Kudankulam’s neighbours weigh nuclear power fears against living standards
Rani enters her home for the first time in more than a week. She switches on the light, but it doesn’t work. Tsunami Colony, where she lives in the village of Idinthakari, has been deserted for months, and the electricity supply has been patchy.
The people who were living in the development fear that the police will return and ransack houses – as they reportedly have done to several places in the village. The residents prefer to sleep on the sand outside St. Lourdes church here in Idinthakari in Tamil Nadu, alongside people who have spent more than a year protesting the planned opening of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant, which sits about 2 kilometres away.
There have been nearly 400 days of protests in the village. A plastic board outside the church tallies this number, every day. Villagers claim that their power supply has been irregular with long power cuts ever since they started protesting.
“The day we started protesting, our power began to be cut,” said Vinsula, a woman who lives in the village. “Our electricity is being cut, and then this backs up their claim of ‘power shortage’ which validates the nuclear plant.”
The people of Idinthakari find themselves in a strange opposition to not only the rest of India’s aspiring middle class, but themselves. They want a more prosperous life, one that depends on the kind of stable electricity supply that nuclear power promises. Nevertheless, they fear what a plant disaster and a resulting radiation leak could do to the quality of their lives and livelihoods.
“We too want electricity, it is useful for us as well.” said Rani, adding, “I would rather live in darkness than have deformed children.”
Perhaps there was a time when “Roti, Kapra aur Makaan” sufficed. Today, food, clothing and shelter is far from sufficient, the promises are getting more extravagant, causing an inflation of expectation.
Today, politicians promise mixers, grinders and laptops to the constituents they want to woo. Sometimes they even promise electricity. While the heightened standard of living may not yet have materialised, the idea of this higher standard of living, certainly has. Kudankulam is built to meet that increasing need.
But safety is a big question. There reportedly are more than 1 million people living within a 30-kilometre radius of the plant, more than the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board says should be there. Locals fear that an evacuation during a disaster might not be possible.
“Political leaders are trying to give us mixers and grinders. But they didn’t consider us when they wanted to make a nuclear plant,” said Elsi, Rani’s sister.
The protesters also are pushing for documents on the construction and safety of the plant to be released, but the Nuclear Power Corporation of India has been reluctant to disclose these documents. The plant’s Russian atomic supplier is not bound by the civil nuclear liability law. Local fishermen fear that waste materials from the plant will harm their catch and imperil food and health along the coast here at India’s southern extreme. On Sept. 13, the Supreme Court refused a stay request on fuel loading at the nuclear plant.
Some people say that anti-nuclear activists are trying to take advantage of simple-minded and uneducated people who don’t understand the benefits of electricity. “(T)he local people who protest in Kudankulam are not those who can analyse the safety issues of the nuclear plant, but they are being carried away blindly by the skillful campaign of their leaders, who appear have an agenda of their own,” S Venkataraman wrote in the Deccan Herald.
But Rani and Elsi are neither simple minded, nor raised in the dark. They are modern women — members of the mixer-grinder generation, and are well acquainted with the joys of electrical appliances.
“I have a fridge, a TV, grinder, mixie, fan and iron box,” Rani said. Their neighbours, Jayabal Markus and his wife, have their mobile phones lying on their washing machine. They own a DVD player, speakers, induction stove and other gadgets.
But they don’t have electricity to power their mixies. It’s a conspiracy, they say: whoever controls the power grid will choke their electricity supply until the protesters give up and the plant goes live.
In 2005, 94 percent of households in urban India had electricity, compared with 57 percent in rural areas, according to a World Bank paper. The 2011 India census shows that there has been an increase in households using electricity, and the rural-urban gap is at 37 per cent. And these figures do not include the energy-intensive industries that operate out of urban areas. Contrast this with the fact that 70 percent of India lives in rural areas, and one arrives at a conundrum of supply and demand.
The Kudankulam plant has the capacity to generate 2,000 megawatts of power, about 30 percent of the demand for New York City’s more than 8 million people, according to this website.
The locals do not like the idea that the entire burden of middle-class aspiration for more electricity, is being burned onto them. “These power cuts we are facing (are) a pressure tactic.” said Jayabal.
There is more than just coercion, real or imagined. On Sept. 10, there was a clash between the police and protesters. The St. Lourdes church was vandalised, allegedly by the police, and police shot a fisherman dead. Another local fell from a pier and died. He panicked after an Indian Coast Guard plane flew in low over the protesters.
At the end of my visit, Rani took me back to the St. Lourdes church from her house. Hundreds of wind turbines dotting the area around Idinthakari, twinkled and twirled. Seeing the natural power of the wind the sun and the tides while talking about an energy crisis invited observations about irony. Behind her, the plant formed a hazy silhouette in the setting sun.