Koodamkulam is now the epicentre of brewing trouble, with the protests by the local populace snowballing into a mass movement. While what and who is propelling and catalysing this people aggression is a complex question, its by now clear that the government as well as the plant authorities have completely bungled in foreseeing such a situation in the aftermath of Fukushima – which has probably brought in a change in perception.

We all did see some nuke experts and political observers ask “why now and why after 20000 Crores down the drain” (that includes me too), may be Fukushima and the way nuke energy is perceived by the common man post that is the answer. But that is besides the point in a scenario where a considerable population is up in the arms against the project.

For now, there is no easy way out as the use of force and such strategies will only boomerang on the establishment. The mess on the ground in the vicinity of Koodamkulam is clearly the fruit of a non-effective communication/public relations by all the stakeholders.

The way forward could be a multi-pronged strategy which might take a few months, but that is much better than trying to by force start the operations and continue to earn the wrath of the population who have also contributed by giving away the land and to some extent livelihood for the sake of the plant.

  1. Communications commitee – The PM has in his own style formed a high power committee which will study the safety aspects and submit a report. This is so flawed in the way its communicated – if all the experts and the plant authorities are already saying that this is one of the safest plants, then the common man will only get more scared as to why a commitee is being formed this late. Instead, the central government must form a communication committee that will go to the site and its vicinity and take on the job of assuaging the fears of the villagers, who percieve a danger in the plant becoming operational.
  2. Isolate the non-stake holders – There is news that the agitation is fuelled by some outsiders with some religious leanings. The central and state governments must use all their might in identifying these forces, and forcing them out of ground-zero. A classic example is the Anti-Sterlite plant movement in the very same place. For years, there were a series of agitations (almost round the year) for reasons that were more valid than the present one. Yet, those agitations, even when blessed and fuelled by the regional politicians, not for a day affected the operations of the Sterlite plant. If a private organisation can do that, it only is possible to isolate all the non-concerned actors at Koodamkulam. What is needed is the conviction to address the genuine concerns, and get all the fringe elements out of the game.
  3. Form a villagers commitee – It might appear that its too late in the day for such an exercise. In reality, it may not be. The authorities should go ahead and use all kind of media to reach out to the villagers and tell them that the government/plant authorities are willing to address every single concern/fear that may be in the mind of every villager, who thinks he or she may be affected. This must be a sustained exercise, with no timelines, and the intent must be to understand what exactly are the percieved fears that loom large in the minds of the people in that area. Those which are well founded must be answered with facts, and those ill founded and planted by miscreants can be quashed to the dustbin.
  4. Unleash a PR campaign – Other than some national english dailies in which we have seen people like Dr M R Srinivasan publishing their views on the heightened safety aspects, there is hardly any space for the pro-plant views in any media – be in in at the village and regional level, national, regional and local print, television, and any other media that might help in reaching people on the ground. Seminars and lectures in the national news channels where the nuke intelligentia rant there views will not make a shred of difference to the agitation/agitating people. It is precisely the absence of such a people targeted communication campaign that is enabling the fringe elements, be it religious or otherwise to fuel the agitation. If the fringe can manage a perception that there is a massive opposition to the plant, it is very surprising to see that the authorities cannot plan a turnaround in that perception.
  5. Re-visit the proximity effect of the plant – This is a bit of technical stuff. The whole concern seems to be centred around ‘what if there is a tsunami or a massive quake, and how does the radiation affect us?’. And the answer to this by experts seem to be that this region is not prone to a tsunami. This is a funny logic no one will buy, even if backed by tonnes of geological facts. The point is – no one said the S Indian coast will be battered by a tsumani which took away entire villages when it happened. Such arguments do not hold water to the common man. The way is to critically state facts, and in case some villages continue to have objections, the only option is to see if they can be re-settled, with means of livelihood in tact.

A combination of all these above will make sure that a space is created for a people centric dialog, which would lead to a solution to Koodamkulam. The above can be complemented by a flurry of social development initiatives that would lift the standards of living of these villagers.

In case such a sustained and planned campaign by the authorities is not put in place, the solution will not emerge. That will be to the advantage of the fringe elements who hold forte now, stalling the project that could solve the looming power crisis in the country.

(Shri Murali is a Chennai based entrepreneur and friend of CRI)

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