“The CM can use her Rs 500 crore to make a burial ground for the 6000 people of Idinthakarai”
Pushparayan Victoria, one of the leaders of the anti-Koodankulam agitation, tells Jeemon Jacob that politicians and bureaucrats have worsened the situation
Forty five-year-old Pushparayan Victoria forms the backbone of the anti-Koodankulam struggle as he handles the war room in Idinthakarai. Born in the coastal village of Vembar in the Tuticorin district of Tamil Nadu, Pushparayan has been closely associated with the protests in Koodankulam since 1994. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1995 and was actively associated with the fishermen movement in the parishes he had served. As a priest, Pushparayan was at the forefront of the anti-Sterlite movement in Tuticorin and had a hand in organising the fishermen against the garnet mining mafia. In 2000, he quit the priesthood to become a full time social worker and built his network from scratch.
Pushparayan’s organising abilities, leadership qualities and crisis management skills have contributed a lot to the success of the anti-nuke struggle in Koodankulam. Currently settled in Tirunelveli with his wife and son, Pushparayan talks to Tehelka about his life, the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) and the people’s struggle in Koodankulam.
How did you join the anti-nuke struggle in Koodankulam?
During my seminary days, I was actively associated with the fishermen movement. I visited Idinthakarai in 1994 and spent time with the local community. The people’s plight touched me deeply. There was poverty and underdevelopment everywhere. When I became a priest, I was posted in a coastal parish with a similar background. I wanted to improve the people’s lives not only spiritually but also economically. As a first step, I listened to them and tried to understand their problems. Then I tried to find solutions for them. I realised that everything needed to be organised at the grass-root level. So I tried to network with social activists who were interested in working among the fishermen. I teamed with Tamil Manthan in Thoothukudi. He was leading the anti-Koodankulam struggle then. Over the years, we have organised several agitations against the Koodankulam nuclear plant. But the mainstream media never talked about us. Despite the media blackout, we continued our struggle and involved the local people, including women. After quitting priesthood in 2000, I became a full-time social activist and for the past year, I’m closely associating with PMANE.
How has PMANE been able to sustain the protest for so long?
It’s because the people’s power has fuelled the protests. We are not leaders, only tools of support in their movement. They have faith in us and we have great confidence in them. If it were not for this, the movement would have lost its way. The poor people in Idinthakarai have proved that they can stand together in the middle of chaos and turmoil. That’s the only strength we have. We are fighting against all odds. Both the Centre and the state government are against us. The prime minister has accused us of being anti-national and agents of a foreign-funded movement. Even a section of the media is flashing false stories about us. But we continue our struggle. We have no other way, our lives are at stake here. Even if they arrest us or kill us, the struggle against the nuclear plant will go on. The poor people of Idinthakarai have learnt the importance of sacrifice. They know when to strike. They have built the movement pledging their lives. No government can bribe them.
Why have you selected Idinthakarai as the epicentre of protests?
Nobody asked me this question. Almost 10 years ago, we knew that we needed a strategic location to set up our war room. We surveyed several villages around Koodankulam. We zeroed in on Idinthakarai after considering five villages. The people maybe poor but they are close to Koodankulam. The women are a great force. They may be semi-literate but very intelligent and they hold the key. They can direct changes and lead the men. Logistically too, Idinthakarai is a key destination. Only two roads lead to the village, but the sea is close. If the police block the roads, we can use the sea route to ferry people and provisions. More than everything else, politics doesn’t count in Idinthakarai; only people are important. Now we know our decision to choose Idinthakarai was right. It was God’s wisdom.
Is there any way to resolve the issue?
There was. Jayalalithaa could have resolved the situation. But she never cared to do the basic homework. We had great faith in her when she listened to us. But she opted for political treachery and sold us for personal gains. The prime minister too could have solved the issue if he had a political vision. But he used a political clown like V Narayana Swami to try to buy us out. Politicians are responsible for the mess in Koodankulam. Some idiotic bureaucrats have also contributed in worsening the situation. If Jayalalithaa had visited Koodankulam once and addressed the people, she could have won them over. If she had announced a special package for the development of the region, people would have cooperated with her. The people of Idinthakarai are not born to only keep fighting. They have their lives to mend. But she never understood the dynamics of a people’s struggle. Even if Manmohan Singh had intervened earlier, the situation would not have reached this point. He could have visited Koodankulam and explained the reasons why we should make a sacrifice for the nation. He avoided the visit because he has no political logic or conviction. He is not an elected prime minister and he is only chosen to hold mantle till somebody else steps in his shoes. So he will never understand poor people’s sentiments. I can assure you of one thing—the more the government uses oppressive measures, the more our struggle will be intensified. If they don’t care, why should we care for them?
How many more days can you continue with your struggle?
If there is life, there is death too. We will continue our struggle as long as we are alive. The chief minister can use her Rs 500 crore package to build a burial ground for the people of Idinthakarai. She can bury all 6000 of us. Even if one of us is alive, we will continue to struggle. We don’t want blood money.
Work is on in the plant. Sooner or later they will commission it. What will you opt to do then?
We know that work is progressing in the Koodankulam plant. We are also aware that they are illegally loading uranium rods. The police exercises and imposition of Section 144 are ways to divert our attention from Koodankulam. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) has not issued licence for the plant. Before loading the uranium rods, they should have conducted mock drills for safety measures. But they have gone ahead without these pre-requirements. If a nation and its leaders are conspiring against its own people, what option do we have?
Jeemon Jacob is Bureau Chief, South with Tehelka.