Nuking Koodankulam

Gopika Nangia

Gopika Nangia is doing her Post-Graduation in Development Studies from Azim Premji University. She visited Koodankulam recently.

As the news trickles in of the police filing 107 FIRs against 55,795 people – out of which 6800 have been charged with “sedition” and/or “war against the state”, one cannot help but contemplate how dystopic reality is.[1]  A peaceful protest against the loss of livelihoods and a threat to safety is branded “seditious”. But these protestors aren’t anti-state. If they were, they would say no to government services such as PDS, NREGA, public hospitals and schools. They are protesting against a particularly repressive aspect of the state that would rather stifle dissent – than engage in dialogue. That views them as expendable. Those that can be sacrificed at the altar of development – for the needs of us elite. Those whose consent is viewed as strictly optional. They are asking the state to redress its own oppression- which is a far cry from asking for dismantling the state.

Yet the inhuman activity of preventing entry of food, water and medicine by the state imposing section 141 is strictly legal.

If mainstream media were to be believed, the protests at Koodankulam are merely a result of a foreign-funded Udaykumar out to brainwash villagers steeped in tradition and ignorance. We pride ourselves in “knowing better”. How many of us know how a nuclear plant operates anyway? If you do, then please look at the list of concerns put together by a group of experts who are a part of People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy(PMANE). Please explain why the plant is being built in a seismic-sensitive, tsunami-prone area, why the government is mum on nuclear waste management, the nuclear liability deal with Russia and what the effect of the discharge of 42 billion litres of hot water into the sea will have on the marine ecology (which the fishermen of Idinthakarai are dependent on). [2] Rather than responding to the concerns raised, the state has slapped cases against thousands of people engaged in peaceful protest, which is far from a faith-building gesture.

If a nuclear plant was being proposed in a city, and elite urban people were worried about concerns raised by experts, would our reaction be the same?

Also, there are larger issues to do with the safety of nuclear energy that have been raised by a countless number of people. Closer to home, though, a study funded by the Department of Atomic energy (DAE) found that the morbidity burden in villages in proximity of Kalpakkam (around 650 kms away from Koodankulam) is 400% higher than in distant villages.[3]  There have been at least six major accidents at the nuclear plant in Kalpakkam, where radioactive heavy water leaked and exposed workers to harmful radiation.[4]  Yes, the people in these villages may not be nuclear experts, but they understand what radiation effects are- they have to live with them. Nor is it necessary for the people at Idinthakarai to be experts to question how the government intends on evacuating 15 lakh people in a 30 km radius in case of a nuclear emergency.

When a group of us went to Idinthakarai and Koodankulam, the 20,000 people sitting on dharna everyday had reduced to a couple of hundred surrounding their friend, Udaykumar, to prevent him from being arrested- not because “the people gave up” (as the impression seems to be), but as a result of negotiations between the state and the people. The situation has changed since- thanks to the  state backtracking on its promises. A month has passed, but the state has fulfilled not even one of the demands it had agreed to. Hence, their indefinite hunger strike is going to be resumed on May 1st.[5]

When thousands of people come out in protest, losing their daily wage, it is for a pretty darn good reason. They are bitter, angry, disillusioned. Why wouldn’t they be? No one asked them if they want to part of India’s nuclear race. No one asked them if it was okay if the plant was built there.

“Okay, if it’s so safe, why don’t they build it where they stay?”, asked a resident we met.

“If we really need a power plant, why don’t we use another form of energy? Why nuclear?”, added another.

Many of the people who we met there told us a thing or two about nuclear energy and Koodankulam which we “English-speaking folks” didn’t know.

To dismiss the protest by labelling it “foreign funded” is an insult- because it is an insinuation that the people do not have “real reasons” to protest. It is an insult to those thousands of people who have missed out on their daily wage. A resident told us that one of the reasons why the people of Koodankulam couldn’t sustain the protests (in contrast to the people of Idinthakarai), is because they are poorer and couldn’t afford the loss of daily wages.

As a recent article in Tehelka [6] stated, “India’s nuclear programme has had considerable foreign influence for years now. In passing the Nuclear Liability Act, our PM made no secret of his passionate lobbying on behalf of foreign nuclear equipment suppliers. In January 2011, former DAE secretary Anil Kakodkar put his mouth where the money is, when he told the Marathi daily Sakaal that “We also have to keep in mind the commercial interests of foreign countries and… companies … America, Russia and France were the countries that we made mediators in these efforts to lift sanctions, and hence, for the nurturing of their business interests, we made deals with them for nuclear projects.”

Even in Koodankulam, it is public knowledge that a foreign hand is at play. That hand is Russian.”

Even if, hypothetically, a foreign NGO was supporting the movement, surely, it wasn’t compensating for the daily wages of 20,000 satyagrahis for days on end? In the unlikely event it was, it would have eventually run out of money, and the dissent would have stopped. However, when we went there, almost everyone we met said they’d see this fight to its bitter end, and there were many who said that they’d even sacrifice their lives to stop the plant. But, even if a foreign NGO was supporting the movement in some form, what is the big deal?

We elite have very strange notions of nationalism. When it comes to a POSCO or Vedanta dispossessing thousands of people of their land, we label it “foreign” investment. Yet, Koodankulam fills us with a newfound nationalism that makes us trash a people’s movement by labelling it “foreign funded” (and paradoxically not the nuclear lobby).

Ultimately, the movement is not about you or me- it never is. For us, they are probably just another faceless group of people funding our lifestyles.



[1] “Fact Finding Report on the Suppression of Democratic Dissent in Anti-Nuclear Protests by Government of Tamil Nadu” by Chennai Solidarity Group for Koodankulam Struggle,

[2] Report of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy Expert Committee on Safety, Feasibility and Alternatives to Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant, December 2011,

[3] “Koodankulam: Letter to IAEA, Nuclear Regulators and Human Rights Organisations”,,

[4] Roshen Chandran,”Underplaying Kalpakkam safety concerns”, The Hoot,

[5] “Koodankulam: PMANE Announces Indefinite Hunger Strike starting May 1, 2012”,

[6] Nityanand Jayaraman,”The German Hand. And the Doctor’s Googly”, Tehelka, February 2012,

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