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Cold war at Jaitapur: Villagers worry over mode of living

Land acquisition remains on paper as people oppose the nuclear power project. The villagers think the reactors will affect the ecology of the area and their earnings.

Anusha Subramanian        Print Edition: April 3, 2011

They lift the heavy dragnet lying on the deck and unfold it slowly. In a choreographed move, Danish and his crew then cast the net into the green sea off the Konkan coast in one smooth sweep. They settle down to wait. BT photographer Umesh Goswami and I are in another boat close by, a 10-year-old trawler owned by another fisherman, Nehal Tamke.

The engines have been switched off. There are 10 of us on Tamke's trawler and 25 on Danish's. We can peer at least 20 deep into the clear waters of the sea surrounding us. After a while, Danish's crew hauls the net in. We hear a roar of delight. The net glistens with a huge catch of mackerel. We are told it is worth Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000.

We are here to try and understand why these fishermen are so opposed to the 9,900 MW Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project, or JNPP, proposed to be built 10 km away. Tamke, Danish and the others live a life in which technology plays a minimal yet critical role. Their trawlers run on Ashok Leyland diesel engines, the helmsman has a sonar to help locate shoals of fish and a walkie-talkie to talk to the spotter perched atop the boat.

But the involvement with technology ends here. Almost every boy in this area, after finishing school, would rather take to the sea than go for higher studies. These men have been fishing for generations. Their main catch comprises mackerel, prawn, pomfret, oysters and mussel. We return to the village of Sakhari Nate from where we had set out. The village, part of Rajapur taluka in Maharashtra's Ratnagiri district, has a population of over 7,000. The seven fishing villages here have around 12,000 people, mostly Marathi Muslims.

Heated controversy

The JNPP will have six nuclear reactors, each of 1,650 MW, made by Areva, a company owned by the French government. The 9,900 MW project will overtake Japan's 8,212 MW Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant as the world's biggest nuclear power station.

The Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, or CNDP, a grouping of civil society groups, says Areva's Evolutionary Pressurised Reactor, or EPR, is new and untested. A. Gopalakrishnan, a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, says the fuel that the EPRs use will almost double the burn-up rate and the radioactive waste will be much more toxic than that of existing models. "EPR waste will have about four times as much radioactive bromine, iodine and caesium as pressurised heavy water reactors," he says.

The NPCIL says EPR technology has evolved on the basis of the best safety features taken from the French N4 and German Konvoi reactors. "The reactor design follows the latest international standards and guidelines. It incorporates a large number of diverse safety features," NPCIL says. Gopalakrishnan says Areva's fi rst EPR project, coming up in Finland, is 3.5 years behind schedule and costs are 80 per cent over budget.

Boat owner Majith Govalkar explains why they are opposed to the nuclear project. Their understanding is that the reactors will discharge hot water into the sea, upsetting the ecology and scaring away the fish. Given the security concerns of a nuclear plant, the government is also sure to create a security zone and ban fishing near the coast, he says. Muffazal Phadnis, another boat owner, says over 6,000 people in these villages depend directly on fishing for a living. "For the boat owners there is no other income. We do not own agricultural land," he says.

Sakhari Nate's 450 big trawlers and 200 small boats bring in nearly 40,000 tonnes of fish a year out of the state's total haul of 4,25,000 tonnes, says Amjad A. Latif Borkar of the Maharashtra Machhimar Kruti Samiti. Over half the village's catch is exported to buyers in Japan, China, the United States and Europe. We point out that the government has worked out a Rs 650-crore rehabilitation package, with offers of gainful employment for those affected by the nuclear project.

"What gainful employment?" retorts Govalkar. "We are not educated and we do not understand anything other than fishing." Their scepticism increased after some of them visited villages around Tarapur, north of Jaitpur along the coast, where India's first nuclear reactor is located, for which land was acquired in the 1960s. They heard stories of how the once flourishing fishing villages' fleet of 400 boats has dwindled to 20. "Three fishing harbours have vanished... Rehabilitation took decades," says Phadnis.

Ratnagiri collector Madhukar B. Gaikwad says the government has acquired 938 hectares of barren land at Jaitapur, The Department of Atomic Energy also maintains that the JNPP will not displace any people, since much of the land acquired was unproductive.

But we get a different picture at our second halt, Niveli village, which, together with Karel and Mithgavane, will make way for the power project's township. At the public hearing, it was pointed out that the environment impact assessment report by the National Environment Engineering Research Institute had not mentioned the cashew and mango orchards or the paddy fields in the area. Bhagvati Vasudeo, 80, lives alone, supervising her cashew and mango plantations. Her son lives and works in Mumbai, Vasudeo has heard that the government has acquired her land. "Where will I go?" she asks.

Anil Jagnannath Tirodkar, who has lost most of his 20 acres, says when the acquisition was notified in 2007, the government had offered Rs 1.25 lakh per acre for barren land and Rs 1.60 lakh for cultivable land. The people refused to sell. The government kept increasing the rate. Today, it is Rs 10 lakh per acre with a job for each family.

Of the 2,335 families from the five villages, only 114 owning about five per cent of the land have accepted the compensation. "The people who have accepted the money do not stay here. Most stay in Mumbai," says Dr Milind Desai of Mithgavane, who has lost 55 acres but refused the compensation. Desai is referring to the likes of Raja Patwardhan, 60, who stays in Mumbai and calls himself a small farmer. Patwardhan, who gave up the 1.25 acres he had at Madhban, says the project is in the national interest.

It is not just about fishing or land. France's Areva will be supplying reactors that opponents of the project say are based on a new and untested design (see Heated Controversy). The unity of the villagers was visible during a visit by Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan to the area on February 26. At a public meeting Chavan addressed, industry minister Narayan Rane made sure no dissent was voiced and even asked the police to remove "outsider" Vaishali Patil, member of a nongovernment organisation, or NGO, opposed to the project. (Patil is from Raigad district.) The police demurred when they saw the crowd's mood.

Chavan, an engineer by training who has been on various parliamentary committees as a Lok Sabha member, failed to convince the crowd. "I am an engineer and I have worked on this project for the last six years. So I am well aware of what it is all about," he said, blaming NGOs run by 'outsiders' for instigating locals against the project.

Rane, whose constituency is in the Konkan, has failed to mobilise support. Political analysts blame it on his brashness. "Rane is trying to show that he has control over Konkan. But he has failed," says Aruna Pendse, associate professor of Political Science at Mumbai University.

V.V. Desai, a former chief economist of the Asian Development Bank who has worked closely with the energy sector, had written a paper on how India's nuclear power programme can avoid such problems.

Some ingredients of his recipe: a transparent and meaningful flow of information, sensitivity to the legitimate concerns of the people and market rates for land. The government and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd, or NPCIL, seem to have missed it. Now, they have to confront an angry populace that does not depend on state handouts.

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