Even as the first unit at the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KNPP) is progressing to generate 500 MW of electricity, the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) feels that the villagers in the neighbouring areas have not lost their steam.
“It is true that the plant has started the fission process. But that does not mean the people have accepted the power plant or that support for the protest has gone down. If only the administration does not hinder free flow of vehicles then you will see the large number of people gathering here as it used to be during the initial days of the protest,” PMANE co-ordinator S. P. Udayakumar told IANS on the phone from Idinthakarai in the vicinity of the nuclear power plant from where the protest is being directed.
Even Indian and foreign accredited journalists were not allowed to enter Idinthakarai village in Tirunelveli district, around 650 km from here. Recently two journalists from Delhi - one Indian and one foreign - from a German radio station were denied permission to meet PMANE members.
Mr. Udayakumar said people are protesting against the setting up of a nuclear power plant in a non-violent way for the past two years but cases have been registered against them for sedition in a country that got its freedom by similar protests against the colonial British rulers.
“More than 325 cases, including around 20 cases of sedition and waging war against the country have been registered against the protestors. The morale of the people is still high and we are getting support from unexpected quarters,” he added.
The irony is that people who are demanding bifurcation of the state are left untouched, he said.
India’s atomic power plant operator, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), is setting up two 1,000 MW Russian reactors at Kudankulam. After several years of delay, the first 1,000 MW reactor at KNPP and India’s 21st reactor began its nuclear fission process at 11.05 p.m. on July 13.
After a brief shutdown, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) on Wednesday permitted NPCIL to operate the first unit at 50 percent capacity.
“We have already started our work. We are hopeful of connecting the plant to the grid generating 500 MW this month,” R.S.Sundar, site director at KNPP, told IANS over phone.
Not many, even in Tamil Nadu, would have heard about the small fishing village named Idinthakarai, literally meaning damaged coast, till the villagers there started their protest against the KNPP.
The sustained protests - hunger strikes, rallies, fishing strike, sea siege of the plant - by people in large numbers shook the entire Indian nuclear establishment and also baffled the political parties as the fishermen and their family members, forgoing their work and earnings, gathered in large numbers to protest.
“We are not in a position to enthuse cadres to attend a public meeting despite distribution of biryani packets and free transport. But the continued protests by the people is what is baffling us,” a politician told IANS, preferring anonymity.
Looking back at the two-year struggle, Mr. Udayakumar said after Independence in 1947, sustained non-violent protest was almost forgotten.
But such form of a protest was carried out by the fishing community which is generally considered as aggressive when it comes to their rights.
The fishermen’s protest enabled the common man question the atomic energy establishment, which was not so earlier, and there was intense public debate about nuclear energy which was not there when the civil nuclear deal was signed with the US in 2005, Mr. Udayakumar said.
While the street protests were carried out by the villagers in Kudankulam, Idinthakarai and others, anti-nuclear activists and others joined hands with PMANE and fought at a different plane - ferreting information by filing applications under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
“From the beginning, we decided to keep different fights - street, legal and technical - separate. While the people’s protest will be by PMANE, the legal and technical fights were done by our organisation,” G. Sundarrajan of NGO Poovulagin Nanbargal told IANS.
It was Sundarrajan who filed cases against NPCIL in the Madras High Court and then in the Supreme Court, with like-minded experts extending PMANE a helping hand.
According to him, while the protests were held at Tirunelveli district, across the state there was some form of discussion about the project - debates, posters, leaflets - that kept the issue in the people’s mind.
Faced with the public demand for answers, the atomic energy establishment, including NPCIL, started sharing basic information about its projects with the people while withholding the crucial site evaluation and safety analysis reports despite an order from the Central Information Commissioner.
Though the Indian government accused PMANE of getting foreign funds and even raided some NGOs, the allegations were not proved. On its part, PMANE threw open its books of accounts for public scrutiny.
“Due the the protest, Idinthakarai’s children are put to a lot of difficulties. It is more than a year since public transport was withdrawn from this area,” Mr. Udayakumar said.
According to Mr. Udayakumar, while the protest against KNPP would continue in the form of civil non-cooperation with plant officials, PMANE will take its anti-nuclear power to a higher plane by targeting policy makers, intelligentsia, youth and others.
Interestingly, anti-nuclear protestors in other parts of the country are now approaching PMANE for guidance.