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Yogita Limaye
Monday , April 25, 2011 at 16 : 24

Jaitapur: A timeline of discontent


Jaitapur -- real public opposition or political inciting? Environmental issues or rehabilitation worries? These are some of the questions often asked about the agitation in Ratnagiri, the mango bowl of the Konkan coast of Maharashtra, and the answer is as complex as the technology behind the nuclear power plant being opposed there.

The 9900 MW nuclear power plant comprising 6 nuclear reactors proposed to be set up in 3 phases, with the first phase envisaged to start production by 2018, is the largest nuclear plant in the world. Resistance to the plant started 5-6 years ago and became visible and vocal by the time the mandatory public hearing was held on 16th May 2010. It was Akshaya Tritiya, an auspicious day according to the Hindu calendar. Of the 4 main villages which would be losing 938 hectares of land to the project, only Madban gram panchayat, was given a copy of the Environmental Impact Assessment report prior to the hearing. Over 1000 of the 2400 people affected by the project showed up for the hearing. Much sloganeering followed. At many instances, representatives of the government had no answers for the villagers' questions, and in that environment, even those making genuine points were shouted down. Villagers were left unconvinced even as state authorities and members of the NPCIL (Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd.) -- the body that is to design, build, implement and test the plant -- insisted the outcome of the hearing was positive.

The agitation gained momentum and its first large display came on 4th December 2010. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Delhi, in Jaitapur, Madban, Mithgavane and Sakhri Nate, police arrested prominent activists of the 6000 protestors who defied the imposition of Section 144 of the CrPC and marched against the project.

At this point, the winter session of the Maharashtra state legislature was in progress at Nagpur, with the new, extremely pro Jaitapur Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan at the helm of affairs. The Shiv Sena sensed an opportunity to gain political mileage in a region where they had lost ground ever since the local strongman Narayan Rane defected to the Congress. Several Shiv Sena MLAs camped in and around Jaitapur stirring up the anti project sentiment.

While adequate compensation and effective implementation of the rehabilitation package were concerns, questions were also raised about the risk of exposure to radiation and the impact on marine ecology. The Sakhri Nate fishing village with a population of roughly 8000 people and an annual turnover of Rs.15 crore is not directly project affected and therefore its residents are not beneficiaries of compensation as per the Land Acquisition Act. The fishermen say their livelihood will be lost when higher temperature water is released into the sea by the plant. Atomic energy experts like Anil Kakodkar though say that the maximum temperature difference will be 5 degrees celcius and this will not adversely affect marine life.

Other atomic energy experts like Dr. A Gopalkrishnan have questioned the use of European Pressurised Reactors, that are untested across the world and cost much more. The NPCIL claims EPR technology is not new, but one that is being developed from previously tested technology. NPCIL also says they are bound to keep the cost of the generated electricity at par with coal based power generation. NPCIL has clarified that not a single standing structure will be destroyed and only 30% of the entire acquired land is cultivated.

In January 2011, the state government realised the need to be proactive about clearing technical misconceptions about the project. An open house was organised at the Y B Chavan Hall in Mumbai on 18th January and local residents were invited to participate in the debate with experts like Kakodkar, Dr. Banerjee , Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. Badve, Director of Tata Memorial Centre and Mr. Jain and Mr. Dharne from NPCIL. A host of ministers too were present, but locals decided to boycott the meet insisting they wanted the government to first announce that they would reconsider the project and take back the charges against the anti nuclear activists. The few who attended mainly asked questions about compensation which the CM refused to address in this forum.

In another attempt to appease the public, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan visited Madban on 26th February. He delivered a speech explaining why Maharashtra needed more electricity and how environmental concerns raised by the villagers were not valid. He slammed 'outsiders' who were instigating the people of the region. In an unprecedented move though, he invited many dissenting local activists to voice their concerns on stage. Narayan Rane's verbal duel with one of the protesters Dr. Milind Desai, diluted the chief ministers attempt to convince people.

To make matters worse, a day after the CM's visit, the police arrested 14 protestors including Dr. Milind Desai who was picked up in the middle of the night. Public distrust of the government reached an all time high.

The state government's luck completely ran out, when on 11th March an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, and the country declared a nuclear emergency following explosions in reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. All the assurances about the safety of nuclear projects paled in comparison to the news and images beaming in from Japan.

The state government swung into action. At a speech marking the start of the budget session of the assembly on 14th March, Anil Kakodkar argued that Jaitapur lay on a lower seismic zone than Fukushima and the height of the proposed Jaitapur plant would ensure no tsunami would reach it.

Except the Shiv Sena, major opposition parties like the BJP and MNS maintained they were not opposed to the project, but only to the police action in the region. Much of the budget session passed without any real opposition to Jaitapur being brought up on the floor of the house. But Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh's reported letter to the Prime Minister about reconsidering the capacity of Jaitapur, gave the Shiv Sena the opening it needed.

On 9th April, Uddhav Thackeray reached ground zero and held up a copy of this letter, claiming even the environment minister had reservations about Jaitapur. He promised the locals his support. Less than a week later, Jairam Ramesh held a joint press conference in Mumbai with CM Chavan, clearing all speculation and stating firmly that the project at Jaitapur would stay. The apparent snub to the Sena, compelled it to make its strategy more aggressive.

The Sena called for a day long protest at Madban on 18th April. Locals were drawn in to the agitation and stones were pelted at the project site. A police lathi charge followed and several protesters were arrested. In the Nate village, about 8 kms away, a spontaneous protest erupted demanding that those arrested be set free. A mob of 500 people, led first by women and children, and later headed by the men, gheraoed the police station and set a police van on fire. The 5 policemen on duty fired on protesters and then the unthinkable occurred. 30-year-old Tabrez Sayekar lost his life -- the first casualty of the protests.

The Shiv Sena called for bandh on the 19th. Shops and markets shut down. Tabrez's family refused to claim his body until the state government cancelled the project. Protesters resorted to arson and stone pelting outside the Ratnagiri civil hospital, ransacked the postmortem room and vented their anger on the hospital staff. Shiv Sainiks blocked roads and highways. Another lathi charge followed, section 144 of the CrPC was imposed again, and the situation was brought under control.

Since then there exists an uneasy calm in Jaitapur and the villages around. The people of Nate are still not allowing the police to enter the village. Even Uddhav Thackeray had to visit Tabrez's family on the outskirts of Nate, as the residents refused to allow his security detail into the village. The people don't trust the government, but they don't trust the Sena either. The slightest spark could trigger a violent protest.

Reports suggest the events have the Congress top brass worried. Jairam Ramesh has suggested that the project be put on hold until the people are convinced. Another agitation threatens to erupt over the proposed nuclear plant at Haripur in West Bengal. And it all stems from the state government's lack of transparency, inability to take the people into confidence, the use of police force to suppress a people's agitation, and the lack of foresight of a power hungry opposition party trying to gain mileage at any cost.


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More about Yogita Limaye

Yogita Limaye joined CNN-IBN in 2006 as a Desk Editor in New Delhi and worked for a year packaging, scripting stories and understanding the way a dynamic newsroom environment functions. She then started anchoring news bulletins and moved to the Mumbai bureau in July 2007. From reporting live on the 26/11 terror attacks, Assembly and Lok Sabha Elections, the Swine Flu outbreak, the MNS anti-north Indian tirade in Nashik to hosting a plethora of discussion-based shows, this graduate in electronics engineering from the Maharashtra Institute of Technology, Pune, is at ease both inside and outside the studio. She also holds a diploma in Broadcast Journalism from the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.