Don’t demonise dissenting voices

Tags: Op-ed
Some of India’s tallest public intellectuals, scientists and former civil servants have strongly challenged prime minister Manmohan Singh’s assertion that the anti-nuclear protests in Koodankulam at the southern tip of India have been instigated by foreign non-government oragnisations (NG­Os), and that the movement lacks both popular support and an understanding of the indispensability of nuclear power. In a signed statement they expresses dismay and pain “at the government’s campaign of vilification of the sustained popular movement against the Koodankulam nuclear plant”, and the “growing, dangerous, tendency to delegitimise dissent”. These intellectuals underscore vital issues of atomic hazards, which have “assumed pivotal importance worldwide after the Fukushima disaster”.

They call for “an independent, thorough, transparent review” of India’s nuclear power policy and a safety audit of all of its civilian nuclear installations “by a broadly representative body, which includes non-department of atomic energy personnel and civil society representatives”. And, they demand that the government cease harassment of anti-nuclear activists, drop concocted charges against them, and, instead, resume dialogue. “Until people’s fears and concerns are allayed, all nuclear power plant construction must be halted. There must be no use of force — categorically, regardless of the circumstances. Ramming nuclear plants down the throats of unwilling people will usher in a police state.”

The signatories include distinguished social scientists such as Romila Thapar, Deepak Nayyar, Amit Bhaduri, Sumit and Tanika Sarkar, Ashis Nandy, Rajeev Bhargav, Ramachandra Guha, Zoya Hasan and Nandini Sundar; writers Arundhati Roy, Adil Jussawalla and Vandana Shiva; and scientists PM Bhargava, MV Ramana, Suvrat Raju, Shankar Sharma and Vineeta Bal. Among the signatories are Aruna Roy, Harsh Mander, Farah Naqvi and AK Shivakumar, all members of the government’s own national advisory council; former Atomic Energy Regulatory Board chairman A Gopalakrishnan, and former civil servants/diplomats SP Shukla, EAS Sarma and Nirupam Sen.

Also included are former navy chiefs L Ramdas and Vishnu Bhagwat, and major general SG Vombatkere; former high court judges Hosbet Suresh and BG Kolse-Patil; and activists and others such as Surendra Gadekar, Shabnam Hashmi, Ashish Kothari, Sharmila Tagore, Ram Manohar Reddy, Sadanand Menon, Sumit Chakravartty and Sripad Dharmadhikari. (Disclosure of interest: I don’t consider myself a tall intellectual, but am also a signatory).

This list alone should demolish Singh’s tendentious recent claim made gratuitously to Science magazine in response to a question about genetic engineering, that “the thinking component” of the Indian population ‘certainly’ favours nuclear power. If anything, this “component” has become even more sceptical of the virtues of nuclear power after Fukushima than earlier. (Indeed, except for arch-conservatives in the scientific, and, especially the military-scientific establishment, the Indian intelligentsia has never been enthusiastic about nuclear power or weapons).

The “foreign hand” charge sounds surreal coming from a politician who two decades ago indiscriminately opened up the economy to international capital and trade, and who has recently batted harder than any Indian for foreign nuclear reactor manufacturers. Singh is singularly obsessed with hitching India’s energy trajectory to power to be generated by imported nuclear reactors — Russian reactors at Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu, French plants at Jaitapur in Maharashtra, and US reactors at Mithi Virdi in Gujarat, and, probably, Kovvada in Andhra Pradesh.

His government went to extraordinary lengths to skew the formulation of the Nuclear Liability Act so as to exempt (foreign) equipment suppliers, and to smuggle in clauses to distort the parliamentary committee’s consensual draft. When that attempt failed, it tried to dilute supplier liability through the backdoor, by writing rules and regulations under the Act that violate its spirit, thus mocking Parliament.

It bears recalling that India’s nuclear programme has all along been based on foreign sources. The first experimental reactors at Trombay were set up with British and American help. India’s first power reactors at Tarapur were a turnkey job by General Electric (US). The next power station, at Rajasthan, which became the template of India’s main reactor series, was based on the Canadian deuterium-natural-uranium design in which heavy water acts as the moderator and coolant.

Why, even the Fast Breeder Test Reactor at Kalpakkam, with its disastrous performance, was built with French help. As if that’s not enough, India overtly or clandestinely bought, borrowed or simply appropriated nuclear materials, technology and equipment, including enriched uranium fuel and heavy water, from sources as varied as the US, France, Russia, China, Germany and Norway.

That apart, people like Singh don’t understand the dynamics of grassroots people’s struggles and what motivates them to sustain numerous marches, boat rallies and an uninterrupted relay hu­nger-strike since October 18. Singh simply doesn’t comprehend the people’s commitment to non-violence and their determination based on high levels of information and awareness of nuclear safety problems.

For instance, the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) experts’ committee has produced an impressive 84-page scientific report questioning the Koodankulam plant’s safety on grounds covering geology, oceanography, volcanism, water balance, impact on fisheries, high population density, routine emissions and effluents, inadequacy of safety systems, and lack of secure waste storage.

Singh should recognise this and treat the protesters with the respect they deserve. Above all, there must be no attempt to commission the Koodankulam reactors until the people’s concerns have been fully addressed.

(The writer is an independent commentator on political and economic issues)

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