India: American priest's visit galvanizes opposition to nuclear plant

Fr Chares receiving award

Fr Chares receiving award

Villagers in eastern India say a recent visit by an American priest has strengthened their fight against a proposed nuclear project.

Father Charles Peter Dougherty visited Haripur, a village in West Bengal state on 10 November, where local people are resisting a government proposal to set up a nuclear plant with Russian aid.

The Michigan-based priest's visit was "timely" and "gave much needed momentum and support to our protest," said Ajay Shyamal, a farmer in the coastal village.

Fr Dougherty was in India to receive an award from an Indian industrial firm based in Pune, western India, for promoting the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi outside the country. He then traveled across India to spend a day with Haripur's mostly Hindu farmers and fisher folk.

After touring the village and the surrounding countryside, Father Dougherty told the farmers he supported them because the project would force many of them off their land.

Fr Dougherty's interest in their struggle greatly influenced the villagers. "We did not believe our protest was known on the other side of the world," said Shyamal.

People began to protest after the government-owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) announced plans for the power plant in October 2007. The Haripur project is one of 24 new power plants NPCIL plans to build, adding to its 23 existing plants around the country.

Media reports say the company plans to begin construction work by 2010.

NPCIL says it aims to develop nuclear power as a safe, environmentally friendly and economically viable source of energy, meeting the nation's increasing electricity needs.

Sidhartha Jana, 68, said people's resistance to the project had weakened over the years. "With the priest's visit, we have realized we must strengthen our protest before the government forces the project on us," he added.

Jana said Haripur has some 270 families who all depend on agriculture and fishing for survival. He added that Fr Dougherty wanted to see for himself what the villagers stood to lose if the project goes ahead.

"We are not after compensation," Jana told UCA News. He said the villagers want the government to introduce schemes that would help them improve farming techniques and sell the fish they catch.

Suddhangshu Shekhar Bhuiya, another farmer, said the priest urged the villagers to unite if they want to achieve their goal. Outsiders will try to divide the villagers on the basis of political party affiliations and caste groups, he told them.

Rakhahari Pal, a fisherman, thanked the priest for his visit. He also accused the government of trying to cheat the villagers by promising jobs. "What sort of job can the government give to illiterate, unskilled youths?" he asked.

Source: UCA News

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