Vigils across India show citizens’ anxiety over nuclear power

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Feature story - April 18, 2011
Demonstrations and vigils were held in eleven cities across India on April 11, the one month anniversary of Fukushima, to send a message of solidarity with the victims of the disaster, and to demand that world governments invest instead in safe and clean renewable energy. Grace Boyle gives us an account of what happened in different cities.

It’s been over one month since the the earthquake and tsunami that first damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan, and the scale of radioactive contamination is only just beginning to emerge.  The disaster was upgraded to a level 7 on the INES scale the same level as Chernobyl.

The Fukushima disaster has been particularly alarming for Indian citizens, as their government pushes ahead to install the world’s largest nuclear power plant on a seismically-active site in Jaitapur, Mahrashtra. Thousands of people gathered all over the country to show solidarity for those suffering in Japan and also remind the government at home that it needs to stay away from nuclear energy.  Here’s a quick look at what happened in all these cities.

Ahmedabad vigilAhmedabad, Gujarat

A crowd of around 250 people turned out in the capital city of India’s most westerly state, including large groups of students and teachers from Maharaja Agrasen Vidhyalay and Delhi Public School, Ahmedabad.  The local authorities allowed the protest to block the road for two hours, and had assigned ten traffic cops to assist the demonstrators.  Students marched with banners and chants, before holding a candlelit vigil in solidarity with the victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

“In the frenzy the media were climbing onto the roof of a bus, trying to get the best pictures of the vigil,” said Bipin Singh, a campaign supporter in Ahmedabad.

The students also screened ‘Miles to go,’ a film which depicts the effects of radiation from the Chernobyl accident, and the similar effects being suffered by people living near the uranium mines in Jadugora, Jharkhand.

The demonstration finished with a vote of thanks, and a serving of ice cream to the policemen who had helped.

Panjim, Goa

The tiny state of Goa is very close to Jaitapur, the site proposed by the government for the world’s largest nuclear power plant. The state’s southern border is also just twenty-five kilometres from the Kaiga nuclear power plant in Karnataka, which has seen at least three accidents in its short lifetime, starting with the collapse of the containment dome when it was under construction.  For this reason, the protest in Panjim was particularly pertinent.

“We had a lot of passers-by coming and asking us about the dangers of nuclear power, and what the concerns were with the Jaitapur nuclear power plant,” said Shama Praveen Syed, a fundraiser in the Greenpeace Goa office. “People are mainly worried that, if there were an accident at the plant, contamination could reach nearby places in the way it has in Japan.”

Hyderabad vigilHyderabad, Andhra Pradesh

Greenpeace outreach workers gave a short briefing to a varied audience that included engineers, doctors, professionals, housewives and print and television media. The attendees then lit candles spelling out the message ‘No more Fukushima, Jaitapur, Kovvada.’

While the high-profile Jaitapur nuclear power plant has been the subject of contention in national media, citizens in Andhra Pradesh are also concerned about the nuclear power plant planned for Kovvada, in Srikakulam district of the state. Like the Jaitapur plant, the Kovvada nuclear reactors will use foreign technology, though the former will be supplied by AREVA of France, and the latter by US company General Electric.

“We heard a lot from people debating about the roles individuals can play to try and create a safer world,” said Sheetal Antony, a Greenpeace outreach officer in Hyderabad.  “This is what Greenpeace as an organisation works for, and what we all have a responsibility to fight for.”

Kolkata vigilKolkata, West Bengal

“We wanted to do a walk rather than letting the vigil to be a static one,” says Anirban Chakrabarti.  “It’s election time here and the route was through where the Chief Minister goes back home everyday, but the traffic and civil police helped us. We interacted with lots of passersby on the way - many joined us, lit candles and walked along with us.”

The march was executed with a lot of help from volunteer students. Two men even stripped off their shirts  and painted windmills and anti-nuclear power slogans on their chests to show their support for renewable energy. Students from Calcutta International School, who couldn’t attend because they had exams, sent a clutch of handmade candles with ‘No More Fukushima’ written on them.

New Delhi

Delhi vigil

The candlelit vigil in the capital illuminated India Gate, where tiny flickering flames spelled out the message of ‘no nukes’ in front of the national monument.

“Anna Hazare’s peaceful protest has shown us what can be achieved if everyone stands together,” wrote Greenpeace volunteer and activist Ali Abbas after the event.  “Nuclear energy threatens our life and the environment and is not a green energy solution.” Read Ali’s full blog here.

Chennai vigilChennai, Tamil Nadu

‘Still want to build a reactor on an earthquake zone?’ asked one volunteer’s sign, referring to the government’s selection of a seismically-active piece of land for construction of French nuclear technology.  

The Greenpeace team in Chennai held their vigil next to an exhibition of photographs of victims of the Chernobyl disaster, and sang along to the John Lennon song, ‘Give Peace a Chance’.  

“The volunteers lit up their candles and held them high, igniting in themselves and others who viewed them, a passion for change to safe, renewable energy,” writes Rajkumar Dona Aideau, a volunteer with Greenpeace in Chennai.

Patna, Bihar

A group gathered underneath the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Patna’s central park, and marched with candles and banners to Kargil Chowk, a memorial site for those who lost their lives in the Kargil war.  As they walked, passers by joined them until their group swelled to a hundred, unified in their solidarity with the people of Japan and in their opposition to nuclear energy.

“If technologically-advanced Japan had the misfortune of one of the worst nuclear tragedies known to man, how can our government be so sure that our nuclear establishments would be fine?” asked Nagesh, a Greenpeace activist in Patna.

“I don’t think that the government should use such risky technology to generate electricity, especially when clean and safe renewable energy resources are available,” agreed Imran, a student at Patna University who helped organise the march.

As the vigil came to an end, a man unknown to the protesters came up and presented them with a seedling of ‘Aparajita’, a plant whose name means ‘a power that cannot be defeated’.  “It may have been a small incident to onlookers but we knew that it was more than that,” says Faiyaz, a Greenpeace activist.  “It was the symbol of people’s power, people’s resolution to fight for cleaner and safer energy sources. A fight for a nuclear free India.”

Bangalore, Karnataka

One hundred people gathered underneath the graceful span of Bangalore’s signature raintrees in Cubbon park, at dusk.Bangalore vigil Against the backdrop of a giant globe painted with the anti-nuclear sign, senior anti-nuclear and environment activists - including Shankar Sharma, Major General (Dr) S.G. Vombatkere, scientist MV Ramanna and Ananth Hegde  of the Western Ghats Task Force - all spoke about the inherent dangers of nuclear power, the nuclear industry’s uncompetitive economics and India’s poor industrial safety record.  All combine to make nuclear power in India an expensive, dangerous and potentially deadly investment.  

“Nuclear technology is inherently unsafe - Fukushima reiterates that,” said Arundhati Muthu, climate campaigner with Greenpeace in Bangalore.  “Making it safer automatically means driving up the costs dramatically. India has the opportunity to make clean, safe and sustainable energy choices by choosing to go with energy efficiency measures and renewable energy options.” Read a full account of the evening here.

Images: © Greenpeace