Kudankulam protest: PMANE's Udayakumar pounds PMO

The People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) that has been fighting against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) in southern Tamil Nadu was in the eye of a storm recently when the PMO charged that certain western funded NGOs were behind its agitation. The Prime Minister himself led the attack when he said that NGOs in the US backed the agitation while a minister in the PMO V Narayanasamy said that the licenses of three NGOs in southern Tamil Nadu had been cancelled for irregularities. As the state plunged into a serious power crisis, the public mood also went against PMANE, while the BJP and the RSS accused that Catholic Church was behind the agitation. In an interview to Firstpost, SP Udayakumar, Coordinator, PMANE and a US returned teacher-activist-academic takes on the allegations against the anti-nuclear movement in Kudankulam.

The biggest allegation against PMANE is that it is supported by the US and Scandinavian funded NGOs. There have been all kinds of insinuations on the motives of the NGOs and PMANE. Union minister V Narayanasamy has been quite frontal in his attacks. What’s the truth?

SP Udayakumar: Totally false. We haven’t received any funds from any national or international NGOs. Narayanasamy said the centre has cancelled the FCRA of three NGOs. We don’t know who they are. The government should examine their accounts to see how they spent the money if there was suspicion that they supported us. There will be some evidence of our receiving the money, isn’t it?. Without evidence, how can one level such wild allegations? When the government makes such serious allegations it should also provide some proof.

SP Udayakumar, Coordinator, PMANE and a US returned teacher-activist-academic, says local people have been fighting against the plant for the last 23 years. Firstpost

It’s alleged that the fisherfolk have not been going to the sea for months on end and they are getting compensated well by cash for participating in the agitation. Apparently the suspected NGOs are funding their participation.

SP Udayakumar: It is not true that the agitating local villagers are not engaged in any gainful work. They “boycotted” fishing only in September for 12 days. After that, they have been engaged in fishing, running their shops, beedi rolling and all their routine livelihood activities. They stay away from work only when there is a major event.

They all support the agitation through small contributions. Ours is not a high profile protest extravaganza like the ones organised by the Congress or the BJP. We don’t offer biryani or liquor or other expensive inducements. We just provide drinking water. We don’t hire expensive halls to stage our meetings or protests; instead we have made a modest “pandal,” which was a one time investment. We also have our own sound system. Therefore we don’t have major recurring expenses.

Ours is a simple Gandhian struggle. The Congress and the BJP don’t know how to wage such a struggle — that is why they are making such wild allegations. Whenever we travel, we hire a taxi. We don’t live in luxurious hotels and don’t eat luxurious meals. We strictly adhere to Gandhian principles. The Congress knows only rich Gandhis.

People do contribute. To give you an example, at the rally in Chennai, we were short of funds and people immediately chipped in and collected Rs. 41,000. At the protest location, we have a committee of 20 people which handles our finances. We are more than willing to share our accounts if anybody wants to see them.

Another allegation is that the Catholic Church is behind your agitation. How true is this Christian angle?

SP Udayakumar: First of all, it is a false propaganda that the Church is supporting us. The only connection we have with the Church is that we live in the parish priest’s house. No church or bishop has given us money. It is a 90 percent christian village and therefore there will be a lot of Christians - it’s inevitable. I am myself a Hindu and there are two more Hindus in our core committee. There is even an RSS worker who is part of the committee. This is a local struggle, a struggle by local community and when 90 percent of them are Christians, you will definitely see them around. And you just cannot term it a Christian struggle because of that and attribute motives. It is not about Christians, Hindus or Muslims, it’s about people. It’s disparaging to identify them with religions.

Ironically, the RSS and the Hindu Munnani type of organisations raise massive amounts of money in the US and other Christian countries. Nobody has problems with that.

The political parties seem to be opposed to PMANE’s struggle. Do you have any political support at all?

SP Udayakumar: All the political parties of the state except the six major parties are with us. You know the stand of the “corrupt and communal” Congress and the BJP. It’s a known fact that the DMK is pro-nuclear and works in its self-interest. Kanimozhi had given a speech hailing the Indo-US nuclear agreement.

As regards AIADMK, Jayalalithaa had been anti-nuclear. For instance, she had opposed the docking of the nuclear powered ship USS Nimitz in 2007 at the Chennai port. She had said the ship should not be allowed entry into such a thickly populated area. She also had opposed the Indo-US nuclear agreement. In September, she had said that she would be with us, the people living around the Kudankulam plant and would not do anything without satisfying the local community. She indeed took a stand that she wouldn’t support the plant without the support of the local people.

The CPI and CPM are confused. CPM is anti-nuclear in Jatapur, but pro-nuclear in Kudankulam; they are against nuclear weapons, but are pro-nuclear for energy.

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The severe power shortage in Tamil Nadu has swung public opinion against the agitation. Is it possible that the stand of the AIADMK or Jayalalithaa could have changed as well?

SP Udayakumar: I don’t think there is any change in her stand. Her last statement clearly supported us. We go by her last statement.

But she appointed a former Atomic Energy Commission Chairman, MR Srinivasan as the head of the state government panel to study the safety of the KKNPP. Isn’t that a statement of her change?

SP Udayakumar: We weren’t happy about that and we did oppose the move. But we didn’t want to be belligerent. I think the panel hasn’t done its job professionally. They visited the plant for probably two hours. They haven’t met the local people and asked them about their concerns. We are still waiting for the report. Let’s see what they have to say.

More than Rs. 13,000 crore of taxpayers money has been spent on the plant which PMANE wants to be abandoned. Is there any chance of salvaging the plant?

SP Udayakumar: Within the 30 km radius, there are about 15 lakh people. Nobody is going to evacuate such a large number of people in the event of an accident; it will be rather impossible. Even if there is no accident, the daily exposure to people of the radiation from the plant site, where four more units are to come up, will have a disastrous consequence. It will impact not only southern Tamil Nadu, but also the southern parts of Kerala. So, the best option is to convert it into a gas fired power station as they have done in Shoreham.

Is it that simple?

SP Udayakumar: Yes, it can be done. There are many other examples too. When you weigh the pros and cons, even if it costs money, that will be the wise decision.

But where have you been all these years? The plant didn’t come out of thin air. You suddenly come up with your agitation when the plant is ready for commissioning. If you had opposed it when the construction site was being prepared or when the plant was being built, we could have saved a lot of money and all the struggle.

SP Udayakumar: It is a false propaganda that there has been no struggle. Local people have been fighting against the plant for the last 23 years. It’s been sufficiently documented, but the mainstream media and the politicians couldn’t care less. You know how the mainstream media, politicians and officials are; they were very dismissive of the poor people’s voice. Therefore it is a gross misrepresentation of truth to say that we have started our struggle only when the plant was about to be commissioned.

The going looks tough. What are your next steps?

SP Udayakumar: We will continue our fight democratically and in a Gandhian way. India is for Indians to live in peace and safety, not to create employment and wealth for Americans, French and the Russians. We want to leave the country in a good shape for our future generations. Lakhs of Tamil people want the plant to be shut down. People’s will should prevail.

It is likely that Jayalalithaa may give the go ahead to the plant if her expert panel says so. She desperately needs electricity.

We will not give up. We will stand up for our rights. We will be non-violent and democratic. We will not cause any harm and will not damage any property - public or private. But we will certainly stand up.