When documentary filmmaker and veteran journalist Minnie Vaid reached Idinthakarai, the site of the protest against the Kudankulam power plant in Tamil Nadu, the movement was on its 677th day. Minnie was drawn to the story of this protest by the local residents against the nuclear plant, mainly because there had been very little coverage of it in the mainstream press.
“There is generally very little coverage of dissenting voices against big projects. You can’t even call them the ‘voiceless’ because these are voices that have actually been stifled,” says Minnie, explaining why she decided to look more closely at the story. “I thought it was worth investigating what these women had been protesting for so long.”
So six months after the pant went critical in mid-2013, Minnie sat down with the protesters — the Project Affected People (or PAP as they are called) — and tried to gauge what their concerns were. Their stories are now part of Minnie’s book, The Ant in the Ear of the Elephant, which was released by actress Nandita Das in Mumbai on 23 March.
Minnie tell us that while she had researched the subject before heading to the site, it didn’t prepare her for the ground reality: “The enormity of the struggle, what the women were facing, how the protest had become part of their routine – they would sit at the ‘Samara pandal’ in Idinthakarai, from 10 am to 4 pm with only some drinking water, arranging all their household chores around it.” Today, the protest is on its 1686th day.
The Kudankulam protest has been dogged by criticism, including the charge that the protesters themselves do not understand the intricacies regarding the operation of a nuclear power plant, and that vested interested have fuelled the agitation over time. Minnie says that she was aware of the reports that called the protest a “sponsored agitation” and was clear that she did not want to get into an argument about the merits/demerits of nuclear energy. Instead, she was interested in recording the testimonies of these people who were living with a nuclear plant in their figurative backyard.
What did she find? “That they feel they haven’t been given enough reasons to believe that the plant is safe,” Minnie says. “People always think that a nuclear plant is safe — as long as it’s not near their house. The government had ample time to ‘allay their (the protestors’) fears’. But their fears have not been ‘allayed’. The authorities have shared no information with them on their disaster management plan, compensation etc. As one of the women who is protesting said, ‘If the government can’t help us during a flood, how will they help us if a nuclear accident was to occur?’”
As she gathered testimonies, Minnie was struck by the stories of several of these women. There was Sundari — a homemaker who saw photos of the Fukushima nuclear accident and was inspired to join the protest against the Kudankulam plant. Milret joined the protests when she was just 15, and travels by train to wherever the protests are happening. Tamilarasi — who Minnie describes as a slight mother-of-nine (the youngest is two, the eldest, 17) who always has the hugest smile — feels people like her have suffered twice: First, due to the tsunami, after which they were relocated, and now, with the power plant. Minnie says all of the women she met are characterised by their indomitable will, by their tenacity.
Indeed, the immediate feature that seems to set the Kudankulam protest apart from other movements by Project Affected People is that this is an “all-women” one. “Women have been at the forefront of the Kudankulam protest. As SP Udayakumar of People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy pointed out, ‘They (the women) are more dedicated, less susceptible to corruption and they don’t drink (as compared to men),” says Minnie. “They haven’t got as much exposure as a Narmada Bachao Andolan, but they have still continued. It has been among the most democratic, non-violent protests (in Tamil Nadu).”