Fighting for Environmental Rights
In a village called Idinthakarai in Tamil Nadu, a small fishing community has over almost a decade enlightened into a collective resistance against the government’s Nuclear Power Plant. The Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant, long portrayed as a beacon of India’s development and a symbol of prestige for the government, has loomed over the community like a black cloud. Stirred to action by the founder of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy in India (PMANEI), SP Udayakumar, the community has for a long time vigorously expressed their concerns about the safety of the plant, especially after the 2011 Fukushima Meltdown. They are also perturbed by the fact that the energy generated by the plant has no tangible impact on the people who need it, i.e., residences. These Power Plants are built for the use of industrial giants and residential needs, especially those of such small scales as Idinthakarai, are neglected. There are other concerns as well, such as the discharge from the plant disrupting the fishing around that region, as well as the fact that the plant is located in an earthquake and tsunami-prone area. Uranium mining has also been a perennial health concern ever since India announced its nuclear aspirations. Although the movement is still ongoing, the plant recently fuelled its second structure, thus improving its capacity.
Similarly, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), one of the most widely known instances of environmental activism in the world, has also not achieved its initial goals, instead settling on compromise. Led by the unrelenting Medha Patkar, the movement against the multi-purpose hydroelectricity project to be built on the Narmada called the Sardar Sarovar Dam, aims to point out and force the government to change regressive and destructive policies relating to the displacement of locals and the destruction of forest land that would take place once the dam floods its reservoirs. The movement was in court for more than 20 years, eventually succumbing to a court order that necessitated better relocation policies and the reduction of the dam’s overall height. The NBA, however, still stands as one of the pioneers of environmental activism in the world.
What brings these two cases together is the fact that these struggles were against green energy sources, the former against a Nuclear Power Plant and the latter against a renewable hydropower dam project. Ten years ago, maybe even five years ago, an argument could have been made that the government should have focused on the actual, tangible development of its citizens rather than displacing them and endangering their lives for some vanity projects. However, after 2020, perhaps it is time attitudes change as to how we view environmental activism and renewable energy goals.
The Problem With Renewable Energy
It is true that renewable energy sources need to be analysed and questioned in a more critical manner that enhances the discourse around their efficacy and impact on the environment around them. It is an infrastructural ‘Catch-22’ and the conundrum has been in the general narrative for a long time. Active agitation and movements against Nuclear Energy sources have been loud since the 1970s, and especially so after every subsequent nuclear disaster, such as the Three Mile Island incident, Chernobyl and Fukushima. When it comes to the other conventional renewable energy sources, there are similar discussions, whether it be the impact of wind turbines on their immediate surroundings and climate, hydroelectric projects on the water sources of a particular region as well as the area that they displace, and solar energy on the large amounts of space needed in their current form to generate practical amounts of energy.
But, a few months ago, the IPCC released its Sixth Assessment Report (2021), and labelled the current climate crisis as a “Code Red” for humanity. This was a huge warning sign to the major nations of the world, as well as to the general condition of humanity. We can of course point to rapid developments in fields such as the automotive industry, which is trying to shift all vehicles; be they two-wheeled or four-wheeled, private or commercial; to electric propulsion. We can look at the developments made in agriculture, and the electronics industry, developing more and more power efficient methods. However, the single most polluting and Carbon-emitting industry in the world is the energy sector. The US produces almost 30% of its power by coal power, not including gas and oil power sources. India, on the other hand, produces more than 50% of its energy requirements through coal power plants. This is a huge liability on India’s aspirations to create a ‘Net-Zero Carbon emitting nation’ by 2070, as stated by the Prime Minister at COP26 2021, which was an event overshadowed by reports that there was intense lobbying by many countries to change the language of the next COP Report (which is essentially a list of goals agreed to by all nations) to minimise their responsibilities. India could also argue for the same, considering the fact that to maintain its current rate of development and its aspirations of development, it has no choice but to use coal as a power source till at least 2050.
Climate Change, however, is not ‘coming’, it is already here. Indeed, within the span of the last two years, we have witnessed a pandemic, wildfires ravaging entire states, devastating floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters highly influenced by climate change and global warming across the globe. It is relevant to note that many of the supposedly ‘insulated’ European countries faced some of the worst effects of these, so the argument that developed countries are less prone to risk compared to developing nations is moot. Climate change affects everyone across social, economic and geographical strata, and so the time to make definite policy changes on this is hugely important.
Therefore, we can see that the hastening of investment into and development of technologies that will mitigate carbon emissions and provide clean, green energy is the need of the hour. In the context of this article, this implies that there has to be far more discussion and negotiation between environmental activists and policymakers, who are both on the same side of the climate debate, only differing on their execution. While environmental activists look at the immediate and negative impacts that the installation of renewable energy infrastructure often has on its environments and the people living in it, policymakers who have the task of setting up a clean energy grid have to look at the long-term plan, and in most cases that plan most often does not focus on the short-term problems that a shrewd area of operation can mitigate. It is also true that the influence of activists on voters that the policymakers rely on can make them susceptible to compromise, something which in today’s time of climate crisis cannot be an option.
What Can be Done
There are many ways this could be done. One of the first examples often cited is the much-required investment into a marketing campaign that can convince citizens that nuclear energy is safe and completely harmless to its immediate environment. The days of Chernobyl are gone, and today’s Nuclear Power Plants are less susceptible to failures, disruptions and dangerous situations like explosions than even conventional power plants such as coal. Recent developments in Nuclear power plant design, led by India, have resulted in the creation of ‘Fast Breeder Reactors’, which use less fuel and produce more energy while resulting in less nuclear waste. The issue of nuclear waste is often cited as a problem but there are many solutions already up at hand, and in any case, dealing with nuclear waste is a much easier problem than dealing with the outdated, harmful and lumbering conventional power plants that we use today. Indeed, a town that is near a coal power plant would benefit immensely more if it was near a nuclear power plant instead, because of the related health improvements due to the lack of carbon emissions.
Hydroelectric projects are some of the most cost-efficient and powerful energy-producing options available to us with current technology. However, they cause massive displacement of human lives and destruction of anything in the area that the dam floods as its reservoir. There has been massive discussion on this as well, considering the amount of national discourse generated by the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Relocation policies should be much more benign and immediate, while afforestation drives should be undertaken in other parts of the region to counteract the effects that the flooding would have.
The impact of environmental activists on the construction of renewable energy infrastructure is a valuable arena of input and criticism, that, instead of treating like dissent and trying to suppress, the government should use as a feedback mechanism and implement changes to their policy while still undertaking an information campaign to convince people of the safety of these sources of energy, which are so important and necessary in today’s climate crisis. As one research scholar stated,
“Disputes over the siting of renewable energy developments are ultimately debated about justice: in the distribution of benefits and burdens; in the mechanisms used to promote public participation; and in the procedures used to evaluate information and arbitrate between competing viewpoints.” (Bailey and Darkal, 2017)
The Climate Change debate is not a debate anymore. If we are to make real change, we have to find new ways of bringing together the discussions around renewable energy infrastructure and environmental social justice, and to do this we have to invoke a culture of transparency and commitment. The struggle for an equitable distribution of clean energy will only bear fruit generations later, but we have to make the first step.
Sources and Additional Resources
Bailey, Ian, and Hoayda Darkal. “(Not) talking about justice: justice self-recognition and the integration of energy and environmental-social justice into renewable energy siting.” Local Environment 23.3 (2018): 335-351.
West, Jodie, Ian Bailey, and Michael Winter. “Renewable energy policy and public perceptions of renewable energy: A cultural theory approach.” Energy policy 38.10 (2010): 5739-5748.
Abbasi, S. A., and Naseema Abbasi. “The likely adverse environmental impacts of renewable energy sources.” Applied energy 65.1-4 (2000): 121-144.
Leung, Dennis YC, and Yuan Yang. “Wind energy development and its environmental impact: A review.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 16.1 (2012): 1031-1039.
Anti-Nuclear activism in India
Understanding Anti-Nuclear Sentiments