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26 September, 2011

People’s power vs Nuclear power

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Few in India had heard of Idinthakarai in the Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu until it hit the headlines a few days ago with about 20,000 people staging a peaceful protest there against the nuclear plant at nearby Koodankulam, which is awaiting commissioning.

At Idinthakarai (the name means broken bank or shore), people’s power was pitted not only against state power, as in Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement which had shaken the government earlier, but also against nuclear power..

The Koodankulam project grew out of an agreement Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had signed with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988. The Soviet Union’s collapse and US opposition stalled work on it until 2001 when the Indian and Russian governments signed a fresh agreement to set up a nuclear power complex with a total capacity of 9,200MW at an estimated cost of $3.5 billion.

When plans to commission the first two units of the plant in December became known, there was a groundswell of protest, spearheaded by the People’s Movement against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), an umbrella organisation comprising village panchayats, churches, religious bodies, NGOs, academics and activists. As many as 127 villagers joined an indefinite fast that began on Sept.11.

The mass upsurge took the authorities by surprise. They had not realised that after the Fukushima disaster in Japan the people were quite receptive to activists’ arguments about the threat posed by nuclear projects.

Initially the state sought to contain the movement by resorting to preventive arrests. It pulled back when it found there were too many determined protesters. Since elected representatives of the region supported the protesters the government reworked its strategy. Chief Minister J Jayalalitha asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to allay the people’s fears before proceeding further.

Manmohan Singh sent a minister, V Narayanasamy, to talk to the protesters but they refused to hear him. Jayalalitha saved the situation by persuading the PMANE to suspend the agitation for three months to give the Centre time to address the people’s concerns.

Like Hazare’s agitation, the PMANE campaign was non-violent and ended without a final resolution of the basic issues. The settlement terms gave the authorities time to consider the issues, and the protesters were free to resume the agitation if their expectations were not fulfilled.

The Hazare movement has been discussed widely during the past month. While supporters have projected its outcome as a triumph of people’s power, critics have attributed its apparent success to the build-up of favourable middle class opinion by the national media, particularly the television channels.

There has been no detailed analysis of the Idinthakarai agitation which breached the banks of the channels through which power flows. The experience of the Hazare campaign appears to have influenced the approach of the authorities and the media to this agitation.

According to a study, the national television channels devoted 91.1% of prime time to Hazare while he was on fast. On some days they did not take up any other topic during prime time. Critics, however, contrasted their obsessive coverage of Hazare with their blackout of Irom Sharmila, who has been fasting for more than 10 years and is kept alive through forced feeding in a Manipur hospital. The channels sent camera teams to Idinthakarai within days of the start of the agitation and provided moderate coverage of developments there.

When Hazare was on fast, his team had resorted to full-scale mobilisation using all available resources. If he is forced to resume the agitation, he cannot hope to do better than last time. The PMANE, on the other hand, has the potential to mount a bigger campaign since its mobilisation this time was limited to the three southernmost districts of Tamil Nadu.

Having sunk billions of rupees in the Koodankulam project, the Indian government finds it difficult to accept the demand that it be scrapped. It seems to be working on a strategy to keep alive the nuclear programme, which envisages raising production from 5,000MW to 20,000MW by 2020, by offering to work for total elimination of nuclear power within 50 years.

At current costs, generation of additional 15,000MW of nuclear power will involve an investment of no less than Rs3,000 billion. It makes no sense to make an investment of that order on plants that are to be abandoned after three decades. It will be prudent to divert the money for development of alternative energy sources straightaway. -- Gulf Today, September 26, 2011.

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