It is amazing how the very same Malayalees and their media, which made Mount Everest out of that molehill of Mullaperiyar, remain sweetly calm in comparison at the events unfolding in Kudankulam. In fact the amnesia is so complete that it is as if few remember (except the anti-nuclear activists in Kerala who have been consistently supporting the struggles of the local people) that it was common knowledge in the late 1980s that the plant would affect both Tamil Nadu and Kerala.There was far greater awareness of the special problems of locating the plant in Kudankulam for Kerala, where natural radiation levels are already very high. The violence too had an early start, with the police firing on a people’s rally against the plant in 1989, which killed one person.
I simply can’t see how the media remains relatively complacent compared to the fuss they had created over Mullaperiyar. In fact,in hindsight, it even looks as if the Mullaperiyar issue became shrill precisely at a time when a strong alliance was being built across the border between activists in Kerala and Tamil Nadu against the nuclear plant at Kudankulam. The Anti-Kudankulam Nuclear Plant Support Committee, which had been building up a consistent and strong campaign, stopped receiving serious media attention. It amazes me how the borders drawn by puny human beings continue to produce such a ridiculous sense of security – we haven’t learned a thing, I feel, even from tsunamis. Indeed, the hullabaloo over Mullaperiyar continued even as expert after expert testified that there was no immediate danger. In contrast, there is overwhelming evidence that shows that Kudankulam was an ill-chosen venture, in all ways.
Indeed, Kerala has had a fairly long history of anti-nuclear protests, and the efforts to support the struggle against the nuclear plant have been active. Not surprisingly, the protestors here have been appealing to the Kerala Legislature and the High Court to intervene in the matter as one that affects Kerala vitally. The Committee’s current campaign, which has simply not received the coverage it should have in the Malayalam media, has consistently stressed the fact that Malayalees ought to respond to the struggles not merely in solidarity but as directly-affected victims of this ill-planned move, whose lives and livelihoods will be greatly jeopardized by it. The Committee, which draws its strength from the successful efforts in Kerala to thwart nuclear power plants, first in Peringom in north Kerala in 1990 and earlier, in Bhutathankettu in Kothamangalam, organized its campaign to cover these places, reviving the memories of popular resistance there. Unfortunately, even the fears roused by NIMBY feelings do not work against Kudankulam, given the pervasiveness of the false sense of security that state borders cultivate. The struggle against Endosulphan, which was a lonely and friendless struggle by a handful of people in north Kerala, caught the imagination of the whole state when it dawned upon the Malayalee middle-classes that even the curry leaves they bought at the local supermarket was contaminated with it. That is, they woke up to the fact that this was no localized issue but one which affected them all.
The Kudankulam plant poses the same danger, but two things will surely block a quick response: one, the illusory sense of security from the fact that the plant is across the border, and two, which is more serious, the fact that the Malayalee middle class desperately wants to get us all into the rat race for growth. And they are not prepared to consider more rational ways of using power and safer ways of generating it. However, it is clear that they have no clue about the risk involved when they think of Kudankulam as a possible model for Kerala. Also, The laid-back attitude of the Malayalee public is perhaps related to the general perception that the negative impact will fall primarily on the fisher-folk of the Kerala coast, who are among the most disempowered groups in the state. It is true that the hot water released from the plant will affect our fisheries and the atomic waste discharged into the sea will soon enter our rivers through lakes. But how come the middle class has mostly forgotten the implication of the fact that radioactive waste respects no political borders? The capital city of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram, falls within a radius of 60 kilometers from the plant. According to the Anti-Kudamkulam Nuclear Plant Support Committee, in the event of a disaster, the whole of south and south-east Kerala will be directly affected by deadly radiation in a few hours. They point out that the average speed of wind at Kudankulam being 16 kilometers per hour, radioactive dust clouds will reach places some 160 kilometers away in 10 hours. This means that all the people in Thiruvananthapuram will have to be evacuated in 5 hours at least in the event of a catastrophe. And of course, all the people in south and south east Kerala as well. How are we to evacuate all these people from regions which are very densely populated? These don’t seem to be matters of concern to the planners, the growth enthusiasts, the media, and the political parties. The Malayalam media’s apathy is all the more evident now: even a major press conference in Thiruvananthapuram which brought together senior anti-nuclear campaigners in Kerala like V T Padmanabhan and well-known public intellectuals like Praful Bidwai, did not make state-wide news, and was reported only in the local editions.
Political society has been equally complacent. The Committee has made active efforts to approach the ruling party and the opposition to pass a resolution against the plant in the Kerala State Legislature — which have been ignored. Shanimol Usman, who represents the new generation in the Congress, has dubbed the struggle against the plant “unnecessary”. However,V S Achuthanandan of the CPM, who specializes in carving an image of the public fighter for himself out of issues raised by the oppositional civil society (at his convenience, of course) seems to have woken up. In the Thiruvananthapuram edition of today’s The Hindu, he has urged the Union government to hold talks with the protestors, taking “strong exception to the way the armed forces had laid ‘seige’ to the agitators” and declaring that “such measures would prove disastrous in the long run.” This Malayalam newspapers which ought to have carried this report prominently, have not done so. Even the Hindu report is a tiny one, appearing in the corner of page 7. What does this mean — that VS does not make news anymore, or that a debate on Kudankulam is not deemed necessary?
But even leaving aside all the anxieties over the impact of the plant on life and livelihoods — and assuming that the arguments of the pro-nuclear lobby and the growth-maniacs are correct — what about the trashing of democracy in the name of growth? What worries me is the possibility if the struggle against the plant is crushed, governments in Kerala will henceforth be emboldened to unleash violence in unprecedented ways upon people who disagree with their growth mania or protest against their laxity. Already, we are seeing how the Kerala government is becoming less and less reluctant to use brute force on protestors in panchayats agitating against the dumping of urban waste in rural areas. And even milder forms of the ‘foreign hand’ argument are being pressed into service in situations where the government has found it difficult to answer persistent questions.
All this means that even though we have successfully beaten back attempts to set up nuclear plants in Kerala, it may be quite a hard battle to do so again. That there is much lesser noise about this in the Malayalam media in this crucial phase, and even lesser interest among Kerala’s political classes portends evil times to come, and we must prepare now.