A decade on, Kudankulam nuclear plant protesters say still face ordeal

Published on Jun 06, 2022 12:26 AM IST

As many as 8,956 people were slapped with 21 cases of sedition in Idinthakarai village and the adjacent Kudankulam village for protests against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant

In the small fishing hamlet of Idinthakarai in Tamil Nadu’s southern district of Tirunelveli, people continue to live with the trauma of the police action they faced during the protests against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in 2012 (Agencies file)
In the small fishing hamlet of Idinthakarai in Tamil Nadu’s southern district of Tirunelveli, people continue to live with the trauma of the police action they faced during the protests against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in 2012 (Agencies file)
By, Tirunelveli

In the small fishing hamlet of Idinthakarai in Tamil Nadu’s southern district of Tirunelveli, people continue to live with the trauma of the police action they faced during the protests against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in 2012and the fear of their uncertain future as the construction for its sixth unit began last year. The plant is just two kilometres away from their village.

Several of them have been slapped with the sedition law, section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which has been put on hold by the Supreme Court in its May 11 order, upending their lives since 2011, when the first major protest started. As many as 8,956 people were slapped with 21 cases of sedition in Idinthakarai village and the adjacent Kudankulam village. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) was in power in Tamil Nadu at the time.

For the first time in a decade, they felt a little hope after the Supreme Court passed the landmark order in May. However, most people here don’t know about the status of their cases ongoing in courts.

In addition, some were also booked in 21 other cases registered under Section 121 (waging or attempting to wage war, or abetting waging of war, against the Government of India) of the IPC.

In 1986, around the time when the plant was proposed, a young Peter Milton’s single mother took him to his first protest against the plant. It was the year of the Chernobyl disaster, and the first time Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev visited India. Two years later, Gorbachev signed an agreement with then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for two nuclear plants in Kudankulam. Milton went around several districts with his mother for protests, which often ended with strict police action.

Plant’s importance

People have opposed the plant since 1979, when it was first proposed. However, the proposal was put on the backburner due to the protests. It was revived in 2000, and construction began under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. Construction began in 2001, and the plant became operational in 2013. On August 10 in 2016, the second unit of 1,000 MW was jointly commissioned via video conference by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then Tamil Nadu chief minister late J Jayalalithaa.

Kudankulam is the highest-capacity nuclear plant in India, with 2,000 MW currently installed and 2,000 MW under construction. Once completed, the plant will have a capacity of 6,000 MW. It is also the only nuclear plant in India that uses pressurised water reactors (PWR) based on Russian technology and is aimed to ensure the energy security of the country.

“In the last financial year, the country’s nuclear plants including Kudankulam contributed to 3.3.% to the national energy grid,” said a spokesperson of the Kudankulam nuclear plant.

“Every day we conduct awareness by bringing in students and public into our plant to show the basic science for nuclear safety. We have set asides Saturdays exclusively to bring in villagers from the surroundings. They may have various stances of being pro-plant, or against it and neutral but our science centre explains the basic of radiation including health aspects.”

In 2011, after a visit to Kudankulam late former Indian President and scientist, A P J Abdul Kalam voiced his support saying that he is completely satisfied with its sophisticated safety features and that it was a boon to its future generation.”

According to the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCL), Russia’s state atomic energy corporation has started manufacturing the nuclear reactor and steam generators for the sixth unit, and talks have been ongoing with India to construct six more reactors at a new site that is yet to be identified. “It will be very difficult for the Indian government to identify another site because our protests have brought awareness to the entire country about nuclear plants,” said S P Udayakumar, a member of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy.

Days of protest

It was in 2011, after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, the angst against the plant was reinvigorated as locals feared that they would suffer a similar fate based on their experience after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami destroyed their village. Milton, who was employed in a private shipping company since the early 2000s, had returned to his Idinthakarai village and was among the frontrunners of the protests. He didn’t know that this protest would entrap him here and it would be the last time he had travelled abroad. Because of the sedition charge, Milton could not go back to his job where he last drew a monthly salary of $1,800. “Now I’m struggling to take care of basic amenities for my family,” Milton said.

On August 15, 2011, the local police told Milton that he was being booked for “desa droham” (country’s traitor). After several more protests, including the one on September 10, 2012, in which five persons died in alleged police firing, Milton, and leading protestors, were put on a kind of house arrest where they couldn’t leave Idinthakarai for more than three years. While Milton stayed in his house, Udayakumar, who is from the neighbouring Nagercoil district, was confined at the church bungalow with a few others booked under sedition.

“Those were horrible days. We saw the worst of the police’s behaviour,” recalled fisherman Kalidas. “The police stopped ration and milk coming into the village for a year. But we are people of the sea. We got everything we needed from fishermen in Thoothukudi who came in their boats to us.”

A man in his late 60s, whose home is barely 200 metres from the beach, and doesn’t want to be named fearing the police, recalled that in September 2012 his daughter-in-law was among the many who jumped into the sea and swam to escape from the police. “I still shudder and wake up at night thinking of that day,” the daughter-in-law said. “I remember I couldn’t breathe when the police released some gas. I was choking. My son was only two-years-old then. I sent him to quickly run away with someone else and I jumped into the sea,” she recalled.

Milton saw that the police firing brought different communities, divided by caste, together for the first time. “After the police attacked us, and we came together to fight against the plant, and we supported each other, there has been no talk of caste differences between us,” said Milton. However, the divisions eventually did creep in, which broke up the protestors as some of them were accused of receiving foreign funds through the church, an accusation they have vehemently denied.

Sometime in 2014, Milton was allowed to leave the village to attend the court hearing for more than 380 cases against him. He said after the hearing, he understood what a sedition case meant. Milton lost his job, and no company was ready to give him a job. He is now struggling to make ends meet with a brick-making business, which is going through a loss and his wife selling sarees from home.

The controversial sedition law has upended the lives of Milton and at least 20 others in the village, which hopes that things may turn around after the Supreme Court’s take on Section 124 A.

“It is our right to protest for our safety. If an accident happens at the plant, how will they save all the people? This plant must go. This law must be scrapped,” said Milton, who goes to court once every three months.

Udayakumar, who spearheaded the protests, said that these cases, including sedition, were filed against them for two reasons: intimidation and to act as a deterrent. “These are the state missionaries’ power games. It takes a toll on you to keep going to court.

It puts pressure on youngsters to not be proactive,” said Udayakumar. “In most cases, I’m A-1 (accused number 1).” Almost all 380 FIRs initially lodged, including sedition (240 were withdrawn after an SC order in October 2014), were first named Udayakumar.

Case politics

In February 2021, villagers of Idinthakarai appealed to the then AIADMK chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami for the withdrawal of 105 cases filed against thousands of protestors between 2011 and 2014. Their petition stated that 350 cases were registered against 227,000 people. After a 2014 government order, 213 cases were closed, and another 31 were closed following a Madras high court directive. A total of 105 cases are still pending.

Udayakumar had explained to the then AIADMK government that it was a non-violent protest by the people for their lives and livelihood, and that the pendency of cases affected the villagers’ education and job prospects.

“They (previous AIADMK government) wanted to get political mileage out of it. (Chief Minister M K) Stalin also promised to withdraw all the cases before the elections. But only 26 cases against Kudankulam protests were withdrawn after the DMK came to power,” said Udayakumar.

A senior police officer said that most of the cases are booked under Tamil Nadu Property (Prevention of Damage and Loss) Act. In one of the cases more than 2000 people have been named as an accused. He shared with HT that currently a total of 349 cases including 12 cases of sedition are pending. “Several cases have been withdrawn over time. We have been helping them with no-objection-certificates for their job verifications,” the officer said.

But Udhayakumar isn’t hopeful.

“Even though the latest SC latest order has paused sedition cases, other cases against us continue, and it doesn’t seem like there are any efforts to drop them. Most of it will have the same words that we scolded (then PM) Manmohan Singh. I don’t think they will withdraw all the cases and let us be completely free. I’m not too hopeful,” he said.

There is some like fisherman like R Selvam, who now say they were misled. He believes their resistance was futile because this is a central government project, an agreement between India and Russia and that they were misled that if they remained united and strong to protest, they could stop the mighty nuclear project. “We lost our income while protesting because we used to go to sea only thrice a month. All of it has been in vain,” said Selvam.

Livelihood and health impacts

More than half a dozen fishermen shared their concerns at sea over harmful effluents, suspected radiation and the storage of nuclear waste, a concern NPCL has repeatedly denied.

“Water used to clean the reactor is let out into the sea. It’s like a waterfall 24x7, but it is piping hot,” said fisherman Sekar.

He pointed to his forearms to show that if he does come into contact with this water at sea, it leaves him with constant itches.

“It kills our fish. Karal (meaning pony-fish) were available in abundance before the plant was operational,” he said, claiming their catch has reduced from about 10 kg earlier to 2 kg.

A kg of ponyfish sells for 3,000.

The man by the beach, who refused to give his name, said that even during this period, they used to be able to catch tiny fish close to the coast to cook meals.

“But because of the plant’s effluents, which have made the water so hot, we don’t see those small fish anymore. We have to go at least 20km away to find something,” he said.

“We are not educated but we know our sea. They should test the seawater.”

A fisherman said two of his uncles were diagnosed with cancer. “At least 500 of them in the village have been diagnosed with cancer, including children,” the fisherman said.

The district administration dismissed the claims. “Last when we had a meeting with fishermen, and no one raised such an issue,” said Tirunelveli district collector V Vishnu.

“We conduct these meetings with seven coastal villages, which included Kudankulam, but none of them complained about health issues to us.”

In 2012, the NPCL launched a one-minute advertisement led by the doyen of oncology, the late Dr V Shanta, to allay the fears. She said that after extensive studies in and around nuclear plants, they found no correlation between radiation and cancer and advised people not to fear the Kudankulam plant.

No regrets

Facing a sedition charge and at least 300 cases for protesting, Milton initially didn’t want to be interviewed out of fear that his life would take a turn for the worst. “The police are still watching us keep a check so that we don’t initiate protests again. I don’t regret protesting and losing the life I had lived. I did this for my wife, for my daughter and my village,” Milton said.

“Until we die, we will continue to say that the nuclear plant is dangerous.”

Like how Milton’s mother introduced him to the concept of protesting for their rights, he did the same with his daughter who went with him every day for three years from 2011 to 2013.

“I’ve told my daughter when I die, I want my gravestone to say, “He protested against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant’’,” Milton said.

“The history of our protest is being wiped out. Our future generations will be affected because of the plant, and they will be angry with us thinking we made no effort to stop it. That’s why.”

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Divya Chandrababu is an award-winning political and human rights journalist based in Chennai, India. Divya is presently Assistant Editor of the Hindustan Times where she covers Tamil Nadu & Puducherry. She started her career as a broadcast journalist at NDTV-Hindu where she anchored and wrote prime time news bulletins. Later, she covered politics, development, mental health, child and disability rights for The Times of India. Divya has been a journalism fellow for several programs including the Asia Journalism Fellowship at Singapore and the KAS Media Asia- The Caravan for narrative journalism. Divya has a master's in politics and international studies from the University of Warwick, UK. As an independent journalist Divya has written for Indian and foreign publications on domestic and international affairs.

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