Bahar Dutt is a wildlife conservationist by training. She has worked for the last ten years on crucial wildlife conservation projects in India and abroad. In England she worked at the world famous Jersey Zoo set up by naturalist Gerald Durrell and was involved in assessing the conditions for release of endangered primate in the Amazon forests. . She has over 10 awards to her credit including the Ramnath Goenka Award in 2006 and the Wildscreen Award , UK and the Young Environment Journalist Award 2007. As an environment editor at CNN-IBN she has done a range of stories travelling to far and forgotten corners of this country to expose the nexus between the mining mafia, politicians and corporates. She has posed as a furniture maker to expose the illegal trade in banned timber in the Western Ghats, and the nexus between the police and a mining company in the Niyamgiri hills of Orissa. One of her most dramatic exposés involved a cement company of global dimensions that had been operating illegally in the forests of Meghalaya on the India-Bangladesh border. More recently, she and the CNN-IBN team exposed the operations of a miner in Goa who had illegally devastated forest lands. Their story led to the shut down of the mine.
On the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster the Indian government announced it will remain committed to its ambitious plans to build a nuclear power plant at Jaitapur. The Chief Minister of Maharashtra Prithvi Raj Chavan washed his hands off the violent protests at the site by stating to the Prime Minister that there are "outside elements" involved in the protests that broke out last week which led to the death of one person, Jaitapur has become a victim of shadow boxing. Not one announcement made by the Prime Minister's office will assuage the people of Jaitapur.
Even the media which could have kept up the pressure dismissed the protests last week as incited by the Shiv Sena and therefore not worthy of any attention. "Typical of the Shiv Sena to politicize the issue" claimed angry editorials and viewers responses on television debates. Angry readers wrote in - "They are known for creating violence."
While I am no supporter of the Shiv Sena or their activities, it would be very easy to dismiss the Jaitapur problem as political opportunism by one party. It is forgotten that in clearing the project in such a tearing hurry, without consulting the people on the ground the Congress too indulged in political opportunism in time for President Sarkozy's visit. Even the Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh acknowledged while giving environment clearance to the project - there are "strategic economic and diplomacy concerns" that influenced his decision for clearing the project. Could it be that the opportunism of the Congress is more palpable to an elitist media than the opportunism of the Shiv Sena?
Another attempt at shadow boxing is to dump the Jaitapur issue in that convenient basket of "environment vs development". That is, a handful of green fanatics are coming in the way of electricity being generated for Maharashtra which is facing a power crisis. And who cares about some mangroves or marine biodiversity, when we need energy. And if we simply compensate the people displaced by the project, we would get access to clean nuclear energy. The problems for Jaitapur are far more complex. In the political bashing that has dominated the Jaitapur debate the real issues affecting the people on the ground have been sidelined. And the latest government response at the highest level has not even come close to addressing the issues on the ground.
The problems for the people of Jaitapur are of a thriving vibrant economy which is rich in natural resources being destabilized, of a handful of people being offered employment in comparison to a much larger percentage being displaced from their traditional livelihoods. Livelihoods, which are economically profitable. Lets first start by admitting that the site of the power plant is on productive, agricultural land, (which incidentally government reports labeled as "barren") that it will deprive some 1,000 families of their farming land and 6,000 people who depend on fisheries. And admit that even despite the people's protests, the state government has taken over 938 hectares of land forcibly and handed it over to the Nuclear Power Corporation of India officials, this after ninety percent have still not accepted the compensation offered by the state government. The government used the pretext of "public purpose" to acquire the land. Lets look now at the issue of compensation. The fishing village of Sankri Nata is at the centre of the rehabilitation debate. The fishermen of Sankri Nata are less than one kilometer from the proposed site of the Nuclear Plant, the harbour here is the only access point for hundreds of boats to head out to sea. Their main catch comprises mackerel, prawn, pomfret, oysters and mussel all meant for export, earning the fishermen thousands of rupees. Is the NPCIL going to allow boats to fish in the area, will it not have to cordon off the area for protecting India's largest nuclear power plant? And yet for this loss not one fisherman from Sankri Nata has been included in the compensation package. Simply because they do not own land. One small glimmer of hope was that in the Prime Ministers meeting, concerns have been raised about the fishermen and their livelihoods. But why did it take so long to acknowledge that their livelihoods will be affected? Maybe the employment of a handful of fishermen is not so important when the nation would get a 'clean source of energy' in return.
For Dr Mihir Desai a young doctor of Milindvane village , its not even a question of compensation but the kind of development that's being imposed on them. He has just returned from two weeks in police custody, all because he protested against the plant. He owns 53 acres of land inside Jaitapur and has still not accepted any of the compensation offered by the state government. As he states - "yes we want development, but do we not get to choose what kind of development? When you get clothes for your child do you not ask would you like a shirt? or a pant? And what colour? So should the government not ask us what kind of development? Why not set up a factory for harvest of mangoes of cashew-nut or fish products? Why bring development which is harmful to the people and the resources of this region?
And he maybe right, if you look at the development projects earmarked for the entire Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg region. One of the richest regions of the country, the Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg region was earmarked as a horticulture belt famous for its alphonso mango, cashew nuts and a thriving fish industry because of the diversity of marine life found off the Konkan coast. Instead of developing these industries further, or even cashing in on the tourism potential of the Konkan region the two districts are being developed as a power hub expected to provide over 30,000 MW of energy to the country along with huge coal mining, and chemical projects that have also been earmarked.
If the government plans go through with their plans every 20 km of Ratnagiri and Konkan will be pockmarked with a thermal power plant. And this does not even include land set aside for coal mining or coastal beaches earmarked for ports. The cumulative impact of so many big power projects coming up in one small region of the country which has over 65,000 hectares of land under alphonso mango and 90,000 hectares under cashew cultivation has not even been studied. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has itself admitted it looks at individual projects and their cumulative impact on the ecology of the region has not been studied. Already with the setting up of the JSW thermal power Plant in Jaigad in Ratnagiri, locals allege the water table has fallen and many wells in the periphery of the factory have been declared as unfit for drinking purposes because of pollution from these plants even as a study by NEERI admits that over 6% of the people in the area suffer from respiratory diseases. The mango farmers who live around Jaigad already fear a fall in the alphonso mango production since the plant has become operational because of the dust and pollution from the power plant. Who pays the farmers for these losses? And who develops when such projects extract the resources from a region, that's what the nation needs to be more honest about when big projects are started in resource-rich regions.
Let's now come to the energy debate. Is this energy really for the people of Jaitapur? Or again can we be more honest and admit that the energy is needed to support our carbon intenstive lifestyle in the city, than bringing more people on the grid. Nuclear energy from the twenty nuclear reactors in the country meet only 2% of the country's energy needs, which could easily be met through alternate sources, but rarely are these other options considered.
Lastly, is it fair to label the fears of the people of Jaitapur as anti-national because they do not want radioactive nuclear waste in their backyard? Compare this with another protest that is being waged for the last few months by residents of a posh south Delhi colony asking for the scrapping of a waste-to energy project that's coming up in their backyard. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) is building a 200-crore plant at Okhla where about 1000 tonnes of solid waste are expected to be converted into electricity. The project will entail thousands of trucks laden with garbage producing toxic gases plying through their residential colonies but the people of South Delhi want the project scrapped. They've even threatened to go on an "Anna Hazare" fast unto death if that doesn't happen. The fight of the people of Jaitapur is similar to the fight of the people of South Delhi, perhaps a more serious one given that the latter deals with garbage while the former with radioactive waste. But the fight of the people of South Delhi will never be dubbed as anti-national like the people of Jaitapur. Because in this case the stench of the garbage is closer home.