Interview: S.P. Udayakumar

‘There is no openness’

Print edition : August 09, 2013

S.P. Udayakumar: "I am a Gandhian and our non-violent, non-cooperation movement with the evil of nuclear power will continue."

Interview with S.P. Udayakumar, coordinator of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy.

WITH the first unit at the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) attaining criticality on July 13, the focus is back on the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) and its coordinator S.P. Udayakumar. For nearly two years now, the PMANE has mounted a sustained agitation against the KKNPP, demanding that the project, with its two 1,000 MWe Russian reactors, should be shelved. The majority of the residents of Idinthakarai, Vijayapathy, Uvari and other villages close to the project sites, including members of the fishing community, have stood by Udayakumar and the PMANE in demanding the plant’s closure. However, with the first unit having been started up, it has become a different ball game, and it is in this context that Frontline met Udayakumar at Idinthakarai. The interview with him was held in three sessions, twice in December 2012, and on July 14, 2013, after the first unit was commissioned.

Udayakumar has been active on the anti-nuclear and disarmament issues from his college days. When he was a college student, he and his friends formed “The Group for a Peaceful Indian Ocean” to oppose the militarisation of the Indian Ocean. The Group was active on disarmament issues and was opposed to both nuclear weapons and nuclear power. When the KKNPP was announced in 1988, he opposed it strongly. His hometown, Nagercoil, is about 35 km from Kudankulam.

Udayakumar obtained his M.A. in English Literature from Kerala University and earned another M.A. in Peace Studies from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, United States. He obtained his PhD on the Hindutva method of writing history from the University of Hawaii.

Excerpts from the interview:

Now that the first unit at Kudankulam has reached criticality, what are your plans? How are you going to sustain the PMANE’s agitation against the KKNPP?

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the Kudankulam project. These agencies—the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board [AERB], the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests [MoEF], Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited [NPCIL] and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board [TNPCB]—are supposed to submit reports to the Supreme Court. It is not just a ritual. The Supreme Court should be given enough time to read these reports and share the information with the petitioner. This is about the safety of the people. You cannot deal with an issue of this magnitude in a casual manner.

They [the NPCIL] do not share the Site Evaluation Report, the Safety Analysis Report and so on with us. The case is pending in the Delhi High Court. They do not give us any information. They do not provide information about the liability issues concerning the third and fourth reactors at Kudankulam. This is not Idi Amin’s Uganda but a democratic country. The media are celebrating it [the first unit reaching criticality] as if all the problems have been solved. The media do not ask [the NPCIL]: why are you doing this adventurism?

How will you take forward the agitation of the villagers from now on?

We have been protesting democratically. We are implementing the people’s decisions, not Udayakumar’s or Mukilan’s [a PMANE leader] decisions. We are here as people’s servants. If they decide, “Everything is over, you go home,” we will go away. We have consulted the villagers. They have decided unanimously that they would like to continue the struggle. Today, we invited the community leaders of various villages in the districts of Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli and Tuticorin for a meeting here at Idinthakarai. Only a few have turned up because the police have stopped many from reaching Idinthakarai.

What kind of agitations do you plan to conduct from now on?

It will be non-violent. I am a Gandhian and our non-violent, non-cooperation movement with the evil of nuclear power will continue.

The acquisition of land for the Kudankulam project was smooth. How did the agitation begin suddenly when the first unit at Kudankulam was about to reach criticality towards the end of 2011, that too several months after the Fukushima accident in Japan in March 2011? Did you use the Fukushima accident to convince the people against Kudankulam?

No. It did not erupt all of a sudden. The struggle has a long history. It was not covered by the media in its early days. Ever since the nuclear plant was planned, several people opposed it, such as Y. David of Madurai, who organised big processions in Madurai and Tirunelveli. On May 1, 1989, there was even a police firing in Kanyakumari, when more than 10,000 people had gathered there [to protest against the project], and six people were injured. M. Karunanidhi was the Chief Minister then. It was not that there was no opposition at all in the beginning.

The land acquisition was relatively smooth because the authorities somehow convinced the interior villagers that the project was good for the area’s development, that they would get 10,000 jobs, that Pechiparai water would be brought to the area and all that.

So people in the interior villages, especially in the Nadar [a caste group] villages, were convinced that this was a good project. But even at that time, people in the coastal villages knew that it was not in their best interests. So the government and the Department of Atomic Energy [DAE] somehow managed to divide the community. That was how the land acquisition was relatively easy. Even then, there were many problems. Many people did not have papers such as land deeds or titles. They were not adequately compensated. So it was not a smooth process.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated and Mikhail Gorbachev lost power, and Rajiv Gandhi was killed, the project was shelved. When Boris Yeltsin and H.D. Deve Gowda were in power in Russia and India respectively, the project was restarted. As soon as it happened, we regathered. We convened a meeting in my residence at Nagercoil. We started organising people.

In November 2001, we organised a meeting in Madurai under the leadership of Y. David. In that meeting, we founded the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy. We have been opposing the Kudankulam project consistently and continuously. We brought Medha Patkar, B.K. Subba Rao and others to our meetings.

We organised campaigns, conferences and hunger-strikes, and distributed pamphlets and booklets.

The year 2011 became the turning point. Even after Fukushima, people were not forthcoming. But they watched on their television sets what happened at Fukushima, thanks to the Kalaignar television set scheme [under which the M.K. Karunanidhi government distributed free colour television sets]. On July 1, the Kudankulam authorities announced the hot run in the first unit. The hot run made so much of noise and smoke.

Steam or smoke?

Steam or smoke, we do not know. That made people think…. Then they [KKNPP officials] made an announcement in the newspapers on the safety exercise.

The mock drill.

It was not actually a drill but some kind of information package. In that, they said if something happened in the Kudankulam project, you should cover your mouth and nose, run for your life and get into the neighbour’s house and shut the doors. This was published in the Nagercoil edition of newspapers.

Get into the nearest house or neighbour’s house?

Get into the nearest house and shut the doors! People wondered why the announcement was not published in the Tirunelveli edition but only in the Nagercoil edition of newspapers. It became an issue. People also talked about how you can get into anybody’s house and shut the doors. How can you cover your mouth and nose, and run. People started connecting the dots—the Fukushima, the hot run and the safety announcement.

On August 11, 2011, people gathered by themselves in front of the church at Kudankulam, I had just come back from Fukushima on August 10. I got a phone call from my friends at Kudankulam asking whether I could come down and meet the people. There was a huge crowd and they asked me to address the people on my Fukushima experiences, which I did. Then we heard the news that people at Idinthakarai had also gathered and rung the church bell. They came down and invited me to talk there.

What did they ring the church bell for?

Just to discuss the issue because they [the people of Idinthakarai] live very close to the Kudankulam plant. When we went there, there were thousands of people. They asked us to do something. We decided to have a one-day hunger strike on August 16 at Idinthakarai and a three-day hunger strike at Kudankulam on August 17, 18 and 19. On August 16, we had massive participation in the hunger strike at Idinthakarai, right here in front of the church. People said, “We cannot live with the plant. It is making our people sick. Children are afraid of the noise. It is not good for our profession, fishing.”

After 10 days or so, Srikumar Banerjee [the then Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission] said the Kudankulam plant’s first reactor would go critical in 10 days. We thought the agreement was broken unilaterally by the DAE and we decided that we would go ahead with the hunger strike. On September 11, we called for a hunger strike here at Idinthakarai. Thousands of people gathered. We set up a struggle committee and we discussed whether we should stop with a token strike or continue. The majority of people felt we should continue. We announced an indefinite hunger strike. Some 147 people joined the hunger strike.

Including women?

Yes. As it was going on, we got an invitation from the Chief Minister [Jayalalithaa] to meet her in her office at the Secretariat in Chennai. We met her. We had a 45-minute conversation with her. She listened to our arguments carefully. She herself proposed a Cabinet resolution and asked us to call off the hunger strike. The next day, we came here and explained to the people and called off the hunger strike. Then she herself made arrangements for us to meet the Prime Minister. We went there in a delegation, met with the Prime Minister [Manmohan Singh], and explained the issues to him.

When we came back, the local body elections were set to take place in Tamil Nadu. Jayalalithaa, who had come to Tuticorin [for campaigning] said, “I will be one amongst you, fighting people.” So we felt reassured. By then, we had blocked movement in front of the Kudankulam project. We said, “Respect the Cabinet resolution and stop the work.”

How can the State Cabinet’s resolution be binding on a Central unit?

You should ask the Chief Minister that question. She convened the Cabinet meeting and passed the resolution. So we did not bother about their internal intricacies. We said, “Respect the Tamil Nadu Cabinet’s resolution and stop the work.”

The Collector and other authorities negotiated with us, saying that the Kudankulam project needed a minimum number of workers because they had to do the maintenance work. The Prime Minister himself and V. Narayanasamy [Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office] also said they [workers] had to do the maintenance work. I shook hands with the Prime Minister and told him, “We should not even do the maintenance work. Let us stop [the work] and have a debate. You talk to the people and give them all the basic information. Take them into confidence and allay their fears. Then let us decide. They will say they will do only maintenance work but continue the [real] work.” That is what happened. We continued our siege [in front of the Kudankulam plant] and also the hunger strike here at Idinthakarai.

When the civic body elections were held, we did not want to put an obstacle before the democratic exercise and we gave a day off to the people to take part in the elections. We were mobilising people. We talked about the illegality of the project because they [the NPCIL] did not give us the Environmental Impact Assessment report, the Site Evaluation Report, the Safety Analysis Report, the Emergency Preparedness Plan and the VVER performance report. There was no public hearing.

There was no need to conduct a public hearing on the construction of Kudankulam 1 and 2. The law came into force for a public hearing to be held only for 3, 4, 5 and 6.

We are now talking about 2011/2012. You cannot hide behind the old law. If the project had already begun, commissioned and running, I can accept your argument. We were doing a lot of campaigns, all with the permission of the police. I used to talk to Vijay Bidari, the Superintendent of Police. We used to meet the Collector quite often. For every action we took, we gave a letter in writing to the local police officer for permission. Even when we did the sea siege on November 21, the World Fisheries Day, I spoke to the S.P. the previous night. He said, “You could go ahead.”

On November 21, when people were wandering around the plant in their boats, I went there, asked them not to do that and brought them ashore. The S.P. called me over the phone and asked me when we would finish the siege. I am saying all this because we were doing everything in accordance with law and in cooperation with the authorities. But they filed cases of sedition and waging war against the state under Section 121 and 124(A) of the

Indian Penal Code against us. What boggles my mind is that on the one hand, you give us permission [to conduct the protests] and on the other, you file all these serious cases against us. This was a trickery on the part of the State government. We ignored the cases. They kept filing all false, serious cases against us.

The A.E. Muthunayagam Committee was constituted. We had given them 49 questions. Out of them, they said they would not answer five questions on liability, waste management. For the remaining 44 questions, they gave short answers.

In February 2012, the Tamil Nadu government constituted another committee under Professor Iniyan. We objected to the presence of Dr M.R. Srinivasan. We said he was the former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and that he was now a member of the panel. “How can we have our opponent on the panel?” we asked. The government did not pay attention.

We had a conversation in the Collector’s office. We kept insisting that the panel members come to Idinthakarai and other villages to talk to the people…. They said the villagers would not understand what they would say. They gave a report to the Chief Minister. It was never revealed to the public.

Why has the government not revealed the report?

They do not give any information. Secrecy and opacity are the major issues we are grappling with the DAE. Then the Chief Minister invited us for talks. We met her. We explained to her our objections to the plant and she listened to us carefully. We gave her some reports and she said she would read them carefully….

How did the people get the fear that the safety exercise or mock drill would lead to permanent eviction of people in a 30-km radius around the plant? There are several operating nuclear power stations in India and nobody has been evicted except within the exclusion zone of two to three kilometres. People had another fear of more land acquisition.

The PMANE never said people would be evicted within a 30-km radius. That never happens anywhere in the world. You know that. But when the NPCIL published a notice for the public hearing for units 3,4,5 and 6, they had included them in possible displacement. It was the DAE which created the fear. We did talk about [displacement of people from] Tsunami Colony and the Idinthakarai village because they sit very close to the plant… may be evicted because the NPCIL has a massive plan for 3,4,5 and 6 plus a reprocessing plant and all that. For all that, they need land and they will definitely want to expand into the village.

The NPCIL has no plans to acquire land in Idinthakarai.

There was no open communication. Nobody was taken into confidence. They never even admitted that there would be the seventh and eighth reactors at Idinthakarai [Kudankulam]. All this information came in a piecemeal fashion.

The government has not fulfilled the post-Fukushima Task Force’s recommendations. The liability issue has not been settled. That is another illegality. Most of the people around the plant have not been given disaster preparedness training. The waste issue has not been settled.

What is your reply to allegations that the Tuticorin Diocese Association and the Rural Uplift Centre, Nagercoil, were receiving money from abroad and were diverting it to fund your agitation? Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office V. Narayanasamy made similar allegations against you and you sent them lawyer’s notices.

Prior to that, they accused me of receiving money from foreign countries and agencies. Without giving any kind of evidence, Narayanasamy and even the Prime Minister made these accusations. They sent a Home Ministry official to my residence for a search and they said it was the Tuticorin diocese which diverted the funds to us. They blamed some private non-governmental organisations such as the Rural Uplift Centre and Good Vision… The Rural Uplift Centre and Good Vision went to court and proved their innocence and got their bank accounts defrozen. With regard to the Tuticorin diocese, I am not a Christian.

I have nothing to do with the diocese. We did not get any money from anybody, from India or abroad. How can they give me money without getting my signature or voucher or something like that? Just because this struggle is happening in a Christian village, they are connecting it with Christian organisations…. Our people—fishermen, beedi-rolling women, the Dalit workers and the Muslims—are making small donations and that is how we are running this campaign.

One of the Muthunayagam Committee members told me that you had “a hidden agenda” because you asked for the route by which the enriched uranium fuel would be brought to Kudankulam, the drawings of the Kudankulam reactors, turbine, and so on. The then AEC Chairman Srikumar Banerjee told me, in an interview published in Frontline, that he would answer all questions excepting drawings of the Russian VVER reactors, which are proprietary information and belong to the Russian company. There was a suspicion that your agitation was being backed by foreign forces.

I get your point. I asked for them because I myself saw how the uranium fuel was transported from the Thiruvananthapuram airport to Kudankulam in 2009. I happened to be at the Parakkai Road junction in Nagercoil when the cargo was brought.

I have seen how nuclear cargo is transported in France and Germany, how they take special care when this dangerous cargo is taken through public communities. I also saw how the whole thing happened here. If the fuel was brought from Thiruvananthapuram to Kudankulam in that manner, I was naturally concerned about the waste to be transported to wherever the reprocessing facility will be located. That was the reason for asking for the route. I have also been to Jaduguda. I have seen how uranium ore is being transported from the mines there to the processing centre and to the tailing pond. They are supposed to cover the whole cargo. I did not see even a small piece of cloth over it. I saw ore lumps falling all over the roads. That is how careless our establishment is.

Number two: drawings. I am not going to start a nuclear reactor company in this country. When you ask for something, you include everything possible [including the] meetings’ minutes. What am I going to do with the minutes of the meetings? I may not understand half of the technical language. So when we said “Give us the reports, the minutes, the diagrams [the drawings], the maps and everything, that is pure and simple legal language.” If they do not want to give us some information, all they have to say is, “This is proprietary information.” Finished.

You wanted the Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) between India and Russia to be disclosed.

We asked about the IGA… the liability. It was made in 2008. It is about liability concerning us, the local people. Do we have the right to know that or not?