It’s like the old setting from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: a wondrous product of science is unveiled in the village; things go awry with the invention resulting in the village mob armed with pitchforks and torches going on a rampage to stop the ‘monster’. Throw in some politics and cacophony dressed up as a ‘national debate’ and we have the Jaitapur nuclear reactor protests down to a pat. The violence unleashed in Ratnagiri on Monday that resulted in a death by police firing is a sad offshoot of India’s ‘nuclear debate’ that we thought was over in 2008. But getting a second life with global fears of nuclear energy triggered after the post-earthquake accident in the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, the Indian nuclear debate has boiled down to short-term localised politics. During the tenure of the first UPA government, it was the Left that politicised the issue, to the point in which the India-US civil nuclear deal came perilously close to being hijacked by an anachronistic anti-imperialist drumbeat. Now, instead of addressing genuine issues about nuclear safety, the Shiv Sena has mobilised an anti-nuclear agenda in the name of popular discontent against nuclear power.
The Sena’s mobilisation of villagers against the planned six-reactor 9,900 MW nuclear power project in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district has a single objective: to make the Shiv Sena a force in the Konkan region again. With the departure of Narayan Rane from the party and his entry into the Congress, the Sena’s hold in the area had slipped considerably. The anti-Jaitapur issue, till now kept burning by environmental groups, has been coopted by the Sena. To egg villagers on about Jaitapur turning into the next Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is not only irresponsible but also dangerous. Instilling a fear psychosis serves no purpose without an engaged debate among experts — something that has been visibly absent in the public space.
Which is why it is doubly necessary that the government be articulate. Environment minister Jairam Ramesh had stated that after the Fukushima accident, there would be a “reassessment of the systems” to be put in place. Going by Mr Ramesh’s decision to go ahead with Jaitapur last week, such a reassessment has indeed taken place. But to scotch the notion that the minister has made a facetious ‘U-turn’, the government must make its reassessment more transparent and available to the protesting laity. That India needs nuclear power is a fact. It is, therefore, imperative that this message is explained to the people so as to quell the fears of the villagers of Jaitapur with their proverbial pitchforks led by a one-trick pony egging them on to ‘kill the monster’ that isn’t.