Coast Wars

The uprising against the Koodankulam nuclear power project

An Indian Coast Guard plane flies low over protestors against the KKNPP, near Idinthakarai village in September 2012. Government crackdowns on protests have been prolonged and brutal since 2011, when a large wave of agitations began. {{name}}
01 June, 2013

SINCE 2011, the residents of Idinthakarai village in coastal Tamil Nadu have been at the epicentre of a non-violent protest against the commissioning of the nuclear power plant at nearby Koodankulam. For over 650 days, the villagers, backed by protestors and activists from other parts of Tamil Nadu and India, have held peaceful candlelight vigils, street marches, seashore occupations, and ‘jal satyagaraha’ demonstrations in which hundreds of protestors have assembled to stand in the waters of the Indian Ocean for days on end. Over this period, they have been repeatedly subject to violence from police deployed to clamp down on the protests; in September last year, a fisherman was killed in police firing.

According to news reports, almost 2,27,000 people have been named in thousands of First Information Reports which the Tamil Nadu police have filed against protestors. In September last year, Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde alleged that the protests were a conspiracy backed by non-profit organisations receiving foreign funding, but in response to questions in the Rajya Sabha in March, Union minister V Narayanasamy could claim no proof that NGOs had actually diverted money to fund the agitation.

The Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project, or KKNPP, has had a long and troubled history. The project has its roots in 1979, when the Soviet Union entered into a nuclear power deal with the Indian government. It was signed into reality in 1988, when the Rajiv Gandhi and Mikhail Gorbachev administrations made an inter-government agreement, by the terms of which the Soviet Union would build two nuclear reactors in India. Mired in international criticism, the project did not move forward until 1997, when the Indian and Russian governments signed a supplement to the earlier agreement. Construction finally began in September 2001.

The People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), a local organisation formed in 2001, began to raise objections to the project and its impact on the region. Some fears had taken root years earlier: in 1989, the National Fish Workers Union had called a march to which thousands of demonstrators came, angered by the KKNPP’s proposal to draw water for the reactors from a nearby reservoir. The fishing communities near Koodankulam feared that the KKNPP would change the sea near their coast forever. The rich, fragile ecology of the Gulf of Mannar—on which a small port to service KKNPP began operations in 2004—would suffer disastrous consequences, and waste from the plant and hot water ejected into the sea would threaten marine life, and the life of the fishing settlements on the coast. Over time, protestors began to raise questions about a range of issues surrounding the KKNPP, from the unfair purchase agreements through which the authorities have allegedly acquired land for the plant, to promises of jobs at the KKNPP for local people, which have never been fulfilled.

Documentary photographer Amirtharaj Stephen comes from Kavalkinaru village in Tamil Nadu, not far from Koodankulam. His father was employed at a Heavy Water Plant (a crucial component of nuclear energy) in Tuticorin. He grew up in the Atomic Energy Department’s staff quarters there, immersed in the belief that nuclear energy was paving the way for a future of clean, safe energy use.

But in 2011, following the meltdown of a nuclear reactor battered by a tsunami at Fukushima, Japan, he discovered widespread panic in the areas near Koodankulam about the safety of the project. Villagers, with the disastrous 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami fresh in their memories, had begun to raise urgent new questions about the safety of the plant. The lack of an adequate response from local governments did not allay their fears.

Stephen has been documenting the protests since November 2011, and many of the photographs in this essay come from the period around September 2012, when tensions escalated in the region following brutal police crackdowns on peaceful protests. On September 10, more than 8000 protestors under PMANE who had assembled on the seashore behind the plant were battled by police forces, who charged at them with lathis and deployed tear gas to break up the protest.

Late last year, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court, which had cleared the commissioning of the plant, expressed official displeasure at the agitations, particularly at the escalating violence, saying that popular action which disregarded the legal status of an issue in this case risked “disastrous results”. The matter had been seized by the Supreme Court at the time; in early May this year, the apex court dismissed the plea against the commissioning of the project.