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Disaster Scripting in India’s Nuclear Energy Landscape”

Monamie Bhadra
Arizona State University
Monamie.Bhadra@asu.edu

Introduction

Following the historic US-India nuclear deal of 2008, and the tragedy of Fukushima three years later, India is now afire with protests against Prime Minister Singh’s decision to accelerate the development of its nuclear energy infrastructure through foreign investment (Visvanathan 2012). Protests echo age-old anxieties of livelihood protection, land tenure and distribution, sovereignty over resources, independence from foreign economic forces, the continuity of community and shared identity, as well as with the more prosaic concerns of risk and safety. To analytically hold still and make legible the perpetually shifting anti-nuclear landscape of India is challenging. Geographically, politically and institutionally decentralized and tenuously linked, Indians opposing nuclear energy operate on multiple political, cultural and epistemic registers. With contradictory motives for opposition, activists advance competing visions of what constitutes proper development, health, and the public good. Engagements with the Indian bureaucracy and the nuclear establishment occur at various levels and locales, including courts, academic seminars, public hearings of environmental impact assessments, marches, police stations, and encounters with scientists surveying the land and water. Even the nuclear reactor technologies activists oppose vary from place to place, with one kind of reactor purchased from the United States in Gujarat, another set of French European pressurised reactors for the nuclear park in Maharashtra, and the addition of yet more Russian reactors to an existing facility in Tamil Nadu.

With such complexity and dynamism in anti-nuclear activities, the conceptual frameworks of STS with which to understand the co-constitution of science and democracy in India—constructions of “civic epistemologies,” ideals of the public sphere, Western notions of deliberation and public reason, for example—are woefully inadequate to understand the bewildering milieu of anti-nuclear protests and government responses.[i] After completing 3 months of fieldwork, I draw from post-colonial theory, anthropology and STS to propose “disaster scripting” to help explain the dynamics I observe through an ethnographic exploration of the contestations within and between India’s heterogeneous anti-nuclear movement and India’s nuclear establishment.

Why think in terms of disaster when no nuclear disaster has occurred in India, and hopefully never will? A disaster lens allows exploration of two related phenomena. First, a disaster lens can help understand why primarily rural communities in India are mobilized in anticipation of technology induced-disasters, how they imagine future catastrophe, and what they are doing to avert it. Second, bringing disaster into conversation with democracy allows for a more nuanced theorization of democratic politics around technoscience in non-Western nations by focusing on both the contestation of facts as well as the messy and dirty world of power politics—two domains that become glaringly exposed during disasters. In STS several studies of democracy that focus on advisory committees, regulatory institutions and citizen science, the political machinations are bracketed off as crude politics. But in nations, like India, were dirty politics is the norm, and deliberations based on “facts” are absent even in highly technical domains, it is crucial to develop a culturally-attuned theorization of democracy, without simply dismissing India as a shallow, transitional democracy on its way to becoming more liberal like its Western counterparts.

Thus, to use the lens of disaster to understand India’s anti-nuclear activism means decoupling “liberal” and “democracy” and to think of democracy as simply “rule of the people,” as Jeffrey Witsoe (2011) proposes in his ethnographic work on postcolonial democracy in Bihar. Next, Kim Fortun’s (2011) notion of “enunciated communities” that form in moments of rupture helps illuminate the new kinds of contradictory alliances and identities forming in local anti-nuclear protests as they work to prevent future disaster. Finally, the works of Sheila Jasanoff and Yaron Ezrahi concerning the role of imagination in creating future technologies and democracies provide an intriguing foil in which to understand imaginaries of disaster “from below” (Ezrahi 2012; Jasanoff and Kim 2009).

Insights from these theories bear on disaster scripting: I argue that the period of time leading from one disaster to another is not necessarily one of quiescence or non-disaster. The intervening time from a disaster fixed in history to the uncertain future when another disaster may or may not occur, can be understood as a phase when communities form by creating numerous scripts in anticipation of the next disaster. Disaster scripts are not “deliberative” but produced through agonistic and contentious politics, to create a language of shared identity. Dominant disaster scripts create meaning, frame problems and possible solutions, and choose victims and villains long before the disaster ever takes place. Should disasters unfold, the scripts will invariably unravel, possibly along existing social fractures. Yet the cultural and political work being done prior to disasters provides a heuristic for contextualizing the narratives that unfold following a catastrophe.

In the following sections, I explore how the concepts of sociotechnical imaginaries (Jasanoff and Kim 2009), enunciated communities (Fortun 2001), and postcolonial democracy (Witsoe 2011) are helpful in thinking through disaster scripting. I then illustrate disaster scripting through the case of villagers opposing the proposed Jaitapur nuclear power plant (JNPP) in Maharashtra.

Sociotechnical Imaginaries

Described in the broadest terms as, “imagined forms of social life and social order that center on the development and fulfillment of innovative scientific and/or technological projects”, a  “sociotechnical imaginaries” (SI) prism reflects the processes of co-production and the kinds of technological, political, cultural and epistemic orders they create. As an elastic framework specifically designed for describing national political cultures and their technoscientific agendas, it also applies to global institutions and the “imaginaries from below.” SI calls attention to how visions of different sociotechnical futures actually do work to ensure their realization, and embeds normative notions of what a good society is and how it should be attained. The distribution and bearers of risks and benefits, the meaning and practice of democratizing technology, the shaping of rights and responsibility, and ideas of citizenship are part and parcel of sociotechnical imaginaries. Given the open-endedness of sociotechnical imaginaries, focusing on disasters is helpful in giving SI analytical traction. The ways in which site-specific protests imagine different kinds of disasters, how these imaginaries are historically grounded and experientially based, and how communities are actively working to prevent future catastrophe provide a unique lens to understand the visions of social life striven for by those who often do not have power.

Enunciated Communities

Kim Fortun (2001) describes how “enunciated communities” form in response to double binds—the impossible choices facing communities. She writes how the formation of this community “is not a matter of shared values, interests, or even culture, but a response to temporally specific paradox” (11). The temporally specific paradox, in this case, is the Indian government’s land grabs to build nuclear reactors in several coastal and inland communities, and Fukushima occurring shortly thereafter. Although a nuclear disaster has not happened yet, for villagers, disaster is a certainty if nuclear power plants are built. All roads lead to death of some kind, whether by infertility, cancer, nuclear explosion, losing economic stability, losing social safety nets and cultural cohesion. The political and cultural fissures along class, caste and religion are reworked, through disaster scripting, into a common identity of a shared imagination of disaster, even though variations of disaster imaginaries exist below the surface and old sociopolitical cleavages persist.

Postcolonial Democracy

Drawing from experiences in Bihar, Witsoe (2011) describes how the poor in rural areas do not recognize or practice democracy in its individualistic, liberal form, but rather as “postcolonial democracy” based on community identity and popular sovereignty. The idea that government institutions are purveyors of the rational, neutral and reasoned exercise of power is almost completely absent, and defies the experiences of the rural poor where high caste-dominated institutions make their biases obviously known in the kinds of projects and individuals they support or ignore. Thus electoral politics (and the social drama on that day) becomes the primary site whereby the different groups have an opportunity to supplant those in power with their representatives. The crisis of liberal democracy envisioned by Yaron Ezrahi (1990) is nowhere in sight in these highly local and rural contexts, even though, for better or worse, democracy as popular sovereignty and “rule of the people” is.

Thus, the character of democracy as electoral power politics is reinscribed into activism against nuclear energy, but no longer overtly along religious or caste lines. Instead, through disaster scripting, new affinities form around the common threat of nuclear energy. The terms of their opposition are not the science or technical rigor of a proposed plan. Although anti-nuclear activists from elite, urban groups, criticize nuclear energy in courts of law and public opinion, and try to anchor the debate in scientific facts, villagers invoke these facts to create a common identity. For the villages fighting JNPP, democratic institutions are systems of oppression. One villager said “If you want to torture us through this (nuclear) project, it is better you bomb Konkan and annihilate this land and its people once and for all. But while we are alive, we will not allow this project.” And they do so through marches, satyagraha, and fasting, and seeking political party alliances.

Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant Maharashtra

The group of villages that will be affected by JNPP are Jaitapur, Madban, Mithgivane, Sakhre Nate and Nivelli. All differ in terms of dominant castes, religions, and political dynamics. Madban, for instance, is populated primarily by the Bhandari farming castes, now labeled constitutionally as “Other Backward Castes.” The Madban Bhandaris traditionally support the Hindu fundamentalist Shiv Sena party, largely responsible for the 2002 Muslim pogroms in Gujarat. Conversely, the neighboring village of Sakhre Nate is composed of Muslim fishermen who have historically supported the more liberal Congress party.

The space for politics has traditionally been relegated to elections, party politics, and the gram panchayat (village governance). The initial opposition to nuclear energy was located in these domains. First, news of the land acquisition first came in 2002, when the village head of Madban was asked by the District Collector to draft a letter stating that she welcomed a nuclear power plant in the village. She called a vote and the gram panchayat unanimously rejected the project, despite being promised bungalows and cars.  In the domain of party politics, the Sakhre Nate fisherman, long supporters of the Congress party, have started backing the Shiv Sena who oppose JNPP because the Congress government support it.

Yet these strategies have produced mixed results. In 2006, under the pretense of promising a discussion of the project at the District Collector’s office, the DAE ordered 55 of the protesters to be jailed and have First Information Reports (FIRs) filed against them. Similarly, the Sakhre Nate alliance with the Shiv Sena may be undermined by the fishing community leader, himself, who is trying to maintain friendly relations with the Congress party, while looking after the interests of his constituents. The Madban villagers, in turn, lament the rare appearances of Mumbai-based Shiv Sena leaders and the party’s lukewarm agitation against JNPP. Recently, the police have started picking up young men in the middle of night, jailing them, and filing FIRs, for which they have to make repeated court appearances in another village, only to have them wait for hours and not have the superintendent of police appear. The round trip of Rs. 200 is unaffordable for most, especially daily wage laborers, on top of court fees. Villagers even speak of assassination attempts on the leader of the local protest.

Visiting anti-nuclear activists, Surendra and Sanghamitra Gadekar, opened another political space for the villagers. In 2008, the protest leader and one of the wealthier landowners in Madban sought out government scientists to explain the risks and benefits of nuclear energy. The nuclear scientists showed “glossy charts” about how effluent water would affect marine life. He countered that fisherman already know how hot the water is by touch. He then contacted the Gadekars, who came to Madban and started a series of workshops and circulating CDs about the kinds of health risks uranium miners faced in Northeast India, Chernobyl, the effects of low-level radiation, and other dangers of nuclear energy. When the villagers were told by the DAE that the project-affected communities of Tarapur benefited from nuclear energy, village leaders from Madban and Sakhre Nate visited Tarapur themselves to verify the DAE’s claims. They came back with stories of villagers dying from cancer, a debilitated fishing industry, and dangerous jobs at the plant. As the police intimidation continued, they created heroes and martyrs for their disaster scripts—two men were killed by the police, one man refused compensation money for his land to pay for cancer treatment, and one man working as a DAE guard refused to police his own village and was exiled to a Naxalite region.

Disaster scripting and democratic practices occur most powerfully during their protests. In a sit-in protest, a hundred or so will sit under the tent, usually near the fences of the JNPP. Leading figures from the community will give speeches all through out the day. Even the police sitting near by will laugh at jokes. In this space, differing viewpoints will be aired. The Shiv Sena leaders, for instance, called for beating anyone who works for or supports JNPP in an aggressive speech. From Sakhre Nate, differing views were aired over how to proceed, with some calling for increased militancy, others for moderation and criticizing JNPP on purely scientific terms, and yet others for complete peaceful protests. The second day, a consensus among leaders was achieved that all protests would be peaceful, and the grounds of protest, with the moral concerns of livelihood and safety holding equal weight.

Both invisible and real hazards anchor a new emergent identity through which villagers hope to collectively resist nuclear energy. When the public hearing finally occurred in 2010, the villagers came armed with questions about earthquake zones, tsunami risks, radioactive waste storage, dangers of terrorist attacks, scientific predictions versus long-term experience, the effects of heated effluent water, and the devastation of Chernobyl. The villagers already knew the “right” answers, and knew that the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) would not answer their questions. This performance of calling out the nuclear establishment helped stabilize a new identity as nuclear energy project-affected people, who would never part with their lands at any cost. For them, the right answers were mantras. The “lessons” of past disasters became condensed, mythologized, naturalized, decontextualized, and distilled into handfuls of aphorisms and nuggets of knowledge for the present: “We will grow a sixth finger.” “Our children will be deformed.” “There will be an earthquake.” “Our wombs will become barren.” “The radiation will give us cancer.” These mantras are not “risks” so much as certainties that would inevitably end in death if JNPP arrives. Now, even the existing incidences of cancer are chalked up to environmental pollution from the nearby Fenolix plant. But, health and safety disasters do not override the fear of losing land and fishing access. Indeed, they remain the dominant imagined disasters, as none can imagine life after losing livelihoods and communities. With the government’s use of the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894 to acquire land, the constant police intimidation —repeated visits for hearings, jail time, losing income, being beaten up, the killing of two villagers—the hatred towards the government is visceral and bind them together. Villagers say they will resort to violence in desperation.

Fissures remain. Despite the bonhomie of Sakhre Nate and Madban villagers, old prejudices are alive. I was told, for instance, that the Muslims keep their homes “dirty” and it would not be safe for a single woman. Madban villagers resent the Muslims for having a certain immunity to the kinds of arrests and harassment they are subjected to by the police, because the Congress party fears losing its vote bank. Villagers, in private, question their unity, pointing to the police informants among them. One of the higher land-owning caste leaders in the neighboring village of Mithigivane took the draconian action of commissioning a “beating” against one of the villagers (another high caste man) who sold his land. Yet this man is well-liked for his generosity in lending money, and they did not begrudge him his decision. Leaders are worried that if the compensation increases (currently it is 12 lakhs per hectare) then poor farmers will start selling land. Already, women who have been married off to distant villages have willingly sold their lands to the government. The leader of the protests also has lung cancer, and people fear the resistance may die with him.

Conclusion

The villagers are bitter about broken promises of help from law, media, NGOs and academia, all institutions of democracy. In their eyes, lawyers want fees paid, and will present weak cases, otherwise. The Supreme and High Courts do the Prime Minister’s bidding when it comes to nuclear energy. The media are only after sound bytes. Activists get arrested as soon as they come to the village. Academics are only interested in writing articles to advance their own careers. Villagers feel they are ultimately alone in this struggle. Yet their unity produced through disaster scripting through agonistic politics does shed light on how they understand and practice democracy, even though they either do not know what “democracy” is, or think of it as a dirty word and the root of their oppression.

Although I have documented the disaster scripting of villagers faced with a nuclear power plant, there are other scripting as well on different levels and with different actors. Although most villagers did not know of Bhopal, urban, educated anti-nuclear activists certainly do, and do not hesitate to make connections between Bhopal, Fukushima and the impending nuclear disaster in India. Similarly, other groups like the Communist Party of India pitch the disaster of nuclear energy as capitulation to foreign interests. To further explore science and democracy through disaster scripting in India, I intend to look at how nuclear power was thwarted in West Bengal, is how a partially built nuclear power plant is being opposed in Tamil Nadu, and how the Bhopal disaster was instrumental in passing the Nuclear Liability Bill in the Lok Sabha, against the wishes of the Central Government.

References

Beck, U. (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage Publications.

Ezrahi, Y. (1990). The Descent of Icarus: Science and the Transformation of Contemporary
Democracy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Fortun, K. (2001). Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster. New Global Orders.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jasanoff, S. (2005). Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and in the United
States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jasanoff, S. and S. Kim (2009). Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear
Power in the United States and South Korea. Minerva. 47 (2): 119-146.

Visvanathan, S. (2012). Nuclear energy: No longer a sacred cow, Firstpost.Ideas. Available at
http://www.firstpost.com/ideas/nuclear-energy-no-longer-a-sacred-cow-112249.html

Witsoe, J. (2011). Rethinking Postcolonial Democracy: An Examination of the Politics of
Lower-Caste Empowerment in North India. American Anthropologist. 113 (4): 619-631.

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[1] See, for example: Mark Brown (2009) Science in Democracy: Expertise, Institutions, and Representations; John Dryzek (2010) Foundations and Frontiers of Deliberative Governance; Clark Miller (2004) “Interrogating the Civic Epistemology of American Democracy: Stability and Instability in the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election” in Social Studies of Science;  Philip Kitcher (2003) Science, Truth and Democracy;  Steven Turner (2003) Liberal Democracy 3.0: Civil Society in an Age of Experts

Monamie Bhadra is a PhD Candidate in the Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology Program at Arizona State University (USA). Her dissertation explores the evolving relationship between science and democracy in India around nuclear energy, and has a forthcoming, invited article in Science as Culture, called “Fighting nuclear energy, fighting for India’s democracy.”

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16 Comments
  1. Laura Beltz Imaoka permalink

    I thought you did a wonderful job of showing the inadequacy of Western paradigms when discussing science and democracy in India, necessitating your use of post-colonial theory and anthropology to further define these sociotechnical imaginaries. Your approach of “disaster scripting” seems to be well-suited to your research site too. I am particularly interested in what you mention as the performance of calling out the nuclear establishment and how the “lessons” of past disasters become naturalized into rhetorical ammunition for present concerns. This language of victimization is now so prevalent in contemporary society so it made me wonder whether it could provide inroads for comparative analysis of similar community activism outside India.

    • Monamie Bhadra permalink

      I absolutely agree. As I’ve been working on the anti-nuclear movements in India, I have been thinking a lot about the opposition to fracking in the US, and the kinds of similarities I see, especially in the way movies like Gasland call out major corporations and the US government on hiding data about the risks of fracking.

  2. Monamie, I really like what you have done with the idea of “disaster scripting,” and I think it is absolutely appropriate to invoke sociotechnical imaginaries, enunciated communities, and postcolonial democracy in your study of the struggles in rural India around the establishment of nuclear power plants. You also mention that other Jasanoff term, “civic epistemologies,” and analytically I think your “scripts” function to concretize both specific sociotechnical imaginaries as well as local civic epistemologies — a very useful way of harnessing those concepts to do work for you. It is truly dismaying that the government and pro-nuclear forces are not merely content to pit their own scripts against the protesters’, but have resorted to cruder means of persuasion in order to achieve their goals.

    I would like to hear more about the details of the villagers’ scripts. You have given us some glimpses (along the lines of, “if the plant is built, we will get cancer and die”), but I wonder how elaborate and nuanced (or not) they can become, and how this compares to the scripts promulgated by pro-nuclear people, or even by relatively educated anti-nuclear activists. You could certainly get into some comparative discursive analysis of competing tropes and narratives, if you were so inclined.

    Can you also say a little more about how Fukushima affected the scripts and the struggles you describe in India? Most of your narrative is pre-Fukushima, and I wonder if Japan’s disaster(s) changed the dynamic in any way, or perhaps just reinforced previously entrenched positions.

    It will be interesting to see your analytical framework used to compare situations elsewhere in India, which of course is an incredibly diverse country. Though the specifics vary, temporary alliances and broad coalitions of groups otherwise normally in contention with each other, in order to oppose some looming and mutually odious outcome, are found just about everywhere. Exploring exactly how local conditions inflect these contests and alliances, and the scripts associated with them, would undoubtedly be a productive undertaking. I could see this being expanded beyond India’s borders as well. And for the rest of us, you have provided some analytical tools that might be useful for those studying protests and deliberations in Japan and elsewhere.

    • Monamie Bhadra permalink

      Hi Tyson, thanks so much for your comments!

      I completely agree with you about the local civic epistemologies. The theoretical motivation for my dissertation was to see if the concept of national-level civic epistemologies made sense in India to describe the way a nation debates and resolves the culturally-specific problems surrounding emerging technologies. As such, I think speaking of local civic epistemologies make sense, especially in producing specific sociotechnical imaginaries. But trying to attribute a nation with a certain civic epistemology assumed India has a relatively equal public sphere and share collective experiences.

      In my dissertation, I’m certainly looking at the scripts of the urban, educated anti-nuclear activists and that of the nuclear establishment, and the way they both adhere to nuclear exceptionalistic rhetoric. But I can tell you more about the villagers’ scripts, perhaps, by way of addressing your question about Fukushima. (I hope these broad brushstroke comparisons are not too facile!)

      In Jaitapur, Fukushima was largely seen as a sign that God wanted people to keep struggling against the reactor and that God was on their side. Fukushima played into existing religious worldviews. God was seen as a trickster who enjoyed watching the struggles of people below. God would not outright grant villagers a victory but wanted to see how clever, resourceful and strong they were. When Fukushima happened, it was a boon for the villagers to strengthen their struggle.

      In Tamil Nadu, where the Koodankulam nuclear plant has already been constructed and is awaiting fuel, Fukushima reactivated older protests that happened in 1989-90. But now, fisherwomen led the anti-nuclear charge, and used the Fukushima to talk about what radiation would do to their bodies, child-bearing capacities and their children.

      In my last field site, Gujarat, people often confused Fukushima and Hiroshima, but generally knew that what was going on was bad for their health. Fukushima was rarely mentioned when I was there, and when it was, it was in terms of an explosion that would kill everything and everyone.

  3. Lisa Onaga permalink

    Like Laura, I am also interested in how you suggest that knowledge of the past is encapsulated in these expressions of mantras of certainty. This is such a contrast to paralysis response to anxieties surrounding risk, for instance. As I read your lively paper, I was reminded of a conversation I had with someone residing in Japan about my plan to lecture about the 1959-1960 Mitsui Miike mining strike in Japan. She had never learned about it in school, which surprised me because it was the site of one of Japan’s most heated labor disputes in the postwar period. Your paper highlighted for me how villagers have very thin knowledge of history within their country, and that inequity seems to serve multiple purposes, whether to cultivate ignorance or to generate unity. The process of citizens’ recovery of that history, or maintaining institutional history, seems key here, and I can see your work addressing the issues of access to technological knowledge and historical knowledge together in a very provocative way. Interesting here as well is the consideration of how government scientists were trotted out by the Madban landowners, as if puppets. Is this vignette able to critique the transition from the “process of becoming post-colonial” to “being post-colonial”? To put that into a dramaturgical light, I wondered what these researchers thought about their own roles and what you think could be said about the transformations of the roles of scientists in Indian society that you see here, perhaps in relation to say, the argument about put forth by Gyan Prakash’s Another Reason?

    • Monamie Bhadra permalink

      Lisa, your point about inequity cultivating ignorance, as well as creating unity is well-taken, although I think that most people have very thin historical knowledge about their respective countries. As I was doing fieldwork, I was surprised how in one Gujarati village, Fukushima and Hiroshima were frequently interchanged. Moreover, one 2009 survey indicates that less than 50% of Indians know that India has “arrived” on the global stage by testing atomic weapons. Although I wonder if this ignorance is not yet another manifestation of the much-maligned cognitive deficit, I think I can still get at the politics of knowledge you mention from entirely actor categories to see what kinds of knowledge villagers are actively seeking, “forgetting,” or eliding. As for, Gyan Prakash’s views in Another Reason, are you talking about how Western science becomes “tropicalized” for the natives, and how science in India has been asked to anchor the foundation of Indian culture, politics, identity and economy? I really look forward to learning about each other’s work in greater detail when we meet next week.

  4. Ryuma Shineha permalink

    Your idea of “disaster scripting” looks very useful and interesting concept tools to understand the way of making and spread of some social imaginaries among local communiities.

    And like Tyson, I also get interested in the effects of Fukushima case to the “”disaster scripting”. And I would like to know the more detail of how some activists tried to use the Bhopal case in making scripts. In addition, it will be interest to compare the Indian case and other countries cases through your analytical framework.

    • Monamie Bhadra permalink

      Thanks for your comments! I will talk more about Fukushima in response to Tyson’s post, but here I’ll talk about Bhopal. The Bhopal tragedy has been used as resource on two levels, first by urban anti-nuclear activists, and then by the opposition parties during the passage of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages Bill in 2010.

      In the first, very briefly, Bhopal is being used as a way of to counter the Prime Minister’s accusation of the “foreign hand.” The PM said that all the protests around the country was fomented by foreigners and foreign NGOs, because the backward, “scientifically innocent” people could not have possibly started to protest on their own. In response, anti-nuclear activists say that if there is a foreign hand, it is the Prime Minister’s, who wants to buy reactors from France, Russia and the US. If these reactors come to pass, then another disaster like Bhopal will most certainly happen (disproportionately affecting the poor), and most certainly will be the fault of negligent foreign corporations and a callous government. Since I’m still gathering data, I won’t be able to provide a more fine-grained discourse analysis of exactly the way Bhopal is being invoked.

      But the liability bill happened to be debated in the Lok Sabha around the time when Warren Anderson was let off with a very light 2-year sentence. The outrage against this perceived travesty of justice compelled the opposition parties to force the leading PM Singh’s coalition government to adopt a liability policy that goes against international norms: the onus of liability would fall on the technology supplier (France, US or Russia) and not the operator (government of India). Again, I haven’t yet gone through the transcripts of the debate in the Lok Sabha to do a more nuanced analysis, but can certainly keep you apprised, if you are interested.

  5. From the start of examining proposals for presenting at this workshop this is one presentation with a comparative bent that I thought had promise, and I have not been disappointed.

    Monamie has apologized for using Fukushima to reflect on Japan; I’d like to try to flip the coin here. Monamie has highlighted the academic (and popular) presumption in the US (at least) of “democracy without (meaningful) divergence”, and in the cold war re-building of Japan’s image, Japan became “democratic” in a very short span of years.

    Yet the common presumption of a Japanese democracy that functions in the liberal ways commonly presumed (albeit with major political divisions over the post-war era largely confined to those within the Liberal Democratic Party, LDP) deserves more careful scrutiny. Like India, Japan’s democracy has been in slow transition since the adoption of the MacArthur constitution, and much of the framework for policy can be traced back to the era of LDP dominance. Voting behavior, while not caste-based, often breaks down along long-established personal connections that include neighborhood. (For a long-term historical study of the influence of informal networks on local government in Japan, see Marin Dusinberre’s _Hard Times in the Home Town_ which also deals with the decision of one community in Kyushu to “invite” the siting of a nuclear power plant there.) But more importantly, as Chalmers Johnson pointed out long ago in his work on MITI, a number of patterns rooted in the pre-war era continued to function in the post-war period, marshaled first on behalf of economic recovery, then building global competitiveness.

    Development of nuclear power was conditioned by this context, but a number of other venues reveal problems in getting local voices heard. In the realm of flood control, plans to protect the Kanto area after devastating typhoons in 1947, reveal a top-down perspective to policy that ignored local needs, resulted in widespread pushback to dam construction projects that ultimately transformed the environment for the exercise of eminent domain and provided far more generous compensation for people affected by major civil engineering projects. (An argument that parallels Monamie’s discussion of the Indian colonial land law can be made here — internal colonization.) The administrative arm of government can minutely regulate some things (licenses to teach calligraphy, central government officials to oversee the expenditure of its funds by each major urban and prefectural government) and provide pitiful oversight of others (banks and nuclear power) for much of the post-war era. Administration (as opposed to the legislative branch) can demonstrate a substantial long-term tenacity in the face of evidence and opposition — the continuing saga of Yamba dam is the case on which I have written, but there are other cases associated with engineering rivers. Although the election of the Democratic Party of Japan (Minshuto) seemed to promise legislative dominance over the administrative branch of government, its plans to cancel some 900 dam and related engineering projects remained unfulfilled throughout its tumultuous tenure in power — the time that encompassed 3-11.

    In part, this brief summary raises an important consideration for our workshop. While people have touched on the inability of the Japanese government to provide believable information post-3-11, and while there has been some discussion of groups harmed by government policies– laborers, residents seeking to rebuild — there is no discussion of the broader potential structural issues of governance that frame the calculation of risk, planning for disaster, and response to calamity that sparked the development of this and related workshops. Maybe it is time to bring the state back in.

  6. This is a very strong paper. I, like some others, was drawn to the invocation of past and present. The article opens with the idea that protests over nuclear power in India tap into age-old questions (resource access, land tenure, etc.). So I would like to know more about the specific ways in which nuclear power transforms these older questions and the consequences of framing these debates in terms of a disaster script related to radiation. What new alliances become possible when nuclear power protests are the focus of community action? What alliances are lost as attention is shifted from another issue to a nuclear protest? What actors are entitled to speak about nuclear power and which are not? In short: what is gained and what is lost when age-old questions become framed through the prism of nuclear power?

    • Monamie Bhadra permalink

      Hi Chris, thanks for your comments. For me, the essence of your questions are whether or not the prism of nuclear energy, shrouded in Hecht’s nuclear exceptionalism, changes the ways in which these older livelihood struggles are refracted. Are the issues around nuclear energy different from the kinds of issues that crop up around other development projects, say dams? I think the answer to this question, if I’m interpreting you correctly, differs from protest to protest, as all protests are embedded in a different and specific political-economic and cultural history, and therefore have different answers to your questions. I guess I hesitate to say anything about India as a whole, because the opposition is so fragmented and heterogeneous, and that very diversity, I think, says something about Indian nationhood and how communities are dealing with the increasing prevalence of centralized energy projects.

      But here are some brief comparisons.

      So far, looking generally across all the sites, framing the protests against nuclear reactors in terms of safety hazards has only been successful in possibly two locations, the Koodankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu, where the plant has already been built and is slated to go critical any day. Anti-nuclear protests here allowed the creation of inter-faith protests (between Hindus and Christians) linkages that were not as strong before. The other place, Kerala, which I have not looked in detail yet, succeeded in rejecting nuclear energy plants based on safety discourse, primarily because (I suspect) of the heavily active People’s Science Movement there. The other three places I have completed field work in so far (Gujarat, Maharashtra and West Bengal) nuclear energy is being fought almost entirely in terms of land and livelihood struggles, although each has its own script of what a disaster exactly entails, and who gets to write it. Gujarat, for example, has a more NIMBY approach saying it should be made in the Rajasthan dessert. Maharashtra does not want nuclear energy anywhere in India, but this espousal is more strategic than anything else, because of the increased help they get from urban anti-nuclear activists when they protest in terms of nuclear hazards. And West Bengal was purely about land rights and fighting a government who had pursued an aggressive policy of creating Special Ecoomic Zones. But in general, the fear of losing land and access to fishing grounds does not trump the fear of nuclear radiation. Nuclear energy contributes to the drama and pathos of the struggle.

  7. Yasuhito Abe permalink

    Thank you very much for sharing this very interesting work. Like some others, I found your concept of “disaster scripting” fascinating. The concept should be useful for an analysis of other cases. I wonder if you could explain a bit more about “imaginaries from below.” As you indicate, Jasanoff and Kim (2009) focus on analyzing the role of nation states in shaping “sociotechnical imaginaries,” and do not discuss the role of “mass media, popular culture and visual material” (p.122). Would you be interested in studying the role of visual materials in shaping “imaginaries from below”? What would you think about medium specificity in relation to the characteristic of “disaster scripting”?” Again, thank you very much for sharing the work!

  8. Kath Weston permalink

    Along with everybody else, I’m very taken by your concept of disaster scripting, especially in the context of India’s lively politics of demonstrations, bandhs/shutdowns, and yatras/pilgrimages as well as the institutionalized apparatus of panchayat meetings and elections. Theoretically speaking, like the space in architecture or the rest in music, this seemingly empty interval between disasters really does seem to be doing something that profoundly shapes the entire piece. I think the richness of your paper also reflects the overdue conceptual shakeup that STS will increasingly experience as more work is generated by scholars whose point of departure is not North America or Europe. My next comment is a bit hard to formulate, but let me try: It’s true that thankfully no nuclear disaster has occurred yet in India, unless one looks at much smaller-scale nuclear-related disasters, such as the workers at Kaiga Atomic Power Station in Karnataka who received high radiation doses a couple years ago after drinking tritiated water from a cooler (which led to one of many worker-management struggles over plant safety). But I wonder if in another sense your findings aren’t encouraging us to think more reflectively about how disaster studies does its own disaster scripting by creating very specific lineages of disaster. Three Mile Island links to Chernobyl links to Fukushima (via a lineage called “nuclear disaster”); the specter of a nuclear meltdown in India seems like it should link to Bhopal (via a lineage of “industrial accidents”). But maybe one reason villagers don’t know about or focus on Bhopal (which was a while ago now) is because they are scripting their disaster lineages differently than the way STS tends to do. The scripts they develop may link to disasters of other sorts, and say something about what constitutes a looming disaster *for them*, using categories like “loss of land” rather than “nuclear (or industrial) catastrophes.” So for instance, villagers who oppose a plant like the JNPP and know little about Bhopal or Fukushima might conceivably link their opposition to what they understand as the disastrous consequences for life associated with any one of a number of dam projects or mining in Goa or the seizure of land to build a factory. What belonged any given disaster lineage script would be an ethnographic question, but it would mean that what you describe as the success of safety discourse in anti-nuke protest in one place versus livelihood discourse in another might have significance that is more than tactical.

    • Karena Kalmbach permalink

      Kath, your comment on ‘disaster lineage script as an ethnographic question’ made me think of the very different ways Chernobyl has been ‘interpreted’ in different European countries: In Belarus, the remembrance is related to the country’s experience in the Second World War (with regards to the disastrous impact on society), in France it is linked to the scandal on contaminated blood bottles (with regards to the government and state experts not warning the people about a threat to their health) and in Britain, Chernobyl has been mostly considered through the lens of Sellafield. I think it is very often mainly a specific national, regional or local context that shapes how a society comes to terms with a disaster and the lineages that are constructed can differ profoundly.

  9. Karena Kalmbach permalink

    Thank you Monamie for this very interesting paper! I would love to hear more about the aspect of the ‘foreign hand’, beyond the polemic use of this term by the government in relation to Bhopal: In your account on the public hearing in 2010 you write ‘the villagers came armed with questions about earthquake zones, tsunami risks, radioactive waste storage, dangers of terrorist attacks, scientific predictions versus long-term experience, the effects of heated effluent water, and the devastation of Chernobyl. The villagers already knew the “right” answers’. Could you provide some more information about where this ‘knowledge’ comes from? You mention the anti-nuclear activists Surendra and Sanghamitra Gadekar who provided workshops on uranium miners and Chernobyl: What is their network inside and outside of India, and from where do they receive their information or whom do they quote in their material?

  10. Very nice paper and more to come with your next fieldwork, which would make a tremendous thesis!

    As you emphasize, from all STS and more traditional sociological angles (gender, ethnic, religious and class), the anti-nuclear movement in Jaitapur is indeed extremely heterogeneous! So, and following on Lisa’s comment about researchers, may I ask you to do some reflexive task introducing us briefly how do you position yourself when you conducted your fieldwork?

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