Who is fishing in troubled KKNPP waters?

The villages around Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu have their own reasons for wanting the nuclear power plant closed down: Idinthakarai villagers, living less than 2 km from the Koodankulam nuclear power plant (KKNPP), are worried about a nuclear disaster like in Fukushima and want to protect their lives and their progeny; those living in fishing villages like Perumanal, about 6 km from Koodankulam, feel that the nuclear power plant would affect the marine life, and, in turn, their livelihood. As one goes further away from the power plant, the reasons for the protest against it become nebulous.

While the leaders claim that their fierce protest is homegrown, people inland surmise it could be due to the influence of the mining lobby active in the region.

According to government order M.S. No. 822 dated 29-04-1991, an area of 5 km surrounding the Koodankulam nuclear power station is a sterilised zone where no industrial or mining activity is permitted.

There is a sand mining unit of a multi-crore mineral extraction firm close to the power plant. The effluents released by the unit turns the clear blue waters of the scenic Perumanal hamlet, where just a dozen families live, into crimson red for most part of the day.

“After all, the only folks who would lose crores of rupees if the nuclear plant becomes operational are the sand-mining folks. It is anybody’s guess here in Valliyoor (nearest town) that the mining lobby is behind the anti-nuclear plant protests spearheaded by the church,” said a former MLA and senior politician from Valliyoor.

From dawn to dusk, the protesters sit under a thatched roof outside St. Anthony’s church in Idinthakarai, the hamlet closest to Koodankulam nuclear power plant, demanding that the Rs 13,000 crore nuclear power project, ready to go live with a capacity to generate around 2,000 MW of electricity, be shut down.

Anti-nuclear activist and schoolteacher S.P. Udayakumar, who has now become the face of these protests, claims that while his NGO People’s Movement against Nuclear Energy, has been campaigning against the plant for over a decade now, the most recent agitation and its massive success in grabbing the nation’s attention was the people’s uprising out of a genuine fear for the safety and well-being of around two lakh people who live in and around Koodankulam.

“Following the Fukushima nuclear accident that took place in March 2011, the fishermen have awake ving near a nuclear facility and are now demanding their right to live peacefully,” he says.

“The most recent trigger was the announcement of a mock drill when the public were asked to cover their face and mouth and run for cover following an alarm. The long list of do’s and don’ts released by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India has finally enlightened them of the perilous situation.”

In the Perumanal fishing hamlet, where around 5,000 people live, the residents also seek closure of the nuclear power station fearing it could affect the marine life and, hence, their livelihood. “The operation of the plant will affect our livelihood and we don’t want it here,” says Father Kishore, parish priest of Perumanal.

The sudden surge in protests has perplexed those managing the Koodankulam power plant. Site director at the power station, Mr Kashinath Balaji, sports a worried look these days.

“We have been spreading awareness about the plant and campaigning against the unfounded fears of some people for around a decade now. The sudden uprising is perplexing and inexplicable,” he says.

No foreign link, says strongman behind stir

As one of the most vociferous protests against nuclear power in the country during recent times enters its third month in Koodankulam, the leader of the protests S.P. Udayakumar, a 52-year-old schoolteacher turned anti-nuclear activist, remains as enigmatic as the force that propels the stir.

While the intelligence agencies and rival groups are busy probing his connections with foreign agents and the flow of funds to channel the protests, Udayakumar dismisses the claims as official propaganda.

“I am a simple school teacher and a peace activist. I have been campaigning for peace and disarmament since my early youth. This movement is a public uprising of which I am a part. It is unfortunate that I am seen as the one pushing it forward,” Udayakumar says.

Born in a small time political family in Nagercoil, Udayakumar completed his post graduation in English Literature and moved to Ethiopia 1981-87 to teach English. “In 1989, I went to the US to do another PG in Peace Studies followed by a Ph D in political science from university of Hawaii,” he said.

“For the last 10 years, my wife has been running SACCER Matriculation School where I also teach. Besides, I am also a visiting faculty in several institutions based in the US and UK and make frequent visits abroad,” he says.

Although several local politicians including former Radhapuram MLA have been fighting for two decades for banning the power project, none could gather the kind of support Udayakumar has mustered.

“I have been fighting for these people for decades but locals in Koodankulam have only scorned me,” said former DMK MLA M. Appavu. “Udayakumar and his team approached me a few years ago to lead the protests against the power plant. But, I refused,” he said.

“We are not prepared for any negotiations,” Kumar says. “Our demand to the state and central government is to stop work on the Koodankulam nuclear plant and instead look towards renewable sources of energy. The government is making a false claim that nuclear power can fill the energy gap in the country.”

However, intelligence agencies suspect the role of foreign agencies behind the activist’s involvement in the protests.

“For instance, Udayakumar and some of his associates have been on atleast a few trips to Fukushima in Japan. It is uncertain as to how he could manage the funds. We are also probing the role of a retired scientist from Nagercoil in sourcing foreign funds,” a police source said.

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