By Seema Guha
The first NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee had great regard for France for refusing to hector India over its 1998 nuclear tests. India’s ties with France had warmed considerably since then, as successive government’s recalled its sensitivity to India’s views at a time when others were out to slap punitive sanctions on Indian entities.
Soon after the nuclear tests, India had few friends in the world. The US, UK, Australia as well as China all lined up against India. Former US president Bill Clinton and China’s then president Jiang Zemin issued a joint statement on the situation in South Asia after the India-Pakistan nuclear tests expressing their deep concern and promised to work together to prevent a nuclear race in South Asia.
India is well aware that at the European Union Summit which was held in England soon after the tests that year, it was France who vetoed the suggestion that the EU, as an entity, must pass sanctions against an unrepentant India. Instead the French suggested that each country that so wanted could slap sanctions on India at a bilateral level, but not as a collective EU move.
Soon afterwards, Brajesh Mishra — Vajyaee’s national security advisor — flew to Paris and wrapped up India’s first strategic partnership with France. This was the first strategic agreement with any country, signed in 1998. Since than there have been many more.
France disappointed many of its Western allies by its soft line.
The word was that France, always business-minded, was eager to get a part of India’s nuclear pie. After the Nuclear Suppliers Group granted a waiver to India in 2008 a framework civil nuclear agreement with France was signed and sealed. Jaitapur in Maharashtra was allotted to France. But there was little forward movement till the Narendra Modi government tweaked India’s tough nuclear liability laws and made doing business in India worthwhile for reactor companies.
In the joint statement released after talks between Modi and French President Francois Hollande on Monday, the two sides decided to fast-track the languishing Jaitapur nuclear project. They directed their industrial companies to complete technical and commercial negotiations for the plants by end of the year, and begin building by 2017. But even if all technical problems of cooperation are solved, it will be a slow tedious project to get the six nuclear plants going with a people's movement against the construction.
Much of this has to do with the public revulsion to nuclear power.
While in the early years, it was just a handful of environmental groups that took note of these issues, today awareness of the dangers has spread across the world. The radioactive leaks from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant following the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 has turned public opinion against nuclear power. Citizens are concerned about the fallout from nuclear plants. Even in France, which gets 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants, the public mood has turned anti-nuclear. The reverberations of Fukushima have also been felt in India. The massive protests against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant being built by Russia is an indicator.
In Jaitapur, the villagers living in and around the proposed site have objected to the government's plans ever since the project was announced.
The Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) noted that the farmers and fisherfolk around Jaitapur will be protesting the government's decision to go ahead with the UPA’s plans for the project. The CNDP said that the nuclear reactors imported from France 'threaten their lives, livelihoods and the local ecology'. Apart from seismic fault-lines beneath the proposed site, the CNDP also questions the design of Areva (the French company) that was questioned by France’s nuclear regulator. The regulator found weak spots in the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) that Areva was building. France will be providing the same EPR reactors to India.
According to the CNDP, the environment impact assessment report for Jaitapur was pushed through by the previous UPA government without looking into crucial aspects of radiological releases. While in Opposition, the BJP had demanded a fresh environmental report for the project, but has changed its mind since coming to power. The BJP has also gone much further than the Congress to placate the nuclear vendors unhappy with India’s Nuclear Liability laws. Modi has promised vendors that in case of a nuclear accident, India will provide an insurance pool to the nuclear suppliers from public money.
The cost of power per unit provided by each EPR reactor in India, according to the critics of the Jaitapur plant would be as much as Rs 15 to 20, and not Rs 6.50 as claimed by the Atomic Energy
Commission. "In the interests of common people of India, we oppose this unsafe, expensive, eco-destuctive and anti-people project," the CNDP said in a statement signed by activist Aruna Roy and Kumar Sundaram.
The government is likely to have a tough time convincing the local population.