India shuts aid groups it says rally nuke protests

KATY DAIGLE Associated Press Published:

NEW DELHI (AP) -- India has shut down three aid organizations it says were diverting foreign funds toward rallying protests against a Russian-built nuclear plant in the south, but one group on Saturday denied any involvement in the protests while another said its efforts were entirely homegrown.

Activists opposed to an expansion of India's atomic energy portfolio argue that Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster caused by a massive earthquake and tsunami last March showed that such plants are vulnerable to natural disasters.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says India needs nuclear power to help fuel its booming economy and that Indian installations are safe.

After months of protests against the new plant in Tamil Nadu, Singh last week accused unidentified foreign interests -- mainly in the United States and Scandinavia -- of stirring anti-nuclear sentiment without understanding India's electricity needs.

Russia backed Singh's comments, with Ambassador Alexander Kadakin on Saturday saying "we have been suspecting this all along."

He said foreign-backed activists suddenly raised their voices "against the most secure, the best and the safest station in the world. We were perplexed, but now we stand vindicated from the words of the prime minister."

India said Friday, a day after the Russian and Indian foreign secretaries held talks in New Delhi, that it was canceling the licenses of three aid groups it accused of illegally funding protests that delayed plans for firing up the first of the Russian-built plant's two 1,000-megawatt reactors in December.

It did not name the groups or give details of where the funding was suspected of coming from. It said only that a Home Ministry investigation showed overseas funds meant for helping the physically handicapped and eradicating leprosy had instead been used for anti-nuclear protests in the state's Kudankulam region.

"The people who are agitating near the plant ... are being brought there in trucks from various villages. They are being given food," Union Minister V. Narayanasamy said Friday.

But one group, the Tuticorin Diocese Association, said it had been unfairly targeted despite having no involvement in protests that have blocked highways and featured public fasts to demand the plant's closure. It said its accounts had been frozen and fundraising activities barred.

"We are being victimized," Father William Santhanam said by telephone Saturday from the Tuticorin Diocese in Tamil Nadu. "Maybe because the bishop expressed sympathy with his people's fears about the plant, but that is his job. When there is an earthquake, a flood, any other reason for public upset, the government wants us to be there. But not now."

He said a recent Home Ministry audit had shown "not one iota" of evidence to suggest the group was involved in anti-nuclear campaigning. "They were very satisfied," he said, while the diocese's other group, the Multipurpose Social Service Society, has not been mentioned.

"There is no reason for this. Those were very sweeping statements the prime minister made," he said.

Anti-nuclear campaigner S.P. Udayakumar also objected to his People's Education for Action and Liberation being shuttered, saying there was no proof to support the prime minister's allegations that the protesters were supported by overseas funding.

"Instead of acknowledging the people's struggle, he is accusing us of receiving money from American and Scandinavian sources," Udayakumar told reporters. "We reject these accusations. We are not receiving any money from any international or Indian sources."

Newspapers reported the third targeted group was Good Vision, Nagercoil, but attempts to reach the organization Saturday were not successful.

Meanwhile, aid groups outside the fray also questioned whether the allegations were supported and why the government was not making details of the investigation public.

The Voluntary Action Network India, an umbrella group that has not said it was named in the government's action, criticized the allegations as potentially damaging to public perceptions of aid groups.

Energy-hungry India is hoping to quadruple its nuclear energy lode from its current 5,000 megawatts from 20 existing nuclear plants to 20,000 megawatts by 2020.

The government has said the plant will meet national safety standards.

Singh has insisted that Indian nuclear reactors have a clear record. Since the Fukushima accident, atomic energy authorities and the state-run company that operates Indian nuclear plants have conducted a series of safety checks on installations.

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