Although the Rafale deal has been partially overshadowed by newer issues in the age of 24×7 media, it refuses to sink into oblivion. After a brief interlude, the Rafale circus hit town again earlier this month with the French media portal, Mediapart claiming that it was “imperative” and “mandatory” for Dassault Aviation to choose Reliance as its offset partner to seal the fighter jet deal. The claim appeared even more plausible with the hurried departure of the Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to France recently, especially in view of the Supreme Court seeking details from the Centre on the decision-making process for the deal. And now, with news of the CBI fiasco and its purported connection to the Rafale deal, it is likely that the alleged mega-scam will resurface in an even bigger way, soon.
While the Rafale deal has already seriously undermined the credibility of the BJP-led government, especially on its claims of zero-tolerance for corruption, there is yet another agreement, with far greater potential consequences, which had received a renewed push on the same day that the Rafale deal was inked in 2015, which is little known or debated in the country.
Nuclear myopia amidst financial meltdown
On April 10, 2015, India and France had jointly announced a statement calling for an “early conclusion of the techno-commercial agreement” for the world’s largest nuclear power project in Maharashtra’s Jaitapur. Ironically, when the Narendra Modi-led NDA government had still not arrived on the scene, the BJP had been vociferous and consistent in opposing the deal on the grounds of safety, liability, and cost, without ever questioning the rationale for the imprudent push for nuclear energy per se.
In a significant resemblance to the Rafale deal, the Jaitapur agreement had been signed by the earlier Congress-led UPA government, but was reinvigorated by Prime Minister Modi in April 2015, despite substantially altered circumstances — ever since the signing of the agreement for the Jaitapur project, the situation has progressively worsened for the French nuclear industry, which in effect, is facing a financial meltdown.
After reporting repeated losses in successive financial years, Areva, the original promoter of the Jaitapur agreement, had to be acquired by another French state-owned company, Electricite’ De France (EDF) in 2017 to salvage it from bankruptcy, and the Japanese corporation Mitsubishi also stepped in to rescue the sinking nuclear behemoth. In fact, after Areva’s exit from the Jaitapur project, EDF renewed the same agreement with India’s Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) without any further review.
Forced evictions, flouted green norms
In its misplaced enthusiasm for the Jaitapur project, the Indian government has already evicted farmers from their lands, which have been acquired from the five villages of Madban, Niveli, Karel, Mithgavane, and Varliwada. It has also thrust on the people, an environmental clearance, violating basic procedures and ignoring crucial issues related to livelihood, marine life, biodiversity, and potential impacts of radioactive releases.
Derisorily, all this has happened even before the conclusion of an actual techno-commercial agreement with the French side, which remains elusive till date. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that even a decade after the Jaitapur agreement, the rush for acquiring land, and a hastily granted EIA clearance, no actual construction of the project has started on ground till date.
Ignoring local resistance, expert criticism
The Jaitapur nuclear project has faced staunch resistance and criticism from all key constituencies ever since the original agreement was signed in 2008. The local fishing and farming communities, independent safety experts including India’s former nuclear regulator, leading economists, and environmental and democratic activists have raised important questions regarding the project, including the untested design and ever-escalating cost of EDF’s European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), the French Nuclear Regulator’s indictment of EDF over serious safety flaws in the EPR technology and design, potential environmental and health impacts of a nuclear project of such a massive scale in an ecologically diverse and fragile zone such as Ratnagiri, the question of livelihoods of thousands of farmers, fisherfolk and others in the region, and most importantly, questions of transparency and accountability and the bulldozing of peaceful dissent in pushing the project.
Livelihoods, biodiversity threatened
The proposed nuclear project will impact the livelihoods of thousands of people, including farmers, fisherfolk, horticulturists, agricultural workers, and seasonal migrant workers who work on trawlers and fishing boats, among others. While the NPCIL, in a bid to push for acquisition of land for the Jaitapur project, had audaciously declared majority of the land “barren” and “unproductive”, it remains well-documented that Konkan region is among the world’s “biodiversity hotspots” with highly fertile land that produces an abundance of cereals, millets, herbs, medicinal and flowering plants, and the renowned Alphonso mango, among a diverse variety of other farm produce, and is also home to rare and endangered species of birds, mammals and amphibians.
Moreover, Jaitapur has a thriving fishing economy with an estimated 15,000 people directly and indirectly dependent on fishing and other ancillary activities. There is palpable fear among the fisherfolk of Jaitapur that not only will security requirements around the nuclear plant block their access to the two creeks of Rajapur and Vijaydurg, but hot water discharge and dumping of low-grade radioactive pollutants will raise sea temperature and severely affect their fish catch. Moreover, Konkan’s rich natural resources are under severe threat not only from the proposed nuclear plant, but several other “mega-development” projects, including an oil refinery.
Uber cost of nuclear dreams
That Areva was in deep trouble had become evident in March 2015 itself when soon after announcing record losses for 2014 of USD 5.38 billion, Areva suspended its plans to build the EPR in the United States. In addition, the EPR projects under construction in four (04) other countries – Flamanville in France, Hinkley Point C in the United Kingdom, Olkiluoto in Finland, and Taishan in China, have all experienced huge time and cost over-runs, invariably linked to construction problems and equipment defects.
While these developments — both in India and within the French nuclear industry — had raised serious questions regarding the safety and viability of the proposed Jaitapur project among concerned citizens and experts, it appears that Prime Minister Narendra Modi saw little reason to be alarmed. In fact, just days prior to the said joint statement on April 10, 2015, the French Nuclear Regulator, Autorité de sûreté nucléaire (ASN) had raised serious safety concerns with respect to “anomalies in the composition of the steel of the reactor vessel of the EPR”. Pierre-Franck Chevet, the President of the ASN is reported to have remarked that the defects were “serious — even very serious”.
Un-made in India
The Indian Prime Minister, who could not have possibly missed these reports in the French media, decided to nonetheless push for the reinvigoration of the Jaitapur agreement, thus, brazenly sidestepping the many concerns raised time and time again regarding the EPR design in particular, and the Jaitapur project in general. Not only did the Modi-led government turn a blind eye to the glaring crisis of the French nuclear industry, but went a step further. And it is here that Modi is guilty of both omission and commission.
Narendra Modi declared Jaitapur a “Make in India” project, and much like the Rafale deal, brought into the picture, Indian companies with absolutely no prior experience in the nuclear sector to manufacture components which the French suppliers were no longer willing to risk themselves — a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the Indian company L&T and Areva on April 10, 2015 for “cooperation to maximise localisation” for the EPRs in India.
Under the label of “Make in India”, therefore, a nearly bankrupt Areva passed on the burden of manufacturing crucial components of its reactor design to L&T, and to audiences back home, the move was trumpeted as a triumph of the central government in adding “new dimensions to the capabilities of India’s manufacturing sector”.
Whither suppliers’ liability?
Incidentally, April 2015 was also the month when the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC) relating to “liability” and “compensation” for damages in cases of nuclear accidents, entered into force. The Convention aims to exempt global suppliers from liability for damages in the event of nuclear accidents. International nuclear lobbies have been pressuring India to amend its own liability law, the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010, criticising it as an “aberration” to the global norm of exempting suppliers in case of a nuclear accident. Even though Section 17(b) of the 2010 Act on the “Right of Recourse” was seen and criticised by many as being already weak, it was further diluted by the contradicting Rules introduced by the Indian government in 2011 to placate global nuclear vendors.
Further, by ratifying the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC) in 2016, the Modi-led government, it appears, deliberately created a dichotomy to pave the way for further dilution and perhaps completely doing away with nuclear suppliers’ liability, since the ratification of any international convention makes it incumbent upon the concerned government to enact and/or amend domestic laws to give effect to the provisions of the international convention. In ratifying the Convention, without pressing for changes to the CSC or at the very least, expressing reservations on the question of suppliers’ liability, India squandered an opportunity to ensure the protection of its citizens’ interests in case of a nuclear accident. Under the present regime, in March 2016, India also abruptly stopped the scanning of food imported from Japan for radioactive contamination without any clarification to its own citizens. Unfortunately, nuclear lobbies rule the roost, and governments today merely play the role of the protectors and enforcers of corporate interests.
While the Rafale fighter jet deal will entail huge financial losses for the country and may even dent the 2019 electoral fortune of the BJP-led NDA government, the agreement for the world’s largest nuclear power project in an ecologically diverse and fragile region like Konkan, along with attendant concerns of the safety of EPRs, an unsteady French nuclear industry and its inexperienced Indian counterparts, will pose serious challenges to the environment, biodiversity, health and livelihoods of lakhs of people in and around the region. And while the Rafale Deal like several scams in the past, will eventually ebb from public memory, the effects of the Jaitapur plant, including a possible accident in a country as densely populated as ours, will outlast the present regime and even several regimes after. Can we then, afford to look away even as the Modi government courts a potentially more dangerous, nuclear Bhopal?