Friday, April 22, 2011

Japan nuclear crisis fuelled stir against Jaitapur nuclear plant

For the past five years, activist Pravin Gavankar had been trying hard to sensitise the villagers of Ratnagiri to the risks associated with having a nuclear plant in their backyard.

The agitation against the project, however, underwent a sea change after the tsunami-triggered Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan on March 11.

Today, everyone in the area - from the mango orchard-owning farmers in Madban village, to the fishing community in Sakhri Nate - has joined hands in the anti-nuclear power plant protest. Gavankar, who heads the NGO Janhit Seva Samiti, found it difficult to convince locals earlier because the focus of the stir was their displacement from the site chosen for the project.

Many villagers were too terrified to raise their voice after being allegedly threatened by local government officials. All they wanted was to accept whatever compensation they were being offered and hand over their land for the nuclear plant. But now the issue is finding loud resonance in the entire stretch of the coastal belt.
A mere land conflict has metamorphosed into a battle for survival.

"The primary opposition to the project in the initial days of the agitation was because the villagers did not want to part with their tracts. Some were not happy with the compensation and others simply did not want to shift as they were apprehensive of where they would be rehabilitated," a local administration official in Jaitapur said.
"The mindset of the protesters has dramatically changed after the Fukushima tragedy. Villagers are now ranged against the very idea of a nuclear power plant in their area. What this means is that even if we manage to acquire land from them, they will not allow the project to go ahead," the official added.

Another stark contrast is the political undertones the stir has taken. The Shiv Sena, which joined the protest only a few months ago, has now gone full steam ahead by exploiting the Fukushima incident.

The party has put up huge posters in and around Ratnagiri that whip up doomsday fears in Jaitapur.

The slogan on one of the posters is: 'Japan has been destroyed and now Konkan will be destroyed. We will not allow the destruction caused in Japan to take place in Konkan'. Another Sena poster shows a huge ball of fire superimposed on a supposed nuclear plant.

The message being conveyed is: 'If a nuclear disaster can occur in a highly developed country like Japan, what about India?' The parallel being drawn by the party appears to have made a huge impact because many villagers are now saying that they would lay down their lives rather than allow the project to be implemented. "This project is a risk not just for the livelihood of the people, but a threat to their very existence," Gavankar said.

"We don't want a nuclear project. The issue is no longer about giving away the land or rehabilitation. We don't want a nuclear project to harm us as it has done in Japan. We are particularly at risk as Jaitapur, too, sees a lot of seismic activity," he pointed out.

The fear of Ratnagiri becoming another Fukushima is so palpable that even diehard Congress functionaries are going against their party's line of thought. A case in point is that of Sharifuddin Qazi who is the Rajapur taluka Congress committee secretary.

He says he is against the nuclear project because it could hurt the people and was also not safe for the environment in the long run.

Amjad Borkar, who heads the fishermen's organisation in Ratnagiri, said the state government's claim of rehabilitation defied logic.

"They are saying they would resettle us. But what happens if there is a disaster and the whole environment and ecology is destroyed? Would they be able to get another ocean like this? This is a question of the livelihood of thousands of villagers in Ratnagiri and we are not budging," Borkar said.

As the agitation gathers steam, it is not just the Fukushima incident that is being exploited. NGOs from Ratnagiri have now invited villagers near the Tarapur atomic power plant in Mumbai to visit Jaitapur and explain why the Maharashtra government's claims on safe nuclear energy should be taken with a pinch of salt.

"We are holding a two-day rally that would start from Tarapur on April 23 and end in Jaitapur on April 25. Villagers from Tarapur will talk about how the nuclear project has affected them and their livelihood. They will also expose the government's false claims on compensation," Gavankar revealed.

If the march materialises and Tarapur's villagers do narrate their experience to the residents of Jaitapur, it would be a big blow for the project, local government officials felt.

"The government is clearly on the back foot after the Fukushima disaster. It had, all this while, been highlighting Tarapur as a model case. However if the people of Tarapur, too, lend their voice to the current campaign, the project could be a non-starter," the official said.



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