India: A tale of two power stations

January 27, 2015

The wave of social and environmental destruction sweeping India in the age of globalisation can be seen in the “development” being imposed on entire sections of small farmers, fishing communities, forest tribes and small artisans.

It can be gauged from two instances of attempts to build coal-fired power stations in sensitive ecological regions of coastal Andhra Pradesh, a state in south-east India.

The first site at Sompeta, a small town near the Andhra Pradesh-Odisha border, came into the news when the then-state government announced in 2008 its decision to build a 2640 MW coal-fired power plant outside the town.

The site’s 4000 acres of marshes and wetlands draining into the sea was declared “wasteland”. The Salim Ali Nature Conservation Fund in Mumbai says the area provides a habitat for 118 varieties of birds. At least 656 varieties of plants, medicinal herbs and rare mosses have been identified in the region. It is also home to an endangered bat species.

Apart from the flora and fauna, about 500 families live on the catch from the tidal depths of the marshes.

Sheep and cattle across the area depend on the summer drinking water and pastures provided by the wetlands. The low lying areas of the system support two rice crops a year and the banks are lined with vegetable, coconut, mango and jackfruit groves. Irrigation schemes also provide water to about 750 acres of land.

Nagarjuna Construction Company (NCC) was the company with approval to build the plant. In the time-honoured fashion of colonisers offering trinkets, it set up an office in the town in October 2008 and offered inducements to the locals, such as books for students and medical camps for the people with almost no public health system.

It also hired muscle to provide “security services”.

But a campaign involving students, lawyers, teachers, journalists, environmental activists and the Human Rights Forum has raised awareness about the extent of economic and environmental devastation that building the plant within the wetlands would cause.

Activists held tours to villages affected by an existing power station at Parvada in nearby Vishakapatnam. Earlier, the NCC had taken people on tours to the power plant, where they were feted and hosted in style.

But the flip side of the coin was in the tours to the affected villages. One of the activists in Sompeta said locals there told them: “Stop the power plant even if some of you are killed.”

In response, the communities gathered in October, 2010, to form the Paryavarana Parirakshana Samiti (Environment Protection Committee) and took up the task of exposing the dangers of the power plant. Even local doctors, who were supportive of the project initially, boycotted the NCC’s medical camps once they studied the dangers posed by such a plant in a sensitive ecological zone.

From the beginning, there was no doubt whose side the government and the police were on. The police repeatedly tried to shut down protests and intimidate or bribe leaders.

Teachers and doctors in the public service who supported the movement were transferred to distant places. Doctors in private practice were raided by tax officers, small restaurant owners were harassed by health inspectors, leaders of the movement had their home loans foreclosed by banks and terrorised with police raids on homes in the middle of the night.

A camp set up near the wetlands was attacked by police on April 30, 2010. Tents and food supplies were set on fire and campers alleged up to 5000 people were beaten and arrested.

In July that year, police conducted armed marches in the town and surrounding villages and warned people against accessing the wetlands. This was a week after then-federal minister for the environment Jairam Ramesh visited the town and assured the people their concerns would be heard.

On July 13, when about 3000 police descended on the town, reports spread that the company was trying to build a wall in the wetlands. About 20,000 people marched to the site to prevent work. They were brutally attacked by the police and security guards hired by the company. Police opened fire on the protesters, killing two. Another person died later in hospital and five others were seriously injured.

Thanks to mass agitations, support from national and international activists, lawyers and scientists, the National Apellate Authority ordered a halt to building the power plant and the State High Court suspended operation of the government order transferring land to the corporation.

This was a reprieve, but the people of Sompeta continued agitating for five years to have the order scrapped instead of merely suspended.

New chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, who had supported the agitation as leader of the opposition, has announced a proposal for a 4000 MW Japanese-built power station at Baruva, which is like moving it across town.

Barely 60 kilometres south of Sompeta is the site of another protest, this time in the wetlands of Kakarapalle region near the town of Palasa.

The story is similar, but the outcome worse. The state government announced plans for a 2640 MW power station in 2009. This plant was to be built in about 3300 acres of wetlands.

The wetlands are an important region of floodwater channels from rivers draining into a marsh and then into the sea at the Bay of Bengal. The wetland system provides a feeding habitat for migratory birds from Siberia, many of which roost in the Teli Neelapuram bird sanctuary on the coast.

About 59 villages around the wetlands depend upon it for water and irrigation and a fishing society of more than 4000 members has had traditional fishing rights in the marsh for more than 100 years.

The Human Rights Forum, environmentalists and left parties alerted communities there to the dangers of the project when the then-state government transferred the land to the Industrial Infrastructure Corporation to be sold to the power station. 

The response of the government was similar: police camps, marches, harassment of visitors and restrictions on movement. When people protested in February 2010, the police reportedly burnt 18 houses,crops in the field and our people were killed when police fired on protests. At least 50 others were injured.   

People have boycotted an administrative inquiry into the deaths and have demanded a judicial inquiry. But some of the local leaders have been intimidated and bribed into collaboration.

Protesters approached the National Appellate Authority on this case as well, but the authority recommended that since 1100 acres had already been occupied by the corporation, it could continue building on that land.
The fishing community and part of the affected villages continue to protest, but the company has continued building by using a roundabout route to transport material. The result of the partially built plant is that farm lands are being flooded by displaced waters.

People in the region have said that although 600 acres were submerged in 2009, the flooding had spread to 43,000 acres of rice-growing land last year.

The scale of environmental and social devastation being imposed on some the most vulnerable sections of the population, as well as the environment, in India can be seen from the fact that two thermal power stations and a 10,000 MW nuclear power station, at Kovvada in the same administrative district, are being built within 150 kilometres of each other.

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