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Govt leaves field clear for fear to fish in troubled waters

Safety concern is not the solitary factor troubling fisherfolks living near the Kudankulam nuclear power plant. They complain of loss of livelihood, too.

Many are bracing for a deeper impact on marine biology and their incomes once the plant becomes fully operational.

Francis Shanti, a 53-year-old woman, spoke of the underwater rock formation close to the plant that used to be home to an army of lobsters, the most prized catch for generations. The export-quality lobsters had brought some prosperity to the lives of the fishermen, unlike their mostly impoverished brethren in eastern India.

“Earlier, our men used to catch around 10,000 lobsters in one trip in the sea close to the plant. Now police threaten to fire upon them if we venture there. The catch has come down to 4,000 pieces as the lobster habitat is disturbed. It’s difficult to repay loans that we took for fibreglass boats and nets,” Shanti said.

Septuagenarian M. Lourdeswamy is worried about misgivings among buyers on the catch from Kudankulam. “Earlier, our catch was sold in (neighbouring) Kerala and other parts of Tamil Nadu. Wholesalers are now avoiding the fish we netted. They fear that fish from our area are either poisoned or would rot fast because of contamination from the plant,” he said.

Others pointed out that fishermen in the entire Kanyakumari-Tuticorin belt as well as a large section of the marine food exporters near the Tuticorin port have been supporting the anti-nuclear protests out of the same fear.

“With the Uvari-Kollam zone being the breeding ground for all types of fish, they fear that buyers in the US and Europe will stop taking the catch on the ground of radioactive contamination,” an exporter said.

G. Sundarrajan, an environmental engineer and member of the Friends of Earth, a green group supportive of the agitation, termed the fears as justified.

“Kudankulam has India’s first two light-water reactors installed to produce 1000MW each. The government itself admitted that the plant would release huge amount of hot water at 37 degrees Celsius into the sea. In view of the official admission of the eventuality of releasing small amount of radioactivity also, the marine population, including fish and offshore ecology, will be devastated gradually,” he said.

According to him, following the government’s decision to dump the nuclear waste at Kudankulam itself after having shelved the initial plan to dump it in the abandoned mines in Karnataka’s Kolar, radiation hazards will affect ground water and agriculture.

Nuclear engineers say such claims about Kudankulam’s impact on fish or marine ecology and the local environment are baseless and false.

“These fears are baseless, these claims are false,” said a senior official in the Nuclear Power Corporation, the government company that operates nuclear power stations.

Independent studies by the National Institute of Oceanography and universities within Kerala and Tamil Nadu have ruled out any adverse effect of the nuclear power station on marine ecology, NPC sources said.

They said the cooling water that will be discharged into the sea falls within prescribed temperatures and will have no radioactivity.

The officials also said there are no plans to “dump” nuclear waste at Kudankulam. High-level radioactive waste from India’s nuclear reactors is currently packed in a toughened glass matrix and stored in an underground vault in Tarapur, Maharashtra. The waste will eventually be moved to a deep geological repository which has yet to be identified.

The Prime Minister had also said last month that “we will ensure that the safety and livelihood of people are not jeopardised in our pursuit of nuclear power”.

Sundarrajan complained that the government had violated its own environmental laws by not conducting the impact assessment made mandatory under the Environmental Protection Act. “They got the environmental clearance without the assessment,” he said.

The resentment on the ground has been deepened by the alleged heavy hand with which police cracked down when the protests began gaining steam.

S.R. Milred was among those who had led a jal satyagraha by standing in the sea to protest the fuelling of the nuclear power plant in September. She complained of eye inflammation caused by the tear gas and showed scratches caused when the police caned and dragged many on the rocky beach. “I will fight till I die. Because our livelihood as well as lives are at stake,” she said.

Rosalin Devasagayam, an elderly woman,is portrayed as one of the “martyrs of the movement”. The protesters said that the cancer patient was arrested during the jal satyagraha and put behind bars in Madurai. Released on bail, she was forced to stay in Madurai to report to the police daily. She died shortly, triggering charges that exhaustion and lack of medical attention also played a role in the demise.

Xavier Ammal and two other women were charged with sedition and waging war against the state for joining the protest.

Anthony John, a fisherman from Tuticorin, died in police firing in September. The police justified the firing, saying the protesters had turned violent. But the protesters complained that John was killed in cold blood.

Another protester died of head injury reportedly suffered during a fall from a rock on the beach after a low-flying coastguard aircraft tried to scare the protesters assembled there.

Residents of a tsunami colony close to Idinthakarai and Kudnakulam showed broken windows, locks and glass panes as well as damaged TVs and other household valuables. “The police ransacked our home and beat up old men who could not flee,” Jaquline, a middle-aged homemaker, said.

Out of jail a day earlier, C.K. Nadar Durairaj, a Kudankulam resident, said he and some other fellow farmers had joined the predominantly fishermen’s protest. The farmers fear that their land, crop and livestock would be affected by the power plant.

“The police broke into our homes in September and beat up our family members. Fifty-six persons were arrested from this village alone. Anybody opposing the plant is charged with sedition,” the middle-aged farmer said.

The government has not spared even the youths who had applied for passports to join commercial shipping or jobs in the Gulf. Savio Nasren, Francis Reginald and R. Vignesh were among the youths who said they were denied a positive and timely verification report by the police to “teach them a lesson for joining the protest”.

A letter from the Madurai-based regional passport office to one of them mentioned an “adverse police verification report” that said he was “involved in criminal cases”.

A boy’s mother, Selvi, said she was suspended from the local school where she worked because of her role in the movement. “I want to send my son to the Gulf because fishing is in so much trouble here and not remunerative. But the government is vindictive. Now it is stopping our children from getting out of here. How will we survive?” she asked.

S.P. Udayakumar, the leader of the movement who also faces sedition and other charges in 19 cases, denied that he had been waging a violent agitation against national interest.

The government said it had tried to garner support in the 40 villages around the plant. But no signs of an official drive to reach out to the public or notices seeking to dispel their fears were found in and around the protesting villages.

S. Pitchi, a local politician, said the ruling AIADMK chairman of the block-level body asked councillors from the villages around the plant to support the project. “No discussion was held in the panchayats on the pros and cons of the plant. I was threatened with police action as I refused to fall in line,” he said.