BY SHAMSHEER YOUSAF AND MONICA JHA
VIDEO AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY
SRIRAM VITTALAMURTHY AND ANAND MURALI
The grass changes colour every mile or so. The sun filtering through the rain-laden clouds of Konkan paints the land everything from a dark mossy green to a sparkling emerald. These are the undulating grasslands of the Konkan plains, sandwiched between the towering Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, criss-crossed by rivers, with small, majestic waterfalls, deep valleys, and unseen beaches.
About 15 kilometres after Hativale—a village 100 kilometres off Goa on NH-17—there’s a turn-off to Madban. It leads to Wagapur lighthouse, adjacent to the steep cliffs that lead to the Arabian Sea. From the top of the lighthouse, you can see the waves smack the cliffs. The air is heavy with salt. To the south of the lighthouse lies Vijaydurg fort, an impressive if dilapidated structure at the tip of the coast.
In 2009, the Indian government announced the world’s largest nuclear power complex—the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant (JNPP)—would be set up in the arc around the lighthouse, a grassland of stubborn beauty and emptiness. People who come to this region often remark that it’s not possible to find a more romantic setting.
In a collection of photographs, “A Distanced Land”, that presented industrial power plants in the context of natural scenic wonders, John Pfal, the American photographer, included a photo of the Rancho Seco Nuclear Plant in California. It shows rays from the setting sun seeming to emanate out of the cooling tower set in silhouette.
Pfal asks if such an exercise presenting today’s industrial reality in a romantic setting would “promote the naive impression that these power plants were living in blissful harmony with nature”.
In October 2005, the Union government gave “in-principle” approval for two light water reactors (LWR) at Jaitapur. Madban, the village within five kilometres of the proposed project, was livid. Comprising largely farmers who cultivate paddy, mango or coconut, most people belong to the Bhandari community, traditionally toddy tappers. Madban was largely poor, but had a reputation for courage. Residents even today point out that 14 villagers participated in the freedom struggle.
On November 22 that year, while people were still discussing how to react to the notification, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) informed the panchayat that a group of 30 journalists would visit the proposed site on their way back from the Kaiga nuclear plant in Karnataka.
A gram sabha was called that morning. Srikrishna Mayekar, retired headmaster and a key member of the protest movement, remembers that residents were angry with NPCIL for talking to journalists before consulting them.
At the meeting, Pravin Gavankar, a mango trader in his fifties, moved a motion to stage a black flag protest. He casually said, “If nobody has any objection, I am going to lead this.” So Gavankar became the leader of the protest movement.
From the gram sabha, nearly 400 people marched to the entrance of the village. As the luxury bus carrying NPCIL officials and journalists reached the village, Gavankar and a few others threw themselves in front of it, waving black flags. “Save Madban, withdraw nuclear project,” they shouted at the visitors.
From the gram sabha, nearly 400 people marched to the entrance of the village. As the luxury bus carrying NPCIL officials and journalists reached the village, Gavankar and a few others threw themselves in front of it, waving black flags. “Save Madban, withdraw nuclear project,” they shouted.
NPCIL’s public relations officer, escorting the journalists, got off and asked why they were there. Gavankar stepped forward and said it was unfair that the government did not discuss the project with residents first. They called for a meeting at the Bhagwati temple with project officials.
Despite an agreement to hold a meeting, people did not allow the site visit to proceed. They forced the bus to go back.
Concerned, NPCIL held a meeting at the temple on December 8 attended by top officials, including its director S. K. Jain. People expressed their opposition to the project and asked for details: How many reactors are going to come up? How many villages would be displaced? What was the exclusion zone? What about the impact of radiation?
NPCIL officials said there would be no harmful impact on the village, and henceforth, people would be consulted on all decisions.
In less than a week, the people of Madban began to receive notices of joint surveys for land acquisition. They weren’t consulted; no one had told them their land would be acquired. This was the first breach of promise.
1984: The helicopter How an aerial survey started the land wars of the future
It all started in 1984 with the sighting of a helicopter in Madban, Jaitapur and neighbouring villages.
In this part of Konkan, where a boat ride takes you from one village to the next, it was an easy guess that something important was afoot. The word spread that the chopper was carrying Indira Gandhi.
In reality, it bore the director of PPED (Power Projects Engineering Division, now NPCIL) Dr M. R. Srinivasan, and then chairman of Western Electricity Board/MH Electricity Board, who was checking if Madban was suitable for a nuclear power plant.
The mystery of “Indira Gandhi’s visit” lingers. It took years for people to discover that a nuclear plant was proposed on their land, and that it meant many of them would be uprooted, though NPCIL says not a single family will be displaced.
Once the news spread, it became the talk of the Panchkroshi (an area within five krosh/kos. Kos is an ancient Indian unit of distance, about 3.6 kilometres). Village elders made enquiries with government officials and even their MLAs and MP. No one told them anything.
After his survey, Srinivasan returned to Mumbai and submitted a report in November 1984, recommending Jaitapur. It was last in the order of merit of the six sites considered.
M. R. Srinivasan on his 1984 site survey
The obvious reasons were abundance of water (the sea) to cool the condenser, and fewer people to be compensated. Other reasons became known only when the “secret” report became accessible in 2010 under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. It required several rejected RTI applications, two appeals, and a hearing by the Central Information Commission to get the “secret” report.
In his July 21, 2010 order, information commissioner Satyananda Mishra said: “We cannot exactly appreciate how a site selection report in its entirety can be considered to be strategically so important to be covered under the exemption provision of Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act. Besides, the Central Public Information Officers (CPIO) has not explained how this provision is attracted. We would like the CPIO to verify the contents and to sever those portions which refer to any security or strategic issues and to show the remaining report to the appellant during inspection of the records…”
The report mentions that one of the reasons for selection was that Jaitapur as a coastal site could “permit more low level radioactive liquid effluents into the sea under normal operations and to a certain extent under off-standard conditions”. The report also called it a “good location for gaseous releases and burial of low level solid radioactive waste”. It recommended quick land acquisition to “eliminate the risk of losing the selected sites due to other developments in the vicinity”.
Before the government could act, the United States stopped the export of nuclear fuel in 1978, as a reaction to Pokhran-I. In 1992, the Nuclear Suppliers Group further restricted supply. India did not have enough fuel for new reactors and the plan was put on hold.
In 2002, France funded studies on setting up French reactors in India. This revived the old plan and the government set up another site selection (Chaturvedi) committee. In September 2002, it recommended Jaitapur for six 1,000 MW (or lower) LWR or for a pressurised heavy-water reactor (PHWR) if LWR did not work out. (LWRs use normal water as coolant where as PHWRs use heavy water or deuterium oxide as coolant)
While France and the US were lobbying to re-enable India to receive nuclear materials, the government approved, in principle, the first two French reactors (1,000 MW LWRs) at Jaitapur at breakneck speed, to coincide with the visit of then French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
Despite these international intrigues, people at Jaitapur had not noticed any activity since the “Indira Gandhi visit”. So they were taken aback when news of the approval arrived. Some learnt of the nuclear power plant only when they received notices of land acquisition.
Till this point, the only public acknowledgement of the project was in 2002, around Diwali. Residents around the proposed site demanded a meeting with their then MP and power minister Suresh Prabhu, now railway minister. Shyam Sundar Narvekar, a retired businessman based in Mumbai who attended the meeting, recalls that Prabhu told them these were rumours. Being the minister in charge of power, he would know if there was any proposal. If it came before the government, he would not let it happen.
Nothing generates more outrage among the residents of Madban than the manner in which land acquisition was carried out. On December 14, 2005, a notice was issued on joint survey of land for Jaitapur. In January, the Maharashtra government issued a gazette notification for land acquisition.
Soon, notices were brought to the gram panchayat office for joint surveys. By then Gavankar was discussing strategy with Mayekar and Narvekar. Under their direction, the entire village decided not to accept individual notices. “If we learned someone was about to accept the notice, we would stop them. In one or two cases, we accepted the notices, and said we were against acquisition,” says Mayekar.
For the project, 692 hectares of private farm land was being acquired from Madban, and another 245 acres for the residential complex from nearby Niveli, Karel, and Mithgavane villages. The notification claimed that only nine per cent of the land was being farmed and that the remainder was fallow and barren. The entire parcel of 938.02 hectares acquired belongs to private owners.
Villagers hotly contest the “fallow and barren” clause. Konkan’s laterite surface is unsuitable for farming, but villagers grow paddy after some back-breaking preparatory work: blasting the laterite to create shallow trenches of cultivatable soil. Even the famed hapus—Alphonso mangoes—of the region are cultivated in such trenches. The Madban sarpanch, Bhikaji Waghdhare, told us that several farmers—including he—farm even today at the site with PCIL’s consent. A large number of farmers have also planted orchards of Alphonso on the site, though there are no clear statistics on this.
While land acquisition has typically been a contentious process in India, what provoked the public ire was the invoking of rare combination of provisions allowed only in case of extreme urgency for Jaitapur. While Section 17 of the Land Acquisition Act—a provision for emergency acquisition that expedites the process to 15 days, was used—Section 5(A), which gives a landowner the right to raise objection, was dispensed with.
Dr Milind Desai, an ayurvedic doctor from Mithgavane village who became one of the leaders of the protest, lost 50 acres to the process. “There was no preliminary notification, and people were given no time to submit objections. Nothing was done,” he says. “This is land grab, not land acquisition.”
Even the joint survey was done without landowners. Prohibitory orders barred a gathering of more than five people, preventing people from attending the surveys. When a group went to the site to interrupt the survey, 55 people were arrested as a result.
Madban rises A sign from the goddess brings people together
I t’s an evening in 2005. A bare-chested Gavankar in red and blue shorts and a garland around his neck carries a blazing torch and runs into the temple. He stops before the Devi idol, buried in a heap of garlands. Holding the torch in his hand, he moves forward and back to the rhythm of the drums, while his head performs a figure-eight movement. All the while he clutches the torch close to his body, moving around the Devi, waving the torch, at times bringing it so close that flames brush his body.
People chant Udaya, Udaya, Udaya. This goes on for five minutes.
He runs out to the courtyard, and the crowd struggles to make space for him. He begins to walk in circles, waving his torch close to the crowd. The effect is instant—people back off, carving more space for him. He ambles around the circle, changing pace, waving the torch around. The chants and the drumming continue.
At the stroke of midnight, he runs back into the temple and falls at the feet of the deity. The Devi has possessed him.
Gavankar being possessed by the Devi
Questions are then posed—mandated by tradition and asked by the pujari and two prominent citizens. Mayekar says these questions are typically about the temple and the village, whether the puja was done to the satisfaction of the goddess, and about the well-being of the village. Nobody veers from the tradition—therefore nobody asked if the nuclear plant would ever be removed.
But this was 2005, after they received the land acquisition notices, so they offered a prayer to be rid of the project.
Being the chosen devotee of the deity, and the fact that his family was the khoth (original landlord) of the village, made Gavankar the unquestioned leader of the protest. His ancestors, who hailed from Goa, migrated to Madban and established the village and the Bhagwati temple which they supported. Until a few years after Independence, the village council functioned on the grounds of his family home.
While the rest of 2006 continued with a handful of protests against acquisition, Gavankar had got in touch with a few activists to turbo-charge his movement. One of the first people to turn up in Madban was Surendra Gadekar, a nuclear scientist and activist who had frequently clashed with the government. Gadekar and his wife Sanghamitra, a physician, run a school for young activists near the Kakrapar atomic power plant in Gujarat.
Gadekar has spent nearly three decades surveying power plants, uranium mines, and nuclear testing facilities. His activism has seen him work in the uranium mines at Jaduguda in Jharkhand, the Rawatbhata nuclear power plant in Rajasthan, and the Kakrapar plant in Gujarat. He’s also the founder of Anumukti (Nuclear-Free), a journal that claims to be the only anti-nuclear magazine in South Asia.
Gadekar landed up in Madban in early 2007, and spent nearly 15 days with Gavankar. Narvekar recalls that Gadekar was the person who laid the groundwork for the future movement.
Every day the two would hop into Gavankar’s Maruti Omni van, loaded with cassettes and projectors. They visited every village within 10 kilometres of the project. At each village, a meeting would be called, where Gadekar and Gavankar would talk at length on why they were opposed to the project. The meetings would be accompanied by screenings of movies on nuclear projects.
Usually, the screening would start with a movie on Rajasthan’s Rawatbhata plant. It is essentially Gadekar’s wife speaking over a montage of photographs of people suffering either from cancer or born with congenital deformities in the vicinity of Rawatbhata. It is based on a survey of the region by the Gadekars themselves, and is a narrative about individuals ranging from a waste picker, a temple priest, and a school student, all afflicted by skin lesions, congenital defects, or cancer.
Narvekar says people were generally more inclined to oppose the project after viewing it, but progress was slow. It was hard to gather enough people to watch the movies together. Narvekar says they would meet people in the village and urge them to come watch the movies. “If you see this, you can spread the message to another 10 people,” he said.
It was a lot of work. They would leave in the morning for each village, and come back by midnight to have dinner.
With the arrival of Gadekar, the protesters decided to organise themselves better. In August 2007, a new committee was registered: Janhit Seva Samiti (People’s Welfare Committee). Gavankar was elected president, Narvekar was appointed general secretary. A decision was made that nobody from outside Madban would be included in the committee—including protestors from other villages, like Mithgavane’s Milind Desai or Sakhri Nate’s Amjad Borkar. Activists and political parties were not included either.
This was deliberate. Mayekar says this was a protest by the villagers. They told activists and political parties that if they wanted to join, it had to be under Janhit’s banner. The Shiv Sena was not enthusiastic but NGOs had no hesitation working under Pravin Gavankar, says Mayekar.
The activists were a significant part of the protest movement. On many occasions, Gadekar was brought to contest NPCIL’s claims. Soon after Janhit’s formation, a big meeting was called by the collector at Ratnagiri to mediate between Janhit and NPCIL. Narvekar recalls that NPCIL officials explained the necessity of such a project. On behalf of Janhit, Gadekar retorted that NPCIL’s experiences in other locations proved the contrary. The meeting reached an impasse.
Soon, activists across India began to get in touch with Gavankar to express their support. Greenpeace began a campaign, though they did not have a significant local presence.
The most important outside group was the Konkan Bachao Samiti (KBS) led by economist-activist Sulabha Brahme. KBS, a group of left-leaning writers and environmentalists, had been forged in the protests against the Dabhol power project. Janhit largely depended on KBS for understanding and criticising the technical aspects and often used them as interlocutors in discussions with NPCIL. KBS also provided robust criticism during public hearings on the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report.
One of the first things Janhit did was file a case against the land acquisition in the Bombay High Court. In January 2008, five petitions were filed individually by Dr. Bhikaji Waghdhare, Narvekar, and three other residents whose land had been acquired. In July 2009, a division bench of J. N. Patel and Mridula Bhaskar ordered status quo on ownership, and held back NPCIL from acquiring lands.
This victory was short-lived. The same petitions were placed before a bench of Justices Ranjana Desai and A. A. Sayed. On August 2009, they observed that there was nothing wrong with the acquisition.
Within three months of the judgment, records were updated to reflect that the land was now in the possession of NPCIL. Desai says, “In the land record register, our names were just removed and NPCIL’s name sealed”.
Back in Madban, protests intensified over the manner of acquisition. A public meeting in November saw residents along with Gadekar, Brahme, and other activists burning effigies of NPCIL. When the land acquisition officer entered Madban to issue cheques for compensation on three occasions in late December 2009 and January 2010, the villagers refused to accept.
On January 22, things turned ugly. A big meeting was held and police and government officials were not allowed to enter the village. Police arrived in force and violence broke out. “The police beat our people very badly, but our people also beat them up. Several women were beaten severely,” says Narvekar. Seventy-two people were arrested.
This was the first brush with violence. Leaders we spoke to say Gavankar never authorised the violence, and that it was spontaneous. But this streak of violence would manifest itself again, and hang like an ominous cloud over the movement.
“The project site is our land”
Fight for fish How Sakhri Nate joined the struggle
A t Nate Market, a sign that reads “Jama Masjid” leads into a narrow lane. Down a steep slope and two sharp turns, the road opens up to a lively and chaotic village square, the busiest we saw in the region.
On one side of the road, goats are tied to trees, under which men are mending fishing nets and chatting. On the other side, women draw water from a well, whose bright yellow walls are painted with the signs “No nuclear” and “Areva, go back”. Areva is the French company that has signed a general framework agreement with NPCIL.
Houses—dilapidated and multi-storied—are stacked across the hill, leaning precariously towards the sea. Many household chores and items spill out on to the road. Utensils are washed, vegetables are chopped, clothes are drying, and water is boiled on the road. Parts of the road have been incorporated into the house—plywood and ropes make extra storage space for children’s bicycles, old vessels, tyres, and other things deemed worthy of enclosure.
A thatch-roofed shack at the dusty village roundabout is the popular tea stall, where many hours have been spent talking about the project. Amid the chaos and the cramped contours of the place where everyday life is playing out in public view, the ambience is ruled by the sea and fish, dried and fresh. They fill the air with their presence.
On the boil
The smell is the reason Sakhri Nate is the richest village in the Panchkroshi, its 10,000 inhabitants living off fishing and its allied businesses.
It’s September in 2014, and Sultan Machchiwala is making deals over his mobile phone with traders in Ratnagiri even before the boats arrive in the evening with their catch.
Once the load arrives, the whole village gathers. Men who own big boats make quick visits to check the catch, others instruct the Nepali workers to unload the boats and load the harvest on to mini trucks. Small boat owners do it themselves with the help of women and children in the family. The trucks loaded with fish and squid, packed in ice, hurry off to Ratnagiri. Part of the catch goes to Mumbai and the rest is exported directly.
Many calls are made, and business is the only thing on anyone’s mind. Each hour means thousands of rupees. It’s hard to imagine that these are the same men who scaled the steep cliff from the seaside to defy the police, who had sealed landside access to the project site.
Women negotiate rates for smaller loads for local markets and occasionally quarrel. Some of them get into fights—slaps and blows are exchanged, some hair is pulled. Men stand afar and laugh. It’s part of the routine.
These are the women whom the Nate police fear. Once they came out to join the protest, the movement reached its peak.
Unlike Madban and other villages, Sakhri Nate has no land at stake. Its economy is entirely dependent on fishing. According to Amjad Borkar, a businessman and leader of the fishing community, the village generates revenues of ₹600 crore a year.
The wealth of Sakhri Nate
It is this wealth that people fear the nuclear plant will wipe out. The harbour—in the creek between the project site and Sakhri Nate—will be affected. Activists said barriers would be erected around the project site, and entry and exit of boats would be restricted. Moreover, hot water from the plant would raise ambient temperatures in the area, a breeding ground for fish, a terrifying prospect for locals. They joined the movement and their impact was felt soon after the public hearing on the EIA at Madban.
'You have no right to my land' The public hearing where no one heard the public
M ay 16, 2010 was a hot and humid day. The salt breeze mixed with the sweet scent of mangoes waiting to be harvested. Around 10 a.m., people started leaving their farms and walked in small groups towards the site. A public hearing on the EIA of JNPP was scheduled at 11 a.m.
Just the idea of gathering at the site, land that belonged to them, to get a chance to be heard enraged the villagers.
People believed that the day of Akshaya Tritiya was intentionally chosen to keep the crowd and number of objections small. The gram panchayat’s formal request for postponing the hearing was denied. A crowd of over 1,000 gathered with questions and objections.
Two-layered barricades separated the aam janta from an elevated and decorated stage where government officials (NPCIL, the district collector, and the state pollution control board) sat. “They were sitting far from us. They were scared of us because they knew they had wronged us,” laughs Mayekar.
As an NPCIL official started giving information with the help of a projector, villagers shouted slogans and stated they were not interested in listening.
They asked for the hearing to be cancelled, as three of five affected panchayats had not received copies of the EIA report. People complained that a Marathi version was supplied only four days before the hearing (though an English version was submitted one month before, as required by law), only to two gram panchayats. In this environment, the NPCIL had to discontinue its presentation. People started pouring out complaints immediately.
Gavankar said: “You have followed the British rule in distribution of EIA. You neglected the gram panchayat, which is very important in decentralisation of power.” Activists from Konkan Bachao Samiti and the Indian Institute of Social Sciences questioned NPCIL on the economics, ecology, and sustainability of such projects.
Amjad Borkar asked NPCIL about its claims that the release of hot water would have little or no impact on fishing. Several flaws, errors and omissions in the EIA were pointed out by people. The officials responses were bureaucratic and no one was convinced.
Many had come with more personal questions. A woman said her life depended on growing paddy on the land where the hearing was being held. “You have no right to my land. Go back.” Another woman said, “You will first promise to give employment and afterwards education. Our children are not so educated.” A man asked, “Which season did you carry out your study that you did not notice paddy and mango on this land that you call barren?” “Why was our land acquired before the public hearing?” asked another.
Compilation of all the objections (the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute prefers to call them observations, and not objections) at the hearing required 964 pages. There were more questions and complaints.
“We wanted a vote-by-hands to show how everybody gathered opposed the project. But the meeting was adjourned abruptly. We had many more questions and objections,” says Dr Bhikaji Waghdhare, who came from Mumbai despite being paralytic.
A tirade by Rajapur MLA Rajan Salvi ended with slogans, and with that, the public hearing came to an end.
“We wanted a vote-by-hands to show how everybody gathered opposed the project. But the meeting was adjourned abruptly. We had many more questions and objections,” says Dr Bhikaji Waghdhare, who came from Mumbai despite being paralytic.
The nuclear accident at the Fukushima power plant in Japan in March 2011 has created ripples across the world. Japan has significantly reduced its reliance on nuclear power; Germany has retired eight reactors and is on track to close the rest by 2022; Switzerland and Spain have proscribed the construction of new reactors; and Mexico has pivoted from nuclear power to gas as the long-term strategy to meet greenhouse gas emission targets.
In India, however, the government remains committed to nuclear power. The current target for generation is 63 GW by 2032. The state owned NPCIL operates 20 reactors with a total capacity of 5.68 GW. This ambitious undertaking—a nearly 15-fold increase in nuclear power—is to be achieved through several green-field projects using large capacity reactors based on international cooperation, of which Jaitapur is the most significant.
India proposes to build 34 new units at seven locations—six greenfield projects and four more units at Kudankulam—with a total capacity of 36 GW. Jaitapur alone is supposed to add close to 10 GW, with six units of 1650 MW each.
Nuclear currently contributes just 3.5 per cent of India’s energy needs, but the government is looking to raise it to nine per cent. However, targets are rarely met in India. In 1984, a target of 10 GW was set for the year 2000. Almost 30 years later, not even half of that capacity has been installed, and the NPCIL misses deadlines routinely.
Jaitapur was pushed aggressively after the Indo-US nuclear deal which paved the way for resumption of civilian nuclear fuel and technology from other countries, subject to safeguards. The French government championed India’s case globally, and French company Areva got the commercial contract for Jaitapur project without a bid being called.
It is a remarkable coincidence that conditional clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests arrived six days ahead of Sarkozy’s visit while Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) clearance came in just a day before his arrival and three days before the agreement with Areva was signed. It happened despite the existence of significant scientific literature questioning the government’s stand that release of hot water into the ocean would not raise ambient temperatures enough to affect marine life.
What the Jaitapur plant endangers
The cost of power from Jaitapur is not public knowledge as the commercial contract has not been signed yet. NPCIL refuses to divulge any information, even in Parliament, saying details are under finalisation.
During the public hearing on the EIA in 2010, some participants mentioned the cost of each reactor as ₹30,000 crore and cost of electricity as ₹18-21 crore per MW, based on the Economic Survey 2009-10, in which the state government had provided ₹60,000 crore for two reactors. NPCIL officials confirmed these numbers and said they were going to further reduce the cost.
The NPCIL since then has even refused to share the highest or lowest estimates of tariff, despite a direction from the Central Information Commission to share details of cost to a land loser, who had filed an RTI.
The NPCIL has said on many occasions that cost of electricity from JNPP would be on par with other sources, albeit without any clear break-up. Several independent analyses indicate that NPCIL’s claim might not be well-founded.
Last year there was no agreement between the NPCIL and Areva on tariff as NPCIL offered ₹6.5/kWh (10.6 US cents) and Areva was holding out for ₹9.18. Member of Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Dr Srinivasan confirms this tussle on tariff. In fact, according to the Economic & Political Weekly, the price could go as high as ₹15/unit (kWh), without transmission and distribution costs.
The average tariff for nuclear power for 2013-14 is ₹2.71 per unit. The UPA government had argued in favour of French reactors, quoting a tariff of ₹2.5, which they said was based on a study, “Economics of Light Water Reactors in India” by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) in 2007-08.
The price (₹6.5 per unit) NPCIL has been negotiating, unsuccessfully, is 260 per cent higher than the DAE study and 240 per cent higher than the current average (₹2.71).
Any delay—likely considering the pace of progress—would push up project costs as well as the cost of electricity. New coal-fired power plants are offering much better rates. Adani offered ₹2.75 a unit in 2014.
The roar of the people Movement reaches its peak
I n October 2010, NPCIL signed a rehabilitation package for “project affected persons” with Maharashtra, offering ₹5 lakh or choice of employment to project-affected families. However, the protestors are yet to accept compensation. In November 2010, only 33 of the 2,335 land losers had accepted the cheques.
On December 4, the movement had its most successful protest. People gathered in front of the Bhagwati temple in the morning. Prayers were offered. As the bell at the temple rang, a slogan “Ek do ek do, anuoorja ko phenk do” was shouted. It was a procession from Sakhri Nate. After a procession of hundreds of men, a huge crowd of women from Sakhri Nate marched in. People in Madban stood and watched in surprise the overwhelming support to the protest that they considered theirs.
The ground in front of the temple was full by the time puja was over. Gavankar made an appeal: keep the protest peaceful. The rest of the announcement was drowned out by cries of “Nahi chahiye nahi chahiye, anuoorja nahi chahiye”. Slogans were shouted against Sarkozy, the government, and the NPCIL and a yellow banner that read “No Nuclear” was waved. A large police force stood and watched near the temple.
A jail bharo andolan was organised, which saw people flouting Section 144. A state transport bus waited outside the temple to take people away. Sarfuddin Kazi says the number of people for jail bharo was so huge that police had to make several trips, carrying busloads to Hativale High School. “They did not have a jail big enough. They took us to the school and released us soon after,” Kazi said.
Mayekar says that day was their strongest protest.
The need for safety Nuclear safety requires a definition of who is liable in the case of an accident, and a check of how vulnerable the site will be to earthquakes
India’s road to nuclear power India's foray into nuclear power after Pokhran, and how Jaitapur was caught in its aggressive policy
For a protest movement that works within the law, there are two temptations that can cause its downfall—money and violence. On December 18, 2011, the Janhit Seva Samiti drew blood.
That day, an NPCIL vehicle with a policeman driving ran over 31-year-old Irfan Kazi on the highway connecting Jaitapur to the site. Irfan, the nephew of one of the leaders, was taken to the primary health centre (PHC). A few hours later he was pronounced dead.
People from Jaitapur, Madban and other villages assembled around the PHC as they heard about it. Rumours began to float that the accident occurred as the policeman was learning to drive, asserted by Kazi’s uncle, though Nate police only confirmed that the policeman was driving. The involvement of NPCIL and the police incensed the crowd. As it grew larger and more violent, a large police contingent was sent to the site.
One protester snatched a gun and fired in the air. People began to shout, demanding that the driver be produced from hospital. Stones were pelted at the PHC and policemen were beaten. The vehicle was broken. Police lathi-charged the crowd. In the mêlée, one officer was seriously injured and taken to Ratnagiri and flown to Mumbai by helicopter for treatment.
That day, Desai says, he told Gavankar this was the beginning of the end. A case under Section 307 (attempt to murder) was filed against 25 people for the attack—including Gavankar, Desai and several other leaders of the movement. Later leaders claimed they were innocent and that most individuals named were not even present at the site, and those present were trying to calm the situation down.
For Desai, this was the turning point. “I have learned that there should be no such incidents. If someone wants to run a movement, you should shut your mouth and protest”. In time, the government used this incident to bring the protests to a grinding halt.
By September 2010, Prithviraj Chavan had taken over as chief minister after a scandal forced his predecessor to step down. Chavan, who came from the Prime Minister’s Office and had previously held the atomic energy portfolio, was a champion of Jaitapur.
In February 2011, he held a meeting in a village near Madban to consult with people and convince them about the project. But the meeting did not go as planned.
At the dais, Narvekar asked the gathering how many people opposed the project. All hands were raised. “I said you have come to make us understand that this is a very much needed project, but people here are opposed to the project.”
After that, Gavankar and other leaders spoke. But nobody made as much as impact as Dr Milind Desai.
Desai mounted the dais. Addressing the chief minister, he said, “You should be ashamed. The government should be ashamed. Ashamed that it is giving just ₹350 for one gunta (about 1/40th of an acre). This government should be ashamed.” (“Aapko sharam aani chahiye, sarkar ko sharam aani chaahiye, ki ek gunta ko ₹350 dete hain. Is sarkaar ko sharam aani chahiye.”)
Narayan Rane immediately intervened, and said he shouldn’t be saying this. “That’s not the way to talk,” he told Desai, and asked him to leave the stage. “For the first time, a chief minister has convened a meeting of people affected by a project. This is no way to treat him,” Rane said.
Television channels went to town with the clip of Desai, and the government had egg on its face.
Desai’s bravado was not without consequences. Two days later, he was arrested past midnight in the attempt to murder case. Ten other leaders were also arrested. Desai was released on March 8, one day before the largest nuclear accident since Chernobyl took place.
A tragedy in Japan Fear in Madban
In March 11, 2011, Srikrishna Mayekar was having his usual post-lunch nap in Madban. It was a warm day and he decided to watch television.
“I was switching channels and a Marathi news channel was showing videos of an explosion. I stopped there and my wife came running into the room. It was an explosion at a nuclear power plant in Japan. We had been talking about how a nuclear plant could be disastrous. But these images manifested our worst fears. This could happen to us, at our own Madban. I was trembling with fear and anxiety.”
Japan had been struck by a massive 9.0 earthquake. An hour later, about 150 kilometres from the epicentre, a tsunami breached the wall of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. The government declared a nuclear emergency, and an area of three-kilometre radius around the plant was evacuated.
In Madban, people were glued to their television sets, in fear and excitement. Fear because Jaitapur shared similarities with Fukushima; excitement because they hoped this accident would give impetus to the nearly five-year-old movement.
Mayekar says a strange relief followed his initial shock, something he was unable to comprehend. “I ran to meet Gavankar.” Gavankar had already heard and came to meet Mayekar with Desai. “He was just out the previous day, after spending eight to 10 days in police custody. People started gathering. They said Fukushima will happen here too.”
It also turned out to be a matter of faith for the protest movement. This is a sign from our Devi, they said. Mayekar says, “Everyone believed the Devi had answered their prayers. She saw we were exhausted and intervened.”
No one was more electrified than Gavankar, who after several reverses in the last few months, saw hope. Within hours of Fukushima, the protests at Madban and surrounding areas reached fever pitch. Two days after the accident, Gavankar called a meeting at a temple. He argued that if a developed country like Japan could not control its reactors, what hope did India have? This is an accident that the Devi has willed, to show she is still with us, he declared.
Within days, publications across the world began to question the wisdom of a project which shared superficial similarities with Fukushima. It also fired up the activists, from the international Greenpeace to the more regional Konkan Bachao Samiti.
The district administration left nothing to chance. Section 144 was imposed again and orders were issued restricting entry of activists and protestors, including a retired High Court judge and Supreme Court judge. Political parties also got into the act. On April 9, Shiv Sena, the main opposition party, organised a rally at Jaitapur attended by 50,000 people.
Perceptions matter: An interactive video
April 18 brought the protest to the notice of the world.
A protest was planned that day, following comments from Union Minister Jairam Ramesh on the decision to stick with Jaitapur. “‘Fukushima is a wakeup call. I believe in nuclear power and we cannot afford to ignore it. I didn’t mean we should abandon the projects, Jaitapur stays,” he said.
Gavankar called for a protest at the project site. As a group of 400 began to march there, police stopped them halfway. Roads to Madban were blocked, and the local MLA from Shiv Sena was stopped and arrested.
People from Sakhri Nate circumvented the blockade with their boats to reach the project site. The sea face had not yet been fenced properly, and the fishermen got in by scaling the steep cliffs along the shore.
Meanwhile, the protestors, incensed by the MLA’s arrest, began to hurl stones at the policemen on guard, destroying vehicles and temporary sheds. A sub-inspector was beaten up while the deputy superintendent of police received a head injury. The police fired a few plastic rounds in the air, resorted to lathi-charge, and arrested 30 people.
At Sakhri Nate, rumours began to circulate that a protestor had been killed in firing at Madban. Residents went to the police station on the outskirts. Police officials assured them these were just rumours. They went back, but a larger mob returned as the rumours continued to spread. This time, the exchange was heated between police and residents. They retreated once again.
Finally, the mob decided to approach the police station one more time. According to the police version, villagers surrounded the station and prepared to set it on fire. Outside, units of the State Reserve Police Force were holed up in two vans. A man from the mob bolted the doors to one van. The personnel inside panicked, and began to shoot at people through the grilles. One bullet killed a man.
The movement had its first martyr in 30-year-old Tabrez Sayekar.
For a whiff of the sea How the government outlasted the people
B y May 2013, the movement appeared to have reached an impasse. Gavankar’s health was failing, cancer had spread to his throat, limiting his ability to speak.
The petitioners were counting on earlier judgments where the Supreme Court had cancelled land acquisitions, citing that the existence of urgency was insufficient for dispensing with Section 5(a). It had, in many cases, said invoking the urgency clause could not be a substitute or support for laxity, lethargy or lack of care on the part of the administration.
But the Supreme Court also cleared the project.
The Congress government saw an opening and made overtures for a settlement to Gavankar through district Congress president Ramesh Keer. Gavankar replied that he couldn’t take a decision without consulting villagers. It went nowhere.
Then in the beginning of August 2013, Gavankar got a letter that made him realise the ground beneath his feet was slipping. It was a reply to an RTI he had filed with the district administration on how many people had claimed compensation. The reply showed that a large number of cheques had been issued. It became clear to Gavankar and the rest of Janhit that the government’s strategy of targeting women who had married outside the village and villagers who had relatives living in Mumbai, was working.
On August 25, Gavankar got a telephone call saying another group led by a leader sympathetic to the project was meeting Ramesh Keer in Ratnagiri. Mayekar told us that one of the Janhit leaders was among this group, but refused to name him. Keer wanted to know why the other leaders were not meeting him and the message was conveyed to Gavankar. He, in turn, informed a few of the Janhit leaders.
Hearing this, one of the leaders landed up at Gavankar’s house. His wife Pramila, who was home at the time, says the man seemed unbalanced. “He was afraid of the cases. He threatened to hang himself and leave a note blaming Gavankar for his suicide,” she says. He added that as long as Gavankar was alive, it was possible for police to drop the cases.
(According to Nate police, today, many of the accused have not been arrested due to fear of tension. They say the atmosphere is “good”, and they do not want to bring up pending cases if it builds up tension again.)
At this juncture, Gavankar wondered whether it was wiser to settle. The setback at the Supreme Court meant the project was going to come up irrespective of what they did. Gavankar, who had realised he did not have much time to live, was distraught that his relatives had bypassed him and sought compensation. He lost 150 acres to the project, which would have fetched ₹13.50 crore. But all he was getting was ₹7 lakhs.
He was leaving barely anything for his children. And there was a case of attempt to murder against his younger son.
Desai also turned up at Gavankar’s house and told him they should go for the meeting. They called Sarfuddin Kazi, who was part of the movement, but also Congress taluk (sub-district) treasurer, and asked him to arrange a meeting with Keer.
In the evening, a group which included Gavankar, Desai and four other members of Janhit met Keer at his office in Ratnagiri. He asked about their demands. Gavankar was unusually quiet and let Desai do the talking.
Desai had prepared a list of 25, which comprised mostly demands such as better roads, schools, etc. But the most important demand was right at the top: withdrawal of all cases against the leaders. Keer agreed to discuss this with Narayan Rane, but did not guarantee anything.
The meeting with Rane was fixed for August 30. Now Gavankar had a tough task ahead of him—he had to inform the remaining members of Janhit. Everyone barring Narvekar agreed. Gavankar, Mayekar, and Vijay Raut went to meet Narvekar before leaving for the meeting. They told him they were going to settle with Narayan Rane.
Narvekar still shakes with anger as he recalls that day.
He told them, “I’m not going to come. But my request is that you also don’t go. Even if you have to go, we should first hold an official meeting of the committee. If the committee desires, we will go ahead. And it’s not just a matter of the committee. It is a matter of the Panchkroshi. We should have a meeting of all the villages under the Panchkroshi, make them understand this project is going to happen irrespective of what we do. We will try and get whatever benefits we can at this stage.”
Gavankar and the others replied that if the villagers were involved they would never make it to the meeting. So along with a group of 19 people, he proceeded to the government guest house in Ratnagiri. On the way, Desai’s car was stopped by Amjad Borkar, pleading with him to not attend. Desai said he had to go.
At the government guesthouse, Gavankar told Narayan Rane that he could not lead the movement any longer. In front of Rane, he asked Janhit members gathered if anyone wanted to lead it. “If there is nobody let us put it on hold,” he said. Rane asked if they could start giving money to people.
The meeting was followed by a press conference: Gavankar said they were ready to discuss with the government and they had presented their demands. He said people could start accepting compensation if they chose to.
The second round of talks was held on September 7 with Prithviraj Chavan. A group of Madban residents were packed in three vehicles and driven to Mumbai to meet the CM. Gavankar was to join them as he was undergoing chemotherapy in Mumbai, but he didn’t turn up. Instead, he sent a letter through Milind Desai.
According to Mayekar, Gavankar deliberately did not attend. “After signing the letter, he was driven from Mumbai to Madban for Ganapati puja. He could’ve spared five minutes to meet the CM,” Mayekar says. He adds that if the rest had known before that Gavankar wasn’t turning up, they wouldn’t have come either. Narvekar says he knew the villagers would abuse him even more if they got to know he attended the meeting.
The meeting was open to the press in the chief minister’s chamber, not a private one as expected. The group presented the same demands presented earlier to Rane and Keer. Unlike them, the chief minister said the government could not do anything about the attempt to murder charges.
When the leaders returned after the samanvay (or coordination, as these meetings were called), a livid crowd was waiting. It turned ugly. People abused them, blamed them for betraying their trust. Mayekar says, “Villagers had not taken money until then. We abandoned those who had supported us.”
Desai agrees. “We brought it this high,” he says, raising his palm above his head, “and we were also responsible for bringing it down,” as he lowers his hand to his knees. Even a plan to build a gold statue for Gavankar was scuttled by the committee.
In hindsight, all agree that the only positive outcome of seven years of protest was the increase in compensation. “That was hardly our goal, but it’s true that it happened because of us,” says Desai.
This did not come without consequences. Conflicts increased within families, with every household narrating a tale of how they were cheated by relatives. Cases were filed by nephew against aunt, brother against brother, cousin against cousin. Besides compensation, families began scurrying after the “Project Affected Parties certificate”, something that could be split within warring families.
Janhit found itself in an existential crisis. An organisation that had pitted itself against the world’s largest nuclear project was reduced to planting saplings in the village. Narvekar flirted with the idea of ending the committee, but some members were interested in taking advantage of Janhit’s fame in getting contracts reserved for local people. The committee still exists.
Even Narvekar, who opposed the samanvay tooth and nail, had to compromise. At 80, he is in dire need of a pacemaker for his failing heart.
While the fishermen at Sakhri Nate continue with the same vigour, the vacuum left by Janhit in Madban has been appropriated by the Shiv Sena. Led by the sarpanch, the meetings go on, but hardly anyone attends.
People in Madban also believe that ominous signs of divine retribution could be seen after succumbing to the government. Two years ago, the village pledged a goat to the Devi if the project got cancelled, but a month after the compromise, the goat bled to death after repeatedly hitting its head against a wall. “They didn’t keep their word to the Devi. This is the truth,” says Narvekar.
A little later, the pujari at the temple was diagnosed with cancer. This too, was attributed to the Devi.
Gavankar too, according to them, did not escape her wrath. Narvekar, a devotee of the Bhagwati Mandir, felt Gavankar no longer deserved to be the vessel for the Devi’s manifestation during the annual temple festival in January. He prayed to the Devi that if there was truth in her, he would die before he had the opportunity to be possessed.
Gavankar died on December 5, 2013, a month before the event. “There is great power in the Devi,” Narvekar told us.
Yet Narvekar feels his former comrade died too early. “He should’ve died bit by bit, and suffered with a lot of pain. Tadap tadap ke marna chahiye tha.”
Mayekar’s voice chokes as he contemplates the future. He is prepared for a future if the village is erased. He’s bought three guntas of land about 50 kilometres from here. This village should not go, he says. The ocean nearby is beautiful.
“If the village shifts, I hope NPCIL will allow us to visit the sea,” he says. “At least once in a while. Nothing more.”
“All he wanted was to stop the project”
This multimedia project has been reported with the assistance of a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists (www.sej.org). Under the terms of the grant, editorial autonomy rested with the reporters and Fountain Ink magazine.