Originally Published 2011-10-14 00:00:00 Published on Oct 14, 2011
The Centre having addressed issues in terms of suppliers' liability through parliamentary legislation in the case of nuclear power projects, the nation will have to now decide if it wants growth with risks or would be happy with riskless regression.
Public protests and policy issues
The public protests against the Koodamkulam Nuclear Power Project (KNPP) in southern Tamil Nadu should be a cause for concern to the policy-maker in more ways than one. After land-acquisition issues involving mega-projects in Nandigram and Singur in West Bengal a few years back, and also in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere in more recent times, the nuclear power-sector is facing the heat on mass agitations seeking to stall developmental projects. This is not to leave out coastal zone directives, pollution control and other environmental protection efforts, where the intent of the law is not always reflected at the enforcement-level, leading to court cases on the one hand and mass-protests on the other. Rationalisation has to be effected not only between law and enforcement, but also between larger issues of public sentiments, as reflected by civil society organisations, and public interest as enunciated by policy initiatives of the Government, at the Centre or in the States, focussing on medium and long-term concerns of growth and development.

The question that arises is: Will civil society actions in the form of public protests now visible, for instance, in Koodamkulam, extend to other sectors of industrial/agriculture growth in the country? What could be the policy that the Government should follow in the matter - and, if there could be universal applicability to such schemes? This question begs urgent answers as once a jinxed project it's mostly a given-up project, particularly when long man-days and other resources had been expended to identity the project in the first place. Two, sector-wise/project-wise protests in the matter, thus leading to its closure, would return to haunt the larger population, in terms of economic betterment - the protestors won't be exempt from the same. Three, and equally important, is the impact of such reversals on the nation attaining its true potential and place in the emerging global order, about every individual Indian is proud of. In a way, it could be a stereotype antithesis to the 'licence raj' that we have left behind but whose effect on curtailing growth and development would be the same, nonetheless. This does not mean a free-fall for freedom to do business or set up industries without concern for the people's health and environment. It only means that a balance would still have to be struck, without having to swing one way or the other.

Striking a fine balance

At the bottom of all this is the premise that if men had not been bitten by the curiosity-bug, leading to inventions and consequent industrialisation, we all would still be living in caves. There is enough literature to show how 'Industrial Revolution' centuries earlier and the 'IT revolution' in the more recent decades have changed the way the West has dominated civilisations, global trade and finances over the past 500-plus years. The reversals that the East suffered is yet to be repaired - but there are clear signs that countries like India and China are on the brink of dominating the world in terms of trade and economy, if not politics and military, in the foreseeable future. Many in the younger generations in these countries would live to see that happen. This is just not about politics and national pride, but is more so in terms of individual growth and development. Having been out of the 'Industrial Revolution' loop when it happened, India and individual Indians in most cases have caught up with the 'IT era revolutions' contributing to growth and development, though with that we have also imported the ill-effects of free market, free-fall economy. Once again, a balance needed to be struck, and not the benefits given up altogether.

This also does not mean that concerns of risks attending on reckless development should not be addressed. If anything the world should be thankful to those small groups, at times integrated but most times not, that are at the vanguard of the current protests and battles against mindless exploitation of Mother Nature. Statistics prove that environmental degradation has its consequences as much for the individual as for communities and countries. Yet, a fine balance needs to be struck if we have to progress along the lines our forefathers have done for centuries and millennia. While every generation pays a price for growth and development, it has to strike a fine balance if their future generations have to progress on similar lines. Governance, particularly of the democratic variety, is not only about maintaining law and order in the society. It is also about such issues such as striking this fine-balance. Caught in the complex matrix of present-day world's inter-dependence, insularity of any kind does not help. The question is also about the benefits that societies and communities are already reaping from what an earlier generation might have called as the 'mindless pace of development'. You cannot deny your future generation the geometrical growth-pattern that they are entitled to, either.

Protest not new in Koodamkulam

In the specific case of Koodamkulam Nuclear Power Project, the local people who are protesting now had protested even when the project was conceived. Just as Fukushima is contemporary, memories of Chernobyl were fresh in the minds of the locals. News reports had it that the project team of the Nuclear Power Corporation and allied agencies of the Centre addressed all safety and health concerns of the locals, and took the people to the Kalpakkam nuclear plant, near Chennai, for interaction with the local population. There were also related issues of problems for the local fishers, diversion irrigation water for the project township from neighbouring districts in southern Tamil Nadu. The concerns went as far as to suggest possible attacks on the project by the 'Sea Tigers' wing of the LTTE in neighbouring Sri Lanka, leading to a nuclear catastrophe. Successive Governments at the Centre and in the State have since addressed one issue after another, one concern after another. Work proper commenced only after the local concerns were all addressed to the satisfaction of the protestors of that generation, led as they were mostly by the local Church - then, as now.

The intervening years of construction at the Koodamkulam was marked by negotiations on the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal and related issues. This contributed to delays in the project on the one hand, and greater awareness about nuclear-trade issues, one the other. Today, India has a nuclear-deal Barring a few irritants involving nuclear suppliers from select countries like the US, who want their interests protects in terms of liability at times of accidents, there are not many issues on the 'supply side'. This is a reversal of the global ban on nuclear sales to the country, first after Pokhran-I (1974) and revived in 1998, post-Pokhran-II. Now when the ` 14,000-crore project is nearing completion, that too at a time when Tamil Nadu is reeling under unprecedented power-shortage and equally unprecedented industrial growth and promise, further delays could become as much a livelihood issue as a political issue, for a larger section of the population than just the locals. If they all are to be denied the benefits of industrial growth, so will the locals be. Sure enough, the larger community will not face the same consequences as the locals if there are industrial/nuclear accidents.

Cause and culpability

What applies to Koodamkulam will apply to a host of other projects, and not only in the nuclear power sector. As the 'Bhopal gas tragedy' proved in 1980, the generational fallout of the accident and the culpability of the promoters remain. Coal became untouchable for the global community long ago, owing to environmental threat of all kinds, from dust to smoke, to transportation snags. We had had in this country civil society organisations that had protested the setting up of coal-based thermal power-plants. Oil has always been in short-supply and the prices too have sky-rocketed for Governments the world over to fix a working cost on power-generation that mode. India's tectonic plate is slippery, and we have had the 'Koyna dam burst' taking its toll in human lives in the Sixties. In the late Seventies, the cyclonic storm in Diwi taluk of Andhra Pradesh meant that everything from launch-pad on at the Sriharikota Range was destroyed. The Republic Day quake that rocked the nation years later hit the IAF station in Kutch, Gujarat, so did the end-2004 tsunami in the Andamans. Conventional wisdom and disaster-drills involve the calling in of the armed forces, particularly the Air Force, for relief work on occasions such as these, but they were the ones to be crippled first.

In the case of occupation of tribal lands by the elite, local or urban, there has been a mis-carriage of intent and justice through and through. This needs to be rectified, and even reversed, wherever possible. There have also been instances of poor compensation being paid for lands acquired for public purposes or private promotion of industries. Along with Singur and Nandigram, there was a case of large-scale land acquisition for a private sector project for sand-mining for rare minerals and their extraction in southern Tamil Nadu, not far from Koodamkulam. Local protests focussed on the principle of the State Government getting involved in land-acquisition for the private sector promoter, the price on offer, and even the environmental issues involved, apart from the justification for such large acquisitions without the buyer not being transparent about future usage plans, if any. All this meant that the private sector investor (the Tatas, as was the case with Nandigram) withdrew from what was flagged as a ` 12,000-crore project, faster than at Nandigram.

It is an irony that for every group of NGOs that promote a cause, there is another promoting exactly the opposite one - later, if not sooner. Not very long ago, civil society organisations in this country used to ridicule successive Governments for not doing enough for our tribal population, in terms of individual growth, development and prosperity. It went beyond the basic concerns of food and shelter, nutrition and health, education and employment. All these involved taking development to their doorstep and not stopping just with the individual. Today, the successors to those NGOs are talking against land-acquisition for developmental projects. Others have comfortably concluded that the left militants in the midst of the tribal population do not have any political agenda, other than saving the tribal population from unscrupulous townspeople. At best, it is a mix of both, but the Naxalite leaders in the midst of the tribal population did not belong there, nor had those leaders talked about tribal welfare, there or anywhere else. It is like the developed nations blaming India's population growth for its problems until a decade ago, and seeing in it a huge market, for the tapping of which they are now involved in 'capacity-building' of the Indian consumer.

Solutions, not just problems

There are solutions, as there are problems. Rather, accidents and occasions such as these give enough warning as to what went wrong, and what more the nation and the Governments have to be prepared for - and to mitigate both the causes and effects. In the case of Bhopal tragedy, rules had been violated with immunity. Possibly in the case of the Koyna dam, no serious seismographic study had been undertaken. The list could be endless. That the Governments' efforts at making an example of the culprits in some of these cases going astray, but for which future generations of public/private partners would be wary about playing with human lives, is what is condemnable. The Centre having addressed similar issues in terms of suppliers' liability through parliamentary legislation in the case of nuclear power projects, the nation will have to now decide if it wants growth with risks or would be happy with riskless regression.

The Koodamkulam protestors along with a ministerial team from Tamil Nadu met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently, to carry the concern forward. For his part, the Prime Minister promised them to have an experts' team to study those concerns. The fact that those concerns had been addressed (and to their satisfaction) by earlier teams years ago has not weighed with any of these stake-holders. The political predilection of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa issuing an open statement defending the project one day and reserving her opinion the next has become the hallmark of her Government since her return to power in May. Yet, going beyond all these are the questions about the composition of an experts' team. In a super-niche area like nuclear safety, where limits to and effects of radiation and its consequences, along with such simulated causes like tsunamis, earth-quakes and other accidents, the level of expertise available in the public domain is limited, at least in this country. The NGO participants in any team of the kind, if they were to be included, would depend mostly on other information generated by external sources, at times for extraneous reasons.

Back home after meeting the Prime Minister, the protest leaders have even questioned the presence of National Security Advisor (NSA) Shivshanker Menon and the nation's nuclear top brass at the meeting. They have since decided to continue with their protests, until the Government stopped work on the project, wholesale. In its resolution, the Tamil Nadu Cabinet had sought suspension of work until the concerns of the people are addressed. Obviously with this in mind, the protestors have clarified that the delegation that met the Prime Minister was two-fold and not a unified one, with the State Ministers and other political representatives from the ruling AIADMK, Congress, CPI and a few others, forming one lot. They have decided to continue with shops-closure in the neighbourhood, and stay away from fishing in the adjoining seas. However, they have appealed to parents to send back their children to school. In an unprecedented and possibly trend-setting move, they have asked local contract labour to discontinue working in the project site. The organisers also talked the protestors out of a road roko that blocked employees from entering KNPP. Better or worse still, they have decided to talk to house-owners in the extended neighbourhood to cancel the lease for their houses, let out to KNPP employees. While prayers are held in local churches, special pujas are being planned in neighbourhood temples for the discontinuance of the project. While the protestors continue to complain that neither the Centre, nor the State Government, has given any commitment on the stoppage of work, they have not spoken about their willingness to accept the recommendations of the experts' panel, promised by the Prime Minister. At the same time, they also need to be cautious about not allowing other interest groups penetrating into their midst, given thus-far-unconnected Sri Lanka-linked concerns of the fishers in the larger neighbourhood in southern Tamil Nadu, and the temptation for other groups wanting to project it also as a pan-Tamil cause, mouthing slogans that the Tamils' lives in the country were of no concern to the North-dominated political leadership and policy-makers at the national-level in particular!

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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