How the Koodankulam agitation lost its spark

Tamil Nadu government changed tack and left protesters confined to one place

Written by Shaju Philip | Idinthakarai | Published:April 2, 2012 2:02 am

The agitation against the Koodankulam nuclear plant has lost its intensity and sense of direction following the withdrawal of an indefinite fast,a move forced on the protesters after the Tamil Nadu government withdrew its tacit support to them.

The indefinite fast at Idinthakarai had seen mass participation but on Monday,when a relay hunger strike begins,it will involve only a few dozen people. The protesters are as frustrated as they are uncertain where this will lead to. They are wondering how they can pick up the earlier tempo,especially when work on the power plant is into its final stages in a power-starved state.

One sign of the climbdown is that protest leaders are no longer demanding closure of the plant and insisting only on safety standards. “We are yet to decide how to take the agitation forward. In no manner will we disturb the work at the plant,” says Pushparayan,a former priest engaged in several movements in the coastal belt for more than a decade.

Tables turned

The reversal of fortunes began after the state government changed its stance. The first move was to invite the leaders of the struggle,ostensibly to seek clarifications over the memorandum they had submitted to the chief minister. The protesters,however,suspected the government’s motives and many refused to go.

The next morning,a few did go to the local police station where they were arrested. Hours later,Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa announced that her administration was convinced that the plant is safe,based on reports by committees appointed by the state and the Centre.

Within hours,the entire Radhapuram taluk was covered in a thick security blanket. The region teemed with hundreds of local police personnel,Special Police battalions,platoons of Armed Reserve and several companies of Rapid Action Force of the CRPF. There were riot control vehicles; check posts packed with policemen were set up every few hundred metres,checking vehicles,stopping potential protesters and detaining those who staged impromptu roadblocks.

What this led to was that the protesters were left confined to Idinthakarai. The village is at a dead end with only two approach roads. When the protest was at its height,this had worked as an advantage for the protesters,helping block out intruders. Now,it worked against the protesters,who found themselves cut off from the plant,should they wish to disrupt work. The roads are blocked with boulders and logs,effectively confining the protesters within their barricades.

It had become clear that the authorities were in no hurry to act as long as the fast did not hamper the work on the project. The strategy was to contain rather than go on the offensive.

Leaders explain why they had no option but to withdraw the indefinite fast. “Around 200 persons are in judicial custody,with charges of sedition and war against the state against them. Life at the village was badly hit as the police cordon remained for several days. We had no option but to end the indefinite fast to get our men released and the siege on the village lifted. Even our children’s classes were affected,” says one leader.

Besides,a continuing power crisis with loadshedding every day swayed the public mood. This is something many see as a calculated move by the government to turn pubic opinion against the protest.

Indecision

The nearly two-week long boycott of fishing has made many people restless before trawling stops. “There is no work for our men. How will we survive without our men going into the sea?” says Alphonsa,a homemaker in Perumanal near Koodankulam. Fishermen from Kanyakumari to Tuticorin have stopped venturing into the sea after the police blockade at Idinthakarai.

Since the withdrawal of the indefinite fast,Pushparayan and People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy chairman S P Udayakumar have been camping in the village. They say a clear strategy will be chalked out after the jailed protesters are back.

“We are waiting for the next round of the mock drill,which will expose the lack of emergency preparedness,” says Pushparayan. “The agitation will gather momentum again once their next evacuation plans go awry.’’

Father V Kishore,parish priest of Visitation Church at Perumanal,says they are disappointed at the turn of events. “The government that had stood with the agitators did not give any indication about the police action,” he says. “The entire region was locked in. We were forced to go for a discussion with the government.’’ He says the Catholic Church is under pressure to withdraw support to the agitation,but adds it is a people’s protest and the church stand may not make an impact. “We are waiting to see what Udayakumar has on mind.”

Politics

The Congress and the DMK have been demanding commissioning of the plant. So have communist parties because of the Russian connection of the project. Now that the ruling AIADMK’s tacit support has gone,there is an effort to bring in more VIPs. The proposed visit by Kerala Opposition leader V S Achuthanandnan to Idinthakarai is a step in that direction.

Students and fringe outfits from Kerala had been active in the agitation until the Mullaperiyar controversy divided activists in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. With that issue on the back-burner now,Idinthakarai activists are looking to see whether their Kerala counterparts can throw their weight behind them again.

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