NUCLEAR ENERGY OPTION AND CONFLICT AMONG DEMOCRATIC FORCES:A Sociological Reading of Conflict onKoodankulam Nuclear Plant in Tamil Nadu, India. Lazar Savari, SJ. Ph.D Associate Professor Dept. of Human Resource Management St. Joseph’s College Tiruchirappalli Tamil Nadu INDIA
PART I THE NUCLEAR ENERGY PROJECT: The Context, the Support and Opposition
INDIA’S ENERGY NEEDSIndia’s energy needs have expandedduring the last twenty years owing toaccelerated growth in• Industrialisation and Urbanisation,• Mechanisation of farming, fishing andcottage industries,• A rapidly growing middle class with aconsumerist life style, and• A fast expanding service sector likethe IT and the ITES
sectors 1950-51 1970-71 2001-02 Industry 63 68 35 Agriculture 4 10 29 Railway 7 3 3 Traction Public 13 10 11 lighting Domestic 13 9 22 usePattern of electricity consumption (utilities)Per cent. Source: Economic Survey, 2001-02 and TATA services Ltd, Statisticaloutline of India 2000-01
GROWTH OF INSTALLED CAPACITY IN PUBLIC UTILITIES (IN MW) year Hydro Thermal Nuclear Total 1950-51 560 (33) 1,150 (67) -- 1,710 (100) 1970-71 6380(43) 7910 (54) 420 (3) 14,710 (100) 1990-91 18,800(28) 45800(69) 1500(3) 66100(100) 2000-01 25100 (25) 73600 (72) 2900 (3) 101,600 (100)
National Planning Commission: `India will need to increase its electricity generation capacity by 5-6 times from 2003- 04 levels to meet energy needs of all citizens and maintain an 8 per cent growth in GDP’ `India is forced to revisit its energy policies when 70 per cent of its power generation comes from coal-fired thermal power plants
`While pursuing all fuel options, India seeks to augment the role of hydro and nuclear power. India’s nuclear power plants generate 4780 MW. In 2010 India drew up a plan to reach a nuclear power capacity of 63000 MW in 2032 In 2017 India’s installed nuclear power generation capacity will increase to 10080 MW.
Accordingly, India has plans to establish 40 nuclear plants by 2030. The plant in Koodankulam, located on the east coast of southern India in the state of Tamil Nadu and almost nearing completion is one in the chain of nuclear plants contemplated. With the supporters and protesters pushing their own agenda forward and the government bent on commissioning the plant using the police and bureaucracy, the Koodankulam nuclear power plant is today in the eye of a storm.
When the authorities started implementing this project in the 1980s, a few individuals and some Non-Governmental organisations voiced their protest. The protest was however confined to writing in news papers and prominent local / vernacular magazines and distributing pamphlets. There was no organised agitation or demonstration as such.
The protestors at this stage faced two situations:1. The mood of the general public was one of indifference. Some of them even thought the project would offer considerable job opportunities and scope for development. They therefore welcomed the project initially ignoring the efforts made by some individuals and groups who sought to create awareness on the possible risks and dangers of the nuclear plant.1. The government machineries were annoyed by the persistence of the protesters’ dissenting voice and at one time they chased them from the project area under threat of physical attack.
The disillusionment of the people in the project area Some years later, the public inhabiting the project area realised that the project is not one of yielding jobs or facilitating any broad based development opportunities for them. On the contrary, they realised that they may even lose their existing livelihood opportunities. It resulted in a shift in their attitude towards the individuals and organizations that once tried to educate them on the danger the project may bring to their future.
Through a variety of strategies like street meetings, distribution of pamphlets etc., the individuals and organizations began educating the public on the complex subject of nuclear energy and how it will destroy them en masse in case of an accident. They also explained how the nuclear waste and the water released from the plant into the sea will destroy their ecosystem, putting their livelihoods to irreversible process of destruction. This campaign went on quietly for a few years and simultaneously, the construction of the plant was going on quietly.
The nuclear plant was nearing completion in the year 2011. By sheer coincidence, the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011 gave the already consicentized people the fright of their life. The knowledge they had acquired through the mobilization process for the last few years got reinforced by power images of destruction through the electronic media. The knowledge now transformed into an experience of large scale destruction of life and property, and gave them the mental and social power to respond collectively.
The government authorities reacted to the Fukhushima accident in their own way. They organised a mock drill to evacuate the people in case of an accident in the Koodankulam plant. For the people however, it looked as though the government itself is saying that they are or they are likely to be in grave danger. So, in August 2011 they responded enthusiastically to the call of their leaders to press their demand for closing the plant.
Since then, thousands of people have been protesting at the plant site. They blocked the access to the plant and the pending work at the site came to a stand still for months. During all these months, the protestors demanded that the plant should be redesigned to produce energy through means other than using enriched uranium.
This demand was made … To protect their lives from possible nuclear accident at the plant, and To protect the sea which is a substantial source of livelihood for millions of fishermen living on eastern and western coasts of India.
Going by the media report, it looks the government would like to Ignore the livelihood issue. It focused on the safety concerns of the people and kept insisting that the safety concerns have been carefully attended to and that the plant will be intact in the event of a leakage or a natural disaster like Tsunami or earthquake. To get across this message ,the government began using political parties, media, bureaucracy and the scientific community
The people, not disposed to believe the claims of the government, demanded instead that these claims are scrutinised in a transparent manner. They demanded that their representatives are also involved in the security check along with the officials and the expert teams that the government has commissioned.
By this time, some scientists too had expressed support to the people and about 100 eminent citizens of the country jointly issued a statement in the media in support of the protestors. Minor political parties and some civil society orgnanizations also voiced their support to the protestors. Thus, the protest which originated in communities that live near the plant inspired people in other parts of the country, though their number was small.
Government did not yield to this demand nor did it attempt to remove the people from the protest venue. May be due to the burden of a democratic system it is supposed to uphold by the spirit of Indian constitution. In stead, it sent a few experts and expert teams to scrutinize the safety measures claimed to be in place at the plant. Almost all these individuals and teams vouched for the safety of the plant. The protesters kept challenging the findings of these experts.
The delay on the part of the government to resume work in the plant prompted many organizations of big and medium industries and traders to protest demanding that the plant should be commissioned at the earliest. It is alleged that some members of major political parties came in the garb of members of trade and business organisations and attempted to terrorise the leaders and the people.
The main leader of the protestors had been running a school which was vandalised by such elements. In this, the state had supporters from a section of the civil society. As a result, the debate on the nuclear option became a regular feature in the national dailies and regional electronic media with different stakeholders expressing different views and justifications
There were a few attempts by the district administration and the state Chief Minister to talk to the representatives of the protestors. The visits by experts and meeting with protest leaders did not improve the situation of conflict at the site. Rather, it hardened the stand of both the governments and the protestors. NB: A few months earlier during the election campaign for the local bodies, the present Chief Minister then a Chief Ministerial candidate had stoutly stood by the protestors.
In spite of the intense protest by people for the last one year, AERB, (Atomic Energy Regulatory Board) gave clearance for fuel loading. At this point, the many cases, filed by the protestors earlier, came up for hearing at the the High Court (Regional Court).
The High Court ruled as follows: Since the government has followed all the procedures like environment clearance from relevant body (protestor have pointed out that the commitments given in the application for environment clearance have been violated in the final execution of the project. The violations are with regard to the number of people living in the vicinity of the plant. And also, with regard ) clearance to the maximum temperature of the water released into the sea from the plant from the state government and the experts have studied the objections raised by the protestors, it cannot stay the fueling of the plant.
The High Court ruled as follows: Since the government has followed all the procedures like environment clearance from relevant body (protestor have pointed out that the commitments given in the application for environment clearance have been violated in the final execution of the project. The violations are with regard to the number of people living in the vicinity of the plant. And also, with regard to the maximum
The people came totally unarmed, whereas the police was fully armed. A peaceful protest of unarmed people was to face a police that will use force at the slightest provocation,.
On the day of protest, both sides claimed that the provocation came from the other side. But, it ended in police using force and injuring some of the protestors. On hearing about police action, people in surrounding areas also protested and the police deployed there used force and one protestor was killed in police firing.
The two images shown above clearly portray the unmatched combatants. The people protesting against the plant appear walking into the sea seeming to express symbolically that their future is bleak. Obviously they do not want to communicate in a language of violence. They seek a peaceful path.
In contrast, the aircraft flying at a low altitude is intimidating. It seeks to instill fear in the minds of the people and cripple them psychologically. It shows the way the power of the state unfolds in the event of protest against the nuclear option. Obviously the message is clear: The state will have its way come what may …
In addition to this dramatic demonstration of power, the government resorted to other means to suppress the voice of the people. It has slapped nearly 500 cases against the leaders. It sought to harass them by hooking them in income tax violations. It demonised them saying they are stooges of foreign powers that are opposed to this plant for their own interest. To this date none of these charges has been established by the state. None has been punished.
Holding on to the spirit of democracy, the protestors have appealed to the country’s highest court (The Supreme Court) where the matter is still pending. However, in another case, the Supreme Court has ruled that in matters of huge public spending peoples’ safety should take precedence over cost, which seems to hold some hope for the nuclear plant opponents.
The present situation The protestors gather everyday near the plant to sing, pray and shout slogans against the plant, while the police force remains alert at the site. However, taking advantage of the High Court ruling, the government has now actually completed the fuelling of the plant.
Energy Needs as a National Interest and Social ClassesNuclear energy option is being supported on the count that India needs 60000 MW by 2030 in order to boost its GDP. Everyone in the country is assumed to benefit by this development.Protesters’ argument is that their present energy consumption is low and it is not likely to increase in the near future. It implies much of the energy produced through nuclear source or any other source has been used and will be used by the business class.The energy needs of the middle class have expanded due to the increase in its consumption level during the last two decades. This is probably why the middle class is giving muted support to the state in this conflict.
The poor class in the rural area and in the coastal area do not feel the need for more energy than what they consume at the moment. Owing to their low income, they do not foresee that their needs are likely to expand in near future.When it is a trade off between more energy and threat to their life, they choose the protection of their life and livelihood, rather than energy.The goal of national interest’ does not impress them. Nor is the argument that the citizens should make ‘sacrifices‘ for the sake of `national interest’ a convincing option.
The question is why the lower class should risk its life and livelihoods for this kind of distribution of common resource like. Historically, this is the way the state has accessed all other resources like the minerals, forests, water etc. The lower classes like the Adivasis(Tribal communities), agriculturists have been protesting periodically. Fpr example, the violent protets in Nandigram, Orissa are ample evidence to establish the differing postures among classes on this matter. This conflict calls into question the way natural resources are accessed and the classes that benefit from this kind of access.
This is not to say that they are opposed to generating more energy at all because it serves the interest of the business and middle class more. The protestors have their ideas of generating energy that excludes the use of enriched uranium. Implicitly, they seem to say that they too can contribute to thinking on matters of national interest like energy and that their ideas must get due consideration by the state.
People are ready for negotiationsThe demand of the protestors for a place in the negotiation of their needs to national needs has been there for the last three decades. In the narrative of the conflict we find that the people were ready to welcome the project in the early 80s.They appeared indifferent to those `educated’ volunteers who called on the people to oppose the plant.They trusted the State and expected it to take care of their development needs.
According to the protestors, the state has breached this trust by not providing new jobs either through this nuclear plant or by other infrastructure development.The protestors sensed that the state has betrayed them in order to take care of the energy needs of the industry and business class.As a result, a sense of moral anger against the State pervades among the protestors.
Even during the current phase of the conflict, they have been repeatedly demanding that they be allowed to scrutinize the safety measures claimed to be in place at the plant. Probably they will ask for a control on the way these measures are monitored closely even after the commissioning of the plant, if the commissioning of the plant is allowed by them. The State has not responded to these demands so far. The stand of the state violates the principle of democracy that it so frequently invokes to contain the struggle of the people.
National Security Issues India has a set of regulations by which the governments can withhold some informations form the public for reasons of national security. Here again the question is how the issue of national security and security of life and livelihood of the lower classes are negotiated. As much as there are mechanisms to protect the national security concerns in the case of officials handling matters, the people’s representatives scrutinizing and monitoring safety and security measures in the plant also can governed.
Panchayatraj Institutions (Local Bodies)and micro level planning India boasts of having an excellent grass root mechanism for deliberating and planning on development projects. They are known as the `Panchayatraj’ institutions. These bodies are constituted by members who are elected by every voter at the village level. These bodies were established by an amendment to the Indian Constitution in the eighties. One of the purposes of establishing these institutions was to encourage grassroots planning of development projects. It looks that these institutions were sidelined in the way the nuclear plant project was executed. Had these institutions been given a due place in the execution of the project, probably a different kind of scenario would have emerged in which both the energy needs and the micro development needs of the people could have been met or at least this kind of resistance could have been avoided.
Bureaucracy and `I-Know-Better’ mindset The higher level bureaucracy, often grappling with macro issues of governance, generally holds the view that the non- and the semi- literate masses at the lower end of the society is not capable of understanding the science of nuclear energy, the geo-strategic interest of the country. This is often described as colonial mindset - a hangover of the colonial era, internalised by many in the beuracracy. The response of the non-literate fisherfolks respond to questions relating to nuclear technology, they appear very comfortable in understanding the questions and give convincing answers. Many of the non-literate people are able to articulate the science of nuclear technology and its impact on their lives and livelihood..
Economic and awareness levels do not move on parallel lines. The level of knowledge and awareness of even the non-and semi-literate masses changes over time on account of countless factors. Education through unconventional (non formal) methods enables them grasp the so-called intricate subject like the science of nuclear energy. The state seems to have ignored this process of unconventional education and its impact in the minds of the non-literate people in rural areas..
How does bureaucracy take into account the knowledge and understanding of the people that it is called to serve and not to rule as per the spirit of democracy?
Track record in managing threat to Life On the possibility of accidents in the plant and their consequences on the life and health of the population, The State says that enough care has been taken in the designing of the plant to prevent any leakage of radiation. Of the 17safety recommendations given by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board only 6 have now been carried out. When pointed out, the officials say that the remaining recommendations would be carried out after commissioning of the plant. This strengthens the apprehension of the protestors that the State will not bother about the safety of the people once the plant is commissioned.
The same problem of lack of commitment is mentioned by the protestors with regard to protection of their traditional livelihood viz. fishing. There is a possibility of negligence in maintaining the permissible temperature level of the water released from the plant. It has been presented before the Supreme Court that the application for environment clearance the officials have mentioned that the water released from the plant will have maximum of 3 degree which is within the permissible limit. At the time of completion of the construction, it has been noted that the level would 5 degree. Failure on this count will damage the eco-system of the sea and the livelihood of the fishing communities.
Citing many failures of the state to take care of the interests of the development displaced people in the past, they refuse to belief the promise of the state that the remaining safety needs will be fulfilled in course of time.
This is an issue that pertains to the culture of governance. As there is a deficit or breach of trust, the conflict has become inevitable. Both these problems – the problem of not executing safety recommendations and maintaining post-operation vigilance on safety- demand that such risky energy projects need more time, deliberation and negotiation for implementation. The State seems to be totally non-negotiable on time. It resorts to various measures to get this plant started and also is keen completing 40 such projects by 2032. The urgency shown in this regard on the part of state and other supporters of nuclear energy is likely to strengthen the suspicion of the people and to intensify the conflict.
International angle to the conflictIt has been claimed that one of the reasons why this project is implemented with great urgency is not only to meet the growing energy needs of India, it is also because of economic interests of the suppliers of nuclear technology.International players who are producing and trading on nuclear technologies are seen to be supporting or opposing this conflict depending on their own agenda with regard to this project.
Thus, the Koodankulam conflict is linked to the economic interests of global players and to that extent, the protestors at Koodankulam appear to be pigmies before global corporate giants. The path of non-violence that the protestors have adopted so far has given them the advantage of not being suppressed by the State. At the same time, the State, for reasons best known to itself, is not inclined to accept the demands of the protestors. It seems therefore that the conflict is facing a dead end.
Fukhushima nuclear accident has had huge impact not only on Japan’s nuclear policies but also on other developed nations. Many countries like Germany and France are planning to phase out nuclear energy plants. Ironically, as stated above, nuclear technologies from the developed nations are going to developing countries to whet their hunger for power.
The Review of Nuclear Energy Option now prevalent in developed countries must be extended to developing countries as well. In other words, governments and companies in developed countries must refrain from exporting nuclear technologies to developing countries without an imperative to review policy on nuclear energy globally.
Those forces that have forced the developed countries to review their nuclear energy option must broaden their vision and urge for global rethinking on this subject in order to take a correct and inclusive approach to nuclear energy and avoid conflicts on this score. Even a conflict in a specific location in a specific country needs this global perspective and intervention in order to be productive in its results.