Explosion of ProtestNuclear Power Project at Jaitapur
[A team of the All India Left Coordination (AILC) comprising LNP(L) leaders Comrades Bhalchandra Kelkar, Medha Thatte, Prakash Jadhav, Bhanudas Zanzale from Pune, LNP(L) Secretary Bhimrao Bansode, and other LNP(L) leaders Balasaheb Surude, Rajendra Bawake, Vasant More and Comrade Kasbe, Kavita Krishnan, CC member of CPI(ML) Liberation and Radhika Krishnan, environmental researcher and Ph.D student at the Centre of Science Policy in JNU from Delhi visited Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, where people are protesting against the proposed Jaitapur Atomic Power Plant. The Konkan Vinashkari Prakalp Virodhi Samiti facilitated the visit, and the team was accompanied by local reporter and movement activist Prashant Hirchekar. A Report of the visit follows.]
“The Areva atomic project is an atom bomb for us!” says Hamida, a widow with 6 children who depends on fishing to feed her family. “We’ll die but we won’t allow the project to come up,” says Nooresha, wife of a fisherman. These two are among a milling mass of hundreds of women, at a public meeting in Sakhri Nate, a picturesque fishing village which will be affected by the atomic power project at Jaitapur in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. We, a 12-member team of CPI(ML) Liberation and Lal Nishan Party Leninist activists, are visiting the area to find out why the farmers and fisherfolk here are fiercely resisting the project. The anger of these women is like a physical force; the men are calmer. They are spirited and vocal, and there are only a few burqas in sight in this predominantly Muslim village, where women sort and sell the fish caught by the men in their families.
Some hours later, we visit Madban village, where land has been forcibly acquired from farmers for the project. There, we are met with Pramila Gavhankar, the wife of Pravin Gavhankar, who has been denied anticipatory bail that very day by the Mumbai HC in an attempt to murder case foisted on him by the police. Pramila strikes us by her dignified posture, and the confidence with which she briefs us on the struggle. “The land is like our mother; we have tended these trees as lovingly as we do our children. We ask Prithviraj Chavhan (the Maharashtra CM), will you sell your mother and abandon your children?”
As we hear Hamida, Nooresha and Pramila, we cannot help but remember Kalavati and Sasikala of Vidarbha, a district of Maharashtra marked by farmers’ suicides, whom Rahul Gandhi had invoked in Parliament to get the Nuke Deal passed. Sasikala’s children study by lamplight today; pass the Nuke Deal and these women and their families will have energy and empowerment tomorrow, he had declared.
Today Sasikala’s and Kalavati’s sisters in another part of Maharashtra, are in a battle to defend their land and livelihood from a devastating fallout of the Nuke Deal – the Jaitapur Atomic Power Project. When we visited their villages, they told us that their kids, along with schoolchildren in a 100 schools all over Ratnagiri district, were boycotting schools for two days in protest against the Areva project. We ask Nooresha about Rahul’s promises to Kalavati, and she says, “If the project comes up, we too will be forced to commit suicide like the people of Vidarbha, because it will be the end of our livelihood.”
The Jaitapur Atomic Plant is the place where the Indo-US Nuke Deal will first be put into effect. There are huge interests at stake: the US, the Indian government, France, all know that they cannot afford the people of Jaitapur to win, because it will mean that all future projects too, and therefore the Nuke Deal itself, will be jeopardized. Will these brave women and men of Sakhri Nate, Madban and other villages of Ratnagiri prevail against such powerful forces? They are certainly determined to. They draw our attention to a slogan painted on a wall: ‘Aamcha jeev ghenya poorvi ya prakalpacha jeev ghevu’ – ‘Take the life of this project before it claims our lives.’
Paradise in Peril
Our team visited the sites of the struggle against the atomic project on January 11-12, 2011. As the train from Delhi crosses Panvel near Mumbai, the beauty of the Konkan Railways route begins to unfold. Beautiful rivulets and waterfalls, rich greenery in the backdrop of reddish golden grass capture our attention as the rising sun parts the early morning mists. We alight at Ratnagiri station, where LNP(L) comrades are waiting for us. We visit the memorial at the birthplace of Lokmanya Tilak before driving down to Pavas. On the way, we catch our breath as hairpin bends and mountain scenery part to give us sudden glimpses of blue-green ocean, creeks and waves lapping at empty beaches.
On the first day we met Dr Vivek Bhide of the Ratnagiri Zila Jagrook Manch, who tells us about the struggles of the past five years against polluting industries in the district, including thermal power plants, chemical industries and mining (largely illegal). The atomic plant is the latest and worst blow, he says. The Areva plant is based on the new and unproven technology of the ‘European Pressurised Reactor’ (EPR), and the people of Ratnagiri are basically being used as guinea pigs, he says. Even A Gopalakrishnan (former AERB Chairman), very much part of India’s nuclear establishment, has observed that no EPR has been constructed and commissioned for operation anywhere in the world, and two Areva EPR plants under construction (one each in Finland and France) have been severely delayed. An enquiry commissioned by the French Government concluded that the delay was due to due to serious defects in the design and unresolved safety issues. This flawed design could mean that “radiation doses to the workers and general public could be high… and therefore the current NPCIL assurances that radiation dose rates to workers and the public will be kept within the AERB stipulated limits have no basis.” (A Gopalakrishnan, New Indian Express, 3 December 2010)
Dr Bhide, in addition to being a medical doctor, is also a mango farmer like most residents of Ratnagiri. Ratnagiri is famous for the finest quality hapoos (Alphonso), the king of mangoes. Dr. Bhide tells us that the best hapoos grows in a narrow stretch 20 kms from the sea shore. Rehabilitation or compensation is therefore meaningless for these farmers: can the government replace or recreate this unique and fragile meeting point of sea and land which produces the golden hapoos?
In a report, Madhav Gadgil, Chairperson, Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, has observed that “Recently, the doors of the global export market for the Alphonso Mango have opened through Global GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification, and some 80 farmers made their orchards Global GAP certified, and others are in the pipeline…The global standards demand that there be no seriously air polluting industries in their vicinity. So, even if it turns out that pollution, such as from thermal power plants do not harm the orchards, the inevitable loss of export market is bound to hit the horticulture hard.” Farmers fear that the presence of an atomic power plant in the vicinity will further make their produce undesirable in the global market. Wastes from the nuclear plant are another source of concern. Though proponents of the plant claim that these radioactive wastes will be disposed off safely, the farmers are far from convinced. These farmers are witness to how thermal power plants and other polluting industries in the area have routinely violated safety and environmental norms in disposal of waste (such as flyash); the issue of disposal of waste from the nuclear power plant is therefore another important concern for them.
The farmers are also outraged at the Environment Impact Assessment EIA’s classification of the affected area as ‘barren land.’ Ratnagiri has been designated a ‘Horticultural district’ by the Maharashtra Government, and is rich in plantations of cashew nut, coconut, cheekoo, kokum, betel nut as well as Alphonso mango. The location of the proposed plant, as well as the surrounding areas, have been designated as ‘Agro-Economic’ Zones and ‘Tourist’ Zones by the Maharashtra government. Even the land not under cultivation is valuable as grazing land for cattle. Ratnagiri is also rich in mangroves which are a unique ecosystem, and now NPCIL as well as NEERI (which has conducted the EIA) seem intent on classifying 65% of this rich and biodiverse expanse as ‘barren’!
Dr. Bhide also took up the issue of Konkan bearing a disproportionate burden for electricity generation. The Madhav Gadgil report observes, “The current energy requirements of these districts (Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg) are 180 Megawatts a year, while the current production is 4,543 Megawatts (Koyna 2000 MW, RGPCL 2200 MW, Finolex 43 MW, JSW 300 MW and remaining 900 MW proposed within 2-3 Months) a year.” Dr. Bhide says that the plan is to set up power projects adding up to 35,000 MW of power, including the 10,000 MW Jaitapur Nuclear Power project. Why should the livelihood of the people of the Konkan – dependent on horticulture, fisheries and tourism – be sacrificed, and to benefit whom, he asks? He raises the issue of the ‘carrying capacity’ of the land to bear pollution, and suggests that instead of project-based EIAs, a region with such a delicate ecosystem should have cumulative EIAs, to judge the cumulative impact of all the projects.
From Dr. Bhide’s account, it is clear that the struggle against the nuclear power plant at Jaitapur is part of the struggle of Ratnagiri’s people against indiscriminate introduction of polluting industries with scant concern for the impact on environment and livelihood. 938 hectares of land has been acquired for the Areva project, and the villages which will bear the main impact of the project include Sakhri Nate, Madban, Mithgavane, Niveli, Naate, Chavanwadi and Karel. We decided to visit the main centres of the struggle.
Sakhri Nate – Militant Resistance
The atomic power project is due to come up on the other side of the creek adjoining Sakhri Nate village. As soon as enter the village, we see a slogan painted on the wall of a well: ‘Jo amcha aad aala to 100% mela’ (Whoever stands in our way will be destroyed for sure). A public meeting had been organized at a community hall in the area, and we were asked to address it. As we wait for the meeting to begin, we speak to the people who are fast gathering in the hall.
This village is home to around 5000 fisherfolk, the majority of whom are Muslims but also including Hindus. Their main concern is that once the plant comes up, around 5200 crore litres of water (more than Mumbai’s entire water supply) will be sucked into the plant for cooling, and along with it, fish and fish eggs too will get sucked in and destroyed. Amjad Borkar, the leader of the local fisherfolk, says it is estimated that 30% of fish will be destroyed just by the intake of sea water into the plant. 5100 crore litres of the used water will be dumped back in the sea beyond 2.2 kilometres through a pipeline. The temperature of this used water is supposed to be maintained at a maximum of 5˚ C higher than the ambient sea temperature, but the fisherfolk ask what is the guarantee that this temperature will actually be maintained? Also, a report published by the Bombay Natural History Society states that a continuous increase of even 0.5°C in the sea water temperature will lead to mortality of marine species. The CM, Prithviraj Chavhan has assured the fishing (macchimar) community of Ratnagiri that the slight increase in heat will “improve breeding of fish species." Hamida is incensed by the suggestion, and says “Does Chavhan take us for fools?”
Also, the increase in the temperature of the sea water may force fish to migrate to deeper waters. Most of the fishing in the area happens up to a depth of 10 fathoms, which is within the 2.2 range in which heated water will be dumped, and if fish move to deeper waters, it will badly affect the fish catch. The fisherfolk point out that if they are forced to take go deeper into the sea for catching fish, their expenses will increase substantially. They will have to purchase new boats and ships capable of going into deeper waters, and also their running expenditure including diesel consumption will increase.
The Government has promised that the nuclear plant will result in development and in increased employment. Mukhtar Kholkar laughs at this: “In our village and region, the fishing industry already employs thousands of workers from Nepal, Karnataka and other states! We provide employment to others and do not need fresh employment to be generated; all we ask is that our livelihood be left alone.”
The villagers in the area have interacted with people affected by the Tarapur nuclear reactor. “Tarapur’s villagers have told us how, after being displaced, they never got any rehabilitation and were rendered homeless. Not only that, they told us how the reactor adversely affected fishing in the area. They warned us of the consequences.” says Majid Gowarkar.
Sakhri Nate exports fish to Japan, Europe and other countries: a nuclear plant in the vicinity with the attendant fear of radiation will affect these exports, they fear. The villagers say that around 10-12 fishing villages including Sakhri Nate will be likewise affected by the project. Apart from the impact on their livelihood, they also fear the effect of atomic radiation on fishes – and the subsequent impact on health due to consumption of the fish. This apart, they have heard of radioactive leaks in the Tarapur reactor, as well as of the horrors of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. “What if there is an accident here? We do not want a repeat of Bhopal in Ratnagiri,” say a chorus of village youth.
The hall is bursting with people by now, with hundreds of people who are unable to enter the hall, gathered outside the hall trying to listen to the mike and peer in through the windows. Amjad Borkar forcefully articulates the villagers’ opposition to the project, saying, “We demand that the atomic plant be thrown out, not only from the village and district, but from the state and the country.” The gathered people respond enthusiastically when Medha Thatte and Comrade Kelkar of the LNP(L) and Bhimrao Bansode, Secretary, LNP(L) tell them that they will persuade the people in other districts of Maharashtra to support the struggle. They also listen with attention to Kavita Krishnan, CC member of the CPI(ML) Liberation, outlining the politics of the Nuke Deal, Nuke Liability Act, Bhopal and US imperialism. As the meeting progresses, villagers point out plainclothes police trying to look natural among the crowd.
Sakhri Nate is the place where Irfan Qazi, a local mango trader and nephew of Saifuddin Qazi, prominent Congress leader active in the anti-plant struggle, was killed in an accident on December 18. He was run down by a Sumo which locals say was provided by the project authorities and being illegally driven by police people. Suspecting police of having deliberately killed Qazi, hundreds of people had gathered to protest. The police indulged in a lathi charge and, alleging that protestors stoned the police station, took the opportunity to book the leaders of the Jaitapur movement in cases of ‘attempt to murder.’
As we leave Sakhri Nate, the entire gathering including hundreds of women gather to bid goodbye and the slogans of ‘anu urja nako’ (No to nuclear energy) and ‘Areva vapas jao’ (Areva Go Back) ring in our ears.
Madban – Farmers at the Forefront
Next, we visit Madban village – where the project site is located. Madban means ‘coconut forest’. As we approached, we could see rich mangroves in the adjoining creek. At the entrance to the village we can see a police van with a large number of policemen dozing in the sun.
We went to the home of Pramila Gavankar, whose husband Pravin, the main leader of the Janhit Seva Samiti leading the struggle in Madban, has been implicated in an attempt to murder case following the death of Irfan Qazi. Pramila appears calm and unfazed as she tells us that Pravin’s bail has been denied and the HC has asked him to surrender within 15 days. “On December 18, he was ill with high fever and resting in the house when news came of Qazi’s death. He went to the accident spot at Sakhri Nate where people had gathered spontaneously. To claim that Pravin instigated them to attack and kill the police is preposterous! It is just an attempt to suppress the agitation against the project. ’
We are joined by Santosh Vaghdhare, another prominent leader of the Janhit Seva Samiti, and another activist Vijay Raut. They tell us that 2800 people will lose land which has been acquired forcibly for the project. In addition, they say, land will be acquired for laying transmission lines, affecting yet more villagers. Further, a radius of around 1.8 km will be designated as a ‘red zone’ (to guard against exposure to radiation and also for security of the plant), and so villagers with homes in these areas will be displaced.
They say that Rs 11200 per acre has been fixed as the compensation for the land. Not only is this a pittance of payment for the land itself, it does not take into account the value of the mango and other trees on the land. When asked about the value of the trees, the Collector was quoted in a local paper as saying that 100 mango trees could fetch Rs 4, 62000. Vaghdhare scoffs at this, pointing out that a single hapoos mango tree has a life of approximately 100 years. It will yield produce worth anything between Rs 7000-8000 per year. “My father, myself, and my son and our families will all be supported throughout the lifetime of these trees,” he says, “how can a one-time payment of 4 lakh even come close to compensating the worth of the trees?”
Of all the affected farmers, just 112 have accepted compensation cheques. All of these are absentee landlords and have no real connection with or dependence on the land, says Vaghdhare. “We will never take the cheques and never give up our land,” he asserts.
Pramila is indignant when she talks of the mandatory public hearing which is supposed to precede land acquisition. “It was held on the day of akshaya tritiya, a sacred day, and the EIA report was not provided to us in Marathi,” she says, “still, around 1000 of us attended it to protest, show black flags and reject the project.” Here, too, villagers are fearful of accidents in the reactor as well as radiation effects that may inflict a Bhopal-like tragedy on them.
The Shiv Sena and BJP in Maharashtra, seeking to cash in on the resistance to the project pushed by the Congress governments at state and centre, have expressed support for the struggle. But Vaghdhare is skeptical and wary: “We do not want a repeat of Enron, when the Shiv Sena-BJP said they would ‘throw Enron into the Arabian Sea’, but the Vajpayee Government used its 13-day tenure to give sanction to Enron instead.” Rather, he says, “Our land has been forcibly acquired as at Singur, and we want a repeat of Singur.”
Vaghdhare tells us proudly that Madban played a great role in the freedom struggle: “There are 14 families in this single village who are descended from freedom fighters. The British oppressed them, today our own government is oppressing us. But like our freedom fighter ancestors, we too are not afraid of jail – we will resist!”
The phone rings and Pramila answers it. “It was the Mumbai police,” she says, smiling, “asking if the Lal Nishan party people are at my place and whether any meeting is going to take place like the one at Sakhri Nate.” Clearly the police are keeping an eye on us.
“I can’t stop the project. It is going to come up because it is not just about energy but also about strategic and foreign policy.”- Jairam Ramesh, Union Minster of State for Environment and Forests (MoEF), quoted in “Report silent on spent fuel, say activists”, The Hindu, Dec 1, 2010
The false case against Pravin Gavankar and other movement activists be withdrawn immediately. Those responsible for the death of Irfan Qazi be brought to book.
We walk a few steps from Pramila’s house to the seashore. There, we can see a breathtaking view: the ocean, with the outline of the Vijaydurg fort built by Shivaji in front, and green plateaus on both sides. On our right is the expanse of green plateau that has been allotted to the atomic project. We imagine what it will look like once this beautiful ecosystem has been replaced by an atomic reactor.
On our way out of the village, we try to turn towards the road leading to the project site, but are stopped by the police post, and told that we are prohibited from visiting the site. From Madban we make our way to Mithgavane, where we meet Dr. Milind Desai, a mild-mannered medical practitioner and mango farmer who has become a leading activist in the struggle. He is feeling despondent at the denial of anticipatory bail by the HC in what is obviously a false case against Gavankar. His anguish is visible as he says, “8 gram sabhas have rejected the project. I myself have identified at least 3 clauses of the Land Acquisition Act 1895 which have been violated. The Bombay Police Act 1951 Sec, 37(1)(3), prohibiting public gathering of more than five people is repeatedly invoked in the Ratnagiri whenever people of the area protest against land grab and polluting projects that threaten their livelihood. This is worse than colonial land acquisition. Konkan is the land of Ambedkar – how can it be that the constitutional rights are denied to the people of this region? We have decided to boycott the official flag hoisting on Republic Day. We want to make the point that the Republic belongs to its citizens, and the government which is crushing democracy cannot represent the Republic.”
As we speak the phone rings: it’s the police again, asking Dr. Desai if we are at his place! We next visit the home of Saifuddin Qazi, whose nephew Irfan Qazi was killed by a vehicle driven by the police. He explains why the villagers suspected that the incident was more than an accident, “Why were the policemen in the private car in the first place? Witnesses suspect that one of the policemen themselves was driving. Even when a road accident occurs people spontaneously protest, block roads, and express anger. In this case, the anger was even more natural because police were responsible for the accident and the man killed was an activist against the project. Even if it was indeed an accident, those responsible for my nephew’s death are yet to be punished. But the spontaneous gathering of people following his death has been branded as a ‘murderous attack’ led by Gavankar!”
Conclusions and Demands
On our return to Pavas, our team compiled our observations. A summary of these is as follows:
The people of Ratnagiri are overwhelmingly against polluting industries, thermal power projects as well as the Jaitapur Atomic Power Project. Their own opinions and concerns have been bulldozed to push through these projects, in violation of even the legal norms of land acquisition. In the process their democratic rights have been assaulted. The fabricated case against Pravin Gavankar in particular is a deliberate attack on the people’s struggle against the atomic project.
The EIA report is a farce, and the environmental clean chit to the Jaitapur project carries no credibility. The government has failed to satisfactorily answer any of the questions raised by the affected people about the project’s impact on environment, fisheries, horticulture, and livelihood. The promises of compensation and rehabilitation are obviously inadequate and a sham. Nor is the government able to justify its claim of low cost, ‘clean’ electricity generation from the project: even important figures within the nuclear establishment in India like A Gopalakrishnan have challenged these claims and pointed to the hidden costs and serious safety issues inherent in the untested Areva reactor.
In spite of the strong indications of adverse impact on safety, health, livelihood and environment in the Konkan people, the Governments in Maharashtra and the Centre are refusing to review the Jaitapur project only because the project is linked to the political compulsions and obligations flowing from the Indo-US Nuke Deal.
We demanded that:
Keeping in mind the serious concerns about livelihood, safety and environment, and the people’s lack of consent, the Jaitapur Atomic Power Project be scrapped without delay.
The other thermal and polluting industries in the region which have come up in violation of a range of environmental laws be reviewed, and only those industries be allowed which are in tune with the Konkan ecosystem and the wishes of its people.