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In rural India, resistance to nuclear plants
Villagers' refusal to sell land is yet another obstacle for government

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.

Many activists have urged the government to enact legislation that would afford more protections to those living near any new reactor. But Mohit Saraf, a member of a task force established by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the U.S.-India Business Council, defended the liability proposal, saying it is necessary if India expects businesses to establish reactors here.

"The debate in India is emotional," Saraf said. "People mistakenly see the bill as benefiting only American companies."

In addition to the domestic liability law, the U.S.-India Business Council wants India to sign the Convention on Supplementary Compensation, under which a global pool of funds will kick in if the damages from an accident exceed $480 million.

But some in India oppose the convention because it would prevent Indian lawsuits from being filed in U.S. courts.

India hopes to generate 63,000 megawatts of nuclear power by 2030 with the help of American, French and Russian nuclear companies. Tens of thousands of jobs are expected to be created in India and the United States as a result of the nuclear agreement.

Here in Bhavnagar district, officials say the proposed nuclear plant would not only boost the economy, but also help improve the local infrastructure.

Still, the promise of economic development has done little to assuage the fears of opponents. Residents in this area say disasters such as the ones in Bhopal and Chernobyl have convinced them that the risks are too great.

"We will do with one light bulb instead of two but will not allow a nuclear plant in our back yard," said Bhupat Parekh, a 66-year-old retired engineer.

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