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Courting Injustice In The Name Of The Nuclear Nod

By Raminder Kaur

02 September, 2012

‘In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.’

We now learn that the Madras High Court has given ‘the nod’ to the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (31 August 2012). No real surprises here, for courts siding with nuclear authorities have become common practice. Name one instance where a public petition against the plans of a nuclear authority, however well—founded and delivered, has overturned this unwritten rule in India.

Three reasons have become standard in why the courts side with the nuclear establishment: (1) the unquestioned expertise of the nuclear authorities; (2) statements as to the massive financial commitments made on the nuclear plants; and (3) arguments that either the project is in the public interest and national development, or conversely that a civilian nuclear power is not in the public interest because it is tied in with a national security mandate.

On all counts, their reasoning is flawed. (1) The expertise of nuclear advocates is questionable when they blur facts with public relations exercise to save the face of nuclear power. Reports that present evidence to the contrary as with the Comptroller and Audit General report on the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board or those by independent experts do not get a fair hearsay. When making a judgment the views and reports of all parties should be considered equably and with due consideration of any vested interests.

(2) Massive expenditure should not be simply endorsed by the courts, but critically examined for its extravagance as it is one of the main problems why nuclear power is not a viable means with which to generate electricity in an efficient and sustainable manner. No plans for a nuclear plant can proceed without the support of enormous government subsidies, funds that are repeatedly diverted from cheaper alternatives in power generation.

And (3) that nuclear expansion is for the public interest is questionable when it goes hand-in-hand with a lack of transparency and accountability, and when the Indian government is held hostage to agreements and loans that favour foreign companies. Relatedly, the Official Secrets Act (1923) and the Atomic Energy Act (1962) should not be applied to civilian enterprises that will have an impact on the health, livelihood and environment of neighbouring populations. After all, one of the consequences of the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal was to have a clear separation between nuclear enterprises that are for civilian and military use.

In the 281 page common order against the batch of petitions from the Madras High Court, the Division Bench stated:

‘By taking note of the overall situation, we are of the view that the KKNPP [Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant] in respect of Units I and II do not suffer from any infirmities either for want of any clearance from any of the authorities, including the MoEF, the AERB, the TNPCB and the Department of Atomic Energy, and there is absolutely no impediment for the NPCIL to proceed with the project.’

The problem is not in the order but in the fact that the named authorities, supposedly independent, are under the wings of the nuclear fraternity. Of course, there would be no ‘impediment’ when handshakes have already been shook between Boards, Departments and Ministries.

‘There is absolutely no reason to disbelieve the report of the expert committee appointed by the state government,’ the Bench continued without taking cognisance of contesting views from other expert reports, individuals and authorities on the subject such as those that lie with the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy Expert Committee.

Another Bench comprising Justices P. Jyothimani and P. Devadoss dismissed a petition challenging the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board clearance for loading uranium fuel in the plant. The Bench said, ‘It is not for the court to suspect the statutory authorities, until a classic case is made out...the court does not have expertise to suspect the statutory authorities’ opinion.’

A catch-22 ensues – when the Court turns to experts on nuclear matters it does so with those that have vested interests that nuclear plans go unimpeded. The path of impartial justice is tainted before one even sets off. And how can one set a ‘classic case’ if documents that expose the inadequacies of statutory authorities are not fairly consulted?

It is also admitted in the order that an expert committee, appointed by the Tamil Nadu government, had ‘categorically stated that historically there had never been a big earthquake or tsunami in Koodankulam area’.

It would seem that the frequency of the use of terms such as ‘absolutely’ and ‘categorically’ signal a hollow edict and not a fair judgment. With all due respect, this statement is yet another grave instance of how legislative leaders are misled by supposed impartial bodies. The judgement points to the sheer gravity of distance between on-the-ground realities and the rarefied corridors of rationalised discourse. Had members of the Bench seen other reports, they would have learnt about CASA-Nagar just next to the village of Idinthikarai where visitors are greeted with a large granite tablet stating that this is a tsunami rehabilitation village. If they had talked to the poor people who had to move, they would have learnt that some of these coastal residents had died in the tsunami of December 2004. They would also have wondered about the bizarre logic of rehabilitating a community of about 450 families on government land so as they are now even closer to the nuclear power plant under construction at the time in 2006. In fact, the relocation closer to the Koodankulam reactors defies regulations that there should be no artificial population growth in a sterilised zone around a nuclear power plant.

For an expert committee to deny the severity of a tsunami in south India only points to a cover up that the Koodankulam units I and II were constructed from 2002 with no tsunami precautions in mind. In fact, hardly any of the Indian nuclear authorities had even heard of the word tsunami before it smacked them in the face on that fateful day in December.

The Court also decreed that the central and Tamil Nadu state government shall continuously oversee the plant and protect the interests of the people and fishermen in the area including awareness schemes. This is despite the fact that even a ten year old child from Koodankulam would have more awareness about the effects of radiation than the average bureaucrat.

A multi-speciality hospital and schools with hostel facilities for local people and children was also mentioned in the order, and financial assistance to be given to fishermen in the area to have mechanised boats and provide port and cold storage facilities to store fish catch.

An endorsement of these provisions is to be applauded. Whether they actually materialise as stated is another question. The hospitals - if they’re ready in twenty years’ time - will come in very handy for the rise of leukaemia, auto-immune thyroid disease, bone marrow cancer and cases of infertility amongst others across a rising percentage of the neighbouring populace. Mechanised boats would be immensely helpful for fishermen forced to travel further out to fish - that is, if the Sri Lankan army doesn’t continue to shoot at them.

The Bench continued that the District Collector of Tirunelveli where the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant is situated should ensure offshore safety drills regularly involving the public.

Here, here! And if past conduct is anything to go with at Nakkaneri, it should be done with as much confusion as possible with as little people as possible - when men are out at work and only illiterate women and children are around, ideally situated away from coastal fishing communities who stand more to lose from the plant. Obviously the Bench is going by way of the Collector's written report of the Nakkaneri non-event, an emergency drill that a report by the People's Union of Civil Liberties fact-finding team had dismissed as a 'blatant lie'.

The figure of justice is blindfolded so as it is not partial to any side. But in this case the figure of justice is not only blindfolded, but also blinded. We can only hope that the wool is not pulled over the eyes of the Supreme Court if reason and justice is to prevail in India.

‘Justice can sleep for years and awaken when it is least expected. A miracle is nothing more than dormant justice from another time arriving to compensate those it has cruelly abandoned. Whoever knows this is willing to suffer, for he knows that nothing is in vain.’

Raminder Kaur is the author of Atomic Bombay: Living with the Radiance of a Thousand Suns, Performative Politics and the Cultures of Hinduism and co-author with Virinder Kalra and John Hutnyk of Diaspora and Hybridity.



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