SC refuses stay on Kudankulam: is the protest legal now?

With the Supreme Court refusing to stall the loading of nuclear fuel at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant before the next hearing, will the leaders of the agitation and the Church send the protestors home?

After all, it’s not only the national and state governments, and political parties, but also the highest court in the country that they have failed to impress, at least for the time being.

On Thursday morning, one of the leaders representing the agitation said on national TV that if the Supreme Court stops the fuel loading process, they would go back and wait. However, he didn’t say what they would do if the court refused to accede to their plea. Will continuing the agitation be extra-legal now?

Where will they go from here? Wouldn’t any more hindrance to the functioning of the plant, which at present is focussed on loading fuel in a few days, amount to contempt of court?

Protestors in the sea today. AP

This is certainly disappointing for PMANE (People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy), the body heading the local struggle, and the fisherfolk backed by the Church. And conversely, it is a shot in the arm for the central and state governments. The security forces are also now empowered to uphold the order. However, as Firstpost reported earlier, senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who filed the petition told reporters that the court had refused to stay fuel loading because the government had said that it would take two months for the plant to become operational even after the fuel was loaded.

As we mentioned earlier, the script certainly couldn’t have been different because one just cannot bring in twists like this in India’s nuclear energy story for a variety of reasons, most of which are strategic and fundamental to the country’s existence. However, what one could do is to constantly chip at it and and make it a better story.

There is an inherent problem that works against the Kudankulam agitation: KNPP (Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant) is not the first nuclear plant in India and the country has been running nuclear reactors since 1969. There haven’t been any catastrophic accidents - either nothing has happened or we haven’t seen anything major go wrong.

And India is a member of many of the atomic energy clubs in the world and has a fairly big establishment spread across the country. Kudankulam is just one of the symbols of this might.

Along with space, atomic energy is of strategic importance to the country. Whether they are of use to people or not, without nuclear energy and space programmes, we cannot have successful nuclear weapons and missiles. If we stop one Kudankulam, which the AERB (Atomic Energy Regulatory Board) vouches for in terms of safety, we have to stop many more - four more are under construction at Rajastan (Rawatbata) and Gujarat (Kakrapar) respectively.

Kudankulam is also significant in terms of scale. All the reactors together; starting with Tarapur in Maharashtra in1969 to Kaiga in Karnataka in 2011, generate only 4780 MW power. With two reactors, Kudankulam will generate nearly half of that or raise the nuclear power capacity by roughly 50 per cent. With two more units planned at the same site in future, it will almost double the capacity.

Kudankulam is the future jewel in the crown for the nuclear establishment. Will the government just give up on that? No chance.

It’s as good as asking for disbanding a part of the army or reduce the incredibly high defence expenditure because it is so wasteful, or liquidate the fancy space programmes to feed the poor in the country. The country can certainly live without the 1960s fantasy of a moon mission.

They might be perhaps the most reasonable demands, but it just doesn’t work that way. If it had, India would have been a better place to live.

Kudankulam protestors also speak in multiple voices. Some times they appear as if they are fighting against the lax safety features and procedures, and want the governments to prove to them that everything is safe. For instance, Prashant Bhushan’s plea in the Supreme Court is to stall loading of nuclear fuel until the implementation of 17 safety guidelines is carried out.

In the same breath, they say that the plant has to be scrapped. The constantly oscillating voices, therefore, bring to their fold hardcore anti-nuclear as well as human rights activists. The former want the plant to be shut, while the latter want more transparency and safety. Of late, they are an omnibus group with all kinds of activists and fellow-travellers joining them. But the core of the leadership is hawkishly anti-nuclear.

Now that they have a favourable order from the Supreme Court, the nuclear establishment should seize the opportunity and tell the people of India, not just the people of Idinthakkarai, everything about Kudankulam and other reactors.

The first step should be working towards a CAG-style AERB that is independent of the Department of Atomic Energy. With an independent and stronger watchdog, one could expect the veil of secrecy to partially lift.

The local fisherfolk do have a right to know that they are safe and the establishment should ensure it beyond any reasonable doubt. In many parts of the world, social audit is widely used to strengthen democratic governance. Even within its operational limitations that require certain strategic levels of secrecy and security, the nuclear establishment should come clean and take people into confidence.

Anyway, let's now wait till the next hearing in the Supreme Court. PMANE should ask the agitators to at least take a break till then.

Probably, the agitation could have worked if they had begun when the foundation stone for the plant was laid a decade ago and the leaders hadn't para-trooped to the site several years later. It may be recalled that a nuclear plant was also planned for Peringom in north Kerala at the same time, but timely resistance by people stalled it although the then Left front government was all for the project.

Updated Date: Sep 13, 2012 17:39 PM

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