The third in a series. Read the first and second parts.
Spread over 200 acres, the Gram Dakshina Murti Lokshala is a tiny utopia and run on Gandhian principles. Some 200 boys and girls in the age group of 7-15 years from the neighbouring villages of Sosiya, Jaspara, Manar, Mithi Virdi and Chayya study in this residential school, which teaches them about life, the environment, sciences, and farming, among other things.
The students grow their own food, cook it and take turns in serving the rest. They are also responsible for cleaning the school premises, which are spotless. Many of the former students have grown up to be successful farmers, teachers, activists and 'good citizens of the country', I am told by people in the villages around the school.
Sometime in the early 1980s, Manubhai Pancholi 'Darshak' – freedom fighter, writer and one of the founders of this amazing school – brought a mango sapling of the prized Kesar variety to the school. It was planted in one of the farms where the students learn the science and art of agriculture.
The mango crop flourished, like almost everything does in this soil; and soon the entire Manar village, and later many other villages around the school, started planting mango trees. It proved to be a very profitable commercial venture. Till recently, that is. In 2009, 777 hectares of land in this region were identified by the government as a site suitable for a nuclear plant. Particularly suitable, since it was ‘barren’, according to the initial Environment Impact Assessment report, a remarkably inaccurate document.
When the people of this region found out, they would have laughed. A visit to the highly fertile farms at any time of the year would have made it ridiculous. Except they found out in 2009 through a newspaper report.
In a sly marriage of convenience, the state and the central governments signed an MoU in 2009, to set up a nuclear power plant in Chaya-Mithi Virdi, few kilometres away from the Gram Dakshina school. This, in a state which boasts of being the leader in installed capacity for solar energy and claims to generate surplus electric power.
On a pleasant day in June, with a hint of rain in the air, I visited the school and spent some time with 90-year-old Praveenbhai who has been teaching here for almost half a century and is now a trustee of the school.
Praveenbhai tells me about the sweet kesar mango. It is known to have antioxidants and other nutrients, he says. It is also delicious. We walk through the school premises, lush, green and extremely clean. I spot a cluster of children weeding the corners of the large garden. The flowers are in full bloom. He asks me what I think of the proposed nuclear reactor at Mithi Virdi just a few kilometres away from the school. I pose the question back to him. His wrinkled forehead wrinkles some more as he points his stick to the west, towards the sea, a few kilometres away.
“Mithi Virdi means 'sweet ponds' in Gujarati. There are many legends around these ponds. But the future being planned for the region now has a bitter taste to it,” he says.
He is referring to the toxic Alang Sosiya Ship Breaking Yard, which after a few decades of its existence has blackened the sea and the land around it, literally and metaphorically. Some years ago Mithi Virdi was identified as one of four Greenfield port locations under the Gujarat Maritime Board's BOOT (Build Own Operate Transfer) Policy to be developed by the private sector which never really took off here. And now a nuclear plant has been planned.
We reach the library with signs of all the major religions of the world painted on its wall. We are joined by Karsanbhai, a former student who now teaches and lives here with his family. He insists that I go to his house for some nimbu paani. 'Aap Koodankulam gayein hain?" he asks curiously as we settle down in his little house. I show him some pictures and videos from my visits there. He is most intrigued to know that the young children of Koodankulam sent post cards to the Russian Ambassador, the prime minister and others requesting to cancel the plant. Looking at Praveenbhai, he says, "How lovely! We must also make our children aware about this. After all it is their future that is at stake."
I had been brought to the school by Mahaveer, who had studied in the same school till class X, before doing his Bachelor’s in Rural Studies.
Mahaveer now works as a horticulturist in Bhavnagar and lives in Jaspara village. Almost all of his father's land along with the land belonging to many other farmers in his village will be lost if the NPP (nuclear power plant) goes ahead.
On my first visit, he had taken me to his father's farm. A ride through mud paths and thick green foliage. He was very excited to show me the different crops mango, chickoo, cotton, groundnuts, onion and millets. The government’s definition of ‘barrenness’ has never seemed more absurd.
We sat on the roof of a large barn with a brilliant view of the Gulf of Khambhat, and a row of crumbling ships of the Alang Sosiya Ship Breaking Yard to our right. He told me about his brothers, his dreams of travelling, and the worries around the proposed nuclear plant. He too wanted me to tell him more about the dangers and benefits of nuclear energy since he knew that I had been in Koodankulam.
I get used to these questions which I am asked by almost every farmer I visit. When I ask them if the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) has shared any information with them about the plant, there is a solid and angry, "No." They almost always add: "Why our land? Why such fertile land?"
Many of them also speak of their anxieties about radiation. Though not ill-informed, they are not completely articulate about their fears like the people around Koodankulam or the Jadugoda mines. I suspect that the plant and its deadly effects are still a little distant from their immediate lives. But one word comes up every single time: Fukushima.
During the two visits I made to Mithi Virdi I was repeatedly told that the scenes that played out on television after Fukushima had united the 24-odd villages into resisting the plant and the illegal attempts at usurping their land much more than before. It had such a strong impact that even the Alang-Sosiya Ship Recyclers Association, which had till now had an acrimonious relationship with the village communities, decided to join hands with the protesting villagers, strengthening their protest further.
The strength of the resistance became evident at the Environmental Public Hearing (EPH) that was held on March 5, 2013 at Navagam in Ghogha Taluka. Five thousand villagers around 24 villages walked out of the sham that was inflicted on them in the name of participatory democracy. Instead of discussing the issues villagers wanted to raise, they were made to watch videos glorifying nuclear energy and India's dubious achievements in the sector.
Repeated requests from the villagers to open a discussion rather than issue unilateral instructions failed. The organizers did not change their minds or their styles. Unwilling to further the farce the villagers walked out in an act of non-violent resistance that left the police and an army of private security guards stationed there, somewhat clueless.
A few days after the portentous meeting, which only featured in obscure corners of some national and local newspapers, the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti (PSS), an NGO actively fighting against the plant, wrote to the authorities drawing attention to the mass walk-out and some violations of the basic procedural norms while conducting the Environmental Public Hearing (EPH), which should render the EPH illegal and invalid.
The Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) of NPCIL, Kailash Chandra Purohit, however, chose to ignore the resistance from the farmers. And presented a totally different picture in the statement that he released on July 5, 2013 at the Annual General Body Meeting when he said, "Public hearing for Chhaya-Mithi Virdi site in Gujarat which is assigned to set up the AP 1000 Nuclear Power Plants with Westinghouse Electric Company (WEC), UAS (sic) was completed." He went on to list the major awards that NPCIL had won in the past year. The statement reads like a farce – much like the NPCIL public hearings.
The NPCIL is an organization which can live in denial and delusion because it is protected by the antiquated Atomic Energy Act, 1962. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) recently pulled up the NPCIL for not following guidelines on transparency. The Department of Atomic Energy (under which the NPCIL falls) too does not share some of the most important details of its plans with citizens, especially the ones who would be directly affected by their projects.
All the reports on their websites are naturally accompanied with photographs of smiling faces of people while the reality is angry, determined and well-informed resistance, be it in Koodankulam, Jaitapur or Mithi Virdi.
After 2009, the villagers have taken their time to understand the crisis. A group made a trip at its own cost to Tarapur which has an existing nuclear power plant where they spoke to the people affected by the plant. Others have attended various forums to educate themselves on the matter apart from holding meetings at different villages where they invite environmentalists and activists to talk to the people.
What was once a movement built around the land – jaan denge par zameen nahi denge (We will give our lives but not our land)-- has now, after some four years of acquiring enough knowledge, also become about rejecting nuclear energy.The anti-nuke stickers and posters are now ubiquitous in the area. They are found in homes, on walls and on trees across Jaspara and Mithi Virdi.
The decision of the villagers is a well-informed one today, more informed than perhaps the NPCIL. The NPCIL has erred on something as important as the preliminary Environment Impact Assessment in Mithi Virdi.
A report by external experts who dissected the claims NPCIL and Engineers India Limited (EIL) points out several stark omissions and errors. The Environment Impact Assessment does not mention some startling facts – to begin with, how the area is prone to earthquakes and how the planned construction of the Kalpasar Dam, located just 40 km north of the nuclear plant site, has the potential to cause reservoir-induced earthquakes, something even the consultants working on the dam have highlighted as a concern. Additionally, recorded and documented volcanic activity in the past makes the land unsuitable for such a sensitive and dangerous project.
But as in Koodankulam, and possibly many other places where large infrastructural projects are planned, inconvenient facts are overlooked. Till, of course, we are in the midst of a disaster and the authorities scramble around for explanations.
Shakti Sinh Gohil, the village sarpanch of Jaspara, an attentive man with sharp eyes, is at the forefront of the struggle against the plant. Sitting outside his brother's farm equipment shop, he narrated to me, with precision and dates, the history of the embryonic movement.
“We only found out about this plant from the newspaper," he said throwing his hands up in the air. "That our land was demarcated and that the Gujarat government had slyly signed an MoU with NPCIL. But once we found out we did not let anyone come near our land." Each time that the officials came to visit the 'site' -- be it for soil testing or for land surveys -- the villagers shooed them away.
Till date not a single assessment has been done on the site itself.
The flawed EIA was conducted by the Engineers India Limited, an organization that is not accredited to do it. This too was flagged by Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti in January 2013, even before the Public Hearing was called. But the authorities paid no attention. A month later, even the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) asked the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) to clarify why it had employed a consultant without accreditation to assess either nuclear power plants or category A thermal power projects to draw up the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report.
In a candid confession P M Shah, the chief engineer for the Mithi Virdi project admitted that "No agency in India is accredited to assess nuclear power projects and all our other projects have also been assessed by PSUs such as NEERI and MECON. Besides, EIL has applied for accreditation."
It seems, however, that EIL had further delegated the job it was assigned to consultants Pragathi Labs and Consultants Private Limited (PLCPL), a private company that, according to its website, 'provides integrated comprehensive environmental solutions to industry, government and non-governmental agencies on various environmental issues'. It is one of the many private consultants that the government uses as Functional Area Experts (FAE) to conduct surveys etc.
PLCPL only has a “provisional” accreditation from the Quality Council of India - National Accreditation Board For Education and Training (QCI - NABET) for conducting EIAs in seven specific sectors, including thermal power plants and cement plants. Like the EIL, this private agency does not have the accreditation for doing EIA for Nuclear Power Projects.
The question that the anti-nuke activists have repeatedly asked and have got no answer to is: "When the EIL is itself the EIA consultant, why should it avail the consultancy of another organisation like PLCPL which claims similar expertise?"
The last time I visited Mithi Virdi was soon after the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) was commissioned. This time when I returned to Mithi Virdi people seemed worried. But the Indian government was focused, though not on the concerns of its people. A few weeks earlier, on June 26, 2013, the Indian government had welcomed the deadline set by a visiting foreign dignitary, US Secretary of State John Kerry to finalise the commercial agreement between the NPCIL and Westinghouse Electric, the company that is to supply to reactors for the project. He, in return, pledged to realise "the full potential in stuttering bilateral ties" between the two countries.
That thousands of villagers around Mithi Virdi have been raising a cry of protest is conveniently ignored by the politicians of every hue as well as the media.
Just two days before my visit, representatives of the villages, including Shakti Sinh, the Jaspara sarpanch, had gone to Ahmedabad where the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) and PSS had organized a meet to bring together the different people’s movements against nuclear plants and to launch a people's charter on the issue.
On a rain-soaked day when half of Ahmedabad's drains were overflowing and my auto rickshaw driver was cursing under his breath, I arrived at the dank and musty basement hall in the Jamnalal Bajaj Ahimsa Shodh Bhavan at the Gujarat Vidyapith.
Kumar Sundaram of CNDP, who tirelessly travels around India talking to different people's movements, and Krishna Kant of PSS were both preparing for the meeting. With a printed agenda distributed to everyone who walked in and badges with our names on them, the meeting was very professionally organised. At the meeting, the participants shared stories that either never make it to the mainstream press, or are reported with the familiar bias of middle class ideas of development.
No one had to wait for a chief guest who held up the meeting, nor were there other redundant formalities. There were no sponsors to thank as everyone had turned up at their own expense and the food was generously offered by the hosts. Expenses such as the return travel costs were collectively shared by donations on the spot by whoever was willing to contribute.
From the moment the meeting started it was riveting: stories of resistance, painful and painfully similar experiences of state brutality and the amazing resilience of people across India who have refused to give in.
Vaishali Patil, a fiery woman who has been part of several people's movements along the Konkan coast, spoke about the movement against the plant at Jaitapur; Yashveer Arya, of Azadi Bachao Andolan, a witty man with a militant swadeshi tone, spoke about the movement brewing in Fatehabad where another plant is being thrust upon people; Shakti Sinh spoke about Mithi Virdi; and the star speaker Xavier Ammal from Koodankulam shared the struggle that has ignited many others since it was launched with renewed vigour two years ago.
About 30-odd students of Gujarat Vidyapith sat in a corner, their uniforms making them resemble a musical troupe of sorts. The rest included a handful of local activists, a few reporters and a couple of unidentifiable men (either from the Intelligence Bureau or people from NPCIL, the organisers guessed). All of them were glued to the proceedings.
At some point during her speech Xavier Ammal, dressed in a bright sequined red sari and gold jewellery, shouted slogans in Tamil. All the activists, raised their fists to the air almost immediately, instinctively. The room echoed with their loud voices and I was for a moment transported back to Koodankulam, washing away even my mild cynicism about meetings like these. A little while later when Ammal broke into a song the hall echoed with power and hope. I was convinced I could see goosebumps on the arms of the suspicious looking men sitting two rows away from me.
If one looks closely one cannot miss the parallels of what happened in Koodankulam and the many other places where land from the people was forcefully and illegally acquired. These struggles have been going on for a long time. Perhaps the big difference today is the improved technological access, which allows diverse movements to share more easily, learn from each other and to offer each other the comfort of not being alone. Quite apart from the fact that there are people like Krishna Kant, Kumar Sundaram, Xavier Ammal who carry the torch with unfazed and untiring strength.
A day later another such meeting was held at Jaspara and Mithi Virdi where the same people who had spoken at the meeting in Ahmedabad shared their stories again, this time with the villagers who had collected in huge numbers despite the pouring rain.
One could sense the palpable anxiety on the faces of the policemen who were outside the venue making sure 'nothing went out of hand.' The villagers had been waiting patiently to hear stories that were probably critical to their lives and their collective futures.
After the meeting in the village, all of us walked through the proposed site going from farm to farm. Xavier Ammal and Mary, activists from Idinthakarai – epicentre of the Koodankulam struggle were also there with us, their beautiful saris getting muddy as sheets of rain poured incessantly. They walked with ease and panache, meeting people, somehow communicating in Tamil in these villages.
What must Ammal and Mary think about this place, I wondered. Do they reminisce about what happened to their land? Will they feel sad when they get back to Idinthakarai where things have changed for the worse?
When I asked them I did not sense even a shade of melancholy in their response. Instead they felt that 'here people are lucky to have the chance to fight at this early a stage'. These two women (who the government claims are traitors funded by Americans to oppose the Russian-built plant in Tamil Nadu) were here giving hope and strength to people in Gujarat who have a long battle ahead of them. A battle that involves fighting for their own lives with the Indian government who has no trouble with its ally the United States of America.
One of the farms we walked into together this time, I had visited before. The farm belonged to Shivbhai. His mother and his grandmother, who is supposedly more than a 100 years old, both dressed in bright, colourful clothes were sitting on charpoys. I remember having eaten the best mango of my life in their farm.
I saw the 51-year-old Xavier Ammal walk up to the old woman and shout a slogan she had learnt at the meeting the day before: “Parmanu Urja dhokha hai, dhakka marro mauka hai.” (Nuclear power is a dirty trick, let us all give it a mighty kick). Everyone perked up. And just as we were about to leave the two women hugged. By now we were all soaked in the rain but I was not sure if it was just rain water dripping down Xavier Ammal's face.
Whatever doubts I had of the emotions floating in the air were dissolved as we approached the sea. Both Xavier Ammal and Mary, after landlocked days and dry breakfasts – khakras, theplas and fruits – were thrilled to have a glimpse of the sea. Lifting the hems of their saris with one hand and holding on tightly to their hand bags with the other, like little school girls they rushed through the millet field to take a dip in the sea, singing Tamil songs.
The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) has finally decided to begin its proposed 6,900 megawatt (MW) Mithi Virdi nuclear power plant in Gujarat. The state government still recommends completion of a final report from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests before construction commences.
In late June, US Secretary of State John Kerry proposed an agreement deadline of September 2013 after a preliminary contract was agreed upon in June 2012. The Mithi Virdi project is expected to be completed in three phases, with each phase comprising the construction of two 1,150 MW units. NPCIL expects to complete construction between 2019 and 2024.
In Tamil Nadu the KKNPP is supposedly gearing up to generate 1000 MW of electricity in a week. The People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy continues its resistance. In Mithi Virdi the resistance continues.