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The lotus and the robot

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Women respond to the nuclear threat

(May 11, 1999) India's nuclear program began more than 50 years ago in 1948--the year I was born. Today there are 10 operating power reactors besides a number of research reactors, reprocessing plants, fuel fabrication facilities, uranium mining, etc. In fact the whole nuclear fuel cycle operates in India. For many years India spent more money on research in nuclear energy than on any other subject. The atomic energy establishment is a vast bureaucracy employing thousands of people.

(509/10.5021) Sanghamitra Desai Gadekar - I was trained as a medical doctor and worked for some years in the government medical service. My interest in nuclear energy began when my father moved to the small village of Vedchhi in Surat district in South Gujarat in 1982. This village is very close to Kakrapar on the river Tapti where construction was begun on a new nuclear power plant in 1984.

After the severe accident at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal in 1984, and even more after the Chernobyl accident in 1986 people in India became aware of the severe dangers posed by these gigantic megaprojects to people living in the vicinity. Small groups of people started trying to find out the dangers posed by such plants even during routine operation. One such group was Anu Urja Jagruti (Awareness about Atomic Energy) group in Gujarat. There were meetings and demonstrations in which people tried to ask the authorities for factual information about these plants. The response of the authorities was typical of the nuclear establishment the world over. First they bombarded us with jargon but then when we started understanding that and our questions became more insistent, they bombarded us with bullets. At a demonstration on August 6, 1986, a boy of 13 was killed. There was a great deal of police repression. For months all vehicular traffic in the area was suspended and police would beat up people just to terrorize them. The people of Kakrapar felt that they had been sacrificed to this notion of progress and they were alone in their misery.

There were movements in other parts of India as well. Especially in the southern states of Karnataka, and Kerala, there were large demonstrations against proposed nuclear power plants. The movement against the Kaiga plant was led by an inspiring and fearless woman, Dr. Kusuma Soraba. At the peak of the movement, all roads had been blocked and heavily policed to prevent the rally from reaching the site. Dr. Kusuma, with a band of 30 women volunteers, still managed to reach the spot by travelling through the thick tropical rain forest. Undeterred by the gaping deep foundation pits, she jumped in and planted a sapling there. Unfortunately she died in a road accident last year. Her fearless zeal should continue to inspire the anti-nuclear movement in India.

In December 1988, the Karnataka government was forced by the Citizens for Alternatives to Nuclear Energy (CANE) group to organize a national debate on the issue of setting up a proposed nuclear power plant at Kaiga in the midst of a tropical rain forest. In this debate it became very clear that the nuclear establishment in India was unwilling to listen to any view other than its own and there was no Indian data of the effects on people's health--so there was no basis for a scientific discussion. It was in this situation that our group was invited by villagers living near the Rawatbhata plant to come and visit them to witness their condition. We saw that after 17 years even the village on whose land the nuclear power plant had been built, did not have electricity or access to clean drinking water. When such large projects are proposed in poor remote areas, it is always claimed by the establishment that they would lead to the development of the whole region. The condition of the people belied all such claims. They were also suffering from many different serious health problems and since I was the first doctor to ever visit them, many people came and talked to me about their problems.

When I wrote about this, the government denied that there were any problems at all. This made us decide to conduct a scientific survey to understand properly what were the effects on health of the people living in the vicinity and whether this development project had resulted in a better life for the people. We carried out this investigation with the help of many volunteers who gave both their time and money and, most important of all, expertise in carrying out the survey. Among these volunteers were a large number of women who were to prove crucial in conducting the survey right from the planning stage to the data-analysis stage. Also there was great help from the people of both the survey area as well as very similar control area more than 50 km away. They gave us food, shelter and lots of love.

The results of the survey were extremely shocking. They showed unambiguously that people living near the plant were aging faster, more likely to die 10 years younger, suffer from several long duration ailments especially of the skin and of the digestive tract. They complained of a feeling of debility and perpetual fatigue very much reminiscent of the bura-bura disease symptoms described by victims at Hiroshima. But most of all, the burden was falling on the women who had a significantly higher incidence of untoward pregnancy outcomes. Thus, there were larger number of miscarriages, still births, one-day deaths of newly born children and children born with congenital abnormalities. There were significantly larger numbers of childless couples living near the plant. As a consequence, there was great pressure on the women to produce children. Many men were remarrying in the hope of producing healthy children and blaming the women for the state of affairs. The birth rate was much higher in the area near the plant as compared to the controls.

After analysis we published a report on the survey and distributed a short summary of the findings in Hindi to all the houses covered in the area. Although more than 75 percent of the people of both areas were illiterate they got others to read out to them this summary and understood very well how the plant was still extracting a high price from them in terms of their health. They organized a protest demonstration themselves. In an area where most women do not appear before men, one tribal woman gave a speech in which she said that we do not want to have electricity if the price of that electricity is deformity in our children.

The government's reaction was predictable. They have publicly continued to deny that there are any problems at all. However, a large number of press people and also TV crews have subsequently been to the area and have documented some of these problems. As a result, nowadays the government doesn't deny that there is a problem; it only says that the problems are not due to the nuclear power plant but due to poverty, malnutrition, ignorance and superstition! It has also tried to portray us as an anti-national group trying to put roadblocks on the path of the country's progress. Unofficially, people within the nuclear establishment have admitted to the problems but have said that somebody has to pay the price of development.

Like all other countries, India's nuclear power generation program is also intimately linked to the military side of the atom. If there were no bombs to be made, India would have long ago abandoned nuclear energy as a means for making electricity. The record speaks for itself. The capacity factors of Indian power plants are among the lowest in the world and there have been numerous near-misses and accidents. In the nineties it seemed that sense had at last dawned on the rulers and nucleocrats were being told to swim or sink in the market. But the bomb tests of May last year have changed all that and nuclear energy has again managed to corner large chunk of public funds. The government has tried to play up nationalistic feelings in the wake of the bomb tests. But they were unable to control the prices of essential commodities. As a result, the ruling party lost a good many seats in local elections held last year.

Anti-nuclear awareness in India is yet at a nascent stage. There is some understanding of the issue, near some of the nuclear power plant sites but this understanding has not percolated to the middle class in the cities. Women have an important role to play in providing this understanding, since they are the worst sufferers. It is easier for them to see through the false rhetoric of power and get to the heart of the problem which is the assault on the health and wellbeing of the present and future generations. Although groups fighting the nuclear issue are not exclusively women's groups, women are among the most active members of the various anti-nuclear groups. Dr. Kusuma, Krpa, Ratna, Shyamali, Ajeetha, Aradhana, Mona, Nandini and Gabriella, among others, have organized various anti-nuclear activities in different parts of the country.
But we need many more.

Source and contact: Sanghamitra Desai Gadekar
Sampoorna Kranti Vidyalaya, Vedchhi, 394 641 India
Tel: +91-2625-20074