By Raminder Kaur
26 June, 2012
In January 2008 I was surfing on the internet when I came across a Wikipedia entry on the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant under construction with the Russian Atomsroyexport since 2002. It stated that the nuclear plant when complete will provide a base as well as one-off fuel to a nuclear-powered submarine, news that I circulated at the time. It was also noted that dredging for the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project between India and Sri Lanka would make the sea navigable for such large vessels:
There are negotiations to see if a naval base is to be added here for both safeguarding the project and as a presence in the southern tip of the country.  A mini port became operational in Koodankulam on January 14, 2004 .  The port has been established to receive barges carrying overdimensional equipments for light water reactors from ships anchored at a distance of 1½ km. This removes the necessity of land transportation that increases the possibility of damage. The Sethusamudram project will enhance the military and provide Nuclear Submarine base in the canal, with the nuclear fuel supplied by the Koodankulam Nuclear Project.
The entry is no longer there, presumably edited out in view of the intensified anti-nuclear struggle which has reached a zenith around the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant. (1) Moreover, the admission is a major howler on the part of the person who sent it to the worldwide encyclopaedia. In the aftermath of the Indo-US nuclear civilian agreement ratified in 2008, Koodankulam has been classified as a civilian operation subject to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The fuel for India ‘s nuclear-powered submarine can no longer be legally taken from Koodankulam. But the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research at Kalpakkam on the other side of Tamil Nadu retains its military capacity and will now provide the life-long fuel required for the new Arihant submarine in the form of miniaturised pressurised water reactors. (2)
The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) are playing a dangerous game of nuclear poker. Examples of state vacillation between civilian and military uses of the Koodankulam region are common. On the one hand, it wants to stress that the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) is a civilian project tying it up with international agreements in the post-2008 scenario so that India appears as a respectable power that can responsibly deal with enhanced nuclear trade.
On the other, internally it wants to stress the defence angle, emphasising how essential power plants such as the KKNPP are to Indian security. Such rhetoric adds leverage to ill-conceived charges of ‘sedition’ and ‘war against the state’ filed against anyone who protests against their plans as has been done in outlandish numbers over the nuclear plant. (3) In fact, the DAE have misled court hearings on Public Interest Writ Petitions by stating that nuclear power stations are vital for national defence and they continue this logic in their campaigns to deter citizens in further querying or critiquing the nuclear plant project on any grounds to do with democratic rights and environmental impact. The former Indian Navy Captain, Dr Buddi Kota Subbarao, now an advocate of the Supreme Court of India describes these cases as fraud on the part of the DAE. (4) The use of DAE defence rhetoric for civilian nuclear power plants is not about defending the nation, but about defending themselves.
It has also come to light that the 1988 Inter-Governmental Agreement with Russia encloses an annexure which states that Russia will provide knowledge and services that relate to India ‘s development of a nuclear-powered submarine. This admission was noted in a website magazine on defence and security affairs, Tempur , in 2009.
The Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) that India and Russia Atomstroyexport signed on November 20, 1988 for the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) officially involved the construction of two 1,000 MWe Russian VVER-1000-type light water reactors (at a cost of US$3.5 billion) at Kudankulam in Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu State. However, a secret annexure of this contract also called for Moscow to offer its ‘consultancy’ and ‘vendor-development’ services, along with the supply of two KLT-40C reactor mock-ups (built by Afrikantov OKBM and designed to deliver 23.5 propeller mW from the 82.5mW reactor and using 20-45% enriched uranium-aluminium alloy, clad in zircaloy), their related heat exchangers and steam generators, plus their detailed engineering drawings off-the-shelf. (5)
The Indo-Russian deal was not just about the construction of a nuclear power plant but accompanied by dividends that bolstered Indian defence ‘know-how’ and ‘know-why’. Whilst this arrangement has only received public attention in recent years, it was in fact initiated before the Indo-US deal when Russia as a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory violated rules to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and technology . (6) Even though a part of the same deal, the nuclear submarine vessel has been removed from Koodankulam as a military asset for there is no legitimate reason for KKNPP to be developed as a naval base.
In January 2012, the Indian Navy leased a one billion dollar Russian-built vessel for ten years, renaming it INS Chakra II. By the end of this year, India is expected to have developed its own nuclear powered submarine, Arihant, boosted by the deal over the Koodankulam Nuclear Power plant and where Russia will help train the Indian crew. (7)
Russia supplies 70% of India ‘s military hardware – an impressive feat until one thinks about the number of Indian pilots that have died on Russian-supplied MIG aeroplanes. Dubbed ‘flying coffins’ and widow-makers’, the Indian Air force have lost over half of their nearly thousand combat planes in deadly crashes in the last four decades due mainly to technical issues, even though as the film, Rang de Basanti shows so colourfully, officials prefer to put the blame on the pilots. (8)
Similarly, the submarine supplied to the Indian army has also had its share of mishaps. In 2008 a fire extinguishing system was activated by mistake and Freon gas that removed oxygen from the air suffocated around 20 people and injured another 21. (9) Questions about the age of the vessel and the competence of the crew have been raised. Former submarine captain in the Russian Navy, Alexander Nikitin, said that the accident was a result of ‘corruption and disintegration of the military-industrial sector’ in Russia . (10) This was the worst submarine accident since the sinking of the Kursk submarine which left 118 dead in 2000 – a disaster that could in fact have been averted if the Russian government had acted quicker and agreed to international collaboration. A similar disregard surrounded the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 where, after days of denial, the then USSR authorities conceded that they had a national and global disaster on their hands.
The Indian and Russian nuclear authorities persistently say that technologies and safety checks have been updated with the latest in engineering with regards to the Koodankulam nuclear power plant. The DAE has even petitioned the Madras High Court with the statement that nuclear disasters at Koodankulam are ‘impossible’. (11) But this is a proclamation born out of sheer arrogance. Moreover, the brain drain of Russian scientists in the former USSR has turned into a flood as the country struggles to retain its scientific talents since the collapse of communism. (12) The scientific ingenuity that is left in contemporary Russia does not compare with earlier years when they launched Sputnik into space. A leaked report proves that Russian officials themselves admit that their nuclear reactors are not fit for purpose when it comes to disasters or human negligence. 31 serious flaws in Russian reactor designs have been catalogued. (13)
India has had a love affair with Russia ever since the colonial era. Inspired by the revolution in 1917, communists in India showed a strong allegiance to the superpower, preferring it to alliances with the imperialist west. Political parties from the heady days of the Tashkent meeting in 1920 and organisations such as ‘Friends of the Soviet Union’ chaired by a Congress leader took root to ensure Russian politicians, artists and cultural ambassadors enjoyed a warm welcome in the subcontinent.
Despite Jawaharlal Nehru’s pledge for non-alignment, relations continued as one Cold War superpower jockeyed against the other. India ‘s Intelligence Bureau has had its training from the KGB since the 1950s. KGB activities were countered by CIA and other interventions in which one foreign spy was played off the other by those in India . Under Indira Gandhi’s rule, Cold War opacity became clearer as India leant more and more towards the USSR .
In the contemporary neo-liberal, post 9/11 era, India plays a game of chess with all major powers. Its allegiance with the former USSR continues under deluded circumstances.
The USSR is no more, but the political left idealises it as if it were still a communist country. The left continue to live under an ideological hangover and are tongue-tied when it comes to developing a consistent critique of Russian policy and practice in India . Their reasons stem from the fact that they favour the multipolarity that an alliance with Russia promises, rather than the unipolarity of the USA which, after all, in the global recession is living with a flagging dream of supremacy. They fail to see the reality of Russia today.
A much reduced but no less powerful Russia is in the throes of cut-throat capitalism and a mission to conquer the world through trade deals and natural resource dependency. The oligarchs of old who worked for the Kremlin continue to have parliamentary control and palatial residences but this time tied in with gangster capitalism. It is evident that they have little remorse and take no prisoners when it comes to muscling in on trade, whether it be legal, illegal or the grey area in between. The Kremlin has mutated into a racketeering Gremlin.
On the supposedly legal front, there are examples such as the nuclear corporate, Atomsroyexport with its large share held by the state corporate Rosatom. Together they are responsible for much of the nuclear expansion in the former Communist bloc, Asia and other countries in the south such as Iran . (14) As the controversy of Iran shows, how long these projects remain simply civilian is anyone’s guess. These are also countries where civil society, citizen’s rights and legislature are comparatively weak. Russia takes minimal heed of international or national law as their belated feting of mammon obscures concerns over human rights abuses. Witness Russia ‘s supply of ammunition and military hardware to the governments in Syria with regards to the atrocities committed against its people and, along with China and Israel , in Sri Lanka ‘s civil war that ended brutally in 2009. (15)
On the obviously illegal front, Russia has grown to dominate the trade in real estate, drugs and the sex trade with one of its favoured havens being Goa . (16) But as a report for the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention stated in 2001, their involvement in the so-called legal economy is much more lucrative:
The large criminal organisations that are presented as the dreadful ‘Russian Mafia’ by the domestic and foreign press, are at the moment apparently not interested in the drug business, though some of their younger affiliates may be dealing drugs. The extraordinary enrichment chances offered by the transition to a market economy explain, according to some interviewees, their lack of interest in drug trafficking. As a law enforcement officer put it, ‘they have such huge opportunities to make money in the so-called legal economy, that it makes no sense for them to deal drugs’.
Whether it is above or below board, ruthlessness defines their conduct led by free-wheeling despots with a passion for big bucks, football, fast cars and even faster women.
India continues to be one of Russia ‘s prime customers. Indian officials may declare themselves as patriots who love India , but as Ashis Nandy has argued for the west in more sophisticated language than is used here, they still fantasise about sleeping with the white adversary. (17) White men serve another function – of endorsing decisions made by the Indian state as demonstrated in the number of times politicians and nuclear officials call upon Russians and Croatians to say that their nuclear technology in KKNPP is safe. (18)
A bitter irony is that whilst Russians court Indians in trade and exchange, Russia itself has become a dangerous place in view of widespread racist attacks against anyone who is not white. Racism occurs not just in football grounds but even in the most liberal of their bastions such as universities: ‘ Those with black skin or an Asian appearance rarely venture out alone at night.’ (19) In a report published in May 2012, five people have been killed and about 70 injured in racist attacks so far this year. (20) But the racism is not just limited to ultra-right street thugs. It is evident in their institutions and corporates, and it is also apparent in the lack of regard they have for the lives and livelihoods of Indians living around the Koodankulam power plant in their transnational profiteering.
So why does the Indian government continue to trade with Russia in substandard and potentially dangerous technologies in military and nuclear hardware? Profits for the companies and kickbacks for the handshaking politicians have overruled the safety of Indian citizens. The 1986 Bofors scandal and the revelations of the 2001 Tehelka Operation West End sting operation in 2001 are only the tip of this melting iceberg in an international arms imbroglio. Official arguments about national security and national development are in fact a threat to national wellbeing and prosperity.
Now that nuclear relationships have broadened to encompass US and French corporates in the aftermath of the Indo-US deal, Indian authorities are not just having an affair, but pimping Mother India in the pursuit of profits. Koodankulam has become a region of civil war fought on non-violent grounds led by the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy against a venal state that threatens with violence. It is the state that has initiated this sorry state of militarised affairs in what was formerly a beautiful and tranquil region of India , a policy that also terrorises people living in other zones earmarked for nuclear developments.
Raminder Kaur is the author of Atomic Bombay: Living with the Radiance of a Thousand Suns, Performative Politics and the Cultures of Hinduism and co-author with Virinder Kalra and John Hutnyk of Diaspora and Hybridity.
1. The entry now appears on wikimapia and a couple of blogs. See Wikimapia.
2. http://www.naval-technology.com/projects/arihant-class/ It is interesting that the Sethusamudram project was emphasised as only a shipping canal. Proposals for the canal stress the reduction in time for heavy ships that would no longer need to sail south of Sri Lanka . But the actual saving in time is only a few hours for it cuts sailing by a mere 350 nautical miles, not the thousands of miles saved by other canal projects such as those in Panama and the Suez . In 2009, the Indian Ministry of Shipping declared that cost estimates had increased to around Rs 30,000 crores, an outrageous sum that makes no sense if the project is just to save on a bit of time and fuel. Even though proposals have been made to dredge the canal since colonial times, the reason for its inauguration in 2005 under the United Progressive Alliance party in power in the pre-Indo-US deal era has to be militarily strategic. The project is now on hold after much campaigning on environmental, economic and religious grounds as the peninsular pilgrim centre, Rameswaram, is the legendary place where Ram despatched his army of monkeys across the bridge Ram Setu to Sri Lanka . As any rate, the Sethusamudram Corporation Limited was unable to raise the funds needed to complete the project. See http://www.dnaindia.com/money/report_sethusamudram-project-cost-rises-by-rs-4500-cr_1292583
6. http://www.fas.org/nuke/control/npt/text/npt3.htm The eventual public release of the now outdated Site Evaluation Report in May 2012 also reveals the Russian role in Koodankulam land clearance from the outset. http://www.deccanherald.com/content/252670/soviet-role-kkulam-land-clearance.html ; http://www.countercurrents.org/kaur290512.htm
15. According to an Amnesty International report, the USA and Russia rank first and second respectively in the ‘Big Six’ ring of arms traders. http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/big-six-arms-exporters-2012-06-11 See also http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/south-asia/chinas-aid-revealed-in-sri-lankas-victory-parade ; http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/10288835
18 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNx_x3unS9Q http://www.thehindu.com/news/states/tamil-nadu/article3429704.ece