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To reach Hairpur, a remote fishing village along the West Bengal coast, one has to get off the main road and walk 2.5 km over a broad mud dyke. Access to this path is blocked by a log barrier. Outsiders are not welcome.
Haripur villagers have been protesting since last September against a 10,000-mw nuclear power plant on their land. In November, they and people from neighbouring villages turned up in thousands on two consecutive days to block a 12-member site-selection panel from the department of atomic energy.
If the project comes through it will displace at least 25,000 farmers, fishermen and their families. The villagers aren't giving in. "If the project materialises we will have nowhere to live, nothing to eat, and the fish in the sea will die," says Sandhya Dalal, who lives in a one-room shack by the sea with her fisherman husband and two little sons."Surely when such decisions are made, the government should first ask us if we want such a project near our homes."
Coastal east Midnapur earns about Rs 360 crore in revenue from fish exports that's 60 per cent of the state's export earnings from fishing. It also boasts a rich agricultural economy. The fertile, multicropped land yields paddy, pulses, vegetables, paan (betel) leaves, chillies and several fruits. Income from this land is high. Even, small farmers like the Manna brothers--Biren, Bidhan and Bikas--earn around Rs 2.5 lakh a year growing tomatoes and brinjals on their half-acre (0.2 hectare) plot of land.
A nuclear plant, requiring millions of tonnes of fresh water to cool its reactors, will deplete the water table and destroy this agrarian economy, say anti-nuclear activists. And hot water from the reactors released into the sea will affect marine life in the Bay of Bengal.
Also, the location of Haripur--along a cyclone-prone coast--makes setting up a nuclear plant here dangerous, activists say. If tidal waters enter a reactor, which nearly happened in Kalpakam during the 2004 tsunami, it could poison large tracts of land. Given the Indian nuclear establishment's penchant for secrecy, however, not much is known about the proposed project. It will reportedly have six nuclear reactors each of 1,650-mw capacity, three times the size of the country's largest reactor as of now, 540 mw. It will be one of the five new nuclear power projects that the centre intends to set up in coastal areas (see box Unsafe and unclean).
Considering all these factors, why Haripur? asks Suvendu Adhikari, local Trinamul mla. "When I asked (chief minister) Buddhababu, why Haripur, he told me 'not too many people live there'." According to census figures, the population density in a 5.6 km ring around Haripur is 890 per sq km.
That's a lot of people and they are mobilising. With the help of local farmers' and fishermen's bodies, people have launched the Haripur Vidyut Prakalpa Pratirodh Andolan. The mood is both defiant and dejected. "People are willing to put up an all-out resistance, but seeing what's happened in Singur, they wonder how far they can stand up against state power," says Harekrishna Debnath of the National Fishworkers Forum, part of an anti-nuclear alliance.
At the other end, the state government has roped in Jadavpur University to conduct seminars on the benefits of nuclear power; and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd, which will run the plant, will take 30 Haripur residents on a tour to a nuclear plant site.