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State repression of people’s agitation against Jaitapur nuclear project

24 January 2011

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The Economic and Political Weekly, January 22, 2011

Editorial

State Repression in Jaitapur

The government is responding to people’s anxieties about the Jaitapur nuclear project with police brutality.

A year ago, the Jaitapur-Madban area in Ratnagiri district of western Maharashtra turned into a hotbed of anger and protests when it became known that the area had been selected for the establishment of a massive nuclear power complex. The French company Areva is scheduled to develop six such reactors, each of 1,650 MW, which are to be operated by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL). If the “nuclear park” comes up in the area it will be the largest integrated nuclear power complex in the world.

From 2005 onwards the government of Maharashtra has been acquiring land for a nuclear power plant, the site having been identified for a plant as far back as the late 1990s. Yet, the people of the area still do not know how much land will be needed and how many thousand families will be displaced. So far nearly 2,335 farmers have lost their lands to the project, with 938.026 ha acquired mainly from Madban, Karel, Mithgavane and Niveli villages. Other than a small number, the landowners have refused to accept the compensation that has been offered to them.

The issue came to a boil in December when, on the eve of French President Nikolas Sarkozy’s visit to India, the NPCIL proposal was given a conditional environmental clearance. With landowners and villagers of the area taking to public protests, worried as they are about what the future is to bring, the government’s response has been to resort to intimidation and repression and to belatedly organise a public meeting in, of all places, Mumbai, to address the apprehensions of the people.

In the entire process the state government’s role has been marked by a lack of transparency and increasingly by intolerance. The government has lathi-charged protestors, promulgated Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC, relating to unlawful assembly) and Section 37(3) (1) of the Bombay Police Act (prohibiting different kinds of assembly), slapped cases on the agitators, including for an attempt to murder, and intimidated the local people against expressing their anger.

To the villagers already incensed at the government’s failure to address their anxieties about the project’s impact on their livelihoods and the environment, the police repression is further proof that the government is dumping a harmful project on them. The pre-emptive action by the police has prevented them from even registering their protest on issues crucial to them. A number of leaders of the Konkan Bachao Samiti, the Konkan Vinashkari Prakalp Virodhi Samiti and the Janahit Seva Samiti have been arrested or simply prevented from entering the district. The 70-year-old former judge of the Mumbai High Court, B G Kolse-Patil, was jailed for defying prohibitory orders while former Supreme Court judge P B Sawant and retired chief of Naval Staff Admiral L Ramdas were prohibited from entering the district.

All the signs, as in a number of large “development” projects elsewhere in the country, are of a rising tide of discontent in the area to which the government has no answer other than the use of force. Going by the number of charges slapped against the protestors and their leaders, the police intend to keep them “busy” and ensure that there is hardly any time to plan, mobilise and participate in the movement. The villagers, aware that the government intends to wear down opposition by “harassment”, are prepared for a long battle. The police have gone to the absurd extent of informing the media that all agitations in the state are being monitored for “possible links with Naxalites” and that the Jaitapur agitation is also being closely watched.

The state government is using another time-tested intimidatory tactic. Police presence in the area along with a large number of the force’s vehicles is overwhelming. All this however has led to developments that perhaps the government did not envisage. Professionals who would not ordinarily have joined in the agitations have taken the initiative to do so. In Sindhudurg, appalled by the legal repression, 46 lawyers have signed a collective vakalatnama in favour of the protestors. Similarly, doctors, whose lands have been acquired, are supporting the agitation.

Almost all the organisations protesting against the project boycotted the meeting called earlier this week by Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan in Mumbai to “clear misconceptions” about the project, since the discussion was not being held near the project site which would have allowed the villagers to participate in it. Envisaged as the centrepiece of Indo-French commercial cooperation in the 21st century, the Jaitapur nuclear park is instead fast becoming a symbol of people’s anger against an infrastructure project.