Today was my third day at Idinthakarai. Finally after two days I could catch some sleep in the parish house where the priests stay. The people of Idinthikarai sleep under the same roof because they fear that the police repression might happen again at night. People have been threatened by the police repeatedly. The house I stayed at was full with the local media and villagers so I had to manage in the little space I got to sleep. By the time I woke up at 8 am everybody was already ready and it made me feel a little embarrassed.
As there has been no fishing here for the last 13 days and all shops are closed, the villagers are together most of the time. Food is provided by nearby villages and it is cooked and eaten together. I met the elders of the village and had an hour long talk with them about the protest. Following were my questions and their answers.
How has the nuclear power plant affected the livelihood of the fishermen here?
The people here have been fishing for generations and this is their main source of income. About 2000 species of fish are found in the sea here and the world famous fishing area known as the Wedge bank is located here in the waters of Kanyakumari. The catch usually differs from day to day but on average a fisherman earns Rs 5000 to 6000 per month. However, those who have invested Rs 20 lakh on a boat and nets earn Rs 15,000 a month. Ever since the construction of the plant, the average catch of the fishermen has reduced. The main breeding area of the fish, especially prawns, is located in the shallow water which is now occupied by the plant. The plant has a long pipe to suck water from the sea and for a three km radius around this pipe entry is strictly restricted. Fishermen fear that when the boundary is finally marked out it would increase to five km, leaving the fishermen with a large inaccessible area.
The nuclear plant will also release hot water into the sea. The temperature of the water which would have been released was initially set to 45 degrees but the high court has ordered that this must be reduced as it affects the fish. The hot water also affects the breeding cycle of the fish. Furthermore, the water from the plant will be contaminated which will further contaminate the fish and therefore the food cycle.
At a nearby KKNPP township where employees and scientists of the plant live in Chettikulam, they purify the ocean water which also releases chemicals which affect the fish. Ever since the construction of the plant began the fishermen have been threatened by security guards of the plant who point their guns and throw stones at them warning them not to enter the restricted area.
Why are the people protesting now, when the plant is already constructed and in the final stages?
It's a myth that people have been protesting for only the last one or one and a half years. The protests started soon after the agreement in 1988. In fact, Rajiv Gandhi had to postpone the foundation stone laying ceremony thrice.
On May 1 1989, the people protested under the banner of 'Save land, save water'. At the time the police opened fire which killed one protester and injured five. Former defence minister George Fernandes had also supported the movement. Since then there have been continuous protests.
The protests gathered momentum after the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in 2011. With all the media coverage the people had a deeper understanding of the threat from the nuclear power plant. The protests continued even when they were not being covered on national TV.
Some more facts from the village elders
According to rules, a nuclear plant cannot be built in a densely populated area. Here 50,000 people live within 1.5 km from the plant and 25 lakh people reside within 30 km of the plant. Further, there should not be any tourist hotspot around the plant but Kanyakumari, a very popular tourist destination, lies just 12 km straight from the plant via the ocean.
Though NPCIL claims that a mock drill was carried out, the people in the village say that no mock drill was conducted. In Japan, after the disaster, radiation had spread upto 200 km and Japan is an advanced county where people have automobiles to vacate the area fast. In India how would authorities relocate 25 lakh people in case of an emergency?
No one can claim radiation will not spread from the power plant through the air and water. Kalpakkam Nuclear Power plant is a living example where many people living close by are suffering from cancer. Apart from that the logic is that if cell phone towers can spread radiation one can only imagine what a nuclear power plant can do.
The final statement from the village elders was that a country's development must not be at the cost of the life and livelihood of its citizens wherever they may be. If the question is about generating electricity, there are alternatives like solar and wind energy. And they also felt that the electricity generated will only go to industries and the common people will have to bear the cost of it in the form of displacement and radiation.
Ali Abbas is covering the ground realities of the anti-nuclear protests in Koodankulam. All images have been taken by Ali Abbas.