1995 and 2010, 1733 scientists and employees working at various nuclear related establishments across India, died of various diseases – but in many cases cancer was cited, while 197 scientists and employees committed suicides. Of these, there were 17 suicides and 172 deaths due to illness in our Nuclear Fuel Complex alone. While in BARC, the total number of deaths due to illness was 680 and in the Heavy water plant of Manuguru – there were 5 suicides and 48 deaths due to illnesses.

Now, we must notice that all these are people who are permanent employees who get a lot of protection in the form of gear and also get a lot of medical facilities. But no one ever talks about the hundreds of contract labourers that do the actual dangerous work in these plants. For example, in summer of 2011, 5 contract labourers who were working in the Kakrapar nuclear plant were exposed to radiation due to the negligence of the employees – the labourers were sent in to do the cleaning job, while the plant was running. This resulted in their getting a heavy dose of radiation than they would get normally. Normally, contract labourers are employed till such time they get the maximum permissible radiation and then simply thrown out of their jobs. And then no one bothers what happens to them or their health. This happened to the labourers in Kakrapar too. After they were dismissed, they developed radiation related diseases and were trying to get some relief from the plant authorities, who never bothered to respond. So, they complained to the district Collector, thus the issue got publicized and gained media attention. Else, this incident like the many unheard of situations would have gone unnoticed. We also know about the issue of the contamination of drinking water with tritium in the Kaiga Nuclear Power plant. The incident resulted in radiation impact to 95 employees of the plant, which could have meant distress to 95 families. However, our authorities and politicians simply brush such incidents as human mischief. And then there was the issue of the lost Radioactive Cobalt in Delhi Scrap, which cost the lives of two innocent people. And yet these people will have us believe that we should ‘trust’ them, that they will ‘protect’ us and take care of us at all costs.

Last week on 18th and 19th February 2012, we organized a workshop on the nuclear issue. There was a lot of discussion on the Accidents and incidents in various power plants in India and abroad. During this discussion, one of the persons who walked in the middle of the session, said, that we were spreading lies. On demanding that he identifies himself he said that he was working with the AERB and that the institution ensured that there was not a single causality. He further claimed that there was not a single death due to nuclear in India. When he was offered to substantiate his point by presenting his arguments on the dais, he declined saying that he was in the chemistry department and he would have to bring the experts to counter our claims. To which we asked him to bring his colleagues / experts the following day. He said it will not be possible as they are in a different department NPCIL and it will take him at least a week’s time. He was then made an open offer by Dr. Buddhikota Subbarao who was one of the speakers, “you bring your experts at whatever time you wish to, we will offer a public debate and even a televised debate if you like, we shall ask you ten questions, you should answer them. You can ask us a hundred questions, we shall answer you, lets present each others point of view”, at this, he simply got up without replying to the offer and angrily said, “you people are simply spreading untruths, not a single person died in Japan!” saying thus he left the meeting hall in a huff.

Like wise our establishment calls anyone opposing nuclear as anti-national: the way our Prime Minister said, “that people of kudankulam are being funded by the NGOs in US who do not want the development of India’. Now if the anti-nuclear movement catches up in Kovvada, he might say that “Russian NGOs are funding the activists of Kovvada”. He cannot see the hundreds of childrens’ lives destroyed due to regular radiation doses in Kanyakumari district due to the sand mining for radioactive materials by the Indian Rare Earths for the past 40 odd years. Nor can he see the maimed children, the innocent people who died due to cancers and the generations of Indians who will forever have to face radiation impacts in Jharkhand. Nor can he see the lives of poor people – children and adults who are suffering from various cancers, whose only fault is to live near the Kalpakkam nuclear plant.

While world over, sensible people are learning lessons from the incidents of Japan; our leaders are trying to tell us that all is well. It’s a sad state of affairs in this country that all those who are thinking people; the educated middle class doesn’t bother about such issues until things go beyond control. We never bother what is happening next door. Even now, when we try to bring this issue into the forefront, there aren’t many takers. Unfortunately, we all have become so insensitive that we cannot feel anything about the world around us, until someone close to us, becomes a victim of the prevailing situation. However, its an appeal to one and all, if we continue feel that the problem of Kudankulam, Kovvada or Nalgonda or Kadapa do not concern us, as we are far away from them, then we are lying to ourselves. If the fish and rice on the coastal regions gets contaminated, any of us could become a victim of radiation impact. If the water in Nagarjunasagar were to get radioactive contamination, it means the lives of people in five districts are to be affected. However, in the day to day struggle of existence and the happy lull that we get by seeing all the images of “shining India” in our daily dose of television, we don’t bother to think either about the next door neighbour, nor even our own possible futures. Thus, the powers that be have their say and are able to do what they like. Even, in Kudankulam, the anti-nuclear movement in the 90’s was diluted using money and politics by the nuclear establishment, thus allowing the construction of the plant, it took an incident of the magnitude of Fukushima, to wake up the people to take stock of their lives.

Would it require another Fukushima in India, to wake up the rest of the country to the dangers of Nuclear? Can we not see the suffering of our fellow citizens who are effected by the so called “daily doses of low radiation”, our future generations, which will pay a huge price for ever, from the radioactive wastes that are lying all over the world, which no body knows what to do about? Can we not see what has happened to the people of Bhopal or what is happening even to this day? More than the problem of nuclear, it is the lethargy of the general public that fails to respond, and even worse, that has stopped feeling that those “sacrificial goats” of this “development” are also thinking, feeling people with children and with families. I just cannot understand when people simply say, “but if we don’t have nuclear energy, how can India develop”. Would these people be willing to make the same sacrifices as those who are paying the price for India’s nuclear ambitions?


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