The lonely struggle of India’s anti-nuclear protesters via The Guardian

Women are leading protests in Tamil Nadu state against a power plant – yet few people in India know the village they’re from, let alone support their cause

Behind the Lourdes Matha church in Idinthakarai, a fishing village at the southern tip of India, five women have abandoned their chores to protest at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant. Today is day 1,754 of their relay hunger strike, which began when the plant was fuelled in 2011.

Celine, 73, is among the five protestors, who take it in turns to go without food. “Not a single government, not a single political party is willing to take up our cause,” she says. “Only Mother Mary can save us now.”

The villagers of Idinthakarai, in Tamil Nadu state, have been protesting against the plant since the late 1980s, when it was proposed. But theirs is a lonely struggle. Few people in India have even heard of their village, let alone support their protest.


SP Udayakumar, an anti-nuclear activist from the nearby town of Nagercoil, ran in May’s state elections as a single-issue candidate. “If India was getting half or a third of its energy from nuclear plants, then maybe there would be an argument for it,” he says. “But after all this, after years of crushing the peoples’ protest at Idinthakarai, is it really worth it?”

Udayakumar sees the nuclear programme as a costly prestige exercise that endangers the lives of millions. Plus, he points out, villagers are still living in the dark, since most of India’s energy is used by the industrial sector. “Who really benefits from the nuclear plants in the end, except the foreign companies that are building these plants in India?” he says.

In 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet leader at the time, made his first state visit to India. Two years later, he and Rajiv Gandhi, the incumbent prime minister, signed an agreement for two nuclear plants at Kudankulam.

Protests began a month later. The 1986 Chernobyl accident and the 1982 Bhopal gas disaster were of concern to the local fishing communities. How could the governments that had shown such catastrophic negligence be trusted to build a nuclear plant in their neighbourhood?

The end of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 derailed the Kudankulam plans until 1997, when Indian’s HD Deve Gowda and Russia’s Boris Yeltsin renewed the agreement. Construction of the plant began in 2002.


The resolve of the five protestors remains unshaken, but many of the villagers who supported them initially have realised the futility of resisting. The village chief’s husband, Sagayaraj, speaks on behalf of his wife. “The protests have destroyed our village,” he says. “I supported the protests at first, but now I’ve realised that we just need to take what we can get. This is not just about Idinthakarai or Kudankulam – it is an international issue. If they close the plant here, there will be protests to close nuclear plants all around the country. Now people realise the scale of what we’re trying to do. It’s like we’re protesting against Russia – against all the foreign governments. How can our small village take on international powers?”


Yet Modi has signed deals and held talks with countries including the UK and Japan in the past two years. The deals are in line with Modi’s predecessors’ ambitions for nuclear expansion. India has signed nuclear energy deals with at least 10 countries, including Namibia and Kazakhstan.

A spokesperson from the DAE said: “Nuclear power is a clean and green source of energy [that] does not contribute to increases in carbon emissions in the environment. Right at the design stage itself, necessary safety features are incorporated for safe operation of the plant. Post-Fukushima these safety features have been augmented and strengthened to address any beyond design basis incidents.”

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