Agitation against Jaitapur project comes in handy

The Shiv Sena has given the till-now peaceful agitation against the Jaitapur nuclear power plant a violent turn, trying to stop work at the project site on April 18 and thus sparking protests at Sakhri Nate village. One person was killed in police firing. The erstwhile leaders of the anti-nuclear agitation like Pravin Gavankar of the Janhit Seva Samiti (JSS) in Madban have viewed this turn of events with apprehension. Mr. Gavankar says he won't allow anyone to hijack the agitation but he seems to have little choice in the matter.

The local MLA, Rajan Salvi, a Shiv Sainik, was arrested, along with others, after Monday's protests. It was in Madban that a 200-strong mob attacked the project site and destroyed electronic equipment and set grass nearby on fire. It even beat up policemen and one of them, a deputy superintendent, had 23 stitches in the head for injuries. Yet it was at Sakhri Nate that the police opened fire, killing a fisherman and injuring several others after an attack on the local police station. The police said the mob violence left 54 policemen injured and only after firing did it subside.

Shifting loyalties

While the Muslim-dominated village has always supported the Congress, things changed in 2002 when some locals joined the Sena. In 2005, a branch of the party was set up there, according to Majid Govalkar, who joined the Sena in 2002. Then on the Sena gained a toehold, yet in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the village supported Nilesh Rane of the Congress since he promised to build a jetty and deliver a special package for the Konkan region.

But disillusionment set in after he was elected, said Mr. Govalkar. The Sena and the Congress are at loggerheads in local elections as well. Their rivalry intensified after Narayan Rane, now Minister, left the Sena in 2005 to join the Congress. The Sena-BJP had dominated the electoral scene in the Konkan since the 1990s but after Mr. Rane's exit, the Sena went downhill and in the 2009 Assembly polls it performed poorly, winning just two seats in Ratnagiri and none in Sindhudurg district. By supporting the Jaitapur agitation, the Sena hopes to recover lost ground. This way it can also target Mr. Rane and his son, Nilesh, as well as the Congress, which is strongly pitching for the Jaitapur project.

Anti-Dabhol stir

The Sena has been backing agitations against mining and power plants in the Konkan in the hope of gaining political mileage. Notably, it campaigned against the Dabhol power project when it was launched in 1992 by the Congress government. After the initial protests and the scrapping of the power purchase agreement, the Sena-BJP government renegotiated the project a year after the alliance came to power in 1995 and even agreed to a phase-II plan though the first agreement had said it was optional. This history is well known in the Konkan and in the State.

At Sakhri Nate, there is disquiet among some sections over the Sena introducing a violent note into the protests. Amjad Borkar, Congress leader and head of a fishermen's cooperative, said the people were not for violent protests. This time the Sena initiated the protest and the intention was to stop work. Mr. Rajan Salvi asked the people to support it. Mr. Borkar clarified that the village would not refuse support from any party but the agitation should be peaceful and democratic.

However, Mr. Govalkar and others said the agitation would take its course as the people had lost confidence in the Congress and the government. Sena leaders made their presence felt in the agitation for the first time and senior leaders including Gajanan Kirtikar visited Sakhri Nate after the violence. Recently executive president Uddhav Thackeray addressed a public meeting near the project site. However, the disquiet in the ranks of the protesters, who have divided loyalties, could affect the agitation. Already many of the groups associated with the agitation are keeping a safe distance following the violence. The government will find it easy to handle a tractable Sena rather than locals who have refused compensation and are unwilling to budge from their stand against the Jaitapur nuclear project.

The Sena leaders, even while voicing staunch opposition to the project, say any decision will be taken in consultation with the locals. In the past too, the Sena protested against several projects and the question is whether it will go all the way on this one. A section of the project-affected people is seeking solace in this party, which has an axe to grind in the region. The agitation against the world's largest nuclear project has now become a turf war between the Congress and the Sena, which is turning the heat on the government. It is the people who have everything to lose in this war.