The Name of the Game
Ultimately it all just came down to an ego massage. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flattered CM Jayalalitha that she was “the most intelligent among the CMs in the country” (wonder what her good friend Gujarat CM Narender Modi who “fast” tracked his candidature for PM have to say about that) and sent an emissary, Minister in the PMO V Narayanaswamy, to smoothen ruffled feathers.
The PM was worried after Jayalalitha wrote him a letter asking that the project, for which the MoU was signed in 1988, be halted till people’s fears were allayed. The PM soothed and flattered her with a phone call and sent Narayanaswamy. The PM’s was a masterstroke because Jayalalitha has been going hammer and tongs at the centre ever since her request that Rs 2.5 lakh crores be given to bail TN out of its dire financial situation, made during her maiden visit to Delhi after taking over, had fallen on deaf ears. Curiously, Narayanasamy said later that Jayalalithaa conveyed a “certain message to the Prime Minister which I will convey to him.” He also said he had conveyed to the CM the message of the PM, who will take a final decision.
Fast organizers had also been slighted that their fast was being ignored by the powers that be. It took a meeting in the secretariat that Jayalalitha presided over for them to agree to call off the fast. All it took was Amma’s assurance that the cabinet would adopt a resolution (which it duly did on September 22) seeking suspension of work on the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) for the 11-day fast that was slowly gathering strength to get called off. Two reactors of 1000 MW capacity are coming up there.
The same Jayalalitha had on September 16 told them the plant was safe and they should stop fasting. But the agitation grew with fishermen from other villages in Tirunelveli and other districts like Thoothukudi joining in. But a politician always wants to seem like a leader who gets things done. So just like the volte face she did on the Rajiv Gandhi killers issue – she had first said they had been convicted but then seeing that the emotive issue had attracted hundreds, she did an about turn and got the assembly to pass a resolution recommending commutation of death sentence to Perarivalan, Santhan and Murugan – she did a 180 degree turn when the KKNPP agitation grew to large proportions. She saw an opportunity to seem popular and took it even if it meant taking a diametrically opposite stance. With local body elections scheduled for October 17 and 19, Jayalalitha did not want to take any chances and is now sitting pretty after passing the buck to the PM!
It must be recorded that her discomfort came in no small measure from the fact that DMDK’s Vijayakanth (who has all but divorced the AIADMK) went to Idinthakarai, a coastal village 80 kms from Tirunelveli, where the indefinite fast by 127 persons began on September 11, for her to do a volte face. Radhapuram DMDK MLA Michael Rayappan had also been sitting with the protesters. Vijaykant went there and said his party supported the agitation, adding: “You are struggling for the well-being of the people of Tamil Nadu and not just for yourself alone. Our party will be with you.”
Two days later, Jayalalitha changed her stand and shot off a letter to the PM. Did Manmohan Singh flatter to deceive? After all isn't he the same man who sent the country into a tizzy because he went for a trust vote in 2008 in Parliament because he stubbornly stuck to his stand that nuclear power is the future of the country? And nobody is in any doubt that he has not changed his mind despite Jaitapur in Maharashtra and now, Koodankulam here.
Her ego was also dented when Medha Patkar said sarcastically that Jayalalitha sent two emissaries to Modi’s fast but did not do the same here. Not strictly correct because Jayalalitha did send three of her ministers when the fast entered the fifth day. But talks failed because the ministers made it clear “that neither the Assembly nor the State Cabinet would ever pass a resolution against the KKNPP nor could it urge the Centre to scrap the project.” Also, the protesters’ representatives turned down the ministers’ request for a week’s time to talk to amma, saying the hunger strike would go on till “an acceptable solution” is found. Her latest stand has earned praise from, among others, Medha Patkar as well.
Did the Fasters Achieve Anything?
“The CM has requested us to call off the fast and we are doing it now,” S P Udhaya Kumar, Convenor of People’s Movement against Atomic Power, spearheading the stir, said after the meeting with the CM. Pushing the right buttons, Udhaya Kumar, who was part of a 22-member delegation that included bishops and fishermen said that in future, added that the committee’s agitations would be focused against the centre! He also said: “We will work in harmony with state ministers (whose earlier face to face with them had yielded zilch!) and plan our future protests.” That seems like a flimsy reason to call off a fast that started because protesters wanted the project scrapped in the first place. A project which has already cost Rs 13,000 crore so far.
The hypocrisy of the protesters is clear from the fact that while the centre is building the plant, it is on land given by the state government. So where does “working in harmony” with the state come in? But their ego was satisfied with an hour-long interaction with amma, who incidentally, has given the impression that with a nearly 3,500 MW deficit of power in the state, she will do what it takes to bridge the gap. And the first unit of the KKNPP, from which TN is to get almost 50 per cent power, was to be commissioned this December.
The Genesis of the Fast
In fact it was a mock drill on disaster management at the plant that caused the outrage that resulted in the fast. Idanthakarai falls within the 2km radius of the KKNPP. A meeting of Idanthakarai’s gram sabha on August 15, resolved that the plant should be shelved, citing safety concerns after the recent Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. The protesters got more ammunition on how “unsafe” nuclear power is after an explosion at a nuclear site in Marcoule, southern France two days after the fast began.
Udayakumar, said that this was not a struggle by a selective group of people. “Authorities are giving a colour that it is a struggle by fishermen against a nuclear project. But the fact is that all sections of people are participating in it,” he said. Thus although there were 127 on indefinite fast, thousands joined everyday for a relay hunger strike.
For those who bring up the question "Why now?" when the plant is on the verge of commission, protest organizers hold up Fukushima, which happened in March this year after an earthquake followed by a tsunami hit Japan, as an example of just how dangerous a nuclear power plant can be.
Besides, in these poor villages, employment is a big issue. Balaprajathipathi of Ayya Vazhi, a religious cult, said that initially people from the Nadar community supported KKNPP believing that locals would get jobs. “But now we regret it because we have realized that next to fishermen, it will be the Nadars who are going to be worst hit in case of a disaster.”
The KKNPP has been jinxed since the MoU was signed in 1988. For 10 years, the project hung in the balance as USSR (whose regulatory body GEN had originally signed the agreement with the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB)) splintered. But by 1999, contact between India and the newly formed Russia was re-established and a final pact was signed on January 15, 2003. By 2005, pre-project construction began of two more units of 1000 MW.
By May this year the ministry of environment and forests deferred the proposal for Coastal Regulation Zone Clearance to the four nuclear reactors at Koodankulam. By then Rs 13,000 crores had been spent on building the project. Detractors say that a public hearing was never held.
Nearly 25 years ago when the whole process of setting up the KKNPP was initiated there were protests and the disaster at Chernobyl was cited to back the objection. But the Department of Atomic Energy stepped in with a counter campaign that included talks at schools and colleges and a conducted tour to TN’s other nuclear power project, Kalpakkam, near Chennai. Incidentally, Atomic Energy Commission member M.R. Srinivasan says, “Koodankulam will not face a situation like Fukushima. It's designed to face flooding hazards. It’s a very advanced intrinsic design.”
The project suffered other drawbacks including the splintering of the USSR and the US opposition to it (before because of the Cold War and now because they want a piece of the action). So even this fast is being tinged with the accusation that a US hand is behind it. The question is also being asked as to why there were no protests when a small port was built so machinery could be brought in for the project. It’s not something that was done stealthily.