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Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Nuclear power in India and Prime Minister Singh’s ‘foreign’ slander

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Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, has accused non-government organisations and citizens’ groups in the country opposed to nuclear power as serving a foreign agenda. Singh said this recently referring to the steadfast opposition to the two new 1,000-MW nuclear reactors proposed to be built in Koodankulam, Tamil Nadu (southern India) with Russian help. The first of these reactors was to be commissioned in December 2011 while the second was to follow six months later. The continuing local protests since August 2011 – supported by dozens of NGOs and voluntary groups all over India – have halted the project.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Cartoon by Saurabh Singh / India Today

Singh’s vilification of the protesting NGOs did not come as part of a speech at home or an aside to the Indian media – it was part of an interview conducted with him by the US magazine Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It is therefore worth understanding the deeper context in which Singh expressed his frustration over public opposition to his government’s dangerous nuclear power plans.

At the Indian Science Congress held in 2012 January, Singh talked about increasing the R&D budget in India from 1% of GDP to 2% by the end of the Twelfth Five Year Plan period (that is, 2017 March). In the USA, this is seen as being equivalent to a rise from US$ 3 billion last year to US $8 billion in 2017. He specifically mentioned the increasing contribution of private sector funding that will make this possible. The increase is meant to be used for the creation of elite research institutions (which will help bring expatriate Indian scientists home, mainly from the USA), to enrich science education, and equip smart new laboratories.

According to the journal Science, included in this push is South Asia’s first biosafety level–4 lab for handling the most dangerous pathogens. Over the next 5 years, an estimated US $1.2 billion of public money will be used to set up and run a new National Science and Engineering Research Board. Modelled upon the National Science Foundation of the USA, the board will fund competitive grants.

For all the fawning that has been done over the “scholar-prime minister” who “aims for inclusive development”, Singh’s government is anything but inclusive. During the second term of the ruling United Progressive Alliance, concerned Indian publics have demanded a universal entitlement to food under a food security act – and have been denied. They have demanded accountability from elected representatives – and are being denied. They have demanded local right to accept or reject industrial and urban development, which is part of Constitutional provisions and is an essential part of the village self-governance framework – and are being systematically denied all over India but especially in the mineral-rich regions. They have agitated against steadily rising food prices and fuel prices with some rural households having to spend over 65% of their income on food – and been rewarded for annual food inflation rates of over 10%.

Singh and his ministers and his government have at the same time permitted multinational retail food chains to begin business in India, over the considered opposition by tens of thousands of small traders. Singh and his ministers and his government have opened up the health, insurance and banking sectors to multinationals, guaranteeing thereby the demise of the public sector institutions which served this sector since India’s independence in 1947. The prime minister of India has complained about what he dreams is “foreign” interference in his nuclear plans – while his government’s consorting with foreign carpetbaggers of every description is wrecking the futures of millions of poor households in India.

And that is not all. In ‘Koodankulam: An Open Letter to the Fellow Citizens of India’ the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (distributed on 28 February 2012) has said:

“There is no foreign country or agency or money involved in this classic people’s struggle to defend our right to life and livelihood. Our fishermen, farmers, workers and women make small voluntary donations in cash and kind to sustain our simple Gandhian struggle. Our needs are very few and expenses much less. We only provide safe drinking water to the hunger strikers and visitors. People from all over Tamil Nadu (and sometimes from other parts of India) come on their own arranging their own transportation. For our own occasional travel, we hire local taxis. Instead of understanding the people’s genuine feelings and fulfilling our demands, the government has foisted serious cases of ‘sedition’ and ‘waging war on the Indian state’ on the leaders of our movement. There are as many as 180-200 cases on us. There have been police harassment, intelligence officers’ stalking, concocted news reports in the pro-government media, abuse of our family members, hate mail, death threats and even physical attack.”

[Read the full Open Letter here, also the read the Citizens’ Statement Against Prime Minister’s Malicious Comment on Koodankulam Struggle]

Atomic energy and nuclear power plants, sites, institutes and agencies in India. Source: Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Government of India

Here is a selection of press reports on the matter:

The Hindu – When Dr. Singh, who has a reputation for reticence on sensitive subjects, drops dark hints about a foreign hand, it is surely something that needs to be substantiated and, if necessary, followed up with action. As if to bolster his argument, the licences of three NGOs have been cancelled and the foreign remittances received by them are being investigated. Meanwhile, the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, the organisation spearheading the anti-Kudankulam protests, has rejected the charge and demanded the Prime Minister substantiate his remarks. Adding to the mix, Jairam Ramesh has also clarified that his decision as Environment Minister in 2010 to place a moratorium on Bt Brinjal was not influenced by NGOs, but was based on objective factors.

However, the idea that NGOs with ‘foreign’ links are fuelling the protests seems more expedient than convincing. The charge is also, at some level, quite irrelevant. For what it’s worth, tens of thousands of ordinary Indians around Kudankulam, Jaitapur and other areas where reactors will be sited are apprehensive about what the placement of large nuclear installations in their backyard might mean for their health, environment and livelihood. The government needs to engage with them in a transparent and constructive manner and allay their fears with facts and arguments rather than innuendo and slander.

The Indian Express – In an interview to Science magazine, the Prime Minister had said that these NGOs do not appreciate India’s need to make use of high-technology like nuclear energy or genetically-engineered crops to move forward on its growth agenda. “You know, for example, what is happening in Koodankulam. The atomic energy programme has got into difficulties because these NGOs, mostly I think based in the United States, don’t appreciate our country to increase the energy supply,” Manmohan Singh said.

Asked whether nuclear energy had a role to play in India’s energy sector despite last year’s accident in Fukushima, Japan, he said, “Yes, where India is concerned, yes. The thinking segment of our population certainly is supportive of nuclear energy.” He blamed these NGOs for his government’s 2010 decision to put an indefinite hold on the commercialisation of Bt brinjal as well. “There are NGOs, often funded from the United States and the Scandinavian countries, which are not fully appreciative of the development challenges that our country faces.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Cartoon by Amauri Alves / Toonpool

Business Standard – The Congress, in its communication to Minister for PMO V Narayanasamy, noted that it had been experiencing similar protests from various NGOs and political organisations. “Till now, with few exceptions, the reasons were generally observed to be for financial gains of the NGOs and either personal and financial benefits or pure political gains to the leaders and workers of the political organisations,” it said. “We have seen in the past protests against the Dabhol power project by the Shiv Sena and many other projects by various NGOs and political parties.” The party said now a new threat has emerged considering the anti-Kudankulam demonstrations, asking the Centre to take them seriously.

Hindustan Times – Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has blamed American and Scandivanian NGOs for fuelling protests at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu, according to media reports. The Prime Minister has also blamed these NGOs for opposing genetically modified foods and the use of biotechnology to increase food production in the country.

India Today – The Prime Minister’s statement, in an interview to the prestigious journal Science, attributing anti-nuclear protests at Kudankulam to non-governmental organisations based in the United States, has stirred a familiar hornet’s nest, that of “the foreign hand”. The foreign hand of the CIA was of course frequently deployed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to deflect attention from domestic problems and, most memorably, to justify the imposition of the Emergency. It is deeply ironical coming from a Prime Minister whose government’s policies can be divided into two handy categories: those, such as employment guarantee and food security, that have the imprint of the Congress’s aam aadmi hand symbol; and those, such as its economic and nuclear policies, that bear the generous imprint of the foreign hand. It is amusing that the policy perspective of the US government should be so enthusiastically embraced, even as the views attributed to NGOs in that country are derisively dismissed. This has to be more than the common hypocrisy of everyday politics.

Clearly, what makes the government bristle is opposition to official initiatives. Popular protest provokes it to send its minions scurrying to sniff out a foreign conspiracy. The assumption is that any developmental project the government undertakes must be an unambiguous national good, and the support of its citizens for such projects must be the prime test of their loyalty.

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  1. […] Resources Research: (1) Nuclear power in India and Prime Minister Singh’s ‘foreign’ slander; (2) Koodankulam: An Open Letter to the Fellow Citizens of India; (3) The Fukushima 50? Or the […]


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