Power At All Cost?

By Partha  Dasgupta From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 18, Dated May 08, 2010

Amidst widespread disbelief, Haripur, the site for the Indo-Russian Nuclear Power Plant, is ripe for another civil war.RAMPRASAD BAR, a bespectacled man in his mid-50s, was stitching a blue fishnet under a palm-tree when he saw this correspondent and his camera-wielding colleague. One could immediately see a frown and a stiffening of his jaw. “Are you from the Press? Please go away. Else, we will be forced to drive you away.” Amit Manna, the local convenor of the ‘Committee of the People Against Nuclear Power Plant and Forced Eviction in Haripur’, intervened: “They are with me, uncle.” The fisherman, who had his elder son Shambhu for company, softened a little.

Bar is one of the 60-odd thousand fishermen of Haripur, a tiny fishing hamlet, 150 km from Kolkata on the road to the popular sea-front tourist destination of Mandarmoni — who will face eviction should the plant come up. He is landless like everyone else in his community, and lives in a ghetto in the forest along the coastline. This 10th generation fisherman is employed for 7 to 8 months in a year and takes home less than Rs 5,000 a month. During March to June, the time for high winds and when he cannot go out to the sea in the enginepropelled- dinghy of his employer, he collects tiger prawn roe to sell to the agents of fisheries. A painstaking and meticulous job done with the help of small shells, this fetches him half of what he earns during ‘normal’ fishing seasons.

And what is wrong with the Press? “They are bad people,” Bar says, with venom. “They are hand-in-glove with the state. They come here as amateur photographers and picnickers. Next day, the media say that Haripur is uninhabited and barren. Then come the babus with measuring tapes and soiltesting equipment. So [local Trinamool MP] Subhendu Adhikari has asked us to throw you guys out, by force if needed.”

This rings a strange note, as the Trinamool Congress (TMC), whose spectacular show in last year’s general elections was a result of the ‘eviction-phobia’ of rural Bengal, is conspicuously silent on the Haripur Nuclear Power Plant, which promises to evict lakhs of people from the radioactive zone. Nineteen villages within 1.5 km of the plant which fall in the core area, are to be emptied. The proposed buffer zone lies 4.8 km beyond, encompassing 125 villages. And an area comprising 542 villages, including the Contai municipality, falls within the 16-km radioactive zone.

As in most of Bengal, the land is fertile, churning out 2-3 rice crops a year. Betel leaves and coconuts also form a substantial part of the local economy. And people are contented. From retired school headmaster, septuagenarian Sachindranath Giri, to Subrata Jana, the local quack, to Subhadra Giri, the quintessential housewife, no one warms to the idea of a hefty compensation in lieu of the land they own, till and live in. Even the 21-year-old Biswajit Bhuniya, a Class 9 dropout, who runs the local grocery, is happy in his village. He knows that any compensation dwindles exponentially, but the skills required to survive and sustain a home away from home are not easily acquired. Certainly not as easily as he harvests his paddy, sell his coconuts and trades his tiger prawn roe.

The local MLA, Dibyendu Adhikari, younger brother of Subhendu, speaks with a studied political correctness. He is emphatic that TMC stands by its policy of opposition to nuclear plants and that “I will resign if the plant comes into being”. He is aware that the land mafia is at work in Haripur and claims to be vigilant. He is ‘overconfident’ that the locals trust the TMC, and that ‘most development stories will be rewritten’ once they come to power in West Bengal in 2011. “2017 is a far cry. Don’t worry too much. We will not let it happen,” Dibyendu assures.

But why is there such an uproar over a nuclear power plant, when even Shamraibar, the village adjoining Haripur, is without electricity, 63 years after Independence? The strongest advocates of nuclear power, like Bikash Sinha (Padma Bhushan and ex-director, BARC), have cried hoarse the obvious: that the yawning gap between demand and supply of electricity in the country, limited availability of coal and natural gas as a fuel and the collective pledge of the powers that be for the electrification of every Indian village, will necessitate nuclear power. It seems all too natural a corollary to even question its premises.

Not all agree, though. Abhee Dutt-Mazumder, a professor at Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, says, “We do not mind nuclear research reactors per se. But our track record of nuclear power is too dismal to count on. In 1954, we were promised 8,000 MW of nuclear power by 1980, subsequently revised to 43,500 MW in 1969. Ask how much we have been able to produce? Just 4,120 MW in 2009 from 17 operating reactors — 52 percent of the original promise made 55 years ago.” He continues, “Secondly, we have never talked of light water reactors (the most widely used technology in the US) in the last 60 years of nuclear research in India. But now we are. Will all the investment over the last 60 years go to waste? Even MIT, one of the most vocal proponents of nuclear power, does not claim it to be ‘cost effective’, and lays a huge stress on ‘best practices’ as a determinant of its efficacy in it’s report. Needless to say, we cannot guarantee that in India.”

The polemics will continue. So will the problems. The need for entire country’s electrification is a fundamental necessity. Equally fundamental is the right of the poor villager to live a life of dignity, dented already by poverty and injustice. A nuclear power plant in Haripur promises a captive generating capacity of 1,000 MW with 60 percent efficiency, an industry in the anaemic map of West Bengal and cash compensation to evicted locals that will not last them long. It also promises to create lakhs of ‘development refugees’ and a potential civil war, akin to Nandigram. The peoples’ movement is peaceful and unarmed. As of now. But so it was in Nandigram initially. As 80 year old hunchback Suvankari Giri pledged, “I can take a bullet and bleed to death, but won’t part with my land.”

In 2009, Prakash Karat, the doctrinaire General Secretary of the CPMwithdrew support from the first UPA government over the nuclear deal with the US. In less than a year, India has signed the Haripur deal with Russia. The local mandarins of Karat’s party are more than happy. The deal with their political alma mater — and not with the US — means that their ideological chastity belt remains intact. More importantly, the land mafia, lying low after the Singur-Nandigram imbroglio, now has something to cheer about. It is again baying for blood. West Bengal has bled enough in the last three decades. It can ill afford another civil war.


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