Unrest in Alphonso Land

Grown mainly in the narrow strip of land between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea in the scenic Konkan region of India, the Alphonso mangoes are considered king among the several varieties that flood the market during the mango season. Known for their delectable flavour, richness of meaty texture and sweetness they are coveted all over the world.
In 2007, the US traded off the restrictions for its imports against export of Harley Davidsons to the burgeoning Indian market. It is this Alphonso land that is seemingly is today in a state of war. The locals are up and against the proposal of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) to set up the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Park (JNPP) on the Madban plateau (which is next to the ancient port of Jaitapur) in the Rajapur sub-division of Ratnagiri District – the home of the Alphonso.
With six reactors, each capable of producing 1650 MW, the Park is billed to be one of the largest in the world. When commissioned, it is expected to produce 9900 MW of electricity. The NPCIL has signed an agreement with the French company AREVA for establishing the Park which will initially have two 1650 MW units.
The NPCIL’s Environment Impact Assessment reports described Madban as barren. On the contrary, the plateau has green forests along the hill slopes. The area’s thick mangroves along the creek are rich in marine life. They, together, form an integrated and unique ecosystem, supporting wide variety of flora and fauna.
Protests have been simmering for a long time against the proposal. Erroneous portrayal of the terrain also complicated matters. The farmers who not only farm rice but also grow the Alphonso and cashews in this fertile tract have been against parting with their lands for the nuclear power project. The fishermen who have a sizable catch of mackerel, pomfret, prawns and oysters also find their livelihood threatened.
The matters came to a head a few weeks ago when a fisherman lost his life in a demonstration that attacked a local police station. Reports indicate that the extreme Right Wing Shiva Sena got muscled into the melee to get political mileage out of the protests. Things have become more difficult for the protesters as the entire issue is now politicised. The Sena’s unwelcome participation has stiffened the attitude of the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre. No wonder, the sensible Environment Minister, who had earlier put the Jaitapur proposal on the ice until safety and livelihood concerns were addressed, has had to relent, as pausing the project would not be politically sound.
The Congress-ruled state government has “taken up cudgels against the imported (read Shiva Sena) protesters.” It’s a pity that such a grave matter which could be of serious concern, in the event of an accident, to not only the country but also the region is being bulldozed through for considerations that are purely political. Nonetheless, thanks to “Fukushima”, the Centre is considering certain reforms among which are creation of an independent and autonomous nuclear regulatory authority, making public the reports of the reviews of nuclear reactors conducted after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents as also of the one that will be submitted by the panel constituted post “Fukushima” and conduct of safety audits by the Operational Safety Review Team of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
And, yet environmental and safety considerations of “Jaitapur” remain. Apart from the people’s livelihood, the environmental damage that may be caused to the unique ecosystem is likely to be colossal. The studies of Bombay natural History Society have testified to that. Besides, the National Oceanography Institute, Goa, has indicated that nuclear power plants at Jaitapur are not advisable as it falls in an earthquake-prone zone.
With our lackadaisical ways and the kind of shambolic disaster management system that we have, one wonders whether we would be able to deal effectively with a nuclear catastrophe. Even the French feel “when there is a major natural disaster, all the so-called safety measures (in nuclear power plants) fail in countries with greatest technical know-how.” Can we really claim to be better than such countries? Worse, the government has opted for JNPP the European Pressure Reactors (EPRs) of the French company AREVA which are not yet functional anywhere in the world.
In Finland and in France, where these reactors are in the process of being installed, design and safety issues have led, apart from delays, to cost escalations to the extent of 50%. The EPR technology is still untested.
Pushed by French President Sarkozy we have bargained for it. What is more, power generated by them, after taking into account costs of safeguards against accidents, terror attacks and environmental degradation, is likely to be unaffordable. Not included in these are the costs of eventual disposal of the nuclear wastes for which a suitable safe burial place in the bowels of the earth will have to be identified. The US is yet to find one in its vast territories.
A major national daily, lobbying for the project, said in its editorial the other day that India needs to enhance its “nuclear literacy”. The comment, apparently, was made in the context of opposition of the villagers and certain environmentalists to the proposed nuclear park in Jaitapur.
Yes, we in this country are not really ‘nuclear literate’. People may know about nuclear bombs but, no, they do not know much about nuclear power. However, by contrast, the Japanese people should be considered to have a high level of “literacy” in nuclear power – with about 30% of their power being generated (before Fukushima) by about 55 nuclear power plants. And, yet on a Sunday a few weeks ago, after Fukushima, there was a massive demonstration (by Japanese standards) in Tokyo against nuclear power plants. About 5000 demonstrators marched through Central Tokyo carrying placards that said “bye bye Genpatsu” (Goodbye nuclear power) demanding an end to nuclear power and a switch to alternative energy. The demonstrators included many young people and families who clearly appeared worried about the future of their children. Were they all, shall we say, “nuclear illiterates”?
Likewise, what would one call the Germans who get almost 25% of their energy requirements from 40 to 50 years old nuclear power plants? On 15th March 2011, after Fukushima, on account of a renewed general concern about nuclear power Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, once an active proponent of nuclear power, announced shut down of nuclear reactors that went on line before 1981. On 26th March in the largest anti-nuclear demonstration ever held in Germany 250,000 protested under the slogan “heed Fukushima – shut off all nuclear plants”.
France, second to the United States in nuclear power and meeting about 80% of its electricity demand from this source, has, of late, seen demonstrations and protests – even demands for a referendum to decide whether or not the country should stop producing nuclear power.
Italy has also banned nuclear power. Italy has been nuclear-free since the Chernobyl accident in 1986 when it dismantled all its nuclear power plants. It was in the process of re-evaluating building of such plants when “Fukushima” happened.
Switzerland, too, has given up plans to upgrade its aging nuclear power plants although the chances of an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude are reported to be once 100,000 years. All but one of its nuclear power plants are capable of withstanding such an earthquake. Yet, the Swiss have refused to consider upgrading their plants. For them “security and wellbeing” of the people is an absolute priority. Are they all ignorant about nuclear power?
In India, however, things are different. Here we do not learn from all that happens around us. We seem to strike our own lonely path even if that happens to lead us to disaster. As some hack had once said that we seem to go to the very edge before we retrace back our steps. That seems to be in our psyche. “Jaitapur” is no different! Even after “Fukushima” the environmentalists who oppose the proposed Jaitapur Nuclear Power Park (JNPP) are branded “green fanatics” and “myopic” and the protesting farmers and fishermen who are likely to lose their livelihoods because of the Park are called “anti-national”. Clearly, while the need indicated for enhanced “nuclear literacy” is unexceptionable there is no gainsaying the fact that, considering all factors, nuclear power is not for us, as indeed it doesn’t seem to be so for others – even in the First World. We, as also the world, need to look for alternative cheaper, greener and less hazardous sources of energy.


More by :  Proloy Bagchi

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