New Delhi Goes Critical

The Manmohan Singh government in March revived the controversial Kudankulum nuclear reactor project in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, which had been halted since last year due to anti-nuclear agitations. The Singh government used a mix of monetary incentives and coercion to persuade the local government to turn against the protestors. This success will help to revive India’s moribund nuclear power sector and counter the impression of the Singh government as paralyzed and incapable of implementing policy. 

The work on the two reactors of the Kudankulum nuclear power complex in Tamil Nadu had been on hold since last year after massive civil protests. The reactors had been under construction for a decade and were on the verge of completion. Unlike similar protests elsewhere in India, these had nothing to do with land acquisition issues but instead were triggered by the Fukushima accident in Japan.

It was widely believed that if New Delhi could not salvage these reactors and the roughly $5 billion that had been sunk in them, it was curtains for the entire Indian nuclear power program. It was also seen as further evidence of the Manmohan Singh government’s growing inability to implement policy. Over the past three months, however, the Singh government showed that it had not only put together a plan to get the Kudankulum reactor restarted but actually rolled it out very successfully.

In November 2011, the government took the first step: it announced a nuclear safety review, initiating legislation to make its secretive nuclear sector more transparent. And A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, former President of India and a widely-respected scientist, was sent on a tour of Tamil Nadu – which happens to be his home state – to talk up nuclear power.

In February 2012, the government turned on some of the key non-governmental organizations (NGOs) spearheading the anti-nuclear protests. Three were accused of violating one of dozens of laws governing NGOs in India. One foreign activist was expelled and the entire movement was broad brushed as being foreign-funded. The veracity of the charges is immaterial; New Delhi succeeded in discrediting the movement before the wider public and the media.

Finally, through March 2012, New Delhi used a carrot and stick approach to get the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalitha, to agree to crack down on the protestors and endorse the reactor project. The stick was to threaten to cut Tamil Nadu off the national power grid. With power outings having risen to 20 hours a day in some rural areas and major industrial investors leaving the state for lack of electricity, this proved to be a very effective threat. The carrots were more complex. New Delhi is believed to have agreed to provide a Rs 60 billion pork-barrel grant to Jayalalitha. The government also voted in favor of a United Nations Human Rights Commission resolution criticizing neighboring Sri Lanka for its treatment of its Tamil minority – a political issue the Chief Minister wanted to electorally neutralize.

This past week the Tamil Nadu police rolled up the protests. And Jayalalitha announced the Kudankulum reactors would probably go critical in two months’ time. It is also certain that Jayalalitha, whose regional party is not part of the ruling coalition, will extend the government support in Parliament, helping it live at least until the fall of next year.

After reviving the Kudankulum project, the Prime Minister’s Office is now turning its focus on solving the policy gridlock that is crippling the coal and natural gas sectors of the country.

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