Meandering through Mandla

While the government works stridently towards ramping up nuclear power projects in the country, with a pliant media in tow, resistances are brewing, waiting to spill over on to the streets.

Months ago, it was Jaitapur—where the government tried to vitiate the atmosphere and divide the protesters along communal lines. The foreign hand theory was floated, activists’ entry into the area was banned; social costs of nuclear power were glossed over by over-zealous scribes, till they decided to move on to something juicier.

Yesterday was Kudankulam’s time under the sun—but with the jal satyagraha off and no fresh spectacle in tow, that story too slipped off the media’s radar. Lost in the slippage were tales of innocent lives lost to low-flying coast guard aircraft, which were keeping a watch over the protesters at sea.

Today, there’s a lull in the air. All seems calm in the nuclear heartland. At least in the media’s narrative. Unless one is talking about perceptive pieces lying threadbare in the meanderings of the mainstream media.

But tomorrow? What about tomorrow?

Shall we hear of Mandla tomorrow? Shall we hear of the nuclear power plant there? Of the agitations by locals in Chutka village? Of the foreign hand, again? Of the illiterate tribals who do not understand a growing country’s energy needs? Of government efforts to reach out? Of the system’s benevolence for its people?

Maybe we will. Maybe not.

“We might, in tomorrow’s news cycle, only hear APJ Abdul Kalam, para-trooped by the government as its science mascot and guru of all things scientific, waxing eloquent about India becoming self-reliant in the nuclear sector, all over again.”

But maybe we can hear of it today, if we train our eyes and ears to reach beyond the din of the Kejriwal-corruption lullaby.

We might hear of the Collector of Madhya Pradesh’s Mandla district threatening locals settled near the proposed1,400 MW nuclear power plant. We might hear Balram Yadav of Chutka village—one of the affected villages—say that Madam Collector visited their area a few days back and made no bones about the fact that if they did not agree to part with their land for the nuclear power project, she would get them arrested. “Andar karwa doongi,” she told them. We might foresee, already, how these foolish good-for-nothing tribals are withholding the country’s march into the glorious halo of post-development smugness; we might foresee, therefore, that these fools are the right candidates for begin charged with sedition.

Like the agitators at Kudankulam were. Like the locals in Jaitapur were.

We might foresee the government trying its level best—with the help of Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) and the Madhya Pradesh Power Generation Company, the collaborators for the project—in trying to ‘educate’ the locals. For it has always been about ‘education’. We may recall how the CMs of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, and the FM and HM at the Centre were trying to ‘dispel misconceptions’ among ‘sections of the population’ yesterday and day before, in the cases of Kudankulam and Jaitapur respectively.

The process, we might realise, has already begun. In fact, as long back as 2010, the state was trying to ‘reach out’ to the locals in Chutka and surrounding areas. Notes a Mail Today report date lined June 13, 2010.

Last week the villagers told the Mandla collector K. K. Khare during his visit to Chutka that they would rather die than leave their villages. “Of the three villages, two are predominantly tribal. The villagers opposing the proposed plant have been misguided and brainwashed by some outsiders…Our dialogue with the villagers will continue…In due course, through dialogues we will make them (villagers) understand that the government is going to take care of them,” he said.

Reading this, we might wonder: why does the government always try to make people understand? Why does, on the contrary, the government never try to understand what their concern is? Why does it always have a top-down approach? Why must it preach, when it can listen, if not learn?

Listen. To former office-bearers and bureaucrats of the nuclear sector about the way nuclear power is sought to be pushed down the throats of people, disregarding concerns over whether there can ever be ‘safe disposal’ of nuclear waste. To authors and researchers, like Praful Bidwai, who state that it takes at least Rs 8-9 to produce one unit of nuclear power- Why go nuclear when we have the potential to produce cheaper, safer and cleaner energy, using renewable sources like tidal power, wind power and solar power?

A July 2012 article notes that the decks have been cleared for the Mandla nuclear power plant. Unlike the reactors in Jaitapur and Kudankulam, the reactors in Mandla will be indigenously developed.

When Mandla becomes tomorrow’s news, the brouhaha over a new generation of indigenous reactors might cloud our minds. We might no longer be willing to listen to the concerns of the locals, to their stories of loss of land and livelihood, to their fears of being subjected to threats of cancer and deformities for generations, to activists’ and academics’ pleas of restraint in the face of lessons from Fukushima and the international rollback of nuclear power projects.

We might, in tomorrow’s news cycle, only hear APJ Abdul Kalam, para-trooped by the government as its science mascot and guru of all things scientific, waxing eloquent about India becoming self-reliant in the nuclear sector, all over again.

In tomorrow’s news cycle, we might forget Felix Padel’s contention that scientists and engineers are not trained to factor in the social and ecological costs of projects they research, design, construct and implement. We might forget how the neoliberal hawks make a killing out of keeping economy and ecology as far apart as possible; at times, even making it seem like the former serves the needs of the latter.

We might be told by the state that the resistance in Chutka has started overnight due to incitement from elements from outside. We might be subjected to views of experts belonging to the government-controlled scientific establishment, experts who would stake their job if they were to be critical of their employer.

Tomorrow, in the deluge of information, we might forget all of this. We might suffer from amnesia.

So the question: can we talk about these things—about Mandla, protests, Chutka, Balram Yadav, and all things related, today? So we may be able to listen? Understand?

But what if today is actually yesterday, repackaged?

In a cyclical news-scape, you can never tell!

Aritra Bhattacharya works as a Programme Executive at Jnanapravaha Mumbai for survival (and surfeit). He is completing a Masters in Sociology at the University of Mumbai. A journalist by inclination who freelances for publications once in a while, Aritra spends most of his time reading or watching films.

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