Bengal’s Didi has become the agony aunt for those who are unhappy with Tamil Nadu’s Amma and New Delhi’s Manmohan Singh.
The leaders of the agitation against the 2000MW nuclear power plant with Russian reactors at Kudankulam on the coast of Bay of Bengal close to Kanyakumari are looking up to Mamata Banerjee as a political counterweight in favour of their campaign.
Although Kudankulam is far off from Calcutta, fisherfolks and farmers are banking on Mamata because of her role in the Opposition as well as in power in shelving the proposed nuclear power plant at Bengal’s Haripur in coastal East Midnapore.
“Jayalalithaa changed her tune on the Kudankulam project after winning the Assembly polls. But Mamata was consistent in her position on Haripur. She is the only nationally known politician who has opposed nuclear power. That’s why we urge her to come here to shame Amma,” S.P. Udayakumar, the leader of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, which is spearheading the Tamil Nadu agitation, told The Telegraph.
He said he had already spoken to Sisir and Subhendu Adhikari, the father-son duo and Trinamul MPs in East Midnapore who had led the campaign against land acquisition for the Haripur plant by the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government.
“We have invited them as well as Mamata. She has already expressed her intention to come to Tamil Nadu after snapping ties with the UPA. We are looking forward to her visit,” Udayakumar said last month.
Udayakumar wants Mamata’s support to put pressure on mainstream parties before the parliamentary polls in 2014 and a respite from police crackdown. One of the protesters was killed in police firing and two others died during the Jal Satyagraha in the sea close to the plant site in September 2012.
Numerous arrests have taken place under the charges of sedition and waging war against the state. Udayakumar, too, is facing the same charges in 19 cases.
“If we can sustain our campaign for another six months despite heavy police repression, parliamentary polls will be round the corner. Political parties will have to face the music then,” said the middle-aged former professor of peace studies in an American university.
He was speaking at the coastal fishing village of Idinthakarai, around 2km from the plant site at the seafront of Kudankulam village that the government has made out of bounds for the protesters.
According to him, the anti-nuclear protest that had begun in 2003 gained groundswell among local fishermen and other communities following the meltdown at the atomic power plant in Japan’s Fukushima after an earthquake-triggered tsunami and subsequent widespread radiation hazards in March 2011.
Tamil parties, including both the ruling AIADMK and the Opposition DMK, except the MDMK of Vaiko and some smaller groups have either opposed the anti-nuclear agitation or maintained an ambivalent position. They apparently fear a backlash from industry and the urban middle class, which are facing a persistent power crisis.
The Congress, BJP and the CPM are also opposed to the anti-atomic power campaign while the CPI has sent “confusing signals”. Smaller Left parties, including the RSP, SUCI, Naxalites and the Maoists, support the movement.
Although Prime Minister Singh has rooted for nuclear power time and again and top guns of the Indian nuclear establishment have dismissed fears of danger, Udayakumar and his civil society supporters say they are not convinced.
“The Prime Minister wants reason, not emotion, to decide about atomic power. But does his government believe in informed public debates on a national energy policy? Does he want to give a patient hearing to villagers close to the nuclear plants who have reasons to be scared of adverse effects on their livelihood and health?” Udayakumar asked.
Advocating “eco-friendly and safe” solar and wind power, he pointed to hundreds of giant windmills that dot the skyline of coastal Tamil Nadu, including the Tuticorin-Tirunelveli-Kanyakumari zone.
The Prakash Karat-led CPM, which had left UPA I opposing the Indo-US nuclear agreement, joined Singh in supporting the Kudankulam plant. The reason: the nuclear reactors installed here are of Russian origin.
Karat stopped recalcitrant old guard and former Kerala chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan from joining the anti-plant protest after the veteran supported it publicly.
The argument that Russian collaboration would help reduce the Centre’s dependence on Washington made Udayakumar and his comrades acerbic.
“Achuthanandan is a good exception. For the rest of the leadership, the truth will take another 50 years to sink in that the Soviet Union does not exist any more. They are yet to learn from nuclear mishaps — from Chernobyl 1986 to Fukushima 2011 — that reactors are dangerous, irrespective of their Russian and American tags,” Udayakumar said.