With the death of one person and injuries to several in police firing against the background of violent protests against the proposed nuclear power complex at Jaitapur in Maharashtra's Ratnagiri district, the controversy surrounding this project is all set to escalate. Some responsibility for this lies with the leading political opposition in the State, the Shiv Sena, which has spotted a political opportunity in the widespread unease among local communities in and around the proposed project area. However, the main reason for the rising tensions in Ratnagiri district is the peculiar intransigence of the State and central governments in this matter. Despite the Japanese nuclear emergency, they have dogmatically refused to put further execution of the project on hold; this is reflected in Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh's statement last week that the project was a fait accompli. Risk theory as well as elementary norms of democratic governance suggest that nuclear power projects cannot be thrust on unwilling communities, in business-as-usual fashion. Predictably, the continuation of construction work on the boundary of the project area set off the latest round of protests.
The Japanese nuclear emergency has hardly abated. That the promised review of Indian nuclear installations has already been partially completed without any role for independent scientific expertise or public interventions suggests little willingness on the part of the central government and the atomic energy establishment to reassure the public through a transparent and thorough exercise. Even the scale of the Fukushima calamity appears to have done little to modify the insensitivity the Manmohan Singh government has shown on nuclear matters. The passage of the Nuclear Liability Act to reassure potential foreign investors in India's post-deal nuclear industry appeared to take precedence over safeguarding the interests of the Indian people; it actually happened during a countrywide stocktaking of industrial and environmental safety on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal gas calamity. The current attitude to the Jaitapur protests only heightens the perception that assuaging genuine safety concerns in an open, democratic fashion matters little to a government that privileges the realisation of the nuclear deal above all else. There is no question of ruling out nuclear power tout court — but there is certainly a need for a larger debate, post-Fukushima, on its role vis-à-vis other sources of energy, including both fossil fuels and renewable sources. Forcing questionable projects on apprehensive communities after a traumatic international disaster is not the intelligent way to go.