The scene outside Y B Chavan Hall, near the State Secretariat in Mumbai on the afternoon of 18 January was extraordinary. The parking area on the road alongside the hall was cordoned off and there were scores of police, including armed personnel, milling around the entrance. The state government was obviously anticipating trouble at the public hearing it had called, on the controversial 10,000 MW chain of nuclear power plants at Jaitapur, in Ratnagiri district on the Konkan coast.

As it turned out, it need not have bothered: the main opposing residents' group, the Janhit Sewa Samiti, in the nearby town of Madban and the Konkan Bachao Samiti led by retired Bombay High Court judge B G Kolse Patil and activist Vaishali Patil, had decided to boycott the hearing altogether. They had got wind of the fact that the hearing was going to be a PR exercise designed to rubber-stamp the state government's decision to allocate 968 hectares for the power project, of which the first phase will be two 1,650MW plants. Eventually, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) plans to erect six such plants, built by the French state government agency Areva, with its new Evolutionary Pressurised Reactor (EPR) technology.

A stage-managed hearing

Beyond the phalanxes of guards and hangers-on, the double-decker hall was filled, incongruously, with the recorded sounds of birds chirping and peacocks crying, doubtless to bolster NPCIL's credentials as an agency which was supremely mindful of the environment. Alternately, it could have had the old poet's line in mind: "Music has charms to soothe the savage breast."

Punctually, a few minutes after 4 PM, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan trooped on to the stage, accompanied by virtually his entire cabinet and senior bureaucrats. It was an unprecedented demonstration of the importance the State government pays to the nuclear project, which when completed will be the largest in the world. The audience was very obviously packed by NPCIL employees - who had forgotten to remove their identify cards - and political yes-men.

There were lengthy presentations, among others, by NPCIL chairman and managing director S K Jain, who also referred to how the company had held a public hearing near the site last May. India already runs 20 nuclear plants without any blemish on its safety record, he said. He cited the presence of the former Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chairman, Anil Kakodkar, "the father figure of the nuclear industry", as evidence that all was well with the project.

As has happened on so many occasions involving major projects, this was yet another instance of the authorities going through the motions of holding a public hearing, but hardly respecting the spirit of such an encounter.

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Somewhat unconventionally, Dr Rajendra Badwe from the Tata Memorial Cancer Hospital testified that the plant would be safe; if it was not, it would not have been permitted. Referring to the reports by the anti-nuclear activist, Dr Surendra Gadekar, an IIT alumnus who is a Gandhian and lives in Vedchhi in Gujarat, about the incidence of abnormalities in children around the Rawatbhata Atomic Power Station (RAPS) in Rajasthan, Dr. Badwe dismissed the allegations as being without any foundation since these had not been peer-reviewed and published in reputed scientific journals.

Dr Srikumar Banerjee, current Chairman of the AEC, said that Jaitapur would solve the energy scarcity of the whole country. The site selection committee had inspected the site for safety, protection of the environment, the discharge of warm water used to cool the reactors and also surveyed the areas around the nuclear plants and cleared them. He went on to argue, straining at credulity, that around the 20 other plants in India, the flora and fauna had actually increased.

Two of the three hours that the public hearing lasted were taken up by official claims, illustrated with colourful Powerpoint presentations. Some of the questions from the audience had obviously been stage-managed, with villagers welcoming the plant, to considerable applause.

Squirming on the dais

Even though the well-organised dissenters from the five villages were not present, there were a handful of villagers who did ask relevant questions in the remaining hour. The reactions of the top political brass, sitting in the front row of the dais, gave the game away. Mr Chavan and Minister Narayan Rane hardly disguised their contempt at the naivete of the some of the questions, though on rehabilitation, the Chief Minister was quick to assure a questioner that he would prevail upon NPCIL to offer the best deal possible.

As has happened on so many occasions involving major projects, this was yet another instance of the authorities going through the motions of holding a public hearing, but hardly respecting the spirit of such an encounter. As the very title suggests, the occasion should be an opportunity for those affected and well-informed on social, environmental and economic issues to ask questions to the authorities to allay their fears.

By steamrolling the opposition in this manner - the NPCIL had been presented with a list of opponents who wanted to make presentations, which it rejected - the proceedings were reduced to a farce. Vaiju Naravane, The Hindu correspondent in Paris, was about the only journalist who thrust her way to the front of the hall and asked pointed questions about the four-year delay in completion of one of the three other EPR projects being built in the world - in Finland - which has seen its cost escalating from 3 billion to 7 billion euros. In Taishan in China, she alleged the reactor had been delayed because the interior lining was defective.

Dr. Banerjee replied that these four EPR projects were the first of their kind in the world. He admitted that there was "undue delay" in the case of Finland, while there was only a slight delay in the case of China. Naravane persisted in asking whether there were hurdles in clearances in France itself for its EPR project, to which the response was "there are some issues on that". The Chief Minister cut off further questions from Naravane.

Head in the sand

The tragedy is that the NPCIL and the political establishment are burying their heads in the sand over the controversial issue, which affects the lives of people in the entire region. This section of the Konkan receives high rainfall and Ratnagiri, where Jaitapur is situated, is famous for its horticulture, not least the world-renowned alphonso mango and cashew nuts. It is by no means barren land, as the NPCIL has sought to make out, but verdant and self-sustaining. The very fact that migrant labourers here - including those from Nepal - are paid Rs. 300-400 a day speaks for itself. The coast also sees a great deal of fishing, but catches are falling due to over-fishing and pollution these days.

According to veteran journalist and anti-nuclear activist Praful Bidwai, who visited the area in January and made a presentation at the Mumbai Press Club (on 11 January), which was also well attended by affected villagers, of the 2785 families to be displaced, only 114, or less than 5 per cent, have accepted compensation two to four years ago. Most of these are absentee landlords. The grassroots movement against the nuclear project has another unique dimension: more than half the participants are women.

Although the Jaitapur project when completed will be the single biggest nuclear power plant complex in the world, it is "part of the onslaught of the development process", Bidwai said. There are 18 power and mining projects coming up in the region, including coal-fired stations and bauxite. The irony is that it has been listed as one of the country's 14 biodiversity hotspots.

Madhav Gadgil headed the Western Ghats Ecological Experts Panel, which submitted its report last October and documented how the government was not consulting the people. The Tata Institute of Social Sciences also has a report which had pointed out several lapses. It had indicated that the project, which requires about land across five villages, will have a negative impact on the social and environmental development of not only these villages and the surrounding areas but also of the Konkan region in general. Ratnagiri is more than 90 per cent literate.

Several prominent experts have been ordered to stay away from the area. These include Madhav Gadgil, widely regarded as one of the country's most reputed environmentalists. Former Bombay High Court judge Kolse Patil defied the ban and after he was arrested, he was detained for a full five days and nights and not produced before court for three days.

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As for the nuclear plant itself, Bidwai underlined how hazardous it was, ecologically. There was danger of the surrounding population being exposed to radiation, such as had occurred in Tarapur, the country's first such plant. In the event of an accident like Chernobyl or even Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, the outcome would be "catastrophic". There was also the question of safe storage of the nuclear waste from the plant. The water discharged from the plant would be 4-5 degrees C hotter than the prevailing ocean temperature: even a 0.5 degree rise affects the ecology.

State action against opponents

The project is being implemented without following proper procedures, on the basis of a flimsy Environment Impact Assessment report. There was no mention of nuclear waste or biodiversity. However, what is doubly worrying in the case of Jaitapur, is the repression of activists. At one stage, 400 people were arrested under the antiquated Bombay Police Act, a relic of the Raj which prohibits the assembly of more than four people, even though it was a peaceful protest. The ban has been in force for 191 days in Ratnagiri and neighbouring Sindhudurg districts.

Shockingly, several prominent experts have been given externment notices - orders to stay away from the area. These include Madhav Gadgil, who formerly headed the Centre for Ecological Studies at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and is widely regarded as one of the country's most reputed environmentalists. Others to be meted out such shoddy action were ex Supreme Court Justice P B Sawant, former Admiral Ramdas, Pune economist Sulabha Brahme and the veteran Communist Party leader, A B Bardhan. Former Bombay High Court judge Kolse Patil defied the ban and after he was arrested, he was detained for a full five days and nights and not produced before court for three days.

Strange politics

Government employees, including school teachers, have been asked to propagate the merits of the nuclear plant. In response, children have been boycotting schools. This is a ham-handed attempt to browbeat critics, but it may well have the opposite reaction.

Jaitapur is not far from Dabhol and the parallels are too close to avoid comparison. Like Dabhol, the votaries of Jaitapur are claiming that it will solve the power problems of the country, when the nuclear power authorities in this country have performed abysmally so far, accounting for only 4 per cent of the electricity generated in half a century of operating nuclear plants, not to mention its lax safety record. Under the Atomic Energy Act of 1962, the nuclear establishment is empowered not to even inform Parliament about the costs of producing power, which is why it has been mollycoddled for far too many years. There is no telling what a kilowatt hour from Jaitapur will eventually cost.

Like Dabhol, this project too may make strange political bedfellows. Both Uddhav Thackeray (Shiv Sena) and Narayan Rane of the Congress (he was previously with the Shiv Sena) are eyeing the political dividends from such a situation, though from opposite sides. About the public hearing, the Sena leader had this to say: "Chavan presented a dazzling team of scientists and experts ... They all spoke in technical language which has little meaning for the local villagers. This is not the way to convince them about the nuclear plant."

Chavan, incidentally, was previously in charge of the Atomic Energy department at the Centre. In his new role as the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, he should take a balanced view of the pros and cons of the project, and also take due note of the sentiments of his new constituents. For the moment, though, it appears a case of putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop.