The protest over the nuclear plant in Koodankulam has claimed the livelihood of thousands, with bogus charges filed and restrictions on their occupation, reportsSoumik Mukherjee, Tehelka

Protest trail (left) Children at the Tirunelveli Collectorate; Villagers burn a coffin representing democracy, on 15 August

Photos: Amirtharaj Stephen

IDINTHAKARAI, A small coastal village in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district, overlooks a horizon dotted with windmills. The village is populated by small-time fishermen eking out a modest living. But, according to the register at the Kudankulam police station, this village is the country’s most notorious place. People here are waging a war against the nation. They are all seditious. This is the first time, in the history of this country, that 8,000 cases of sedition and waging a war against the nation have been registered, at a single police station.

However, a visit to Idinthakarai dispels this myth of sedition. The village, at the brink of a soon-to-be functional 2,000 MW nuclear plant, is definitely waging a war. Not against the State, though, but for its right to a nuclear disaster-free future.

A nuclear plant, located only a few kilometres away from the villages, threatens the very existence of the people in Koodankulam. Fishing, their principal means of livelihood, is facing extinction.

“If anything, this has only trivialised the gravity of the charges of sedition,” says SP Udayakumar, the leader of People’s Movement against Nuclear Energy (PMANE). “We led a democratic and nonviolent protest here for over a year and they charged 8,000 people with sedition. If we are seditious, then the Atomic Energy Research Board (AERB), which has been named by the CAG for irregularities in the nuclear policy, is committing a bigger crime by playing with millions of lives,” he says. Apart from sedition cases, criminal cases have been lodged against as many as 66,000 people in the past year.

Most of the sedition cases were lodged on three occasions. During a sit-in at the plant premises in October 2011, the Koodankulam police, after using violent means to ward off the protesters, lodged as many as 3,000 cases. In November 2011, more cases were filed when fishermen from the neighbouring villages staged a peaceful demonstration by the sea. The last mass registration of sedition cases occurred recently, on Independence Day this year. As a sign of protest, villagers in the surrounding areas of the plant refused to hoist the national flag. They put up black flags instead. The district administration deemed the protest seditious, nevertheless. “A few thousand more cases of waging war against the nation were lodged that day,” informs Pushparayan Victoria, a colleague of Udaykumar’s.

Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan rubbishes the cases, even calling them ‘absurd’. “The SC, in a verdict in 1962, said that only an act of overthrowing the State qualifies as sedition. This is just an instance of a peaceful movement being suppressed by these false cases,” he says.

Interestingly, the Tirunelveli Police backtracked on all their previous atrocities. Superintendent of Police Vijayendra Bidari says that police never dealt with the protesters in an ‘undemocratic manner.’ “The numbers that are doing the rounds are false,” says Bidari. “We have named only 20 people or so in the FIRs,” he says. Since most of the names were registered under ‘others’, the entire village is under the threat of a judicial trial now. “We are working on the chargesheets and we have enough evidence against some of these people, which will be produced in the court,” Bidari asserts.

People who have found jobs abroad claim they have been denied their passports because of the sedition charges

Civil society from all over the country have protested against the State’s treatment of a peaceful movement. Khurram Pervez, a civil society activist from Kashmir, says, “It’s nothing new. The state of India monopolises violence. Any voice of dissent, in Kashmir, Northeast or Koodankulam, is sedition in its eyes. We were shocked to see that people from a small village are being charged with sedition because of protesting against a nuclear plant.”

As a result of the cases, people in Kudankulam are being denied their basic rights. “No new passports are being issued; in fact, some of the passports that arrived have been called back,” informs Victoria. Even though the Tirunelveli Police claims they cleared all the passport applications, TEHELKA found that no passports have been issued to people in the village, who applied in the past one year. “I have secured a job in Saudi Arabia. My agent assured me of a visa too, but I’ve been waiting for the passport for the past one year,” says Joihar, 24. “My name is not there in any FIR, but I’m facing the brunt,” he says. It is the same situation with many youngsters in Koodankulam, and family members rue this denial of opportunity to go abroad and add to the collective income.

The small-scale fishing industry, which has been going through turmoil over the past year because of the protest, is no longer profitable. “The prawn season is over and we caught nothing this year as the breeding area was declared a ‘restricted land’ by the plant authority,” says Francis Leon, a villager in Koodankulam. “The fishermen are now living off a meagre income by making bidis,” he says. The movement is being run by the locals, for which they are sacrificing their personal lives. “The government alleges that our struggle is being funded by the Catholic churchrun NGOs, but in reality, people are funding their own movement,” says Udayakumar.

Rosari, a housewife in her 50s, seconds the sentiment. “This economic stalemate has ruined our lives in the past year. We can’t send our children to school. We’ve stopped celebrating festivals,” she says. “The plant is our nemesis; it will slowly kill all the nearby villages just like it happened in Kalapakkam. Now there is no fish to catch,” says 38-year-old Belsi.

Now, the residents are waiting for Madras High Court’s verdict. “The protest has lost a bit of its sheen, because people had to carry on with their lives. But as soon as the verdict is out, which will be definitely against us, we will start afresh,” says Amrithraj, a documentary photographer, who has been recording the movement since the very beginning.

Protest trail People gather from sea and land to protest against the nuclear plant

THE PROTESTERS believe the irregularities being unearthed every day in nuclear policies will strengthen the cause and solidify the movement. In an RTI reply, the National Disaster Management Authority recently revealed that India does not have a policy on spreading public awareness about a possible nuclear disaster. “It can only deal with a disaster after it has taken place. The State is playing with its subjects in the name of development,” says Udayakumar.

Till the Koodankulam nuclear power plant gears up for its operation, the villagers find themselves in a stalemate. “There is no more faith in the state government too,” says Udayakumar. “Jayalalithaa supported us as the leader of Opposition but now that she is in power, nothing is being done,” he says. There is no support from nearby states like Kerala either. “They want 500 MW of electricity from this plant, but forget that in case of a disaster, they are susceptible in an equal measure,” he says.

Curiously enough, two windmills from the Tamil Nadu Energy Department Agency stand in the premises of the plant. Does the administration know that this grid alone produces 3,500 MW electricity from the windmills, almost twice as much as the much-hyped nuclear plant?

Soumik Mukherjee is a Photo Correspondent with Tehelka.
[email protected]