Koodankulam: Indian democracy under nuclear threat

When charged with sedition under the same section of the Penal Code in British India, Mahatma Gandhi said “sedition is the highest duty of the citizen”. It is time to ask who is seditious? The fishermen of Koodankulam fighting for their livelihood or our policy elites? When it comes to nuclear, truth and democracy become the first casualties.

P K Sundaram

The government has resorted to slapping an 1860 vintage legislation (Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code) against the agitating people in Koodankulam. In this colonial provision enacted by the British, “to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India” is defined as sedition. The cases, including 121 (waging war against country) and 124-A (sedition), have been slapped against 3,015 persons, including leading activists like Dr. S P Udayakumar, M. Pushparayana and Father Jayakumar.

The charges came in the context of the recent mid-sea protest organized by local fishermen on the World Fisheries Day on November 21st.  Around thousand fisherfolk, including women and children, in about 300 boats, staged a mid-sea protest with black banner and posters highlighting concerns in Koodankulam. The agitation has raised questions that have wider implication for the environment, livelihood and safety in the region as well as the larger issues of democracy, transparency, development and sustainability.

The 25-year old Koodankulam protests have been marked with their non-violent method and large participation of women and children, across religious and community barriers. But the government has resorted to repression and slander from the very beginning. When more than 15,00 people gathered in Kanyakumari in 1989, the police opened fire on the crowd and a number of agitators were injured. The recent round of protests has also seen hundreds of protesters being arrested.

In 1922, Mahatma Gandhi was charged with the same Section along with Shankarlal Ghelabhai Banker, the publisher of Young India. This is what Gandhiji said in his trial statement:

“I have no desire whatsoever to conceal from this court the fact that to preach disaffection towards the existing system of Government has become almost a passion with me…” Sedition, said Gandhi, “in law is a deliberate crime”, but it “appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.”

While the Manmohan Singh government lauded its nuclear deal with the US as a rendezvous of the “worlds largest and the oldest democracies”, it is bent on pushing the nuclear projects in the country with utmost contempt for basic democratic norms. Not only has it discarded the unanimous resolutions of the elected local governing bodies of people in the affected villages disapproving such projects, but it has also disregarded the objections and requirements of its own institutions and norms meant for safeguarding citizen’s safety, health, livelihood and democratic rights.

In the recent history, the most blatant and vulgar ‘cash-for-votes’ scam and open undermining of democratic process to hasten the conclusion of the Indo-US nuclear deal was presided by a government that swears by the name of democracy and common people. The corrupt lobbyist were given prestigious national awards for facilitating the passage of the nuclear deal in the US congress. In a number of ways, the most fundamental democratic rights and norms have been violated in Koodankulam and other places where people are resisting the insane nuclear mirage:

  • 4 village panchayats in Koodankulam have passed resolutions against the nuclear project. 3 panchayats in Jaitapur have did the same while their 70 elected villages representatives resigned en masse. In Fatehabad (Haryana), around 30 villages have passed resolutions opposing the project and farmers are staging a sit-in strike for last 15 months. 540 coastal villages in Mithivirdi (Gujarat) have taken a “do or die” pledge against the proposed nuclear reactors in their backyard. In Chutka (Madhya Pradesh), where people are facing second round of displacement after being displaced in 1980s due to Barghi dam, a strong resistance is brewing. UCIL has turned public hearings into mockery in Jadugoda where people are suffering from radiation-born diseases.
  • The nuclear establishment in India has always been a holy cow, above any public scrutiny and audit. In the past, the Atomic Energy Commission has brushed aside AERB’s own safety reports and recommendations, changing their labels from ‘confidential’ to ‘top secret’ within a couple of days.
  • The political decisions on nuclear issues are always made with the nuclear establishment itself as the only source of expertise and having a final say in all things nuclear. During the consultations on the Nuclear Liability Bill last year in the Parliament’s Standing Committee, the objections raised by several ministries, including the Health Ministry and the MoEF, that the country is not in a position to handle massive nuclear accidents, were sidelined under pressure from the nuclear suppliers on the one side and the nuclear establishment on the other.
  • The Nuclear Liability Rules recently notified to implement the Nuclear Liability Act have circumvented the Act itself by restricting the “product liability period” to mere 5 years. This is blatant violation of our parliament under corporate pressure.
  • There has been no public hearing in Koodankulam for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) . The NPCIL defends it on the pretext that the then MoEF rules did not mandate a compulsory public hearing.
  • The EIA reports must be made available to people according to the established norm in the local language. However, in Koodankulam’s case, the EIA report has been publicized not only too late, but also only in English language.
  • Same with Coastal Regulation Zone stipulations. Despite gross violation of CRZ rules in constructing the Reactors 1 & 2 within 500 Mtrs from the High Tide Line (HTL), the government’s Expert panel has defended it as the MoEF rules in 1989 allowed DAE constructions within the HTL and CRZ rules were adopted only in 1991, subsequently revised in 2011.
  • The Koodankulam Reactors 1 & 2 violate the the AERB instructions of 1998 which required two sources of water  (from the reservoirs of Pechiparai and Upper Kodyar) to ensure adequate water supply against a loss of cooling accident, the biggest vulnerability of reactors. Independent studies have underlined the grave risk this violation poses to KKNPP’s safety. It was revealing in the post Fukushima Safety task Force Report of the NPCIl itself that while the Madras Atomic Power Station (MAPS) has a water reserve of 77.3 cubic meters per MWe, the Koodankulam reactors have only 5.1 cubic meters!
  • Our experts are avoiding the crucial question in Koodankulam: why this reassurance when the Russian agencies themselves have questioned the safety of VVER design being built in Koodankulam, in their post-Fukushima safety audit.
  • While the government has imposed sedition charges in Koodankulam, in Jaitapur it has imposed Section 144 in the entire district, passed extermination orders against the local leaders and prevented activists from the nearby areas from entering the district. In the past agitations, the police has detained even the former Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court.

When it comes to nuclear, truth and democracy become the first casualties. Eminent Scholars like Robert Jungk have warned about ‘the important social role of nuclear energy in the decline of the constitutional state into the authoritarian nuclear state’. It is almost a universal trend. A report published by the American National Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice in 1977 suggested that:

“….in view of the ‘high vulnerability of technical civilization’, emergency legislation should be introduced making it possible temporarily to ignore constitutional safeguards without previous congressional debate or consultation with the Supreme Court.”

India’s current nuclear expansion exemplifies this counter-democratic character of the nuclear energy industry. The entire ‘energy security’ rationale is actually a later concoction after assuring business of 10,000 MWs each to US and French companies on the even of the NSG clearances in 2008. The decision to import nuclear reactors caught the Department of Atomic Energy itself unawares and initially several eminent figures from the nuke establishment openly voiced differences, only to start toeing the government line shortly thereafter.

Thus, the ruling elite of this country in its desperate attempts to woo the global nuclear industry is undermining practically every democratic institution, including some of their own important norms. The drive for neoliberal ‘development’ in recent decades in India, and in particular its nuclear expansion is marked with undermining of democratic ethos . The struggle against nuclear policies is thus a struggle to save our democracy.





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