The violence that the agitation against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project degenerated into this week had an unfortunate ring of foreordination about it. It seemed to exemplify what happens when differences are not resolved through peaceful means. The Union and State governments had made no more than nominal efforts to engage the local people protesting against the project; experts had only made a cursory effort to address popular fears about the safety of the nuclear reactors, the manner of disposal of nuclear waste and the absence of a detailed public hearing; and the district administration had resorted to an emergency preparedness drill whose effectiveness was doubted by many. With the Madras High Court clearing the commissioning of the project, and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board giving its nod for loading of fuel in the first unit, the next port of call for those opposed to the plant’s commissioning should have been the Supreme Court. Instead, a section of the protesters decided to step up their campaign. The apparent failure of the police to anticipate that some protesters may take the coastal route towards the plant resulted in a dramatic confrontation on the beach. The police, who at the best of times need little prompting to resort to force, responded with tear gas and lathis. In neighbouring Tuticorin, a fisherman was killed in police firing.
For a security establishment eager to criminalise the anti-nuclear movement, the battle on the beach was a gift from heaven. But the authorities must treat the unfortunate progression of events as a warning sign of what happens when popular sentiment is systematically brushed aside or dismissed as illegitimate, anti-national or foreign inspired. Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde’s comment that “foreign NGOs” were behind the protest suggests the Centre has learned nothing. Why did he choose not to name any NGO? If he has concrete information with him, why does he not initiate legal proceedings against those concerned, instead of defaming what is clearly a people’s movement comprising local fisherfolk? With the activists now knocking on the Supreme Court’s doors to revisit the clearances given to the plant, it is time all sides stepped back from their maximalist positions. Even after the first reactor at Kudankulam is eventually switched on, the Central and State governments must respect the right of anti-nuclear activists to campaign publicly and peacefully for the closure of the plant. Equally, the activists — like their counterparts in Europe or Japan — must focus on building public support for their cause in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere peacefully and persuasively and not resort to confrontations.