Author(s): Latha Jishnu
Mercial, the panchayat president of Chettikulam, is well educated, but lets her husband do all the talking, much like the unlettered, ghunghat covered women sarpanches in Rajasthan and Uttar PradeshN Vijayan is the voice of Chettikulam, the largest village near the Kudankulam nuclear reactors, although he holds no post. His wife Mercial, a pretty but diffident schoolteacher, is the current panchayat president but Vijayan sends her away for coffee as we begin a conversation in the verandah of his house, a conversation that initially bristles with suspicion and has more questions from his side than mine. “I will talk,” he declares when I ask to speak to the panchayat president. The statement has an air of finality to it.
A member of M Karunanidhi’s DMK party, Vijayan has been president of the panchayat four times previously and put his wife up as the candidate when the post was reserved for women; she was elected in November 2011. Vijayan as a true DMK man is a staunch supporter of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP). “One hundred per cent,” he says.
Chettikulam and Vijayan reflect the emotive party politics of Tamil Nadu that is marked by fanatical allegiance to the leaders of the different Dravida kazhagams (Dravidian federations). There are as many passionate followers of the AIDMK leader Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa as of the DMK supremo in this village of around 15,000 people. So when panchayat elections were fought last year, Persial’s toughest challenger was an AIDMK member who opposed the project, naturally, since Jayalalithaa had then given the appearance of backing the struggle of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE). And so did the other two contenders in a closely fought election.
Some 10 km from KKNPP, Chettikulam looks more affluent than the surrounding villages. Its houses are much larger and money does not appear to have been stinted on their construction, perhaps, for practical reasons since some are let out to those working at the nuclear plant. There are motorcycles and some cars around, and the village appears to have all but turned its back on its agricultural past. That, as residents explain, is because the groundwater had turned brackish after the December 2004 tsunami, forcing most farmers to give up their traditional cultivation of rice, chilly, vegetables, plantains and coconut. A handful still clings to farming only because agricultural traditions die hard.
Vijayan lives in one of the prettier, older houses with a garden and a car parked inside. A striking feature is the huge temple that he has built adjacent to the house, an imposing structure dedicated to the social reformer Sri Narayanguru of Kerala who gave the downtrodden classes the self-respect and confidence they had lost owing to oppression by the higher castes. The de facto panchayat boss is surrounded by hangers-on as men of means and influence usually are.
When Mercial finally joins us at my insistence, Vijayan surprises me with his introduction: his wife has a science degree in biology, a post-graduate degree in education and teaches biosciences to standard VIII students in the Hindu Middle School which is owned by her father. And yet, like the unlettered and ghunghat covered women sarpanches I’ve met in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, this woman barely opens her mouth, leaving her husband to do all the talking. Is the feudal structure too entrenched here or is Mercial reluctant to discuss a politically divisive issue that has led to some ugly scenes in the village? It’s hard to tell.
Mercial, clearly is very much in the picture when KKNPP Site Director Kasinath Balaji opens a free computer education centre, inaugurates a vegetable market or refurbishes some school buildings in the villageBut she is happy to show me her collection of photographs with visiting politicians, the local DMK MLA, the regional Congress MP—the two parties are allies and have campaigned fiercely to get the nuclear project back on line after the PMANE struggle derailed it—and, of course, many others with the top officials of KKNPP while performing their acts of local benevolence. Mercial clearly is very much in the picture when KKNPP Site Director Kasinath Balaji opens a free computer education centre, inaugurates a vegetable market or refurbishes some school buildings in the village.
If Vijayan is open, almost aggressive, in his support for the Kudankulam project others are more circumspect almost ambivalent in their response. The pastor of the Church of South India in Chettikulam, V Ravi Mohan Raj, is one such. “I appreciate the development that it has brought. About the nuclear power project I am neutral,” says the young pastor, picking his words carefully. He lives in a spanking new house provided by his church and is clued into the political undercurrents of the village. While the Roman Catholic clergy in the dozen odd fishing hamlets surrounding KKNPP have come out strongly against the project in support of their flock who fear loss of livelihood and nuclear contamination of their fishing ground, the Protestant CSI has kept aloof from the struggle. So have the Pentecostal churches, of which three variants exists in Chettikulam. The Catholics are just a handful among the Christians who are in any case a small minority in this village dominated by the Hindu Nadar community.
“This village was dirt poor,” says Mohan Raj. After the tsunami destroyed agriculture here people were in bad shape and the government did nothing to help them. Borewells could not be dug because the water had turned brackish. Most people migrated to Coimbatore and Chennai in search of work. “Chettikulam has developed only because of the nuclear plant.”
KKNPP’s ‘development work’ has also benefitted CSI. Its educational institution, the Tirunelveli Diocese Trust Association Primary School, got a new building from KKNPP. This gesture like the repairs made to the Chettikulam panchayat office and ceiling fans gifted to the Government Higher Secondary School are listed by those who champion the nuclear project. Similar activities have also been undertaken in a handful of other villages but more people in Chettikulam appear to have prospered from doing contract jobs for the project. Besides, 42 people have also found some kind of jobs with KKNPP.
Does the question of reactor safety and nuclear contamination bother this village? “Not at all,” says the pastor. For one, it is 10 km away from the reactors unlike the clutch of villages such as Kudankulam, Idinthakarai, Perumanal and Vijayapathy which are in a 2.5-5 km range. For another, Chettikulam has been given a new lease of life unlike the other villages and hamlets which fear their livelihoods and traditional ways will be destroyed by KKNPP as it grows into a mammoth 6,000 MWe nuclear park when all the reactors proposed by Russia come up.
But the one factor that has brought Chettikulam firmly into the nuclear camp is soaring land values. When the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL), the central agency that sets up nuclear power projects, came scouting for land in the 1980s, first for the reactors and later for the township, prices were rock bottom. Now, after the construction of the sprawling residential complex for KKNPP staff at the AnuVijay Township on the periphery of Chettikulam, prices have boomed. “Earlier, one acre (0.4 hectare) used to fetch Rs 4,000. Now it is between 5-10 lakh. In my area just one cent (100 cents make an acre) costs Rs 2 lakh,” Vijayan says with satisfaction. “I am very happy the plant has come here.”
Little wonder that he has been in the forefront of rallying public support for KKNPP including a petition to the district collector that he should initiate steps for early commissioning of the plant to tide over the power crisis in the state. In November 2011 when the anti-nuclear hunger strike in Idinthakarai was hogging the headlines, Vijayan tried to organise a similar event in Chettikulam for exactly the opposite reason –to demand that work should resume at the stalled project. But he was neatly checkmated by PMANE which descended on Chettikulam in huge numbers and held an anti-project fast for a day.
I make one last attempt to get the views of the silent panchayat president. Does she think KKNP is a good project for the local community? Mercial only smiles and nods—and Vijayan manages to have the last word. “Of course, she thinks it’s a good project. Her sister has been transferred from Kaiga (NPCIL’s project in Karnataka) to Kudankulam and her brother also works there as a fireman. She welcomes the project. ” But of course.