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25 April, 2011

Tardy response to concerns

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

It was a bridge player who once said “Learn all you can from the mistakes of others. You won’t have time to make them all yourself.” Indian policy-makers too can profit from this advice. Across the country, concerns over nuclear and other hazards are erupting into protests. The government’s tardy response to them betrays an inability to learn from other people’s mistakes.

In Maharashtra, people are agitating against a nuclear plant being set up at Jaitapur in the Ratnagiri district. Last week police fired on protesting villagers, killing one. Two former high court judges and a former Navy chief who were to lead a three-day march from Tarapur, near Mumbai, where the country’s oldest reactor is located, to Jaitapur were arrested.

Kerala is observing anti-endosulfan day today (April 25) to press the demand for a countrywide ban on the pesticide which has ruined the health of a large number of people. The issue has become a bone of contention between the state and the Centre, and Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan has said he will fast during the day.

India, which has 17 operational atomic power plants and two under construction, plans to boost nuclear energy output from 4,000 megawatt to 47,000 megawatt over the next 40 years to meet the country’s galloping power needs. The civilian nuclear agreement with the USA, concluded in 2008, cleared the way for its implementation by ending the embargo on nuclear trade imposed on the country in 1998 following weapons tests.

As the tsunami strike at Japan’s Fukushima installations heightened concerns over nuclear safety across the globe, the anti-nuclear and environmental groups in India urged the government to reconsider its plan.

Although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked nuclear scientists to review the safety systems but it soon became evident that a serious re-think is not on the cards.

The Indian government has repeatedly sought to reassure the public about the safety of the power stations. However, there are doubts about the wisdom of relying entirely on the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, which is under the Atomic Energy Commission and headed by one of its officials.

The government has ignored the demand to set up an independent body to oversee nuclear safety, as several other countries have done. The International Atomic Energy Agency has an integrated regulatory review service, which provides for peer review of member-countries’ nuclear and radiation regulatory infrastructure against international standards. India has not made use of this service.

The Jaitapur plant will have six reactors, each with a capacity of 1,650 megawatt. When completed, with a total capacity of about 10,000 MW, it will be the world’s largest nuclear power station. The estimated cost is Rs687 billion.

Anti-nuclear groups have questioned the viability of the project. According to them, power generated at Jaitapur will cost Rs5 to Rs8 per kilowatt/hour as against Rs2 to Rs2.5 for power produced at a thermal or gas plant. The Shiv Sena, a powerful regional party having entered the fray, the agitation against the Jaitapur plant appears likely to spread in the coming days.

The Kerala campaign for a countrywide ban on endosulfan coincides with the start of a meeting at Geneva where member-nations of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants are to consider the issue of a global ban on this pesticide. Endosulfan, banned in most developed countries, is still used in India and several other developing countries. It was sprayed extensively in a state government-owned cashew plantation in Kerala’s Kasergode district during 1976 and 2000, affecting at least 50,000 people. Many of them are still suffering from its after-effects.

A whole generation is growing up in Kerala with serious deformities attributable to the pesticide. The state government is faced with a demand for their rehabilitation. Kerala banned the pesticide six years ago but it is being smuggled in from other states as there is apparently big farmers want it. The state government, therefore, wants it banned all over the country.

The Central government, which is awaiting the findings of a study by the Indian Council of Medical Research, says that adverse effects have not been reported from any other state and that a countrywide ban of endosulfan is undesirable as no effective substitute is available. What is worse, at Geneva, it reportedly plans to oppose the proposal for a global ban.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 25, 2011.

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