DAVID BRADLEY REPORTS BACK ON HIS OVERLY EVENTFUL TRIP TO KOONDANKULAM AND THE NEED FOR AUSTRALIANS TO TAKE NOTICE OF WHERE OUR URANIUM IS GOING AND THE HAVOC AND DANGER IT IS CAUSING! – Dr Helen Caldicott
I knew we were in trouble when the young auto-rickshaw driver pulled his vehicle off to the side of the road to take a phone call. Normally Indian taxi drivers take their mobile phone calls while driving at breakneck speed weaving in and out of traffic with an inch to spare either side. This was unusual.
We had just slipped past the police barricades at the entrance to Kundakalum town with the plastic flaps of the rickshaw down protecting us from the monsoon rains and the lazy eyes of police on the lookout for any foreigners or troublemakers who dared to stray into this forbidden zone.
When the driver started to turn around to head back into town, my instincts automatically kicked in to bail out of the rickshaw: I grabbed my suitcase, tripod, camera bag and a perplexed three-year-old Omar. Partner Treena jumped out as well.
The next few minutes are a blur. A mad frantic phone call from the driver back to the police in nearby Kundakalum reported our attempts to do a runner. I thought of wrestling his mobile out of his hand but then thought better of it. Next I dashed to the side of the road, little better than a goat track, and tried flagging down a car and then a young lad on a motorbike. God knows how I intended to fit two adults, a toddler, plus a heavy suitcase and camera equipment on the motie – had the kid stopped. Some old women collecting firewood seemed to know our purpose and gave encouraging fist waves to keep going.
A lumbering fish truck returning to our intended destination of the seaside village of Indinthakarai came into view. Like a man possessed, I stepped into the middle of the road to flag it down. By now a plainclothes cop on a motorbike had appeared. But I wasn’t to be stopped. Having flown over 10,000km to record our prime minister Julia Gillard offering to sell uranium to the Indian PM and then another 3,000km from New Delhi to the southernmost tip of India, I wanted to reach the valiant anti-nuke fisherfolk of Indinthakarai. This where the Russians have built two nuclear power plants on a seismic fault line – right where the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 swept nearly two thousand locals to their deaths and demolished all buildings in its wake.
Two carloads of police soon turned up and we were bundled into the 4WD headed back to the Kundakalum cop shop. With his bullet-bald head and an impressive handlebar moustache, deputy superintendant NK Stanley Jones was an Indian cross between Kojak and Jimmy Edwards. He was decidedly unimpressed with my feeble story that Omar had a fascination with fishing boats and wanted to visit the seaside fishing village of Indinthakarai. Why this particular part of the coastline, I would have immediately asked, when there are thousands of kilometres of beachfront around India?
‘It is a prohibited zone!’ he said, eye-balling me from across the table to see any falter, any slippery eye movement as Treena and I gave him our made-up-on-the-spot pitch.
‘The people there are dangerous!’ Stanley Jones told us.
We showed Stanley our passports and gave him our mobile phone numbers to be duly recorded – which left me paranoid for the rest of the trip, as the activist phones there are all tapped by Indian state security. We’re talking national security and big bikkies here – $140 billion in nuclear power contracts if the Centre Government has its way.
He repeated that the area was a prohibited zone under Section 144. I didn’t bother to draw the parallel for him that this was exactly the same rationale used by the South Australian coppers two months earlier in arbitrarily arresting people at Lizards Revenge outside Olympic Dam uranium mine. There, SA police in similarly threatening Orwellian tones repeatedly warned us over loudspeakers, ‘You are now entering a Protective Security Zone. Under the Protective Security Act of the South Australian Parliament 2007, you are subject to arbitrary arrest, strip search and detention…’
It would seem the nuclear lobby worldwide has a special dispensation for suspending people’s normal rights of assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of non-violent protest.
I was smart enough this time to travel on a business visa. It cost four times as much as a normal tourist visa but worth every penny now that push had come to shove. I could truthfully say I was in India on business as a film producer and this was a side visit en route to the Kolkata film festival in a few weeks’ time.
He looked at me over his handlebar moustache to see if he could detect any smug Anglo-Saxon superiority in my bearing or any other legitimate pretext to immediately deport me from the country. Three weeks earlier, three Japanese activists travelling on tourist visas didn’t get past the airport inquisition before being deported. Indian Security had intercepted their emails to Kundakalum activists before they arrived and were waiting for them.
We were escorted out of town and sent packing. Back at our hotel the booking clerk was decidedly rattled. He’d been rung by police and his friendly attitude had changed. He demanded our passports again. We decided to pack our bags quickly and leave town before police googled my anti-nuke track record and came back. We hailed a passing bus and threw our suitcases and film gear onto it with the help of locals. I felt a huge surge of relief as we headed out of town.
Four nights later, under cloak of darkness, I found myself bumping along another goat track entering the seaside village of Indinthakarai. A lit-up Virgin Mary bobbed along on the dash of the 4WD, turning blue to brilliant red to lime green and flashing purple as a very happy-go-lucky 74-year-old priest clapped along to a popular Bollywood song, and three strong anti-nuke activist women from Indinthakarai sang heartily. The priest told me he was married with a special dispensation from the pope in Rome and had two grown-up children. I felt like I was trapped inside a Graham Greene novel: all we lacked was the bottle of whisky. We were headed towards Indinthakarai via a little-known potholed road that hugged the sea coast.
The next morning the village and I awoke to the bells of Lourdes church summoning people to early morning mass at 5.40am. The priest’s melodic voice incanted over the loudspeaker across the rooftops, for any worshippers too lazy to get out of bed. I watched as Leon the fisherman rubbed ‘440 days’ off the whiteboard and added a ‘1’ to it. For 441 days the people of Indinthakarai have resisted the dictates of the Centre Government 3,000km away in New Delhi to incorporate their village into the grand scheme of things.
The growing Indian economy needs power. Power. More POWER to ‘beat’ China. To fill still more the overflowing pockets and black Swiss bank accounts of the burghers of Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. To put kids into sweatshops and factories at 10 years of age – dragged from finishing their schooling to make cheap acid-washed jeans, footwear and toys for a dollar a day for people living in western ‘democracies’ like Australia – items that last a day or two before they are sent off to landfill.
The latest round of opposition to stop the opening of the Kundakalum nuclear power plants has raged for more than ten years now, with this last year seeing opposition to the Russian-built nuclear power plants at Indinthakarai reach fever pitch. They are a hair’s breath away from being fully operational. The nuclear fuel rods have been loaded. Tests are being done and are only waiting now for the green light. Maybe President Putin’s visit to India in December will be the symbolic moment for the plants to start generating power.
However, seaside villages all along the coast, not just Indinthakarai at ground zero, have opposed the opening of the first two of six planned nuclear reactors every step along the way. Tens of thousands of fisher folk who live off the ocean have taken part in a series of hunger strikes and imaginative land- and sea-based demonstrations and peaceful blockades. They’ve buried themselves up to the neck in sand at the approach to the plants. They’ve immersed themselves in the ocean and blockaded the harbour with their fishing boats.
These rolling protests, born out of the non-violent leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, have been continuous since 15 August last year – India’s day of Independence. Since then there have been two major police raids in March and September involving thousands of police each time. In the last raid, the police lathi charged (with bamboo sticks) peaceful protestors and beat everyone in their path who could not flee fast enough: children, the crippled, old men and women. One fisherman was shot dead. Another fell down and died from his injuries. People threw themselves into the sea as they tried to escape the tear gas and baton charges. The tear gas shells used showed an expiry date of 2002, ‘Made in the USA’, and they caused permanent horrible sores on the faces of the kids and those exposed to the outdated chemicals. The police entered the Lourdes church, broke the statue of Mary and urinated in the foyer area of the church. All of this I was given as firsthand witness accounts. That is the price to people’s lives of going nuclear.
I filmed for the next ten days and was given a very humbling and wonderful insight into the life of this courageous little village. It will form the basis of my next film which could be called simply ‘Business As Usual’ or more enigmatically, ‘The Ant in the Ear of the Elephant’ – an expression used by one of the leaders in Indinthakarai to sum up their chances of winning against the huge nuclear beast. An ant biting in the right place in the ear of an elephant can inflict a lot of pain and trip the animal up. That’s what’s happening in India right now.
Certainly I enjoy the challenge and the adventure of going to places where authority and corrupt governance don’t want others to go and point a camera. It’s often quite nerve-wracking though, and sometimes dangerous to one’s life.
However, I don’t go to the edge for the sense of the adventure it brings. I go there so I can inform other Australians and my local community about what’s really going on and the hidden agendas operating. If taking the risks involved – physical, psychological and financial – result only in a pat on the back for the courage it takes, that’s not enough for me. I want my community, my fellow Australians, to take ACTION with the information I bring back.
Other communities who entrust me to film do so believing I can help them in their struggle. That’s the punchline for me. You have to take the information and run with it, and find ways of supporting the people of Indinthakarai by hassling the Indian government through the local High Commission in Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra. Let both the Australian and Indian governments know you don’t appreciate this brave community being put through outrageous and anti-democratic actions any more than you appreciate our government opening up our local area to CSG mining and so spoiling the aquifers forever. It’s about human greed by a few at the expense of the majority of us. And it needs ACTION.
I’ve just been informed 30 people including the woman who helped me get to Indinthakarai have been arrested and detained by Tamil Nadu police. They join another 54 others who were arrested in September and have been refused bail, wasting away in dirty conditions in jail after a big police operation invaded their village and beat the daylights out of anyone who could not run away fast enough. These activists have been charged with various offences including sedition, being ‘terrorists’ and waging war against the state. Some charges carry the death penalty. They are ordinary people like you and me. The police couldn’t get away with putting me in jail, but they can do this to their own people. We have to agitate for their release. They are only exercising their democratic rights to non-violently oppose the spoiling of their ancient environment, the same as people opposing coal-seam gas fracking here.
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