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The Kudankulam farce shows how both sides can be wrong

Just how impossible is it to have a rational debate in India these days? We have always been an argumentative lot. Then we lost the patience for listening to the other side of the argument. Now our foregone rhetoric discourages even the most pertinent questions. Just consider how the Kudankulam fiasco has panned out.

The villagers don’t want the nuclear plant but never objected while it was being built. The government did not consult the locals before commissioning the project and now powers through. Activists call atomic power unsafe. Scientists say no, it isn’t. The establishment (and a section of the media) drub the agitation as foreign-sponsored. Intellectuals (and another section of the media) are outraged by such accusations. To top it all, as cops consolidate their strong-arm strategy, there are battle cries for shelving all nuclear power projects across the country.

Protest in the sea at Kudankulam. Firstpost

Yes, we know that plugging distribution losses will bring down the power deficit. We know that curb on non-essential use of power, such as in neon signage and billboards, in cities can reduce demand. We know that tapping India’s geothermal potential can yield up to 11,000 MW and that Engineered Geothermal Systems technology is getting cheaper.

But even the most efficient distribution system will not result in surplus power. Exploring geothermal potential takes time and anyway it will—along with other renewables such as solar and wind power—meet only a fraction of the country’s energy demand. And thousands of dark villages within and outside power grids will need more power than our cities can possibly save.

So what are our options? Increasing hydro-electricity capacity will throttle more rivers. Focus on thermal power will require still more coal mined from lush forests. If we must dismiss the nuclear power option as unsafe, we had better return to darkness (because even kerosene and paraffin fumes cause lung infection).

I am, by no means, claiming nuclear power is safe. It depends on the technology used and the upkeep of a plant. In the last 55 years, a dozen or so mishaps have been reported from the UK, USA, Russia, Sweden, France and Japan. Chernobyl was catastrophic. Nobody died at Fukushima. The point is that no technology is foolproof. When we must choose, our best bet is to go for the least dangerous option. We know the definite environmental cost of hydel energy and fossil fuels. For nuclear power, we at least have the opportunity to ensure that the plants don’t trip and, if they still do, we limit the damage to a Fukushima and not a Chernobyl.

So has the government ensured that at Kudankulam? Nobody knows because nobody cares to listen or explain. The other obvious questions are a little uncomfortable. Are we ready to have one of these all-important nuclear plants in our own backyards? If not, should we look to rationalise our energy demand by means more effective than switching off sundry signage? Are we prepared to get real about our growth targets?

Since nothing is foolproof and nobody else is vying to host the project, Kudankulam villagers have not lost their right to resist the plant today just because they did not object to it earlier; particularly because nobody from the government cared to take them into confidence by educating them about nuclear power and the proposed plant before building it. Today, the authorities cannot hope to get away with a fait accompli.

At the same time, the timing and the nature of the protest fuel speculation about the involvement of vested foreign interests and the Church. If foreign funds meant for other purposes were diverted to finance this agitation, it is only fair that its leadership faces a probe and proves it does not nurture hidden agendas. Instead, the activists got all riled up by what they called “official propaganda to discredit the movement” and the government, in turn, arrested, hassled and even deported protesters without establishing substantial grounds.

Worse, a section of the media decided to test the symbolism of the movement to pass judgments on the integrity. Some claimed that the jal satyagraha (protest by standing neck-deep in water) was actually taking place in knee-deep water and that the protestors were comfortably seated. Others scooped that the jal satyagraha apparently lasted only as long as the cameras were present and the agitators came out of the water in the media’s absence. Really, should the merit of the protest and the fate of the plant depend on how many hours the villagers did in what depth of water?

In such an enriched debate, nobody seems to be interested in the core issues. For one, is India capable and mature enough to run nuclear plants? If yes, will respective safety measures at individual plants, such as Kudankulam or Jaitapur, be more than adequate? The polarised popular opinion on these issues is still based on respective perceptions, claims and counter-claims.

Given the shoddy record of the railways and sundry industries, few trust the government to run a potentially calamitous nuclear plant professionally. Yet, there is no discussion on the relative efficiency of the Department of Atomic Energy or the shape, mandate and autonomy of the proposed Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority that will replace the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board once Parliament has time for legislative business.

More importantly, had the authorities convincingly answered the above two questions in the affirmative, we should have moved on to the fundamental. Can the state commission a state-of-the-art, radiation-safe nuclear plant without adequately considering its impact on the local environment and livelihood and the informed consent of the communities? More importantly, can the most beneficial of projects be forced on locals if they remain unconvinced, even if most unreasonably so?

If the answers are in the affirmative again, the democratic Indian state may well start administering polio drops at gunpoint next Sunday.