I come from a village called Kavalkinaru in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, not very far from Kanniyakumari. My father was employed at a Heavy Water Plant in Tuticorin and I spent the first 24 years of my life in the Atomic Energy Township there. I was always told by the people in my township that nuclear energy was safe and that it was the future. I believed them.
In 2001, construction of the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KNPP) had begun at a distance of about 18km from my village. In 2009, I was living in Bangalore and working as a magazine photographer, when I heard about a leakage at the Kaiga nuclear plant that exposed 50 workers to radiation. Later when I went to Cambodia for a photography workshop, I found my fellow participants discussing the issues of nuclear safety and weighing the pros and cons of nuclear energy.
Many in the region did not care much about the power plant or the effect it would have them until 2011. The tsunami that shook Japan in March that year and the subsequent Fukushima disaster however caused panic in the region. The villagers, already severely affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, began raising a lot of questions on the safety of nuclear power. KNPP was nearing its completion just about that time and the people living in the vicinity of the plant started fearing a similar catastrophe in their region.
The Indian government, on its part, did little to allay the fears of the villagers regarding safety of the plant and preparedness in the event of a natural disaster. The response has always been ambiguous and completely lacked transparency on plant safety measures.
Since then the villagers have been involved in a non-violent protest against the nuclear power plant. Idindhakarai, a village located very close to the plant, has been the epicenter of the protest. The villagers, mostly fishermen and farmers, have been protesting against the plant for more than 500 days at Idindhakarai. They are also worried about the ecological impact the plant would have on the region. The Gulf of Mannar, after all, is an ecologically fragile region.
The Tamil Nadu state government, which took sides with the villagers initially, did a U-turn and tried to crush the agitation by using all means available at its disposal. Police force was deployed against the protestors to suppress and dissolve the protest completely. All villages within a radius of seven kilometers from plant have been under curfew since March 2012. Cases were filed against members of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), the anti-nuclear protest group, and any villager found taking active part in the agitation. Many of them were charged with sedition and waging a war against the nation.
This is the story of the brave fight being put up by the villagers.
Idinthakarai village with the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KNPP) seen in the background. May 21, 2012.
Kids belonging to fishermen families play on the beach in Koothankuli village. July 02, 2012.
A fisherman brings his boat to the fish auctioning center to sell the day’s catch. Every Wednesday, villagers collect 10% of their earnings as their contribution towards running the protest. The Indian government, which has accused that the protests are being funded by the Scandinavian NGOs, could not produce any proof. The villagers maintain accounts of all funds collected and spent by them. October 18, 2012.
Villagers from Koothankuli, prevented from going to Idinthakarai by the imposition of a curfew, gather in front of the church and shout anti-government slogans. May 10, 2012.
Police forces assemble in front of the KNPP before going on rounds in Koodankulam village after the imposition of a curfew. May 10, 2012.
Villagers take a holy procession around Koothankuli village while praying that the nuclear power plant be closed down. Most people from the region are devout Roman Catholics. May 14, 2012.
Villagers observe a candle light vigil to pay homage to Hiroshima victims. August 06, 2012.
Children from Idinthakarai with the post cards they have written to the Russian Ambassador requesting Russia to stop providing technical support to the project. August 06, 2012.
Women on their way to laying siege on seashore near KNPP. September 09, 2012.
Thousands of villagers protesting against the commissioning of the plant sleep on the seashore with their kids near KNPP. September 09, 2012.
Men warm themselves by a bonfire while on an overnight protest against the commissioning of the plant. September 09, 2012.
Villagers cry and pray during a cleansing ceremony which was performed after police forces broke the idols of Mother Mary and urinated in the church. September 15, 2012.
Fishermen lay siege to Tuticorin Port and block passage of ships to protest the attack on villagers in Koodankulam by police forces. September 22, 2012.
A woman prays to Mother Mary at the church after the police attacked villagers during the siege. September 11, 2012.
Thangamma, a 70- year-old woman was on hunger strike for over 7 days along with 260 other women demanding that the nuclear power plant be shut down. May 05, 2012.
Women plead with Dr. S.P. Udayakumar, leader of Peoples Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) to reconsider his decision to surrender to the police. Within few minutes he was lifted from the dais by a group of youngsters and carried in a boat to a safe hideout. September 11, 2012.
A coast guard aeroplane flies low over protesting villagers who ventured into the sea. September 13, 2012.
Napolean, a resident of Idinthakarai, runs after being attacked by the police. September 10, 2012.
Xavieramma, a resident of Idinthakarai, cries out for help after being chased into the sea with no place to run. She was later helped out by the security forces. September 10, 2012.
Children of Sahayam cry during his funeral mass. Sahayam fell off a boulder he was standing on inside the waters due to fear when the coast guard aeroplane flew very low and was killed by the impact. September 17, 2012.
Amirtharaj Stephen is a documentary photographer based in Bangalore. He is currently documenting the anti-nuclear protests around his native village in Tamil Nadu. He had been a participant in the Angkor Photo Workshops and a mentee under Lucie Foundation’s E-pprentice program. He is also a foodie who loves to explore the rural cuisines.