Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Is Jaitapur Congress's Nandigram in Maharashtra?

As they say history repeats itself if you don’t learn from it. Maharashtra government and specially Congress seems to be learning it the hard way in Jaitapur. Maybe because they did not learn from the mistakes Left Front made in Nandigram and Singur. Whatever the mistakes they have committed, it surely has put Coastal Maharashtra on a volcano ready to erupt. And sadly one family has lost its young son.
Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant was touted as one of the biggest achievement of the state. JNPL is a new proposed 9900 MW power project of Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) at Madban village of Ratnagiri district in Maharashtra. It will be the largest nuclear power generating station in the world by net electrical power rating once completed.
On December 6, 2010 agreement was signed for the construction of first set of two third-generation European Pressurized Reactors/Evolutionary Power Reactors (EPR) and the supply of nuclear fuel for 25 years in the presence of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. French nuclear engineering firm Areva S.A. and Indian state-owned nuclear operator Nuclear Power Corporation of India signed this multi billion valued agreement of about $9.3 billion. The supporters of the project point out to the growing needs of the country in terms of power. They also point out at the economics and environmental safety of nuclear power generation. The local support for the project mainly came from Narayan Rane, Ex-CM of Maharashtra and currently a minister in state cabinet. The local residents of the region were promised employment opportunities as well as increased market value of land. The land acquisition saw the landowners being paid amount much more than the market price,
With everything seemingly in place for a smooth start of the project, what has happened in last few months that the region is seeing a popular upsurge? Why are the local residents up in arms against the project and refusing the economic temptations doled out to them? The answers can be found out in the arrogant manner in which the whole project is being pushed.
When the first signs of trouble and revolt were seen, the government tried to tone down their anger by increasing the compensation amount. The government could not understand that the opposition was because of various reasons like impact on the marine ecosystem which will impact the main occupation – fishing, of the region. The concerns were more on environment and livelihood than on compensation. The government completely failed to read the situation. In the entire period, government and Congress thought it was prudent to rely on the judgment and ground reports from Narayan Rane. They relied too heavily on his long standing political career in the region. This is where the government faltered majorly. Not only was he reading the concerns wrong but he was also resorting to arrogant strong arm tactics which further infuriated the locals. In Jan 2011 when the CM Prithviraj Chavan visited Jaitapur, the local residents were prevented from voicing their grievances. People opposing the project were kept away from the meeting venue by force. So the CM had no clue about the anger in the local communities.
The Fukushima disaster in Japan acted as a catalyst in increasing the opposition to the project. The coastal belt of Maharashtra falls in Seismic Zone 3 which is Moderate Risk Zone. Post Fukushima the concerns of similar accidents in the JNPL and its impact on people and area around too had to be considered. While the environmental studies conducted so far have showed that no danger is expected, the local anger is over the manner in which studies were conducted and the institutes doing the study. NEERI (National Environment Engineering Research Institute) is one of the main organisations doing the study. The reputation of this agency was badly hit during an oil spill at Mumbai coast in 2010. Neither were they able to control the after affects of the spill but for a long period they were in dark about the hazards of the spill and ways to control it. Also the public hearing of the environmental concerns done in April 2010 was found flawed because the report was not shared with most of the local residents around. Though Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh immediately after Fukushima agreed to reconsider the power plant at Jaitapur, very soon he did a u-turn.
There are few more questions which need to be answered by the Government of India and Government of Maharashtra
The approval for this project was given a week before the visit of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. While giving the approval, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh did mention that some of the environmental risks have been ignored while giving the nod from his ministry. He mentions strategic and economic reasons behind such a move. The question to be asked is what was the pressure or strategic impact of this project? Was the Indian Government under international pressure to give a go ahead? Is this a valid reason to take a confrontational approach with the local residents and not spend time in explaining the project?
The technology being used in the nuclear power plant has so far been untested in the world. The only place where it is under process of being built is in Finland. The project in Finland too has seen tremendous delay and has faced many technical and environmental hurdles. Is it wise on part of Indian Government to risk a region to a technology which is not yet proven?
The PM Manmohan Singh had put his personal prestige at stake for the Nuke deal. At that point he had mentioned about India needed additional 45,000 MW of nuclear energy to meet the demand. Many scientists like Dr Gopalkrishnan, ex- Chairman of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board have raised questions on the PM’s assessment. Also why has the government tried to strangle all other traditional means of power generation? Why is there a blanker ban on coal generated power plants? Is the PM under pressure from the US and other vendor countries to buy technology? Instead of a few high impact plants, why is government not looking at plants with smaller capacities distributed across India?
If we see the chain of events, we can see that the government in the state has tried to subvert the process of explanation and been blind to people’s doubts. They have tried to shove the project down people’s throat. If Dr Anil Kakodkar could explain the project to Maharashtra Assembly and Council (where the main supporters of the project including the CM were caught sleeping), what was stopping them from a similar engagement with the local residents.
Does India in general and Maharashtra in particular need some power project to overcome the power crisis? The answer is a resounding yes. Being a layman who does not understand atomic energy in great detail, I will excuse myself from commenting on the merits of nuclear power and JNPL. But being a resident of the state, I will surely say that if government had been less arrogant in it’s behavior and been more accommodating to dissent, we might not seen the loss of life in the police firing 2 days back.

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