Chennai, Sept. 10: A fisherman died in police firing in Tamil Nadu this evening in what appeared to be a chain reaction to a baton charge 80km away on demonstrators protesting against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant.
This was the first casualty in the year-long protests revolving around the Kudankulam project.
The plant stands apart from other lightning-rod ventures because three key political parties — the AIADMK, the DMK and the Congress —have come to support the project in the wake of power shortage in Tamil Nadu, a state known for somehow getting around hurdles to industry.
In a departure from the familiar politics, the Congress, which is part of the Opposition in the state, today went to the extent of calling for the arrest of the leader spearheading the anti-nuclear campaign. The stand tallies with that of the Congress-ruled Centre but political parties out of power tend to oppose the state government irrespective of their stated position.
Smaller parties like the PMK, MDMK and the DMDK have extended support to the protesters.
It is not clear whether the larger consensus will hold if the protests spiral out of control. Chief minister Jayalalithaa this evening appealed for peace and announced a compensation of Rs 5 lakh for the family of the person who died but she added that the police were provoked into opening fire.
The flashpoint for the protests was the Nuclear Power Corporation’s move to load fuel into the first of twin 1,000MW Russian-built reactors. The corporation is hoping to prepare the reactor for power generation later this month.
Anthony Raj, a fisherman from Manapad village near Tiruchendur, 80km from Kudankulam and 550km from Chennai, was killed when protesters tried to storm a police station.
While the police had managed to defuse the situation in and around Kudankulam, they were unable to prevent sympathetic protests from spreading to coastal fishing villages in the nearby Tuticorin and Kanyakumari districts.
“Since we foiled their attempts to storm the plant at Kudankulam by massing a large force, they have opened more fronts to thin out our deployment in and around Kudankulam,” said an officer.
The fishing villages in Tirunelveli, Tuticorin and Kanyakumari are pre-dominantly Christian and share a bond.
S.P. Udayakumar, convener of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, had urged the protesters not to attack the police.
The protests ended a relative lull since March and came at a critical time as the reactor is being prepared to produce power. Engineers at the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KNPP) site had initiated procedures to load fuel — 163 zirconium alloy tubes loaded with uranium dioxide pellets — into the first reactor towards the end of August.
The Centre today iterated that foreign non-government organisations were driving the protests at Kudankulam. “Foreign NGOs are supporting the movement, we are aware about the NGOs behind it,” home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said in Delhi.
The anti-nuclear movement had suffered a setback after Madras High Court dismissed its petition challenging the environmental clearance to the plant.
Earlier in the day, the police used minimum force to disperse nearly 5,000 protesters who looked determined to storm the nuclear plant from the seashore side of Tsunami Nagar. The protesters had laid siege about 500 metres from the reactor since afternoon yesterday, hoping to advance towards the plant after pitching a permanent camp just outside its security perimeter.
But they were thwarted by a sizeable police force. After warning the demonstrators to disperse, the police fired teargas at the crowd and then used batons to scatter the men who threw sand and shrubs at the police before running into waist-deep seawater.
The police had shepherded away the women and children, whom the protesters had tried to use as a shield, before charging at the men.
The protesters began a 48-hour fast at Idinthakarai village in the evening.