Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Wednesday set a target of enhancing India's nuclear power capacity by 2,000 megawatts (MW) within next one year. The increase in capacity will be made once the two 1,000 MW units of the Kudankulam atomic power project are commissioned. The target was set to speed up work in the infrastructure sector.
India has identified nuclear power as the main source of energy to meet its ever-rising demand. While the country currently has six nuclear power plants generating nearly 4,800 MW, it expects to generate another 5,300 MW in future. At a seminar held on nuclear power held in February this year, Union power minister Sushilkumar Shinde said the country has plans to generate 63,000 MW of nuclear power capacity by the year 2032, with the help of domestic technology and foreign reactors. He also stressed the advantageous of nuclear technology over other means of producing energy, say for example, thermal technology.
The Atomic Energy Commission of India said there was no reason to worry about the nuclear plants as their safety standards complied to international norms and could also withstand natural calamities.
So far, so good. All the official talking sounds okay inside air-conditioned offices but when read against the rough reality in the background, one might wonder about the worthiness of such announcements and whether they would at all be fruitful.
Problem with nuclear power establishments in India has not started with the Kudankulam protests or in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. In the mid-1990s, a plan to set up a nuclear power plant in the Sunderbans area of West Bengal had to be scrapped in the face of strong protest by environmental scientists and the state unit of the All India People's Science Congress.
A problem also surfaced over the proposal for setting up a Russia-backed nuclear power plant in Haripur in the East Midnapore district of West Bengal. Although the project was strongly backed by the former Left Front government, the new Trinamool Congress-led government cancelled the project straightaway.
The project had also received Centre's nod but local farmers and fishermen, aided by NGOs and social activists, launched a strong protest. Although government officials said Haripura was agriculturally not productive owing to its saline land but in reality, setting up a 10,000 MW nuclear project would have affected nearly 2 lakh farmers and peasants. For these simple souls, the long-term benefits of a nuclear power plant do not make any sense. It is the thought over feeding their family for one more day that worries them more.
Similar resistance at other parts of the country are becoming more and more intense, thanks to the NGOs and strong-willed social activists who try to give an organised look to the agitation to enhance its appeal.
There is a difference between these localised anti-establishment activism over nuclear power plants and the traditional anti-nuclear campaign, which more stresses the moral issues of promoting nuclear weapons and the disastrous fall-outs of a nuclear warfare. The localised activists fighting against the nuclear power plants are more concerned with real issues like loss of livelihood, officials' indulgence in corrupt practices and apathy to popular sentiment and deprivation of citizens' rights. The anti-nuclear plant protest that the country has been witnessing at various corners is a revisit to the conflict between government and community/individual rights seen in a neo-liberal society. The problem is, there are too many stakes involved in the issue.
Mass protests have also been staged against the 9,900 MW French-backed Jaitapur project in Maharashtra and the 2,000 MW Kudankulam project in Tamil Nadu. In case of the latter, thousands of local farmers and fishermen protested to stop construction of the project. They were led by eminent anti-nuclear activist SP Udaykumar and the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy and organised demonstrations and relay fast. The authorities retaliated in a harsh way by imposing martial law, arresting and beating up protesters.
In case of Jaitapur, Left parties, Shiv Sena and others supported protesters to stop work on the project. Opponents of this project allege that it was being constructed in a high earthquake-prone zone and that there was no proper plan to ensure proper disposal of the nuclear waste originating from the plant.
The unrest over nuclear projects show that India, although is technically equipped to tap modern sources of energy with ease, lacks credible policy-making capacity. As a result, most of its ambitious projects end up hitting a wall. Technological considerations alone can not produce good public policies which require a vision that is blessed with concerns of welfare, justice, culture, the socio-economic reality as a whole.
The rulers of the country, before embarking on such crucial mission like promoting nuclear energy, must first take into account the popular faith and not let a vacuum exist between them and the people. Adopting coercive means of convincing the latter is another disastrous ploy. The state, instead, should take help of the country's time-tested democratic institutions and ensure a transparent dealing with issues, ranging from acquisition of land, building up infrastructure and nature of compensation and rehabilitation.
To speak of the lack of credibility of the officials, following the Fukushima disaster, the Indian nuclear officials said it was a purely a chemical reaction and not a nuclear emergency, something which made them look foolish.
The government's responsibility does not end with setting up a nuclear project to secure the nation's future energy demand. It should also look into the immediate concern for popular interest, be it identity (in tribal areas), rights (over resources) or health (exposure to harmful element or radiation). It can be mentioned here that despite official assurance, three employees working of Madras Atomic Power Station (MAPS) at Kalpakkam died of bone cancer caused owing to exposure to radiation. Instances like this reduce the government's accountability further. Uranium mining in the West Khasi Hills in Meghalaya and Jadugora in Jharkhand have also caused tremendous grievance among the local tribals, who are fighting for their right to live and right to health, respectively.
India in the past has seen setting up of heavy industries and dams for national development, as was envisioned by Jawaharlal Nehru. But those projects had played important roles in bolstering the country's economy in the Nehruvian years (whether they were rightfully done or not is a different debate) while the current fiasco over nuclear power generation lacks sincerity and looks more as an imposition from the top.
Moreover, the ground reality has changed in the last 50-60 years. The population has increased manifold and with that competition for resources and assertion of rights. Hence, what Nehru could have done in a comparatively homogenous polity in those years is not as easily possible in a more fragmented milieu today.
Nuclear energy might have its own advantages as well. Its proponents say the low-carbon energy would help fight the menace like global climate change. But failure to win the confidence of people would stop the leaders from even reaching the starting point of their mission. The sooner they understand it, the better.