Trust Deficit — People’s Struggle At Koodankulam

By: Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Sudhir G. Vombatkere, Ph.D

People demand information

Before locating a mega or large project on the ground, the suitability of suggested or possible multiple sites is based upon site evaluation of each, which is a scientific-technical-managerial-administrative process. Comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of the sites obtained by the evaluation studies determines final choice of the site, which is essentially a political decision. The final responsibility rests, as it should, with the political executive.

Ideally, the people who live in the intended sites and surrounding areas – the affected people, who are the primary stake-losers – and their political representatives should be kept in-the-loop from the early project proposal stages so that their collective prior informed consent is obtained. But ideal situations do not exist. Experience over decades shows that when affected populations come to know of projects planned in their neighbourhood, they are apt to object on various grounds. More recently, objections have been more frequent and more intense. Objections lead to questioning government decisions and demands for information. Among the documents demanded, people seek information that led to the decision to choose their particular area over other possible areas for the project. That is, they call for the site evaluation documents. But even democratically elected governments are reluctant to provide documents, and the Right to Information Act is frequently invoked to literally squeeze information out of unreasonably secretive governments.

Koodankulam

With considerable effort and commendable patience, the people who are protesting against the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP), invoked the Right to Information Act and succeeded in moving the Central Information Commissioner (CIC) to issue an order (No. CIC/SG/A/2012/000544/18674 dated 30.4.2012) to the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) “to provide an attested photocopy of the Safety Analysis Report [SAR] and Site Evaluation Report [SER] after severing any proprietary details of designs provided by the suppliers to the appellant before 25 May 2012.” This order follows NPCIL’s refusal to share the SAR with the argument that though it is prepared to show it to the CIC, it cannot place it in the public domain without the consent of the third party, namely the Russians who are the suppliers of the design and hardware for KKNPP. Thus, NPCIL has not complied with the CIC’s order to provide the SAR. It is difficult to fault the people who filed the RTI application when they say that “ … NPCIL [appears] more interested in the safety of the Russian company and the Russian benefactors [than] in the safety of the people of India”.

Koodankulam Nuclear Plant

Koodankulam Nuclear Plant

As any thinking citizen would agree, the details of the safety studies of KKNPP affecting public safety and health cannot be denied to the public. In the circumstances, the question that even a school child would ask is, “Why is NPCIL not merely reluctant but unwilling to provide public information?” and “Does the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) have something to hide?”. However, a kicking and screaming NPCIL was forced by CIC to provide a document purporting to be a photocopy of the SER. So let us try to understand what has so far been provided so reluctantly. Watch this space for the SAR!

Official competence and integrity

A cursory glance at the “SER” shows that its 12 pages are of limited legibility, with no title page, no authorship, no ownership, no publisher, no date, no index, and no names of the site selection committee. This means of course, that the original document is also barely legible if DAE, a department with access to huge funds, can be credited with having decent photocopy machines. Again another doubt arises: With it bearing no authorship, no publisher, no names, etc., could this “orphan” SER be an attempt to dodge responsibility for a haphazard site selection carried out by this highly scientific and technical department staffed by the best brains in India?

But, giving DAE the benefit of the doubt, it does not give confidence to an ordinary citizen, leave alone competent scientists or engineers, that site evaluation for a multiple-thousand crores nuclear mega-project involving demographic, geological, seismological, hydrological, soil engineering and oceanographic evaluations, could be contained in just 12 pages. But perhaps it is an Executive Summary of the SER; if so, it is violation of CIC’s order that called for the SER and shows NPCIL’s reluctance to provide information. In any case there is little excuse for providing a document that would be disowned by an incompetent, part-time engineer.

Besides the above general observations, even within the 12 pages there are inadequacies and contradictions concerning fresh water source, population-evacuation, radioactive waste disposal and tectonic events. Details of these shortcomings cannot find a place in a commentary directed at the average reader. The DAE (NPCIL) appears to assume that the recipients of the “SER” that they have provided are ignorant, and can be fobbed off with a document that any responsible department would disown.

Democracy by force

If this is the face of efficiency, trustworthiness and responsiveness that DAE (NPCIL) chooses to project, it is no wonder that people, particularly those immediately and directly affected by its projects have little confidence in its scientific-technical-managerial abilities that are supposed to save them in case of an Indian Fukushima.

This is quite apart from the fact that both central and state governments are attempting to ram the KKNPP project down the throats of thousands of people organized as the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE). These people have been patiently, peacefully and cogently arguing against KKNPP, bravely facing police brutality and the executive and political might of “people’s” governments. Do people’s democratic rights, safety and welfare have any value in today’s India?

About the author: Maj. Gen. Sudhir G. Vombatkere (Retd.) completed his Doctorate in Civil Structural Dynamics from I.I.T. Chennai (India). He has extensive experience in structural design and project execution and is currently working as Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Iowa, USA. Prior to this, he was with the Indian Army for over 35 years. 

Related