Relief in store, it seems, for nuclear power authorities as a movement that once grabbed national headlines today appears rudderless
At 1820 hours on June 12, I received a text message from an old contact. “Tomorrow thousands of farmers will occupy their farms at Jaitapur n-plant site. It will be a huge demonstration.” However, between that message and what ultimately happened, the difference was glaring. For over a year now, half-hearted protests, dwindling popular support and divisions within have seemingly derailed the ‘andolan’.
The object of protest was the controversial 13-km long perimeter wall (on April18, 2011, in a protest against this very wall, one villager was killed in police firing) at the plant site by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL). This arrangement, coupled with massive police deployment has ensured that the protesters were edged out of the site. In the process, villagers cultivating their lands which fell inside the proposed plant too got excluded. The timing of the demonstration was also meant to coincide with the initiation of the farming season (farming in Konkan is restricted to single-crop and only done at the onset of rains).
May be it is too early to write off what once was a significantly popular movement. But on the ground, the protesting sections have been unable to galvanise a mass movement for over a year now. Seeing support wane, even visits from members of Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have reduced.
The NPCIL, on the other hand, is continuing its work, uninterrupted.
But how did it come to such a sorry pass? Only till last year, the Jaitapur region, nestled in the western ghats of Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district, was abuzz with protests. In fact, during one of my earlier visits (early 2011), when as a newly appointed Chief Minister, Prithviraj Chavan had sought an interaction with the locals, the protesters including women and children, marched into the meet venue by walking for over five kilometers in the sweltering heat! And throughout that meet, the protesters, armed with banners and flags, kept the environment charged up with loud counter-propaganda, forcing even the VIPs to occasionally halt their speeches.
@ Protest site
0915hrs, Madban: With the main plant and reactor complex to be located on the outskirts of this village, the scenic Madban plateau naturally emerged as the most active village opposing this project. But, this time hardly 40 villagers came out to protest. A rag-tag bunch, they (barely) organised themselves and moved towards the plant site. Once there, they were outnumbered and outflanked by the police. Several of them simply walked back to their homes and a few courted arrest. Within minutes, it was all over.
1100hrs, Saakhri Naate: A fishing village, it had little to do with the farmers being blocked out by the wall. However members of this village were the most vocal. Few hundred of them (again, not thousands) came out on the streets, denouncing the project. Speeches and sloganeering done, it was time to pack up. A leader of the fishing community, Amjadbhai Borkar, agreed that for over a year there have not been any mass agitations.
‘There is a problem’
Most of the actors in the protest saga agreed that the movement had lost both direction and popular support.
Mentioned social activist Vaishali Patil, “The level of violence unleashed by state and backlash has forced people to rethink their participation.” She added that even as those in the region have been opposing the plant for over five years, the support for the agitation has not grown outside the region. “A movement which does not grow, can’t be sustained endlessly,” she said. Another activist and former employee of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Pradeep Indulkar lamented the lack of organisation. “Plus, at the local level, we are seeing a lack of effective leadership,” he informed.
In fact, Praveen Gavhankar, a native of the Madban village and among the most effective and credible voices, is presently battling cancer at the Tata memorial hospital in Mumbai.
Members affiliated to communist organisations too have been active in the region. One of them, who did not wish to be identified said, “People here are politically divided and follow their convictions. It is not that we propped up the protest. The sentiment was always there, we just directed it. Very often we have to push them hard as if they are protesting for our sake. All this has led to disorientation on both sides.”
‘NPCIL can’t claim victory’
While conceding their loss, the protesters are quick to dismiss the notion that the authorities can claim victory. “For several reasons, people in Jaitapur have chosen to disassociate themselves with the protestors. But their trust and support the authorities have not won,” mentioned a local journalist. Added a local entrepreneur, “There are several problems in the way the NPCIL is ignoring the locals in their ‘developmental activities’, though they claim otherwise.”
‘Jaitapur remains a sensitive area’
As the opposition flounders, the other side is sure to take advantage. Mentioned a senior officer of the NPCIL, “We are aware that we should not take any step which re-ignites this agitation. So our focus is towards improving our relations with the locals.” Presently, the NPCIL remains locked in negotiations with the French government over the price of the reactors. In absence of a certain plan, the NPCIL is only executing basic infrastructure work at the plant site.
Even for the police, Jaitapur continues to remain priority number one. Said a senior officer in the district police, “Even today, barely one-tenth of the total affected parties have accepted government’s compensation. So, 90 per cent continue to remain defiant. We have to remain vigilant there.”
More efforts & Supreme Court
Efforts will be put in to reinvigorate the movement say activists. Towards this, several of them said they are planning trips not only to the Jaitapur region but also to the neighbouring Sindhudurg district. “For example the people of Devgarh – famous for mangoes – are hardly aware that they fall within the 30km danger zone from the upcoming plant. So we are going to inform them about this,” said Indulkar.
Further after receiving no respite from the Green Tribunal, there are also plans to approach the Supreme Court against the project’s Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), the bed rock on which the project stands.