On the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, India announced that it would go ahead with the planned nuclear power plant at Jaitapur, Maharashtra. Even the media, which could have kept up the pressure on the government, dismissed the protests by the local people in Jaitapur as one incited by the Shiv Sena and so not worthy of any attention. While I am no Sena supporter, it is difficult to forget the political opportunism displayed by the Congress. After all, didn’t the Congress clear the project hastily just ahead of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit. Even environment minister Jairam Ramesh has acknowledged that there were “strategic, economic and diplomatic concerns” that influenced his decision to clear the project.
There is also another attempt to put the Jaitapur issue in that convenient basket of the environment vs development debate. The supporters of this view see the protests as one orchestrated by a handful of green fanatics who are coming in the way of electricity generation for Maharashtra, which is facing a power crisis. But the problems for the people in Jaitapur are far more complex: a thriving vibrant economy, rich in natural resources, is being destabilised and only a handful of people have been offered employment.
Let’s start by admitting that the site of the power plant is on productive agricultural land (government reports, however, label it as barren) that it will deprive 1,000 families of their farmland and 6,000 who depend on fishing for their steady income. Next, let’s now look at the issue of compensation. The fishermen of Sankri Nata are less than a kilometre from the proposed site of the nuclear plant and the harbour here is the only access point for hundreds of boats to head out to the sea. Their daily catch — mackerel, prawn, pomfret, and oysters — are worth thousands of rupees. Will the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd, the project proponents, allow boats to fish in the area? Will it not cordon off the area for protecting India’s largest nuclear power plant? Surprisingly, not one fisherman from Sankri Nata is on the compensation package list. Why? Because, they do not own any land!
The Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg region is one of the resource-rich regions of the country and over the years has become famous for its Alphonso mango, cashew nuts and a thriving fish industry. Instead of developing these industries further or even cashing in on the tourism potential of the Konkan region, the two districts are being developed as a power hub.
Yet, no study has been done on the cumulative impact of so many big power projects in a small region that has over 65,000 hectares of land under Alphonso and 90,000 hectares under cashew cultivation.
Already, the locals are alleging that the JSW thermal power plant in Jaigad in Ratnagiri has started impacting the water table and could affect mango production levels. Who will pay these farmers for such losses in the future?
Lastly, is it fair to label the fears of the people of Jaitapur as anti-national because they do not want radioactive nuclear waste in their backyard? Compare this with another protest by residents of a posh south Delhi colony against a waste-to-energy project that’s coming up in their backyard. They have threatened an “Anna Hazare-type fast” if the project is not scrapped. But this agitation will never be dubbed as anti-national. Because in this case, the stench of the garbage is much closer home.
( Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and environment editor of CNN-IBN )
The views expressed by the author are personal