Dissent

The Mithivirdi Movement – the Untold Story of a Struggle Against a Nuclear Power Plant in Gujarat

Activists spent days creating awareness amongst the villagers, including women, telling them about cases from around the world – like Chernobyl and Fukushima – so they understood the hazards of a nuclear plant near their homes.

People walking out of EPH in 2013 (left), the rally in rain in Jaspara.

Bhavnagar, Gujarat: The proposed 6000 MegaWatt (MWe) nuclear power plant at Mithivirdi in the Bhavnagar district of Gujarat has now been officially slated for Kovada, Andhra Pradesh.  A decade long struggle to save their land has ended in victory for the villagers of the region.

The Union environment ministry informed the National Green Tribunal (NGT) of the decision to shift the proposed nuclear power plant ‘on account of delay in land acquisition at Chhaya-Mithivirdi site’. The ministry’s decision was conveyed to the NGT on May 18, 2017, during a hearing on an appeal challenging the grant of coastal regulatory zone (CRZ) clearance by the expert appraisal committee (EAC) to the project in November 2015.

This would have been the first nuclear power plant under Indo-US civil nuclear pact of 2008, where the plant was to be set up by state owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) with technical support from Westinghouse Electric Company.

Chunnibhai Vaidya, the man who pioneered the cause, attending a meeting.

Behind such a decision of the MoEF is the story of sustained peoples’ movement that was pioneered by Chunnibhai Vaidya, a known Gandhian who was involved in fighting for many land related issues in Gujarat. Late in the year 2008, Chunni Kaka, as he popularly known and his comrades from Gujarat Loksamiti, a party formed by Jai Prakash Narayan, began raising voice against the nuclear plant.

“The villagers believed that the plant will bring employment. But they were unaware of the hazards that it will bring with it too.  Initially villagers resisted us when we tried telling them the hazards of a nuclear plant. We would travel for weeks at a stretch in those days with no luck. There were days we would spend without food even,” recalls Anirudhsinh Jadeja, a social activist, then a member of Lok Samiti and comrade in arm of Chunni Kaka.

“The first village that agreed to hear us was Kukar near Mithvirdi. I have relatives who hail from the village hence the villagers as a courtesy agreed to gather and listen to us just once. But the meeting was successful as the villagers of Kukar were convinced and later helped us to take the message to other villages. That is how it all started,” says Jadeja.

The movement gained momentum in 2013 when environmental activists from Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, a Gujarat-based organisation formed in 1994, joined the movement against the proposed nuclear plant. However, it is the resilience of the villagers that won the movement. They braved psychological pressure, administrative intimidation and various other tactics and continued to protest for their land.

“When we were first informed, approximately 1000 hectare of land was to be taken for the proposed plant from locations in Mithivirdi, Khadarpar, Mandwa, Jaspara and Sosia. However, after initial resistance by villagers they declared only 777 hectares of land will be taken and excluded the village Sosia,” said Shaktisinh Gohil, the sarpanch of Jaspara, who played a crucial role in bringing the sarpanchs of different villages together for the cause.

“The area that had been slotted for the nuclear power plant is extremely fertile, three crop agricultural land. Naturally farmers were first to be worried,” Gohil added.

Noticeably, in its report stating the reasons why the proposed location was suitable, NPCIL said that there was no industry nearby, the population of the area was scarce, the proposed site was fallow piece of land that had a strong base strata and that water was easily available for the proximity to the sea.

“None of the reasons that the NPCIL stated are correct except the fact that the land in this region has a strong base strata. Agriculture is the prime occupation of the people of the area. A decade back, the land in the region was not so fertile. Generations of farmers have worked hard to turn this into the three crop land that it is today. Over the time, water table of the region has gone high. Currently the rich alluvial soil of the area supports crops like ground nut, bajra, cotton. Fruits like mangoes that are also exported. This apart the area also grows various vegetables,” stated Rohit Prajapati, environmental activist who is a member of Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti and one of the activists who worked relentlessly for the cause.

A sea of people at a meeting in Mithivirdi.

“Besides lignite mining is being carried out at the distance of 5 kilometres towards the south and at a distance of 20 kilometres is the Alang ship breaking yard. The site is about 30 kilometres from Bhavnagar town. Only 24 villages in the radius of 10 kilometres of the project had been considered affected and about 128 villages falling in radius of 10 to 30 kilometres had not been considered,” adds Prajapati.

Activists spent days and nights creating awareness amongst the villagers. The villagers, including women, were taught from cases in history from around the world – like Chernobyl and Fukushima – so they understood the hazards of a nuclear plant near their vicinity.

However, the path to build the peoples movement has not been easy.

“Some people in the village had vested interests who thought if a nuclear power plant is built in the region, it will open up avenues of earning for them too. These people were initially in favour of the power plant, and being locals, had access to villagers. There were times when NPCIL made offers to build schools and hospitals. Since these locals came to us as advocates for these offers, villagers were convinced,” says Gohil.

Recalling one such incident, Krishnakant Chauhan, environmental activist and member of Paryavaran Sanrakshan Samiti says, “The movement as seen many low moments, this was one such incident that happened about six years ago. Villagers laid down a charter of eighteen demands that NPCIL assured to fulfil and the list was submitted to the Collector of Bhavnagar. However, the very next day villagers understood the impact that their action will bring. The villagers themselves went to the Collector’s office and took back the charter of demands and tore the paper in Collector’s office declaring that they would not give their lands.”

“The movement was fought on three levels – judicial, ideological and on-ground mobilising and creating awareness amongst villagers enabling them to fight for their land,” Prajapati says.

As the movement gained momentum, activists also faced flak from state administration. “For the two years between 2013 and 2015, the police kept harassing my family. While I would be out in the villages, police would reach my home and ask my wife to convince me to not be involved in the issue,” said Jadeja.

Amid such circumstances came the biggest moment of the movement. In March 2013, the Environmental Public Hearing (EPH) of the proposed nuclear power plant was organised at Mithivirdi. Teams of villagers along with activists had been preparing for a fortnight for the event. Meetings were conducted by activists in 30 villages to explain the importance of participating in the public hearing and the impact of a nuclear power plant – an exercise that the authorities of NPCIL are supposed to do as per protocol.

Thousands of villagers, half of them women, attended the public hearing. Police personnel were deployed in large numbers, a barb wire fence was put up around the dais where the collector was to sit, metal detectors were put up and every villager was frisked at the entrance of the huge tent. The collector of Bhavnagar, who was chairing the public hearing, at the outset of the event, prevented the sarpanchs of the villages from putting forward their grievances. The community leaders then announced that they would boycott the public hearing. Following this, the villagers left the tent peacefully without shouting any slogans.

In July 2013, the Taluka Development Officer (TDO) wrote to the sarpanch of Jaspara directing him to pass a resolution approving the transfer of 81 hectares of forest land that NPCIL needed in addition to the other nuclear plant land. As per the laws of land transfer, the TDO, instead of seeking the opinion of the gram sabha, ordered the sarpanch to comply. The gram sabha of Jaspara unanimously decided to not hand over the forest land to NPCIL.

Following this incident, in September 2013, villagers from Jaspara organised a massive rally protesting the nuclear power plant. Despite heavy rains, the rally saw a tunrout of 2500 villagers, including men, women and children, 69 tractors, 50 motorcycles and tempos. Slogans like ‘maut nu karkhano band karo’ (shut down factory of death), ‘anu bijli sasti nathi salamat nathi’ (electricity generated from atomic energy is neither cheap nor safe), ‘we will give our lives not land’ and ‘not here not in our land’ that were heard on that day became part of the movement till the end.

“The movement would not have been successful without the women of villages. In a rural set up, the movement also went through its share of caste dynamics. Women of certain castes had never stepped out of their homes and seen their fields. But they had as much attachment towards their land as men,” says Chauhan.

“Once NPCIL decided to take the soil sample. Some representatives of the company had a meeting with sarpanchs of the villages and warned them against any kind of resistance. Despite threats of dire consequences, about 5000 villagers, mostly women reached the spot about 2 kilometres away from the inhabited region. There was heavy police deployment but villagers stood their ground and no soil was taken. After about five hours the police had to retreat,” he adds.

“Nobody can fool us today. The villagers are now aware of the hazards and they know what a nuclear power plant is and its pros and cons. The awareness is our biggest achievement,” says Gohil.

The villagers are now willing to help in the fight against the power plant in Kovada too if they are called, Gohil says. The slogan ‘not here, not in our land’ is now ‘not here, not anywhere’.