The Konkan coast is a beautiful and relatively undisturbed area south of Mumbai. Most people here make a living out of agriculture. The area is also known for Alphonso mango and cashews, among other things - and fishing. All of that is about to change. A dozen large nuclear and coal power plants are planned on the coast.
Power companies see little value in the area besides rocky shores that provide good foundation for mammoth power plants and the Arabian Sea which can feed their unquenchable thirst for cooling water. There is hardly a shore in Konkan that is not threatened by a coal or nuclear power plant. The area already produces more power than it consumes, so the feverish power plant boom provides little benefit to local residents.
The first area to face the impacts is Jaitapur. The French company Areva is to supply six of world's largest nuclear reactors, all of them still prototypes, to the site. The government has in general recognised the major human and environmental cost of the wave of projects, but, unlucky for Jaitapur, the nuclear project is seen as too important for such considerations. Such "strategic importance" is attached to starting imports of western reactors that the Jaitapur project has received a waiver from the carrying capacity analysis that has put other projects on hold.
I had the chance to visit the area some weeks ago. The opposition to the project was visible everywhere - houses in the villages with anti-nuclear flags, posters and placards were posted on roadsides, virtually all auto rickshaws had a sticker, even the cafe in front of the local temple had a flag line with anti-nuclear symbols. Families could tell how many mango trees or other valuable sources of income they would lose to the project.
The determination of the local opposition has been made clear by the near unanimous rejection of compensation packages offered to landowners. The compensation is meagre, but the package has been closed, meaning they have little chance of receiving anything once they reject the offer. The message is clear: this is not about money, this is about the future of our villages, about our right to the land we have lived on for so long.
A week after my visit, Jaitapur saw its largest civil disobedience protest ever. Thousands of people turned up on the proposed power plant site in peaceful protest and 1,500 were arrested, the old and the young. Having been a part of civil disobedience actions numerous times myself and gone to jail for that, I cannot but admire the amount of fight these people have in them.
The people know fish catches have suffered around the Tarapur nuclear plant which is a fraction of the size of the planned Jaitapur plant. They know that despite assurances by regulators, cancer rates tend to go up around nuclear facilities, in India and abroad. The company refuses to give information about what will happen to the most deadly legacy of the reactors: highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel.
Every second time the company answers the question, it seems to tell the waste will be transported away, but the destination and the risks of the transport it refuses to discuss. The next time the company tells a reprocessing facility will be established on site. Reprocessing involves breaking up the extremely radioactive fuel elements mechanically and chemically, causing huge releases of radioactivity into the air and water.
All of this takes place in the name of development. But development is not something you can impose on people. You cannot use numbers and theory to show a project is development if what people see is deterioration of their livelihoods and their communities. Surely the highest "strategic importance" should be accorded to projects that make most sense to the local economy, the national economy and the environment. The Jaitapur nuclear project does none of this. We can do much better than this, bring in the Indian energy revolution with the use of better ideas like these.