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Page last updated at 00:37 GMT, Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Indian farmers battle against nuclear plant

Fisherwoman in the Konkan coastal region
Campaigners say that the nuclear plant would destroy the picturesque coastal area

A robust people's movement against a major nuclear power project has built up in a cluster of small villages on India's picturesque Konkan coast. The BBC's Zubair Ahmed reports:

Some 350km (220 miles) from India's commercial capital, Mumbai, lies the village of Madban overlooking the vast expanse of the Arabian Sea.

It is in this village that a 10,000 megawatt nuclear power plant is proposed - and farmers and fishermen, backed by campaigners, are hardening their stance against it.

People from Madban believe the project will cause havoc to the environment and to their livelihoods.

Stunning beauty

Pravin Gavhankar, a local farmer who is leading the campaign against the plant, expresses his resolve in no uncertain terms: "We have been living here for centuries; we will die but not abandon our ancestral homes and farms."

Pravin Gavhankar
The nuclear plant will amount to raping the gift of nature that we have here
Pravin Gavhankar

The nuclear power plant's director CB Jain is seemingly unperturbed by the villagers' opposition.

He says: "We are very much excited that we are going to implement this particular plan of the government of India very soon."

Plans for the government's ambitious nuclear power plant came after the September 2008 Indo-French agreement. This was implemented soon after the global body, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, lifted international restrictions and permitted other countries to collaborate with India on civil nuclear deals.

The French nuclear company Areva is set to install six nuclear reactors, each able to produce 1,650 megawatts of power, in this part of the coastline of western Maharashtra state.

The long coastal stretch between Mumbai and Goa is stunning in its beauty and dotted with horticultural activity. The only big industrial activity here is the Dabhol power plant.

The villagers are not just opposed to the nuclear plant in their backyard but also to nine other power projects in the region which are in various stages of being commissioned.

Mr Gavhankar believes they will destroy the region's ecology.

"The nuclear plant will amount to raping the gift of nature that we have here," he says.

Real concern

But Mr Jain disagrees.

"The site is most suited to the plant. It's totally barren, 80 percent of it surrounded by sea, water is available in abundance."

map

He says that despite the protests, the first phase of the project, that of land acquisition, is over.

Mr Jain says that the next phase - procuring environmental clearances - will be over soon.

His optimism is a cause for real concern among villagers.

In Madban and other villages on the proposed site of the plant, local people refuse to believe that land officially acquired last month has suddenly ceased to be theirs.

Milind Desai, a local medical practitioner, says: "There is not even a hypothetical possibility of us leaving the village. We know the plant is not coming here."

Campaigner Mr Gavhankar owned 150 acres of land until last month.

The government acquired his land - along with land belonging to 2,400 other farmers - in four villages.

On it, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India is to start work on the project next year - along with Areva.

The aim is to fuel energy-starved India's continued economic growth. Over the next decade alone, the contribution of nuclear energy is expected to rise from just 3% to 6% of India's total needs.

But Mr Gavhankar argues that the government would do well to look at other alternatives to produce electricity.

"We are not against progress. Nature has given us air, water and sunlight. You can make solar energy from sunlight, wind energy from air and the water in this long coast of the Arabian sea produces enough waves to generate thousands of megawatts of power. Why are they not using these natural resources?" he asks.

Campaigners from around India have now joined the resistance movement set up by farmers and fishermen.

They have all decided to stage a protest march in Ratnagiri on 17 March to highlight what they say are safety issues overlooked by the plans, as well as compensation schemes in case of accidents.

Collision course

Adwait Pednekar, a security expert in the energy sector, is opposing the nuclear plant because of the dangers he says that it poses.

Boy with anti-nuclear plant flags
There is no disguising the strength of local feeling against nuclear power

"First is the impact on the environment and the long term impact because of radioactivity on human beings and biodiversity, including sea life," he says.

"The entire area taken by the government is quite productive in terms of horticulture and all that will be lost."

Environmental groups like Greenpeace support the campaign, arguing that the area is environmentally and ecologically sensitive.

But the government insists that the proposed nuclear plant will not harm the flora and fauna of the region and that eventually opposition to it will fade away.

"It'll die down because it's not our project. It's their project. It's for them," said plant director CB Jain.

It seems that for the time being at least the two sides remain on a collision course.



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