A sustained struggle has been going on since August 2011 in villages around Koodankulam, the site of the proposed nuclear power plant generator in Thirunelveli District. The initial proposal for the nuclear power generator was mooted in 1988 in an agreement between then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and then Soviet Union, the technology provider. After the breakup of Soviet Union, the project was shelved and was again revived in a 2001 agreement for an estimated cost of Rs 13,615 crores for commissioning of two 1000MW reactors at the site. It is also proposed to establish 6 more reactors taking the combined production to 9200 MW. This would make Kudankulam power projects one among the largest nuclear power complex in the world. Since the conception of the program, there has been a campaign against the project by the local community (especially fishing communities) and various environmental groups. The fishing community fears the loss of land and fishing areas in the sea, as well as the pollution of sea water causing the reduction of fish catch. The environmentalists have been opposed to the project on the grounds of nuclear waste disposal, radiation hazards due to the functioning of the power complex as well as the risk of nuclear accidents. In the aftermath of earth quake and tsunami in the pacific ocean in March 2011 and the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, Japan, there has been a sustained struggle by the local community. At the same time, the nuclear scientists involved in India’s atomic energy departments, industrialists and the ruling party leaders have taken a pro-nuclear energy stand and lauched a sustained campaign in support of commissioning the power plant.
While arguments and debates rage across this nuclear divide, with even motives of individuals brought into the debate, there is a need to understand the arguments from a working class prespective. The first edition of ‘Working Class Vision’ analyses the issues surrounding the power plant and nuclear technology from the perspectives of working class. .
What does the working class say?
Permanent Factory worker, Electronics Industry, Sriperumbudur
“Do not know much details about the project other than what I am reading in news papers and talking to friends. Newspapers say that if the project does not come, there will be lack of electricity and new companies will not come. A friend is from the area and is opposing the project along with the villages. He says that villages will be affected by this project. I do not know how the villages will be affected as the newspapers do not say anything about this. I want the project to be setup where there is no villages and not affect any people.”
Trainee, Automobile Industry, Sriperumbudur
“It would be good if we are self sufficient in power, which is the main benefit of the project. But people have questions about the safety of the project. They have learned from experiences in Japan and Bhopal and want to be cautious. There is no clear information on whether this project is safe. This needs to be kept in mind because we are already suffering from too many diseases for which there is no cure. The villagers are protesting because they are the one who will be affected. We will not be the affected even though we will be the ones who will benefit from the project. The politicians are saying that there will be only benefits because of the project and there is no lack of safety. This is hard to believe because every project has a cost and risk. It would be good to know more about them so we can make better decisions.”
Permanent Employee, Automobile Industry, Sriperumbudur
“Getting nuclear energy and electricity is good for us and this project is to be welcomed. There is a big politics being played about this issue, because why is this issue being brought out when the project is almost complete. There was an article on Dhinamalar which talked about America’s background in inciting this struggle. If Russia transfers these technologies to us, we will be self sufficient in technology, which America or American nuclear industry does not want. The meeting of Hillary Clinton and Jayalalitha was also to foster this. The domination of catholic priests in the struggle also supports this view. We need more electricity as we do not have sufficient electricity. There will be issues. Nothing is safe or risk free but for development we need to take these risks. What is happening in Japan is not likely to happen here. Hence the project needs to continue.”
Permanent Worker, Electronic Industry, Sriperumbudur
“My native is 2 hours from Koodangulam near Thoothukudi and we are all against the project. When I had gone recently home, I also participated in the hunger strike. Even though the project brings employment and will provide electricity to our neighborhood, the costs of the project are too high. Especially after what has happened in Japan, we are very much against the project. If something like this can happen in a country where there is much more technology and safety measurements, much more can happen in India where there is lack of safetey and awareness. The impact will be in terms of loss of fishes, safety and health impacts for generations. The struggle committee has given us lot of information about this using film clips, materials etc. Mr. Kalam has recently visited the site and has said the project is safe but its not clear if he has done this on his private capacity or if he is saying this at the behest of the government who is using him to make people believe.”
Permanent Employee, Electronics Industry, Sriperumbudur
“The project should be allowed as it will fulfill our electricity requirements. The scientists have also vouchsafed for the safety of the project. We should not expect what happened in Japan will happen here as Japan is earth quake prone. This protest is unnecessary. Why didnt the protest happen earlier and only now. I am told by my friends that only 4 villages are opposing the project and other villages are ambivalent. So there is some other motive in opposing this project. We talk among my friends and the opinion is divided. Some feel that we should learn from what happened in Japan and some feel the project should go on”
Nuclear Power: Profits, Politics and People
Does Working Class need Koodangulam Nuclear Power Plant Project?
Who needs Giga Watts of Electricity?
Nuclear power has been justified by the State and the Indian elite on the basis of increased demand for energy and electricity and the need to generate employment through industrialization . Some of the scientists have gone on board stating that without nuclear power, the energy needs of this country will not be met. There is a campaign to instill fear of a slowdown in economy due to the acute shortage of power. However there is currently no information on the current distribution of the electricity and the planned distribution of the electricity that is to be harnessed from nuclear energy.
India produces 180000 MW of electricity through different means of power generation and according to Planning Commission, is expected to add another 78000 MW of electricity in 11th five year plan. While the Integrated Energy Plan of the Planning Commission(planningcommission.gov.in/reports/genrep/rep_intengy.pdf) has indicated lifestyle changes due to the growing affluence of the middle and upper classes of India and commercial and industrial growth generating demands for electricity, the current allocations and future allocations are not discussed anywhere. The report acknowledges that even though 85% of villages are considered electrified, 57% of the rural households and 12% of urban households inevitably belonging to poor do not have access to electricity. The report further states that ‘even those who have electricity suffer from shortages and poor quality of supply. Unscheduled outages, load shedding, fluctuating voltage and erratic frequency are common. While, industries especially the MNCs wanting to setup manufacturing bases in India are being guaranteed uninterrupted power supply(http://www.indiainbusiness.nic.in/FAQ/sez.htm), the traditional and small scale industries and agricultural regions in Tamil Nadu go for several hours of power disruption (Erratic Power Cuts affect all, The Hindu, dec 6th 2011, industry sends telegram to Jayalalitha seeking dedicated power supply, Times of India, Nov 26th 2011 ). Will the state and central government guarantee supply of power to the small scale industries, cottage industries, farmers and domestic users before signing agreements for uninterrupted power supply with MNCs? If not, does not the nuclear reactors only a burden on working people with the benefits going to large MNCs?
For the working class, the energy demands primarily consist of fuel for cooking and household electricity. While the planning commission acknowledges that the poor are the worst affected in the reach of energy in terms of the time and effort that they need to invest in access to energy, the planning commission’s report has advocated for subsidized 30 units of power per month towards targetted household and 6kgs of LPG per month. While the ‘targetted household’ remains vague and problematic especially in the recent wake of fixing Rs 32 per person(Spend Rs 32 a day? Govt says you are not poor: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-09-21/india/30183983_1_urban-areas-poverty-line-norms) as the poverty line, 30 units of power is hardly enough to light one tube light. At the same time, there is no discussion on the power that is wasted in shopping malls and big industries. Neither does the commission report discuss the unequal distribution of power. This inequitable distribution is lost in the perception that is being created that lack of electricity generation is the reason for the shortage. The fact that villages surrounding Kalpakkam where a nuclear plant is situated are reeling under major power shortages is itself proof of “inequitable distribution” of electricity. Why is that villages that are reeling under the effects of pollution from the thermal plants in Singrauli, UP – once hailed as the energy capital of India – have neither electricity nor clean water? While challenging coal and nuclear, we also need to question a development model that incessantly calls for sacrifices by working class so that others may prosper.
The planning commission has also targetted the subsidies given to agriculture and domestic consumption. According to the Planning Commission Report, ‘Power tariffs are structured on the basis of industrial and commercial users cross-subsidising agricultural and domestic power
consumption.’ This is a patent lie as the subsidies provided to the industry is being hidden from us. For example, MNCs in Tamil Nadu are given exemption from electricity duties (http://www.tidco.com/fiscal.html). With the subsidies being targeted and with implementation of costly technologies, the electricity costs for the working class is going to be come much dearer which is not discussed in the ongoing debate. The subsidies given to agriculture is also cited as the cause for inefficiencies in usage of electricity while the power consumed by IT industries and shopping malls are shown as indicators of growth. Why does the governments lie to us regarding subsidies and cost burden? Whose interests are being served by the false propaganda?
Is Nuclear Energy the only option?
Nuclear scientists, government of India and corporate executives have maintained that nuclear energy is the fuel for the future. It is supposedly ‘clean’ because there is no green house gas emission. But they never talk about the pollution at the site of mining and the future pollution from nuclear waste. The truth is different which doesn’t see the light in today’s media. The studies by Indian Doctors for Peace and Development, a national chaper of the Noblem winning Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War has documented issues including sterility, congenital deformities among children leading to child mortality, cancer and lower life expectancy(Some FAQs about Koodankulam and Nuclear Power: Nityanand Jayaraman and G. Sundar Rajan, http://kafila.org/2011/11/22/answers-to-some-faqs-about-koodankulam-and-nuclear-power-nityanand-jayaraman-g-sundar-rajan/).
Safety breaches in India’s nuclear establishment seldom comes to light because of the shroud of secrecy surrounding the institutions. But what little we know gives serious cause for concern. Just take the case of Kalpakkam. There have been 6 accidents in Kalpakkam including some that were acknowledged more than 6 months after the incident exposing workers to higher level of radiations. Even today, the Kalpakkam reactor is not designed to survive a major earthquake or tsunami despite the fact that an International Atomic Energy Agency publication of 2011 identifies one active submarine volcano near the coast of India, and that is off the coast of Pondicherry, 60 km from Kalpakkam.
Nobody championing the cause of nuclear power and energy production talks about demand side management, transmission and distribution losses. For every 100 MW of electricity generated in India, more than 40 MW is lost because of inefficient transmission and distribution (T&D). Industrialised countries like Sweden have a T&D loss of less than 7 percent. In other words, of the total 180,000 megawatts of electricity generated in India, 72,000 megawatts (40 percent) is lost, wasted. That is equivalent to shutting off all power plants in the States of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. Without resolving the transmission and distribution losses, the capacity of these plants are almost halved, something thats not considered in cost/benefit analysis.
Increasing energy efficiency of electrical appliances is another way to save electricity. In Tamilnadu alone, if incandescent lamps are converted to LED bulbs, we can save about 2,000MW.
Neither does the government discuss about the potential of renewable energy like solar and wind. On the topic of renewable forms of energy for electricity generation, though, the fact remains that we have barely scratched the surface in terms of harnessing the potential. According to the Government of India, India’s potential in renewables is as follows: wind energy – 48,500 MW (65,000MW, according to Indian Wind Energy Association http://www.inwea.org/); small hydro power – 15,000 MW; biomass Energy – 21,000 MW; and at least 4,00,000 MW from Solar Energy. The monumental amounts of money being sunk into nuclear technology can be gainfully diverted to increase research in renewables, and electrical energy efficiency. Already, advances in solar and wind technologies are reducing per MW costs. The capacity of existing wind mills can be increased six to eight-fold by replacing older, lower-capacity turbines, with newer, higher capacity turbines, or by installing new and more efficient turbines amidst existing wind mills. In the last 15 years, India has added about 17,000MW of power using renewable sources; China has added the same amount in just one year. So, where is the need to put all our eggs in just the “Nuclear Basket”? Not to mention that researches in solar energy can put us truly as leaders in the global map instead of using imported nuclear technologies from other countries.
Myths surrounding the protests
The project was first proposed in 1988. Within months, protests built up against the nuclear plant. People and students mobilised 1 million signatures against the nuclear plant to hand over to Mikhail Gorbachev, the then Premier of USSR, when he visited India in 1989. Black flag protests, youth mobilisation, rallies in Chennai and other urban centres. Koodankulam has been a controversial issue from Day One. On May 1, 1989, fisherfolk and other residents from around the project site organised a massive rally in Kanyakumari town. The peaceful rally was disrupted by the police, and one youngster – Ignatius – was shot in the police firing that ensued. Between 1991 and 2001, the protests died down, because USSR – the technology provider – splintered into several smaller nations. But this history is glossed over by the propagandists, and repeated without verification by a lazy and irresponsible media.
Like the Rajiv Gandhi Government at that time, the Sonia Gandhi Government now has refused to acknowledge the protests or heed the aspirations of local people.
That is evident from the manner in which the Central Government is hell-bent on pushing the Jaitapur nuclear project in the face of stiff opposition by local farmers and fisherfolk. Protests in Gorakhpur, Haryana, and Jaitapur are not just being ignored, but violently repressed.
It is true that the imminent commissioning of the Koodankulam plant, and the threat of expansion of the complex to accommodate 6,000 MW of capacity has re-awakened the fears of the local people. The 2004 tsunami gave the coastal people first hand experience of the raw fury of nature. The television images of the devastation caused by the triple disaster in Fukushima, and the subsequent tragedy of lakhs of Japanese were prevented from returning to their homes or to their normal lives are still fresh in the minds of people. People would be stupid to not be fearful.
Representation of the Koondankulam Nuclear Project and struggle in the media
For the working class, the information has come from two sources – from media and from discussions with friends. Those workers who have either hailed from the affected region and the workers who have contacts in the region have been sympathetic to the struggle and have expressed solidarity for the right of the affected people to say ‘No’, those who have relied on the media have a more antagnostic view of the project. This reflects the belligerant view of most of the media towards the protests which has tended towards articulating the nuclear lobby’s viewpoint only. The media and government have also painted the struggle as american influenced and catholic influenced. This is more of a divide and rule tactics akin to dividing workers into permanent and casual workers in an effort to disunite them. It must be noted that Jaitapur plant is being designed with a french company. Also, it was Mr. Manmohan Singh who went to tell a then president of US, that Indian people loved him when no Indian including Koodankulam people have said so. So why are his vested interests not being questioned on the policies which are pro nuclear lobby?
Why should the working class resist?
The development of energy sector is fast being considered by private sector as a field for more profits and growth. The private sector is participating more and more in the energy sector by means of controlling the mining of fuels for energy, controlling means of production and also entering into transmission and distribution (in Delhi, Orissa, and some parts of Gujarat, West Bengal and UP). In addition, the SEZ rules has also provided for private captive plants for private power generation. The reforms being touted by Indian Government is increasingly making energy a commodity thus putting them under the paradigm of free market rather than a resource for equitable distribution.
The perception that the working class needs more energy and nuclear power as this will create more jobs is an illusion being created by the capitalists. Modern factories that consume vast amounts of energy tend to be highly automated, killing jobs and requiring mostly contract workers. Most of the projected energy demand is to satiate the numerous foreign and Indian companies that are setting up SEZs, large retail supermall malls or IT/ITES offices. In their search for profit, environment and worker safety are consistently being neglected by both government and corporates, the cost of which is passed to the working class . It is we who suffer increasing cost for drinking water. It is we who pay increasing tariffs for power, gas, transport etc. It is we who have to give up our lands for such large projects like Nuclear power plant. It is we who remain at the risk of such accidents. In Bhopal, where the Union Carbide factory unleashed the poison gas in Dec 1984, it was the slums around the factory and innocent factory workers on night shift who suffered the worst, not the board of directors, owners or the CM of the state. The locations of these projects are chosen such that the resources of the working class is being increasingly deprived from the working class and accumulated in the hands of the capitalists.
Real alternatives that can empower the working class, increase employment and decrease our dependence on dangerous technologies are never proposed or planned by the State or the corporate sector. For example, house to house solar panels can increase our energy from solar by manifold within a short span. It does not need land acquisition, it will be under the direct control of every household and there by we get the right of first use. All this needs is a robust credit scheme and a policy that would allow Electricity Boards to draw electricity from each household. Technology is available and in practice in different countries. It is costly because we have not invested in production. Even though this has a potential to create more jobs than nuclear power plant, vast amounts are invested in nuclear power than in solar. Why? Because the rate of profit in a decentralized solar energy system is very less than what private companies can get from Nuclear industry.
The resources, environment and safety are key protections that working class needs to safeguard not only for our generation but for future generations to come. We the working class should not get diverted or divided by high sounding speeches about development and growth. Let us keep asking the government ‘Whose development ?’ Every time they come to us and say ‘WE NEED’, let us ask them ‘Who Needs’? itself not just for their own future and but their chidlren’s. These struggles should not been seen as an isolated struggle for a small minority of people but as an integrated struggle for working class betterment.
Venkat is a Phd student in MIDS, Chennai and works on labour issues.
Venkatachandrika is an activist based in Chennai and works on issues related to labour and land rights.