The French Deal

and the Indian Resistance

Arindam Sen

Like his American counterpart, French President Nicolas Sarkozy came to India primarily to sell all kinds of products ranging from Mirage fighter aircrafts to seats in French universities. But he had a special focus: to outsmart arch rivals Russia and US and sell nuclear reactors a power-hungry emerging economy. His full-throated reaffirmation of French support for India's permanent membership in an expanded United Nations Security Council is widely seen to be linked to this urge.
The only country in the world to draw as much as 80 per cent of its electricity from nuclear source, France has long been leading an international campaign for wider use of atomic power. It has consistently supported India’s nuclear ambitions since the late 1960s, supplying nuclear fuel to the Tarapur I and II reactors (after the US reneged on its contractual obligation to supply uranium fuel for the Tarapur reactors), setting up a thorium extraction facility at Alwaye in Kerala, and a Heavy Water plant at Baroda in Gujarat. It was the first country to sign a civil nuclear agreement with India following the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver which preceded the formal Indo-US agreement. In this context, the agreement to build two reactors -- of 1,650MW capacity each -- worth $10bn at Jaitapur in Maharashtra will be regarded as the crowning success of the Presidential visit.
However, both the French President and the Indian Prime Minister are aware that a couple of obstacles remain to be overcome before this agreement can come to fruition.  One relates to the compensation clauses in case of a nuclear accident under the Civil Nuclear Liability Act. Sarkozy asked Indian leaders to try and find ways of circumventing such provisions. It was very difficult to amend the Act at this stage, but there will be scope for some manoeuvres at the time of working out the details of an actual contract between French and Indian corporations, he was told.
The second obstacle is far more difficult, coming as it does from the people who would suffer the most if the Jaitapur project comes up. The people of Madban — the village in Ratnagiri district where the project is slated to come up – has been fighting against it for a long time now. On December 4, close to 6,000 protesters defied Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code to form a human chain, wave the black flag and raise slogans such as “Sarkozy go back’ and “Areva go back”. Around 1,500 people were detained from among hundreds of protesters, who included environmentalists and local villagers.
Members of various trade unions and social organisations have also come together in opposition in Mumbai and elsewhere. They have raised serious doubts about the objectivity of the Environment Impact Assessment Report, which forms the basis of environmental clearance for the project. Parallel studies by the Bombay Natural History Society have shown that the project will cause substantial environmental damage. Doubts are also being raised about its techno-economic viability. At a conference organised in Mumbai on December 3, the former chairperson of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, A. Gopalakrishnan, questioned the wisdom of India entering into a contract with Areva “for the European Pressurised Reactor which is unproved and is plagued by delays and cost overruns.”
The fire of protest is still simmering days after Sarkozy left. Police resorted to a baton-charge to disperse a large crowd of villagers protesting the death of an anti-nuclear power plant activist on 18 Dcember. Irfan Yusuf Qazi, 40, of Nate village in Rajapur taluka was going to pick up his kids from school when his scooter was hit by a police jeep. Villagers protested against police removing his vehicle from the scene of the apparent accident, alleging that evidence was sought to be destroyed. The agitators stoned and then set ablaze the police jeep involved. They demanded action against the local police officials who resorted to the baton-charge and squatted on the main road and blocked traffic for over five hours.

The people of Jaitapur are fighting on behalf of all of us and all of us must stand up in solidarity with them. American, French or Russian, nuclear power plants shall not be allowed to come up anywhere on the soil of India.