Koodankulam: A Nuclear Plant In My Backyard

by Amirtharaj Stephen

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I COME from a village called Kavalkinaru in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, not far from Kanyakumari. My father was employed at a Heavy Water Plant in Tuticorin, and I spent the first 24 years of my life in the Atomic Energy Township there. I was always told by the people in my township that nuclear energy was safe, and that it was the future. I believed them.

Police forces assemble in front of the KNPP, preparing to go on rounds in Koodankulam village after the imposition of a curfew.  An Indian Coast Guard plane flies too low over the protesting villagers, who have ventured into the sea as a part of their Jal Satyagraha.

In 2001, construction of the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KNPP) had begun at a distance of about 18km from my village. In 2009, I was living in Bangalore and working as a magazine photographer, when I heard about a Kaiga nuclear plant leakage that exposed 50 workers to radiation. Later, when I went to Cambodia for a photography workshop, I found my fellow participants discussing the issues of nuclear safety and weighing the pros and cons of nuclear energy.

Many people in the Koodankulam region did not care much about the power plant or the effect it would have on them, until 2011. The tsunami that shook Japan in March that year, and the subsequent Fukushima disaster, caused panic in the region. The villagers, already severely affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, began raising a lot of questions on the safety of nuclear power. KNPP was nearing its completion just about that time, and the people living in the vicinity of the plant started fearing a similar catastrophe in their region.

The Indian government did little to allay the fears of the villagers regarding safety of the plant and preparedness in the event of a disaster. The official response has always been ambiguous and completely lacking in transparency on plant safety measures.

I had my own concerns about the impact this power plant might have on my native region and I decided to visit Idinthakarai village, the nerve center of the anti-nuclear struggle. During the visit, I witnessed the people’s opposition and understood its intensity. Most media in my state (Tamil Nadu) is highly politicized, as the media agencies there are owned or controlled by individuals with competing partisan interests. Hence, most of the reportage that emerged from the site of the protests had its own underlying political agenda. That was when I decided to document this struggle independently and without any political bias, by being with the people and their concerns. 

Villagers from the Koothankuli, prevented from going to Idinthakarai by the imposition of a curfew, gather in front of the church and shout anti-government slogans.

Fishermen bring their catch to the village auction center on Theripu day. "Theripu," meaning tax, is being collected from the villagers' catch to run the protests. One tenth of a single day's revenue is collected every week.

Children from Idinthakarai with the postcards they have written to the Russian Ambassador, requesting Russia stop providing technical support to the nuclear project on Hiroshima Day, 2012.

Children from Idinthakarai with the postcards they have written to the Russian Ambassador, requesting Russia stop providing technical support to the nuclear project on Hiroshima Day, 2012.

Idinthakarai villagers and their children sleep on the seashore near Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant, protesting the commissioning of the plant.

Napolean, a resident of Idinthakarai, runs after being attacked by the police.

Xavieramma, a resident of Idinthakarai, cries out for help after being chased into the sea with no place to run. She is later both helped and arrested by security forces, and is subsequently charged with 16 offenses including the serious charges of sedition and waging war against the nation.

Children of Sahayam cry during his funeral mass. A low flying Indian Coast Guard plane startled him, causing him to fall off of the boulder he was standing on, the fall's impact killing him.

Women weep and pray to Mother Mary at the Lourdes church, after police attack villagers during the siege.

Police forces assemble in front of the KNPP, preparing to go on rounds in Koodankulam village after the imposition of a curfew.


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