Koodankulam: Women at the Forefront of Struggle

Special Correspondent

Venilla, daughter of Sabarimuthu, a 29 year old pregnant woman was prevented from leaving to go to the hospital at 8.30 pm on Wednesday 20 March in the village of Idnithikarai in south India.

She returned with more people who prevailed on the police that have cordoned off her village due to their protests against two 1,000 MW nuclear reactors built 2 kilometres from their home.

Later, she was allowed to go and get admitted to Thisaiyinvilai hospital.

When pushed to the limits by the power-wielders of the nuclear state, it is women’s power that comes to confront the dangers of nuclear power head-on. When thinking of the future of their families, it is women who are at the fore of most heartfelt struggle against the nuclearisation of India.

The Koodankulam nuclear power plant is one of many collaborations that have later mushroomed in millennial India since the ratification of the Indo-US nuclear civilian agreement (2008). The agreement allows those 46-member Nuclear Suppliers Group to trade with India in nuclear material even though the country is not a signatory to the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (1968).

The French company, Areva, has entered into an agreement for a 6 reactor complex in Jaitapur, Maharashtra, the American G.E.-Westinghouse with two projects so far – four reactors at Mithivirdi in Gujarat and four in Kovada in Andhra Pradesh.

Added to this, the Labour-led coalition in Australia, presently the largest global supplier of uranium, have also ceded to trading in fissile material with India last month to join other countries like Canada and Mongolia.Scott Ludlum from the Australian Greens Party has contested the policy in front of the Australian government based on the repression of people at Koodankulam.To similar ends,British MP Caroline Lucas said ‘I am very concerned about the treatment of these non violent protesters as well as the operation of the nuclear power plant’.

Multinational collaborations purport to aid India’s development but they have only lent to the Indian government’s draconian handling of its own citizens.

Contrary to Australian premier Julia Gillard’s statement, trade in uranium for nuclear power does not help India’s poor. In fact, it further oppresses them. As one person at an Occupy Koodankulam rally announced with a statement on her cap, ‘Development kills’.

The people here in south India not anti-development. They want development, but sustainable development, ones that are based on people’s terms rather than those to do with corporate, multinational deals and state kickbacks where the nuclear authorities are the darlings of statehood, held beyond criticism. This arrogance translates itself not just to a blanking of the opinion of people likely to be most affected by the development but also downright oppression and the muzzling of contrary voices with threats of intimidation.

In September 2011, women had led a march to the Indian-Russian collaboration Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant gates after construction had not stopped despite the fact that there was a state cabinet resolution by the Tamil Nadu government. At the gates they were attacked with batons by the police, but they have not been deterred.

They are supported by the encouragement and information provided by leaders such as the former teacher, Dr S.P. Udayakumar, and local church priests who have been on an indefinite hunger strike since Monday 19 March, the day that operations on the first reactor were recommenced. Udayakumar argued: ‘We will not give up. The nuclear authorities have never entered into a democratic dialogue with us. This is a fight for democracy’. They have inspired thousands across the region in the struggle for a right to a healthy life.

Those inside the village of Idinthikarai now numbering about 15,000 had been under siege by police and paramilitary from Monday 19 March. Essential supplies such as water, food and medicine had not been permitted in a state-backed effort to crush their spirits although recently they have shown signs of relaxing their cordon. Nor is media allowed in to the village enable an eye on any untowards conduct.

The police have requested the arrest of the leader Udayakumar but village residents have held the fort, refusing to let go off him. He has become a ‘second Mahatma Gandhi’ in their eyes for his mild-mannered demeanour yet impassioned speeches against the iniquities and opacity of the nuclear state.

What’s most disturbing is how close the reactors are built to people’s homes. The reactors defy international stipulations set by the International Atomic Energy Agency to place nuclear sites at least 30 kilometers from civilian populations. Within a 30 kilometers radius of the Koodankulam nuclear power plant, there is an estimated 3 million residents.

Local resident, Edward Krishnaraj (aged 31) said, ‘They say don’t go anywhere near a voltage house, and that’s only 500 kilowatts. Here they want to build 2 megawatts of power and they put it right next to our homes’.

The nearest house to the complex is only 700 meters away in a village called CASA. The village was named after a Delhi-based Non-Governmental Organisation that received charitable funds from Canadian churches to aid tsunami-affected villages from December 2004.

Shoyjika, a girl of fourteen, lives in this village named after a Delhi-based Non-Governmental Organisation that received charitable funds from Canadian churches to aid tsunami-affected villages from December 2004. But in a move that defies all sense, the rehabilitation was to place them almost next to the securitised fence of the power plant in 2006, four years after the two nuclear reactors had been commissioned.

She said: We do not want the reactor. It scares us. We live so close to it and have to see it every day. We are afraid of radiation and how it can affect our help. We are only young but they are trying to ruin our future. We have to fight against it. Everyone here is against it.’

The main interests of the nuclear authorities are not to provide electricity to neighbouring villages, however, but to industrialists and corporates such as those in the Tamil Nadu Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Even so, only about half of the electricity would reach the city heartlands and at a distribution loss of 25%, recipients are only likely to get about 300 MW from the 1000 MW reactors.

There is a churlish attitude to exploring alternative energy sources, and the recent installation of an ex-nuclear official, Anil Kakodkar, to the Solar Commission makes a laughing stock of any serious effort to explore alternatives when compared to the billions of dollars that Indian nuclear authorities annually receive. The irony is that it is wind generators that have so far provided electricity to the nuclear power plant and township.

Not only are the nuclear reactors built too close to residents, but they are also substandard. According to a local contractor in the neighbouring village of Chettikulam who wished to remain anonymous, the material that was used it ‘not even second-rate. It is third-rate. The cement has a lot of sand mixed in it as it common practice in construction here’.

A women’s delegation have already written to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalaitha but shehas ignored their pleas. They wrote ‘Idnithikarai is the seat of people’s opposition movement where women far outweighed men in sheer numbers, their intensity, their loud and vocal opposition, and their complete commitment to the cause. Women sit for hours without food, water, carrying babies in their arms whilst they participate in a relay hunger strike that has now continued for more than a hundred days.

They have taken to streets, under sun, rain and the elements, to protect their children and their future generations. Their faces showed that they had already crossed a threshold of no-return. They would protect their children and their lives at all cost. They have been at the forefront of a battle for life itself.’

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