"Wrap each one in a newspaper sheet and keep them all in an airtight cardboard box covered in dry grass for 6 days before you eat them,” a mango grower in Musakaji advises us. Musakaji is just a few kilometres away from Sakhri Nate village where a fisherman Tabrez Sayekar was killed in police firing. Tabrez with several other fishermen from his village was part of a crowd protesting against an upcoming nuclear power plant at nearby Jaitapur. Police fired in the air to disperse the crowd and, as it always happens, not one but 3 bullets pierced Tabrez’s body.
Before his burial the mullah of the biggest of the 5 village mosques announced, “Tabrez ki shahadat ko duniya dekh rahi hai.” I’m not sure about the world, but Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh probably took note of Tabrez’s death after a week and called for “pause” on the Jaitapur nuclear power project.
A childhood friend tells us that 30-year-old Tabrez was never a troublemaker. He stayed away from fights all his life. “So what was he doing with a mob which allegedly assaulted policemen, torched their vehicles and attacked the village police station,” I ask. “We are fishermen. Our living is being snatched away from us. Only 6 months ago Tabrez took a loan to buy his own fishing boat. This power project is going to change the ecology of the sea.
There will be no fish for us to catch. How will we survive? This was the sole reason for Tabrez joining the protesters. We are not in favour of violence. Some mischievous elements initiated the violence and got away when things went out of control,” he argues. So who were these elements? Do they belong to a political party? Tabrez’s friend keeps mum.
The previous day, at the funeral I saw some men travelling in SUVs, clothed in white, starched shirt-pants, wearing tilaks on their foreheads. They visited the bereaved family. My colleague told me they are Shiv Sena leaders. Some of them were locals. Others had come all the way from Mumbai. A fortnight ago Shiv Sena held a huge rally in the area. People from all over Maharashtra were ferried here along with representatives of the media. Shiv Sena executive president Uddhav Thackeray himself addressed the rally. “Where is Uddhav now? Why hasn’t he come?” I question. “He is vacationing in Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh. But he is monitoring the situation from there,” I’m informed. Another villager tells me that visiting Sena leaders have given Rs2 lakh in cash to Tabrez’s family.
On the way to the project site, I notice the rocks alongside the narrow hilly roads have been cut so that the huge machinery required for the project can be brought there. Obviously, the people’s opinion doesn’t count much for a democratic government. It prefers broadening the roads for machinery before taking its own people into confidence. Villagers tell us how a government officer, specially posted in the area to remove all the obstacles related to 9,900 MW nuclear power project, bluntly tells them that the choice is clear: take the compensation on offer or take a bullet. It is said to be a pet project of the state chief minister as well as of the prime minister. Fortunately, neither needs to worry about direct elections.
The only things that can be seen at the project site are a board and a makeshift shed. The place is full of policemen who look bored and worried at the same time. They stop us and check our credentials before posing for our photographer. A dejected sub-inspector asks us about recent developments. He wants to know what the villagers are up to. Are they planning more agitations? What is the collector saying? Is there any news from the state capital? He seems tired of protecting 968 hectares of barren land. The only sound he has been hearing for the past several nights has been the noise of waves lapping the shore 27 metres below the plateau he is standing upon. He is also disturbed that one of his senior officers was severely injured during the violent protest and had to be airlifted to Mumbai for treatment. I find him not at all excited about protecting a project site which, once completed, is going to be world’s largest nuclear power plant.
Our driver Firoz, who can’t see properly at night and was caught napping twice while driving, now hardly gets a chance to drive the car. Perhaps afraid of the “MNS style of politics”, he tells everyone his native place is near Kolkata though his accent reveals he is from Bihar. With nothing else to do, he tries to understand what’s happening here. Contrary to Tabrez’s childhood friend, Firoz thinks the villagers will not sit idle. As an expert sting reporter he gathers information from the villagers and passes it on to me. According to him the villagers think the recent nuclear crisis in Japan is timely warning from the Supreme Being against the project. The protestors are in no mood to relent and will continue to oppose the project till it is scrapped.
I think the mango grower of Musakaji was right. If the resentment of the people of Jaitapur is kept wrapped in the support of the media, covered with the government’s apathy, it will ripen soon and may turn into a full-fledged movement resulting, forcing the project to be scrapped or shifted, as it usually happens when the government approaches the aam aadmi only when he takes the law into his own hands.