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Down To Earth

Author(s): Latha Jishnu
Date: Apr 5, 2012

Varshini, 10, speaks for a new generation that is against nuclear energy

Varshini, a fifth standard student, has a question for the prime minister. Why does he want to expose her and her village to radiation risks? Photographs by Amirtharaj StephenIn the gathering dusk, the open ground in Kudankulam village is filling up slowly. There is an inter-faith meeting to protest against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) that has come up just 2 km away and is all set to start operations. While the women are the first to arrive, many with their school going children in tow, the men drift in after work. The meeting of Muslim, Christian and Hindu priests is yet another rallying point against the contested power project, a long drawn out struggle that has been projected in the national media as a Church-sponsored campaign.

A look at the crowd gathered at Kudankulam ground dispels the notion instantly. The village, unlike the fishing hamlets which have been in the forefront of the anti-nuclear protests since August 2011, is inland, predominantly Hindu and a somewhat late entrant in the campaign against KKNPP. Its 12,000 residents proclaimed their anger and disillusionment with the project in 2007 soon after the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL), the state-owned entity that sets up nuclear projects in the country, held a public hearing on the environment impact assessment report for the third and fourth reactors. In all, KKNPP is scheduled to have six reactors, each of 1,000 MWe, and the first of these was scheduled to go critical in December 2011 until the public protests put paid to that.

Earlier, there had been a day-long puja at the ancient shrine of Vishwamitra in Vijayapathy village some 4-5 km away where devotees had prayed for the success of their campaign against KKNPP and, more interestingly, for the promotion of renewable energy sources. You could call it clever strategy by leaders of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE); they used the festivities associated with Vishwamitra’s anusham (birth star) to spread their anti-nuclear message. But there were no speeches, no rallies as people lined up at the freshly white-washed temples—there is another dedicated to Ganesha in this hamlet—to make their offerings.

In Kudankulam, however, it is clearly a campaign event with speeches and songs making overtly political statements. Cynicism and hope hang in the air. Pushpa, 33, listens to the men on the dais with half an ear while carrying on a conversation with her two friends and this correspondent. The women are all homemakers but well educated, it turns out. Why are they against KKNPP? “We don’t want to become the victims of a nuclear accident,” she says. But nuclear accidents are rare, I respond, playing devil’s advocate. “Perhaps. But we don’t want our children to be exposed to a Fukushima. India is not Japan which is an advanced society. Can you imagine what would happen here and in all the surrounding villages if there was a leak in the Kudankulam reactor? All that strontium and radioactive iodine will cause cancer and kill us. This is a death zone.”

It is true that initially Kudankulam village had no problem with Russian project. They sold land to NPCIL and hoped for jobs and better things to happen. Recalls S Sivasubramanian: “I sold three acres of my farmland to NPCIL in 1984-85; we used to grow paddy and cashew. The compensation was a pittance but every time we were told that the area would become a mini-Singapore.” But the jobs never came, nor did the promised development. When KKNPP announced that two more reactors would be built and held its public hearing in July 2007, the sentiment had turned completely against the project. Around 5,000 people had turned up for the hearing, requiring the Tirunelveli district collector to throw a massive police cordon around the town.

That’s history now. Today the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan has hardened the mood and the nuclear establishment has to deal with a better educated and better informed neighbourhood.

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