The fishermen, farmers and cigarette rollers sitting on mats in front of the St. Lourdes Church had a few demands: Halt work on the nearby Kudankulam nuclear power plant. Answer our questions. Convince us the technology is safe.
Their concern was hardly unusual: Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster a year ago this month stirred up safety worries worldwide.
A bit more unusual, though, has been the Indian government’s response to villagers in this hot, dusty southern fishing hamlet.
Late last month in an American science journal, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accused U.S. and Scandinavian civic groups of funding the protests to hold back India’s development.
That accusation was an apparent cue for the Indian security establishment, which then arrested and deported a German visitor traveling in the area on a tourist visa, accusing him of funding the Kudankulam protests.
Government officials also initiated an investigation of the finances of church and rural charities, alleging that the groups were illegally diverting to protests funds meant for orphans and anti-leprosy programs. Three of the groups’ operating licenses were canceled, bank accounts were frozen, and the visa was revoked for a Fukushima-area resident invited to India by Greenpeace to speak about Japan’s nuclear disaster.
In the latest move last week, a ruling party lawmaker demanded full surveillance and monitoring of all foreign money going to about 65,500 Indian charities — which amounted to about $6.5 billion between 2007 and 2010 — in what some critics are calling a “witch hunt.”
The dramatic reaction, political analysts say, points to the growing frustration of a government battered by corruption scandals, a weakening economy, high inflation and setbacks in state elections.
The government feels so strongly about nuclear power at a time others are dialing back because its fast-growing economy has left it ravenous for energy, with atomic energy an important component in bridging the shortfall. In addition, the ruling party used a great deal of political capital to sign the 2005 India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Agreement with the George W. Bush administration and, having overcome numerous political and bureaucratic hurdles, doesn’t appreciate citizens trying to block expansion.
This latest broadside against the anti-nuclear movement has drawn howls from activists, civic groups and concerned citizens, including one critic who accused the government of “moron management.”
The Catholic Church, meanwhile, called on the government to either provide evidence that funds were being illegally diverted or unfreeze its bank accounts, and the European Union denied that any of its 27 member states were fanning anti-nuclear protests as part of a hidden agenda to “weaken” India.
“In a democracy, dissent is normal,” Joao Cravinho, head of the EU delegation to India, told reporters. “Civil societies strengthen democracies.”
Hermann Rainer Sonntag, the German who was deported, said by email that he had provided no funding or direction to India’s anti-nuclear movement and, as a retiree living on limited income, can barely fund himself. Though he opposes nuclear energy, he has spent long stretches in India because his money goes further, he said.
The government hasn’t revealed his alleged violations, but activists say the deportation is emblematic of New Delhi’s arbitrary overreaction, pointing out that if he’d really broken the law, he probably would have been jailed, not shunted out of the country.
The plan to build six Russian reactors in Kudankulam was concocted in the late 1980s, but the Soviet Union’s collapse stalled the start of construction until 1997. Protests have delayed commissioning of the first reactor, which is 99% complete, and a second reactor that is 94% done.
The postponements have added $500 million to the now-$3.3-billion project, which is partly financed by aid from Russia. Under the deal, the Russian government is to supply uranium for the life of the plant, with India allowed to keep and reprocess the spent fuel, a provision not generally allowed in U.S. agreements.
Even ardent anti-nuclear activists acknowledge that India has a huge energy shortfall, producing 12% less electricity than it needs at peak times, resulting in frequent, extended blackouts.
That’s a huge economic drag on a nation trying to lift millions out of poverty, but activists argue that coal and alternative energy could fill the gap. They also assert that their village, which abuts the plant, is subjected to more blackouts than other areas as a form of psychological pressure.
Some villagers say they were initially supportive of the project but became disenchanted when the government treated them like ignorant farmers who couldn’t possibly understand science, and as anticipated jobs, schools and roads never materialized.