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.

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.