Mithivirdi, which literally means a ‘sweet well’, is a nondescript Gujarat coastal village about 50 km south of Bhavnagar city and next-door to Alang, Asia’s largest ship-recycling yard. The region, with its reddish-brown earth, lush green orchards and undulating hillocks, is known as much for its farm and fruit produce as for the nearby rocky seashore which is a graveyard for thousands of ships. This contrasting landscape has been chosen as the location of a 6,000 MW nuclear power project, one of the first India hopes to build in the aftermath of the civil nuclear deal it signed with the United States in 2008.
The project will be spread over 777 hectares and house six nuclear reactors manufactured by US-based Westinghouse, a subsidiary of Toshiba of Japan, which has signed an agreement with the Nuclear Power Corporation of India. The ambitious project aims to supply power not only to Gujarat but also to Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
However, residents of five villages – Mithivirdi, Jasapara, Khadarpar, Mandva and Paniyad — where the project will be located are anything but excited. Their attachment to their land, which has to be acquired, and the fear of having to live near a nuclear plant have sparked protests.
In an almost identical replay of the opposition to the Jaitapur project on Maharashtra’s Konkan coast, Mithivirdi and its neighbours have prevented authorities from conducting soil and water tests, stopped land surveys and even the digging of borewells and submitted affidavits to the district collector saying they would not allow their land to be acquired.
“Money does grow on trees,” says farmer Arjun Dabhi, who owns a 40-bigha orchard and claims mangoes grown on just 2 bighas fetched him Rs 2 lakh this season while a kilo of cashew fruit was sold for Rs 500. “And they want to have a nuclear power plant here and destroy all that is natural,” he said.
Villagers said a survey of fruit trees conducted two years ago accounted for more than 10,000 mango trees, 1,000 chikoo and custard-apple trees each in Mithivirdi and Jasapara.
“The gram panchayat of each affected village has passed a resolution. Not just private land, not a single village will give up wasteland under it for the project,” said Shaktisinh Gohil, the sarpanch of the cluster. “Lands of 340 farmers fall under the earmarked area. All of them have submitted an affidavit to the district collector announcing their unwillingness to give up their land,” he added.
When the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited, engaged by the NPCIL, began digging borewells at 5 am, some 5,000 villagers reached the site and sent them packing.
The anti-nuclear sentiment is apparently a more recent development, with locals admitting that activists opposed to atomic energy have been visiting the region and pushing their line. The mix of NGOs involved is varied and includes the Indian unit of Greenpeace and a local group called Uthaan, which has otherwise focused on water conservation and gender empowerment. Leaders of other anti-acquisition protests from Saurashtra and Kutch, environment activists and even a rebel BJP MLA, Kanu Kalsaria, have waded into the campaign.
Bhimji Gohil, an elderly farmer and former sarpanch, opens the doors to a nine-room godown to show this season’s cotton production. Five rooms are filled with cotton bales. Next to the door are two anti-nuclear stickers featuring the picture of a child said to be a victim of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings. And like in Koodankulam and Jaitapur, the Fukushima disaster has only exacerbated fears.
“We would have even considered giving up land if it was some other project. But the fear of living beside a nuclear plant is frightening,” said Deva Dabhi, a farmer who went on a NPCIL trip to the Kakrapar nuclear facility near Surat but came back unconvinced. “After Fukushima, we will not let this happen,” he said.
All the opposition has meant that the NPCIL and its associates have not been able to get the nuclear project off the ground as planned this year.
With even land acquisition yet to start, a tentative schedule suggests that work will begin in 2013-14. With Assembly elections due in December, the government, too, is taking it easy and hopes to hold a public hearing only in January or February next year.
Bhavnagar collector D J Zalavadia admits things are not moving forward.
“Earlier we had reached a consensus on land acquisition. But things did not materialise. As of now, things are at a standstill. But we have been trying to reach an amicable solution,” he said.
NPCIL officials maintain that not everyone in the region is opposed to the project. “Many understand that it’s a very safe technology and they understand the need for such a project. Some of them are even ready for land acquisition and we hope that happens soon. We do need to talk to some groups and reach a consensus,” said P M Shah, NPCIL’s chief project engineer.
“China is going to commission two plants using the same reactors next year. We are a democracy, so we function differently. I hope the plant does come up here during my time,” he said.
The protests against the project fly against the general perception that Gujarat is among the best states in the country to make large industrial investments and that there is little opposition to land acquisition like elsewhere in the country. The Narendra Modi-led BJP government has sought to play down the campaign against the nuclear project and is keeping a low-profile as the Assembly elections are due in December.
“I cannot comment on something that has not yet happened. The Nuclear Power Corporation is handling the project but we will go ahead only after taking the people into confidence,” said Industries Minister Saurabh Patel.
“Also, there are so many issues about which we have asked the Centre for clarifications because they are important for the state and we expect they will be clarified soon,” he added, without elaborating on what these issues are.
6 ×100 MW
AP1000 reactors, built by Westinghouse Electric Co, a group company of Toshiba Corp
Gujarat’s share in power produced, other half goes to Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh
Rs 60,000 crore
Project cost at 2009 estimate
spread over five villages south of Bhavnagar in Saurashtra region
land acquisition approved, but yet to begin
Westinghouse says design is safe as it relies on natural forces of gravity, natural circulation and compressed gases to keep the core and containment from heating and not on active components such as diesel generators and pumps
Beach: A heavy tide and a natural slope allow large, heavy ships to easily glide upon the sand. Asia’s largest ship recycling yard, Alang, lies less than 5 km south.
Fertility: Farmers say they enjoy three seasons. Crops include brinjal, cotton, onion, and the fruits that Arjun