The response to the anti-Kudankulam protest shows that space for the democratic right of dissent is shrinking.
I have been watching with a growing concern the unfolding story around the issue of the nuclear plant at Kudankulam. My concern is at two levels: One, that it seems bizarre that it should not be expected that there would be an additional concern about nuclear energy post-Fukushima, given the whole new dimension of risk that the incident brought to light around the nuclear question; and two, that the manner in which the confrontation is unfolding is an example of a larger pattern of not wanting any questions or dissent around India's growth story.
It would indeed have been disturbing if people were not worrying about a nuclear plant post the Fukushima incident, especially in an area which has experienced a tsunami. This is not to suggest that this particular plant would not withstand a tsunami, were that to ever happen again, but that it requires a whole new level of thinking around nuclear energy and the handling of the concerns that people have about safety and regulatory oversight. That incident demonstrated how a country with the best laid out plans, the use of advanced technologies, a rule based society and a government that actually works could still not protect its people from the forces of nature. It jolted Japan into a revisiting not only of its nuclear plans, buts also the very way it goes about organising its energy systems. Here is a country with 30 per cent of its electricity coming from nuclear energy, with plans to raise the share to 50 per cent by 2030, deciding to do a detailed review. Japan is looking to move to more decentralised energy systems, what it calls “smart community backed by information technology” so that the energy systems are no longer centralised as these carry with them the risks of serious accidents, either natural or man made.
The Japanese case demonstrates more than anything else that in India we need to worry much more about all risky development projects, because we have a larger and poorer population, with far lower social safety nets in place than in many other parts of the world, less transparency and regulatory accountability making people more vulnerable to risks than in other, more developed countries. In all the dialogues and workshops we have organised and/or attended, the discussions on nuclear energy highlighted the fact that while nuclear energy is seen as certainly increasing the energy options available to India, the jury is still out on whether it is an option for sustaining energy security, especially when security is understood not just in terms of availability and affordability but also in terms of human security. A larger expanded understanding of security would suggest that all risky development projects need to be studied carefully in terms of the security that they address. Whose security? At what cost?
But the handling of the protests is symptomatic of a larger malaise that is becoming noticeable. As the enthusiasm with the oft repeated comment of India's arrival on the world stage as an economic power grows, there seems to be an increasingly reduced space for questioning and dissent, as if all of these protests, these inconvenient questions raised, the people and groups doing so are obstacles to growth and the race to the head table. There is less patience with issues raised, and motives and agendas are attributed to those raising them. There is need for a serious rethink in all of this. Quite apart from this attitude being unacceptable in a democracy, it is also not strategic, as with diminished social licence to operate, it will become increasingly difficult to carry out such projects in a democratic society.
It is indeed true that India needs development, needs a large amount of energy and metals to meet its growth. But we need to factor in the risks and the costs much better and engage with people and their concerns as we do so. It is clear that a number of power and mining projects will affect local lives and the environment. We need to balance the two, as both comprise aspects of our national interest. That is the big challenge. And if this calls for a slower growth, a slower implementation of planned or proposed capacity we should accept it, just as we do when market conditions are not favourable. Of course, we have power deficits and very large unserved or underserved populations, but perhaps we can also think of redistributing some of the power from those who are appropriating it disproportionately within the country to those who have not. If mining is causing significant social and ecological stress in a region, as for example in Goa, we need to have a cap on how much mineral can be mined or have a moratorium on new projects until the situation improves. Let us use the same arguments that we use so well internationally within the country. We need it for ourselves. No foreign hand needs to tell us this.
(Ligia Noronha is Director, Resources, Regulation and Global Security, TERI, New Delhi.)