A schoolgirl’s nuclear nightmare

Varshini, 10, speaks for a new generation that is against nuclear energy
A schoolgirl’s nuclear nightmare

In the gathering dusk, the open ground in Kudankulam village is filling up slowly. There is an inter-faith meeting to protest against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) that has come up just 2 km away and is all set to start operations. While the women are the first to arrive, many with their school going children in tow, the men drift in after work. The meeting of Muslim, Christian and Hindu priests is yet another rallying point against the contested power project, a long drawn out struggle that has been projected in the national media as a Church-sponsored campaign.

A look at the crowd gathered at Kudankulam ground dispels the notion instantly. The village, unlike the fishing hamlets which have been in the forefront of the anti-nuclear protests since August 2011, is inland, predominantly Hindu and a somewhat late entrant in the campaign against KKNPP. Its 12,000 residents proclaimed their anger and disillusionment with the project only in 2007 soon after the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL), the state-owned entity that sets up nuclear projects in the country, held a public hearing on the environment impact assessment report for the third and fourth reactors. In all, KKNPP is scheduled to have six reactors, each of 1,000 MWe, and the first of these was scheduled to go critical in December 2011 until the public protests put paid to that.

Earlier, there had been a day-long puja at the ancient shrine of Vishwamitra in Vijayapathy village some 4-5 km away where devotees had prayed for the success of their campaign against KKNPP and, more interestingly, for the promotion of renewable energy sources. You could call it clever strategy by leaders of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE); they used the festivities associated with Vishwamitra’s anusham (birth star) to spread their anti-nuclear message. But there were no speeches, no rallies as people lined up at the freshly white-washed temples—there is another dedicated to Ganesha in this hamlet—to make their offerings.

In Kudankulam, however, it is clearly a campaign event with speeches and songs making overtly political statements. Cynicism and hope hang in the air. Pushpa, 33, listens to the men on the dais with half an ear while carrying on a conversation with her two friends and this correspondent. The women are all homemakers but well educated, it turns out. Why are they against KKNPP? “We don’t want to become the victims of a nuclear accident,” she says. But nuclear accidents are rare, I respond, playing devil’s advocate. “Perhaps. But we don’t want our children to be exposed to a Fukushima. India is not Japan which is an advanced society. Can you imagine what would happen here and in all the surrounding villages if there was a leak in the Kudankulam reactor? All that strontium and radioactive iodine will cause cancer and kill us. This is a death zone.”

It is true that initially Kudankulam village had no problem with the Russian project. They sold land to NPCIL and hoped for jobs and better things to happen. Recalls S Sivasubramanian: “I sold three acres (1.2 hectares) of my farmland to NPCIL in 1984-85; we used to grow paddy and cashew. The compensation was a pittance but every time we were told that the area would become a mini-Singapore.” But the jobs never came, nor did the promised development. When KKNPP announced that two more reactors would be built and held its public hearing in July 2007, the sentiment had turned completely against the project. Around 5,000 people had turned up for the hearing, requiring the Tirunelveli district collector to throw a massive police cordon around the town.

That’s history now. Today the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan has hardened the mood and the nuclear establishment has to deal with a better educated and better informed neighbourhood. 

Where did Pushpa pick up all these details about nuclear power? Her answer is crushing. “I have an MSc in physics and I read,” she says. But is there any evidence that people living close to nuclear plants are more prone to cancer than elsewhere? That’s when I feel a light touch on my arm and a little girl butts into the discussion. “Radiation does cause cancer and my textbook says so.” So says Varshini, 10, a fifth standard student of a high school in Pannakudi. She also wants to make it clear that her village did not start its opposition to the plant on the eve of its commissioning. “Media was not there when we were protesting earlier. People like you and TV channels were missing,” she adds for good measure.

But the textbook angle is intriguing. What does it say? After scrabbling around two are found in school satchels and shown to me: Varshini’s Science and General Knowledge textbook and Science 9 for ninth standard students. Both are prepared by the Tamil Nadu Education Department. The latter has graphic visuals of a mushroom cloud after an atomic explosion. It talks of the dangers of radiation, of blood cancer, of thyroid in babies, of strontium getting deposited in bones and thus causing bone cancer, of the hazards of Iodine 131. Oddly enough, the chapter also outlines steps to prevent radioactive pollution, ways of removing radioactive material from reactors and disposing waste safely! There is also a box on the Chernobyl accident, which is described as the worst in the world (newer textbooks will be ranking Fukushima, too, on the same scale).

Varshini's question is simple: who is lying? “Why is the Central government telling us the KKNPP project is safe when our state government is warning us about the dangers of cancer from radiation leaks?” But now the Tamil Nadu government of J Jayalalithaa, too, is convinced all of a sudden that the project is safe and that leaves her even more bewildered. “Why do they teach us something and then do something exactly the opposite?”demands the 10-year-old. 

Pushpa has an answer for that. “It is the way of governments. Even if the Kudankulam project blows up in our face they will build another plant somewhere else and tell the people nuclear power is safe.” But that cynicism is tempered with a warning. “It’s not easy to fool us anymore.  People are clued in and better informed after Fukushima.”

And so the struggle promises to continue even though a couple of hundred people have been thrown in jail and sedition cases filed against PMANE leaders and some village folk. In 1989 when people in the area joined the national rally to Protect Water, Protect Life, Genova was a nine-year-old schoolgirl in Idinthakarai village. She made a fiery speech, calling on the elders to protect the future of their children. There is a grainy image of hers in a video film made of that protest. Today, Genova is fighting as a mother. Her son was born last month, just before the state cracked down on the anti-nuclear protest, and she has no doubt what she needs to do. “My fight will go on. I need to protect my child’s future and those of all the children here.”

Varshini, meanwhile, has a request.  Since I am from Delhi can I ask the prime minister why he wants to expose her and her village to such dangerous risks?

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