In rural India, resistance to proposed nuclear plants

Farmer Ajitbhai Narela cited concerns about safety and livelihood in refusing to sell his fertile land.
Farmer Ajitbhai Narela cited concerns about safety and livelihood in refusing to sell his fertile land. (Rama Lakshmi/Post)
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By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 31, 2009

MITHI VIRDI-JASAPARA, INDIA -- Standing precariously on the thin edge of a newly dug well, Ajitbhai Narela looked out proudly at his groundnut and mango saplings.

For decades, he said, his family has tilled the soil here, working the land and producing sweet-tasting fruit. But soon, he noted, the fields may disappear. If Indian officials have their way, land in this seaside village will be paved over for a nuclear power plant.

"This is our birthplace. We have farmed this land with our blood and sweat over generations," said Narela, 55. "The government can cremate us right here, but we will not sell our land."

The proposed nuclear plant is to be designed using American technology, making it one of the first projects made possible by last year's historic civilian nuclear agreement between India and the United States. But villagers here are determined not to let that happen.

Their objections -- Narela recently signed a collective farmers' petition -- mark yet another stumbling block for India's government as it seeks to benefit from an agreement that has proved highly controversial both here and in Washington.

The accord was drafted to allow India access to global nuclear technology and fuel supplies after three decades of isolation. Before its signing, though, officials in the United States were forced to overcome reservations from nonproliferation experts, while backers of the agreement in this country had to overcome concerns that the pact would tie India too closely to U.S. strategic interests.

Now, in rural communities like this one, the implementation of the deal has raised concerns about land and livelihood, as farmers are being asked to sell their land to make way for reactors. The deal has also raised concerns about safety. In New Delhi, a debate is raging about elements of a proposed liability law that would cover claims in the event of a nuclear accident. Until India passes the law, U.S. companies such as GE and Westinghouse cannot operate here.

Anti-nuclear activists have distributed pamphlets and shown films about the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident to villagers here, and protests have been held at a site set aside for the French nuclear company Areva.

Narela said that he does not know what a nuclear plant is but that he has seen the graffiti that have sprung up on the walls of his village warning of dangers from such a facility. "They say that the air will turn poisonous, cows will be born without legs and children will be born blind," he said.

India is likely to introduce the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill next month in Parliament, according to an official familiar with the process. The bill would place the liability for a mishap on the government-owned Nuclear Power Corp. of India and set a cap on the maximum amount payable for damages. The official said the provisions correspond with common international practices.

Still, activists familiar with the draft say it is problematic.

"The proposed draft is totally unacceptable because it lets the foreign companies who supply equipment and design to India go scot-free. An accident can occur because of faulty design or substandard supplies, too. Will the law take away our right to sue them?" said Satinath Sarangi, an activist who represents survivors of the 1984 industrial accident in the city of Bhopal, in which poisonous gas leaked from a Union Carbide factory, causing 14,000 people to die from illnesses.


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