Why are there not many powerful voices and groups in India coming out openly in support of the movement against Koodankulam nuclear power plant led by the extraordinary women from the villages?
By Lalita Ramdas
On 9th Sunday night, thousands of people, mostly women and children spent the night under the open sky near the sea at Idinthakarai, the epicentre of protests against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant. Neither the lathi charge nor the teargas shells could stop this inevitable nonviolent struggle by the people of Koodankulam. Police intimidated with batons and officials threatened naval intervention. The protesters, braving the rough coastal weather, refused to go home. On Monday morning the police again tried to disperse them with batons but had to finally withdraw.
The women of Koodankulam, along with their men folk and their children are displaying outstanding qualities of collective leadership, organisational skills, dedication and commitment. They showed their capabilities in rigorous analysis of complex questions of energy policy, dangers of nuclear power and radiation and ecological impact of nuclear plants on their livelihoods, on the oceans and the marine biology.
Groups of women have traveled to participate and put their perspectives in front of a wide range of audiences – both within Tamil Nadu as well as outside the state. Most recently audiences in Delhi were moved by presentations made by the women from the community of fisher folk at the public hearing on nuclear energy on August 21.
And yet what is perplexing and disturbing is the relatively low level of interest and support that this movement has received when compared to many other issues in the country.
The opposition to the nuclear power plant has been given such short shrift at all levels despite a series of exposes regarding the fault lines, lack of all safety procedures, the CAG’s damning report on the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and the utter lack of all basic environment studies.
In March this year, Jayalalitha, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, brought in a huge police force in order to intimidate the protestors. The police arrested thousands of protestors, cracked down on several activists and slapped draconian charges of sedition and waging war against the state.
Since then, the core leadership team has been virtually grounded in Idinthakarai. They fear they would be arrested if they moved out. They have continued undaunted – filing PILs, preparing detailed technical reports, making appeals, analysing every single action of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (Ltd), the Department of Atomic Energy and informing about the various contraventions of safety regulations in the project including those by the Russian suppliers. All seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
For the past several years I have personally been deeply involved with the movement against nuclear weapons and against nuclear energy. I have been writing, posting literature, articles on the key questions around nuclear energy and its destructive potential. Through Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP), I have been closely involved with the leadership of People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE). I have spoken with people at all levels. It is from this deep personal experience that my own commitment to spread the word and news about this struggle has grown and been reinforced. Above all else, it is the determination of the women of Idinthakarai and surrounding villages that is moving and inspiring.
However, today, I am left with many disturbing questions:
Why are there not many more powerful voices and groups out there raising their voices and coming out openly in support of an incredible and vibrant movement – that too with the leadership of extraordinary women?
To what extent has the possible link of nuclear power with the issue of national security played a role in this silence?
How many continue to believe the TINA factor with regard to nuclear energy – i.e. India absolutely needs nuclear power to grow and develop.
Are there just too many causes going around and we are tired and simply lack energy to go into depth regarding any of them?
How can the people of India be made aware of the peculiar dangers of nuclear energy and nuclear power plants, so that many more voices can be convinced to speak up and speak out with conviction?
Betsy Hartmann, Professor of Development Studies and Director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College, Massachusetts, USA, presents a set of arguments as to why nuclear power should be part of all our agendas. Although she speaks within the context of the USA, we have seen that as with the peace and anti-war movement, it is not gaining traction, either in India or elsewhere. The items on our agendas are growing fast, the funding is severely reducing and groups are facing assaults from all sides – as we saw in the case of the Prime Minister’s Office crying hoarse that the protests in Koodankulam were foreign funded!
This is where Prof. Betsy is at her best showing us how we can and must make a space for anti-nuclear activism in each of our movements because there is a powerful convergence in many of them. She argues:
- Nuclear power is a reproductive rights issue; Among other serious side effects, exposure to radiation can increase the risk of sterility, birth defects and genetic mutations that can affect the reproduction of generations to come. Plutonium, a by-product of nuclear power and a key component of atomic bombs, is the most potent manmade poison on the planet, with a half life of 24,000 years. It crosses the placenta and is stored in male testicles.
- Nuclear power is an environmental justice issue; From uranium mining on indigenous lands in the southwest to locating reactors in poor African-American rural communities in Georgia. And let’s not forget our own Jaduguda or the uranium mines in AP.
- It’s a climate justice issue; Don’t let them fool you. Nuclear power is not a clean substitute for dirty fossil fuels. For one thing, the government and industry have no idea of how or where to safely store the waste. Moreover, nuclear energy is hardly emissions-free when you factor in the mining, transport and enrichment of uranium as well as the leakage of the potent greenhouse gas CFC 114 from cooling pipes. The money spent on nuclear development should instead flow into the development of safe renewable energy and conservation.
- It’s a labour rights issue; As we’ve seen at Fukushima, nuclear workers, many of them labouring on an exploitative contract basis, are being exposed to unacceptable health risks. Nuclear power also produces dangerous chemical by-products that affect workers. As an industry shrouded in secrecy, workers often lack redress or are scared to complain about health and safety violations for fear of losing their jobs.
- It’s a peace and security issue; The notion of ‘atoms for peace’, first trumpeted by President Eisenhower in the 1950s, has always been a sham. Nuclear power fuels the atomic weapons industry, facilitates nuclear proliferation, and increases vulnerability to terrorist attacks. In a profound irony, it helps legitimize the national security state as necessary to protect us from nuclear threats of the state’s own making.
- Nuclear power is a basic democracy issue too; Why does President Obama support nuclear power? Because the nuclear lobby supported his candidacy. If we want clean renewable energy, we need clean elections. And we need local control.” We should be clear too as to why Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh supports nuclear power and signed the Indo US Nuclear deal – the reasons are not far to seek.
Koodankulam is showing us the way – human rights and democracy are under threat there as in many places across the country today. We must acknowledge the linkages with these struggles. Koodankulam is a struggle that belongs to us all, affects us all, and therefore should be fought by us all wherever we are.
Lalita Ramdas is an active member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace [CNDP]. She is the founder of ANKUR Society for Alternatives in Education, Delhi, was a founder and Board Chair of Greenpeace India, and till recently, Board Chair of Greenpeace, International.