Fishermen's fears

Shadow of fear

Print edition : August 09, 2013

A demonstration near the nuclear power project site on October 8, 2012. Photo: REUTERS

S.P. Udayakumar, the PMANE convener, addressing protesters at Idinthakarai on July 16. Photo: A. SHAIKMOHIDEEN

The agitating fishing community near the Kudankulam nuclear plant fears that the hot condenser water released into the sea will kill fish and other marine life.

IT is a large, cemented platform in the forecourt of St. Lourde’s Church at Idinthakarai village, a few kilometres from the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) in Tamil Nadu. A thatched pandal covers the forecourt. Ahead of the platform is an open ground with a spread of sand and a pandal erected above the ground. From one of the casuarina poles supporting the pandal above the forecourt hangs a board that announces, “Anti nuclear-reactor agitation. Relay hunger fast. 699th day. 14.07.2013.”

The previous day, on July 13, the first unit of the KKNPP, with a capacity of 1,000 MWe, had reached criticality at 11-05 p.m. But there is a sense of calm at Idinthakarai, which has been the centre of the agitation against the KKNPP from September 11, 2011. Under the pandal are seated a few hundred women, fasting every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. One of them is R. Meldred.

As this reporter stepped up to Meldred, a soft-spoken but strong-willed woman, who has been uncompromising in her opposition to the Kudankulam nuclear project, the women seated around her started speaking up. Whether it was P. Sundari, Xavier Ammal, P. Sellammal, Leela Visuwasam or Meldred, their position was clear: “Our dharmic, non-violent form of protest on this sacred ground will continue until the Kudankulam nuclear station is permanently shut down.” Meldred asked, “The Centre says it wants to make India a superpower by building six Russian reactors at Kudankulam. Does it mean it wants to reduce our village, Idinthakarai, into a cremation ground for making India a superpower?”

The women refused to believe that the first unit at Kudankulam had been started up the previous day and said the reports were “all hogwash”. Xavier Ammal, who was in judicial custody earlier for taking part in the agitation against the KKNPP and is now out on bail, said, “The news that we received in the last two days is that the reactor has not been filled up with uranium fuel at all. It is a naked lie to claim that electricity will be generated from the Kudankulam station in another 45 days.” Leela Visuwasam, who was cutting beedi leaves, said, “They have not started up the reactor at all. They want to instigate us by claiming that they have commissioned the reactor.” Meldred asserted, “Our struggle against the Kudankulam plant has not slackened. We will give up our lives to close it down. I have now brought my 16-year-old daughter into the struggle.”

I. Sahaya Vendhan, parish priest of Koothankuzhi, another coastal village with a large population of Christian fishermen, said on July 18: “The reactor at Kudankulam has not been commissioned at all. They are bluffing. We live close to the plant. There should be some movement of the engine. It is a big drama they are enacting. Let them give evidence of generating power. At present, they are not generating electricity.”

Fishermen fear for their catch

Be it Meldred, Sundari, Susai Michael Prasad and Irudayam Jeya at Idinthakarai, S. Amala, R. Sahaya Rani and T. Pappi at Uvari, another coastal fishing village, or Tolstoy Fernando and Titus at Koothankuzhi, the opposition to the KKNPP is essentially based on one count: the hot condenser water that will be discharged into the sea from the Kudankulam reactors will kill fish and marine life in the sea and thus take away the fishing community’s livelihood. In all the coastal villages near the plant, the fishermen’s refrain was: “The sea is our lifeline. We do not know how to wield a hoe or use a plough. So we cannot take to any other work. The hot condenser water that will go into sea will kill the fish and we will lose our livelihood.”

The fishermen’s protests in the villages in Tirunelveli, Tuticorin and Kanyakumari districts have taken different forms in the last two years. The fishing community has blockaded the Kudankulam plant, serenaded the plant from the sea, buried themselves up to the waist in the beach sand and taken out candle-light processions. On the evening of July 15 residents of Idinthakarai lay down on the streets for a while, demanding that the plant be shut down permanently.

It is morning on the beautiful shore of Uvari village, about 25 km from Kudankulam, and several boats are parked on the shore. All of them are gleaming with new paint in electric blue, lemon yellow, brick red and other colours, and every boat has a picture of Jesus Christ. There are also boats with portraits of St. Francis of Assisi. On one of the boats is painted, “Those who trust the Lord will prosper.” The boats’ outboard motors are new.

St. Antony’s Church in the village looks imposing. In the past decades, Uvari had earned a reputation for enforcing prohibition. There is no liquor shop in the village. According to J. Mary and S. Amala, the village is noted for its “prohibition sabha” attached to St. Antony’s Church. A “prohibition festival” is held every year.

Uvari, Koothankuzhi, Vijayapathi and other coastal villages are divided into two neat divisions. Only fishermen live in the Bharathar division, while in the Nadar division live people of the Nadar and other castes. The Kudankulam reactors are a sensitive issue mostly with the fishermen, all of whom are Roman Catholics.

In Uvari, a combative Sahaya Rani echoed fears about what the hot condenser water might do to the fish. The “smoke” coming from the reactor, she claimed, had also “obscured our eyes”. Pappi claimed that “poisonous gas” from the reactors had already killed fish.

R. Joe, a polytechnic student who was repairing a net on the beach, was nonchalant. “Let us see how they bring the fuel to the reactor,” he said. When this reporter told him that the enriched uranium fuel assemblies had already been loaded into the reactor, he looked shocked.

Standing near St. Andrew’s Church at Uvari was Antony Jesiah, former headmaster of St. Anne’s Higher Secondary School at Kudankulam. According to him, the main reason for these fishing villages’ opposition to the project was that the residents feared that the coolant water pumped into the sea would harm fish and other marine life. “Since I am educated, I do not like the opposition to the plant. There should be a campaign that fish will not die,” Jesiah suggested. “There should be several meetings with people where they must be made to understand that fish will not die. People’s doubts should be dispelled and everything should be clarified to them,” he said.

Koothankuzhi has a fishing population of about 7,500 people, all Roman Catholics. The 48-year-old Sahaya Vendhan is their leader. He had earlier served as a parish priest in Mizoram and Meghalaya. “The Army was never so rash there as the police are here,” he complained. “The government wants to crush the movement here and the police are an instrument in this,” he alleged. In his assessment, the people in the coastal villages knew only three things: the priest, the sea and the fish.

Sahaya Vendhan described S.P. Udayakumar, Michael Pushparayan and Mukilan, leaders of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), as “a good team”. If there were sporadic protests in the villages against the Kudankulam plant, the “smoke and noise” that emanated from the first unit [during the hot run] made people realise that it would keep “disturbing” them and so they decided to get organised. Udayakumar appeared on the scene at that time and “organised them” from August 2011, the parish priest said.

Like others, Sahaya Vendhan quoted the Collector as having said that not more than 10,000 people should live around the plant. (The parish priest did not mention the radius limit.) “This means they are going to shift the people,” he argued. “People are asking, ‘Why don’t you just allow us to live on our land?’ They do not know anything other than fishing.”

Fears of evacuation

The fishermen in these villages are also apprehensive because they have not been trained in emergency preparedness in the event of an accident at the plant. The other fear is that the government may not allow a population of more than 10,000 to live within a 10-km radius of the reactors.

Some people in these villages say that only some 10,000 people will be allowed to live within a radius of 15 km around the plant, while others claim that not more than one lakh will be allowed to live within a radius of 30 km. They fear massive evacuations, but when asked how they got this information, they are not sure. It is either “the government” or “the Collector” or “the tahsildar”.

Another common fear that they harbour is the storage of radioactive waste at the Kudankulam site. The feisty Sundari at Idinthakarai had a series of questions: “What are they going to do with the waste? Where are they going to store it? Why are they keeping it like a military secret? Why can’t they reply to this simple question from us?” She argued that the people in the coastal villages had a right ask these questions because “the radioactive waste will be stored on our soil”. She wanted to know who would compensate the villagers if there was a leak of the waste into “our soil and our sea”.

Sundari criticised A. Gopanna, a Tamil Nadu Congress Committee leader, for his reported observation during a television interview that only about 3,000 people were taking part in the anti-Kudankulam agitation. “But it is a life and death issue of 3,000 people,” she said.

Xavier Ammal said that it had been announced at first that the waste would be stored at Kolar, but when the Kolar residents protested, the Department of Atomic Energy said it had no plans to store the waste there. “So where are they going to store the Kudankulam waste?” she asked.

At Uvari, Pappi said: “First they said the radioactive waste would be taken to Russia. They now say that it will be stored in Kudankulam for 10 years. Why this change in stand?”

At Idinthakarai, people are determined that they will continue their protests in a peaceful, non-violent manner until the reactors are shut down. The upshot is they are united in their belief that the first unit has not attained criticality at all.

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