Foreign Handshake?: Koodankulam and Democratic Dissent

Sneha, (Courtesy: NewsLaundary)

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh evoked the foreign hand paranoia while saying – “In Kudankulam…the atomic energy programme has got into difficulties because these NGOs, mostly I think based in the United States, don’t appreciate the need for our country to increase the energy supply.”

One wonders if this frequently and frivolously repeated phrase of foreign hand holds any merit in today’s excessively globalised world. Coming from a government, and especially a leader who lays out the red carpet for FDI and foreign investment, it sounds no more than doublespeak.

Illustrated by Reetika Verma, NewsLaundry.Com

SP Udaykumar, coordinator of People’s Movement against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), which has been protesting on the ground for three years now, says – “It’s a totally baseless accusation, without any evidence how can he say such a thing? He is not an elected PM, not voted by the people. But nominated by MNCs,” he says fuming. “It’s a struggle by locals. Farmers, fishermen, ladies contribute and run the struggle for a better healthier life. We do not accept funds by any religious, foreign, political organization at all!” he retorts. Udaykumar’s campaign has been battling such allegations in the past too. Narayan Swamy, Minister of State in the PMO, had also alleged that some of the NGOs received money from foreign sources. When Udayakumar sent a legal notice on the false charge of having received Rs.1.5 crores from overseas, Union Minister Narayanaswamy retracted says the PMANE press release dated February 10th 2012.

A local newspaper called Dinamalam had reported that “Foreign Money for Anti-nuclear Activists Revealed: Shocking Information from Enquiry of NGOs” in its issue dated January 17, 2012. The newspaper had claimed some Christian NGOs with alleged links with the movement received Rs. 54 crores from the United States. No proof was given. It gave names, home address and phone number of three key leaders of PMANE, provoking readers to harass them. S. P. Udayakumar, M. Pushparayan, and M. P. Jesuraj had filed a complaint to the Press Council on grounds that private information was divulged and their security endangered. Dinamalam daily had apologized to Father Kocherry (issue dated February 9, 2012) about its claim of his channeling money from Germany to the people’s struggle. “These ridiculous episodes prove that the charges against us are completely false and those who accuse us of these charges have no credibility” says Udaykumar.

Along with Udaykumar, many people feel the charges are part of ad hominem strategy, i.e. belittle the opponent when you can’t counter their arguments. M.V. Ramana, who is author of the book – The Power Of Promise: Examining Nuclear Power In India says – “I think that the PM’s statement is wrong on three counts. First, for the leader of a democratic state to dismiss intense public opposition to nuclear reactors is an insult to the intellects and minds of millions of individuals and to democracy itself. Second, the government, and specifically the PM, has been at the forefront of inviting foreign investment in a variety of fields. So is it the PM’s contention that, say, Walmart or Posco or Areva are ‘fully appreciative of the development challenges’ India faces? That would be ridiculous! Finally, this business of who is funding what is irrelevant to the larger question of the real and proven risks that nuclear power plants pose. There should be no doubt about this after Fukushima.”

Dr Rajesh Kasturirangan, an Associate Professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, in response to the PM’s comment says – “Buying nuclear reactors from GE isn’t the foreign hand but protesting against it is. It is pretty clear that our PM’s statement is selective.” Dr. Rajesh had written an article on the website India Together that nuclear disasters are like black swan events i.e. an event impossible to predict beforehand but obvious in hindsight.

Kudankulam was proposed two years after the Chernobyl incident when the “Soviet nuclear industry was desperate to improve its image” in the words of M V Ramana. The agreement was made between Rajiv Gandhi and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988 that USSR would provide concessional state-to-state credit for the nuclear reactor, priced then at Rs.470 crores. Due to the division of U.S.S.R., the project was delayed for a decade and revived when former president Boris Yeltsin visited India in 1998, when the cost was already up to Rs. 1300 crores.

In November 2001, the agreement was tweaked following which Russia was not obliged to take back the spent fuel. That would saddle India with radioactive nuclear waste to dispose, which is still a problem waiting to be solved the world over. Another four reactors were agreed to be added at Kudankulam when Putin came to India in 2007.

The nuclear power plant will affect 20,000 people living in Kudankulam village and another 12,000 from nearby Idinthakarai village. It will also adversely affect marine biodiversity as it is on the edge of the Gulf of Munnar which is home to 337 endemic species. The radioactive discharge will pollute the soil, making agriculture dangerous and the hot water released from reactors will make it difficult for fishes to survive. This area is home primarily to farmers and fisherman.

Strangely, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process mentions thermal discharges without reference to the ecologically sensitive habitat. The possible impact of a major accident doesn’t find mention.

The 500 meter circumference around Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant has a fishing ban imposed since October 1, 2010. As per a Tamil Nadu government order (G.O. No. 828 -29.4.1991 Public Works Department) claims – “The use of land within the exclusion zone of 2.0 km radius around the plant site for any purpose other than establishment of a Nuclear Power Station and its facilities is prohibited.” More people will be forced out of their land and work.

The scientists inside Kudankulum too have no work to do for now. Russian diplomat Alexander M Kadakin had expressed his displeasure – “We are not setting any deadline. But our scientists are sitting idle since October 2011.”

So should the protestors take back their demand of a complete shut down of the nuclear power plant because India has already invested in the infrastructure? MV Ramana’s view is – “Projects such as the nuclear plant at Jaitapur, which are strongly opposed by the local population should be abandoned right now, before investing money in costly plant related infrastructure and then complaining that crores of Rupees are being wasted because of opposition. There are many places in the world where nuclear plants have been abandoned after full construction and then converted into other forms of revenue generation. In some cases, they have been converted into natural gas plants. In Germany, a fully completed but not fuelled nuclear plant was converted into an amusement park, and that has been doing very well. The government could start by setting up an Expert Committee involving, for example, people from the natural gas industry to look into how much it would cost to convert Koodankulam plant into a natural gas based power plant.”

But that seems unlikely, claims PMANE as the Expert Panel as constituted by Tamil Nadu government to allay local fears isn’t as impartial and independent as it should be – “Dr. M. R. Srinivasan, a member of the team, is a well-known pro-nuclear person. He is the former Chairman and a current member of India’s Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). He was also a member of the site selection committee in the 1980s for the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP). He has been writing and speaking in favor of nuclear power and the Koodankulam project” says a press note by PMANE.

Besides, our Prime Minister who was on an official visit to Russia recently had assured his Russian counterpart that the plant will be operational soon. He had said in a joint press conference with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev – “I am confident that in a couple of weeks we should be able to go ahead in operationalising Kudankulam-I and, thereafter, in a period of six months, the Kudankulam-II.”

We are not sure of the foreign hand, but foreign hand shakes do work.



Sneha earned her degree in journalism from Kamala Nehru College and writes for Newslaundry, a media critique website.




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