Blog: Democracy in peril at Kudankulam

Blog: Democracy in peril at Kudankulam
Chennai:  It's a report that endorses what journalists knew: human rights violations at Kudankulam over the last several months. An independent committee headed by Justice AP Shah, former Chief Justice of Madras and Delhi High Court has found "there is restriction on freedom of speech, freedom of movement and denial of information". It has also put on record that active protesters have been slapped with charges of sedition and waging war against the country. Many arrests, the report says were made very arbitrarily. This after its public hearing in Chennai last month in which the jury recorded testimonies of farmers, fishermen, homemakers, students, journalists, students among others.  

The report further says "protesters are seeking genuine information that would address their concerns about safety. Instead of furnishing them information to which they are entitled under the RTI, the state police machinery is being used to harass them".  

The jury does not take a position on whether the plant is required or not. It only gives its findings and recommendations on how the state and central governments handled the massive opposition to the plant, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster between August 2011 and May 2012. It recommends withdrawal of all cases of sedition and waging war against the country, slapped on more than three thousand people. It wants the government to revoke prohibitory orders and respect people's fundamental right to gather and protest. More importantly it asks the centre to release information on safety, site evaluation and other such information that will not compromise strategic interests. It recommends resumption of talks with the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE). There's a word for the media too, "be responsible and play a role in giving alternate view-points".

Such strong words coming from a team headed by a former Chief Justice can't be taken lightly. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has said "the government will look into it". The jury has decided to forward their findings to the state and National Human Rights Commission.

The Kudankulam plant was cleared in the eighties after an agreement with Russia, which has built the reactors. That was a time transparency was a rarity in the government and public hearing was an eye wash, thanks to the poor literacy and public awareness in the past. The poor in the region were also lured to sell their land for the project, by promises of jobs to their children. Though there were protests then too, they could not sustain longer due to division among villagers. Many also made money-winning contracts for supplying construction materials for the project.

But three decades later with increased awareness, education and the media coverage of the Fukushima disaster in Japan, there is solidarity in opposing the project for two reasons, threat to life and livelihood. The area around nuclear plant is the most fertile fishing area. But this would soon be out of bounds for them, once the plant is commissioned. They are also worried about the impact of the hot water the plant would pump into the sea after cooling the reactors. And where would the government dump the nuclear wastes? Two expert committees appointed by the centre and the state have found the plant to be safe and public fears unfounded. Still villagers say they've been denied much crucial information in the name of national interest. What angers them most is that, not a single expert, official or political leader visited the villages to listen to people's concerns.

The big question is, is it right for the government to crush a largely peaceful people's movement against a potentially dangerous project. Seventy thousand people live in the vicinity of the plant, in a radius of 5 KM. Aren't they too citizens of India, enjoying the same rights to express their views and protest as politicians and the police? Instead of addressing their genuine concerns sadly the government and the police attempt to paint the protesting villagers and campaigners as anti-national. There have been days when Kudankulam resembled a war zone with thousands of khaki clad men deployed around the villages with no provocation. Their strategy is simple. Provoke a clash or arson which would warrant police action and turn the movement into a bloody law and order issue. So far the movement has not fallen into this trap, but the government has hardly acknowledged their struggle, no matter if four to five thousand villagers, mostly women continue to gather often to register their opposition. 

The police even tried to threaten and scare the media. Recently the media was stopped, as journalists and live OB vans proceeded towards Idinthakarai, the ground zero for protests following credible reports of a plan for a showdown by police on several thousand villagers who had gathered at the village defying prohibitory orders. Police told the media to stay away and that they would not be responsible for the safety of journalists. The message was clear, keep the media out by hook or crook, so any excesses to crush the people's movement could go unrecorded. But following a media outcry the police had to give in.

The big question is who would have the final say on issues like this, in a country with a poor record of accountability? The people's rights and opinion which form the backbone of democracy or views of the government, dictated by elected representatives who presume that elected members have a licence to do anything at their will for five years! Following nuclear disasters in developed countries like Japan and France villagers do have reasons to be worried about their life, livelihood and possible harmful impact of any radiation leak. They have every right to seek Russia's liability details in the event of the reactor collapse. Let's remember we are a country where even almost three decades  after the Bhopal tragedy that killed thousands of people, justice has not been delivered, leave alone compensation.

Politicians seem to look at this issue only in terms of winning votes. For Chief Minister Jayalalithaa it was an issue that could have cost her dearly in the local body polls. So during the campaign she won the hearts and votes of local people by promising to "fight as one among you". Her cabinet too passed a resolution asking the centre to suspend all work at the plant till public fears are allayed. But after winning polls came her U turn, armed with the reports by two expert committees. This time Tamil Nadu came under severe power cuts and it was politically prudent to give her go ahead for the project in a bid to reduce public wrath against her. Experts may say the plant is safe, but public fears have not been allayed yet. Isn't she contradicting her own words? Is this the respect leaders give for grass root democracy?

And when the protest was at its peak, the Prime Minister threw a bomb shell accusing foreign NGO's of diverting funds to anti-nuclear protests, without any concrete evidence. Some NGOs were banned from receiving foreign funds. NGOs called this a bluff. The Home Ministry's which probed this contradicted the Prime Minister's version. It merely said some NGOs were barred from receiving foreign funds  as they were found to be "using overseas funds for what they were not intended for".

Kudankulam nuclear plant is the first plant to near completion after the Fukushima disaster. Germany and few other countries have cautiously decided to abandon nuclear programmes and switch to other forms of renewable sources of energy. Now the world is watching how India, the largest democracy would tackle this logical and understandable opposition being expressed by local communities. It's for the leaders now to establish that India is a democracy in letter and spirit. The local panchayat in Kudankulam has passed a resolution against the plant, in the changed scenario. Would the government trample democracy for a thirteen thousand crore project that would power the rich in big towns and cities? Or be a role model, respect the fear, anger and sentiments of  ordinary people ? Would it commission the plant only after winning their trust and confidence in a democratic way? In fact it's the government's arrogance that local people abhor, not even the life threatening nuclear plant. Democracy is precious and priceless.  Let's not allow a nuclear plant kill it.

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