Mock drill was trigger, official insensitivity drives resentment against the nuclear power project

St. Lourdes Church at Idinthakarai, a fishing village located about 80 km south of the Tirunelveli town, is an important place of worship for the local people. Of late, the Church, which is over 100 years old, is in the news for a different reason: it serves as the focal point for the protests against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project.

Over the last 25 days, people from the villages of Tirunelveli district, and the neighbouring districts of Tuticorin and Kanyakumari, have been gathering at the church, about 6 km from Kudankulam. Every day, they observe a one-day relay fast to press their demand that the project be scrapped.

The protesters, mainly fisherfolk, seem to be driven by a variety of concerns. Safety is one. Then there are fears that the reactor will adversely affect their livelihood. And though there is resentment over the way money has been poured into the project, former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam's proposal for a Rs. 250-crore development plan for the region has not exactly ignited the minds of those taking part in the stir against the nuclear plant.

Last Tuesday, about 200 people, mainly women, took part in the fast. Most of the women were from Terespuram of Tuticorin district. With her one-and-half-year-old son in her arms, Rani, a resident of Idinthakarai, lent her voice enthusiastically to the slogans against the project.

“I am from a family of fishermen. We strongly feel that our livelihood would be affected adversely once the plant starts functioning,” Rani said. Josephine, another Idinthakarai resident. was furious when she heard that Mr. Kalam had declared that the project had all the required safety features. “Don't we have the right to demand that our livelihood should not get affected? What we are fighting for is a matter of life and death. We, the womenfolk of this coastal belt, are prepared to lose our husbands in this struggle. We will fight it out till the project is abandoned,” she said.

Rani and Josephine's opposition to the Kudankulam plant is widely shared by the people living along the 130-km stretch of the coast from Alanthalai, near Tiruchendur, in Tuticorin district to Chinnamuttam of Kanyakumari district, through which this reporter travelled last week.

The protesters are emphatic that the opposition to the project is not new, and that it dates back to immediately after Rajiv Gandhi and Mikhail Gorbachev signed an agreement in November 1988 for the construction of two 1,000 megawatt units at Kudankulam.

Eljens, a fisherman of Periyathalai in Tuticorin District, recalled how about 20 years ago, the authorities ensured that the protests by fisherfolk fizzled out. Others cited the police firing on a May Day rally of fishermen at Kanyakumari in 1989 as the main reason for the abrupt end to the first phase of the campaign against the Kudankulam project.

The Bishop of Tuticorin Diocese, Rt. Rev. Yvon Ambroise, who was part of the delegations that met Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in September and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in October, recalled that since the late 1980s, the campaign had been sporadic, but had picked up some momentum over the last four years.

Mock drill sent alarm

Everyone is clear though that what seems to have given it a fresh lease of life recently and turned the local people vigorously against the project was the insensitive manner in which the authorities conducted a mock drill in August, to demonstrate their preparedness in the event of an emergency.

Residents of Idinthakarai and Kudankulam said that the project authorities did not take them into confidence before the drill.

“We heard a frightening noise and saw gas being emitted,” said Suyambu, a daily wage worker of Kudankulam. It caused widespread panic, especially as the local people had heard of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan in March.

“If this is going to be the situation even before the commissioning, you can very well imagine how it will be afterwards,” complained Natarajan, another daily wage worker. The two men said their families had given away their lands for the project but were not compensated adequately.

That there was a communication gap between the scientists and the locals was acknowledged by the Kudankulam project director, M. Kasinathan Balaji. “We learnt a lesson in a bitter way,” he told reporters in Chennai earlier this month.

A senior official of the Tirunelveli district administration also spoke of a gulf between the project authorities and the local people, whose fears, he says, ought have to be allayed first.

Kudankulam residents said there were many reasons why there was resentment against the project. Initially, project authorities had promised the supply of drinking water from the Pechiparai dam in Kanyakumari district to the area but failed to deliver. Jobs were promised to those who gave their land for the project, but this too was only partially kept.

Asked how the agitation took the present shape of a “relay fast,” which has been going on for over three weeks, Rt. Rev. Ambroise, who is heading the 88-year-old Diocese since 2005, said that on the day (October 7) a delegation of representatives of the State government, the local community and the protesters called on Dr. Singh in New Delhi, the contents of the Prime Minister's letter to the Chief Minister, seeking her support in “ensuring the timely implementation of the Kudankulam project” were released to the media.

This came as a shock, as some members of the delegation were earlier under the impression that the Prime Minister, who gave them a patient hearing in a 40-minute-long meeting, had understood their case.

Defending the role of the Church, the Bishop said that he and his counterpart of the Kottar Diocese provide moral and spiritual support to people who seek and need it. “Ours is like a parental position,” he says, adding that the fishing community along the coastline from Thangatchimadam, near Rameswaram to Kanyakumari belongs to the Catholic denomination.

He denied any political motives in the position of the Church. “We are not against the government or any political party,” he asserts.

Both Rt. Rev. Ambroise and other protest leaders are emphatic that the agitation draws support and participation from different sections of society, and had acquired the dimension of a livelihood struggle of the people, transcending religious, communal and political differences.

S.P. Udayakumar, coordinator of the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy, flatly denies the allegation that the campaign is receiving financial support from foreign agencies. “It is completely run on the basis of modest contributions from the people who are affected by the project.”

Pro-nuclear voices too

A government official in Tuticorin also acknowledged that there was no political instigation, but spoke of “thought funding” by the Church, some NGOs and individuals.

There are people in the area who support the project, but they are clearly in a minority. Among them is N. Vijayan, who has started his own campaign, the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project Supporters' Movement. A former Tirunelveli district panchayat councillor, he recently submitted a memorandum to District Collector R. Selvaraj, calling for immediate steps to ensure the early commissioning of the nuclear power plant.

Mr. Vijayan, who was earlier part of the agitation against the project, said his change of mind was the result of “a greater awareness” about nuclear issues. He suggested that the project authorities arrange a visit for representatives of the villagers to the Kalpakkam Atomic Power Station near Chennai.

Hiranya Subbu, an 82-year-old resident of Alanthalai village in Tuticorin, said he could remember the time when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan during the Second World War.

Still, he sees the Kudankulam nuclear power project as a necessity for the development of the coastal belt in the State's southern region. While the authorities should address concerns of the people in the region, he said, there was no point in blindly opposing development.

For their part, the Kudankulam police say the number of participants at Idinthakarai has been dwindling. At the height of the protests, there were 10,000 but this had come down to a few hundreds, the police said.

So far, 70 cases have been filed against the agitators for a variety of reasons including unlawful assembly and damaging a drinking water pipe to residential quarters of the project, located about 10 km from the power plant.

In the days to come, the police are confident, the number of agitators would further decrease. But, Rani of Idinthakarai said she would not give up her opposition to the project. She is convinced that the campaign against the reactors must succeed and the plant should close down. That, according to her, is the only way to ensure a “safe future” for the people of her village.