Free For All?
- At least seven thermal power plants have been proposed in and around Srikakulam district
- The companies say they are on wasteland; but many of them are in fact on fertile wetland
- Two protestors were killed on July 14 in Sompeta
- The location, with access to coal, is attracting many groups
The controversial environmental clearance of the Nagarjuna Construction Company’s (NCC) thermal power plant in Sompeta, in the Srikakulam district of coastal Andhra Pradesh, was struck down by the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA) on July 14. But this came too late for two protesters—G. Krishnamurthy and Bandi Joga Rao—who were shot dead by the police the same day at a demonstration against the plant. What is alarming is that the Sompeta confrontation isn’t an isolated one. Across northeastern Andhra Pradesh, thousands of acres of fertile, irrigated land and ecologically sensitive areas are being handed over to power projects. Angry locals and environment groups are organising protests.
An example is the plant proposed by Alfa Infraprop Pvt Ltd in Komarada, in neighbouring Vizianagram district. It turns out that the land earmarked for it comprises areas where the state irrigation department has already spent over Rs 2 crore to improve irrigation facilities, using funds meant for tribals. A letter from executive engineer D.S. Pradeep, a copy of which is with Outlook, states that setting up the plant there will “badly affect” the interests of tribals and “defeat” the purpose of the irrigation scheme. Having a power plant, it says, is not “desirable”. But the letter was overlooked and environmental clearance was granted in March.
A case has also been filed with the NEAA against the proposed plant of East Coast Energy in Bhavanapadu, Srikakulam district. The NEAA is yet to rule on the case. But reports filed by a subgroup of the MOEF’s expert appraisal committee in July 2008 left little doubt about how the Bhavanapadu plant is “likely to directly (come in)conflict with conservation objectives”. The site, subgroup members say, is an “ecologically rich and diverse home for some highly endangered species” and a “priority area for conservation”. Later, a new proposal for the plant was put forth. The new blueprint left out 500 acres from the southern side of the site and moved all facilities 1.35 km away. The EAC cleared this new proposal with alacrity, saying there was no “notified ecologically sensitive areas in the vicinity of the proposed project site”. This has shocked many.
Marked ground The site of the Srikakulam plant of ECE
“Why the EAC changed its mind is best known to them,” says E.A.S. Sarma, a former union power secretary and one of the appellants to the NEAA against the Bhavnapadu and Sompeta power plants. Another expert committee, comprising Asad Rahmani of the Bombay Natural History Society and Asha Rajvanshi of the Wildlife Institute of India, has also pointed out how the environment impact assessment (EIA) of the plant was conveniently conducted just before the monsoon, when water levels are at their lowest. Even the 500 acres that was given up was later sought to be acquired overnight by another firm (Meghavaram Power Private Limited), says Sarma, although there was a clear understanding that the stretch had to be excluded from all industrial activity. The appelants’ vigilance stalled this stealthy attempt. “The MOEF was letting itself be hoodwinked when it should have actually laid bare the scam,” says Sarma.
Developers of thermal projects find it advantageous to set up plants in Srikakulam and the adjoining coastal belt. There is ready access to coal from the Mahanadi coalfields in neighbouring Orissa. The coastal location allows access to imported coal too, and an endless supply of seawater for cooling the plants. Meanwhile, the violence that broke out in Sompeta on July 14 has only strengthened the resolve of locals to foil the NCC’s plans. The day two protesters were killed, some 4,000 villagers clashed with the 800-odd police personnel posted in the area. Locals allege that the NCC let loose hired goons.
Despite the killings, Andhra Pradesh’s revenue minister Dhramana Prasada Rao, who hails from Srikakulam, defends the plans for power plants and says they are coming up on “wasteland”. Calling the police firing unfortunate, Rao says the state will nonetheless press ahead with the power plant as it would develop the backward district.
Far from a wasteland, the NCC plant is being set up on a precious wetland area locally known as ‘beela’, supporting a population of 1.5 lakh, comprising mainly farmers and fisherfolk. This wetland occupies over 4,000 acres across a stretch of about 20 km. Of the 1,882 acres handed over to NCC, 1,200 acres is beela. A low-lying swamp, it is habitat to 120 bird species, local and migratory. The region is one of the few surviving marshes on the Andhra Pradesh coast, and an integral part of the local surface-cum-marine ecosystem.
The NCC denies its plant will have an adverse impact on the local environment; it says the plant, once operational, will generate employment for at least 750 people. But locals see the plant as a threat to their livelihood. Appellants against the plant in the NEAA stress the importance of maintaining wetlands and claim that the EIA concealed several facts about the toxic fallouts the plant could cause by releasing mercury, sulphur and radioactive isotopes.
Given these concerns, there are growing calls for moving the plant. Says CPI(M) state committee member S. Veeraiah, “One wonders why the state is so keen to pamper the NCC while destroying the lives of locals and harming the ecology. Andhra Pradesh has one lakh acres of wasteland, so why doesn’t the government consider an alternative?” But the government’s adamant approach has left the locals fearful and wary. Since then, groups like the Human Rights Forum (HRF) have been spearheading the agitation, with no help from political parties. “The NCC’s attempt to take up even basic construction activity violates the Environment (Protection) Act, as it is yet to be given Consent for Establishment by the A.P. Pollution Control Board,” says V.S. Krishna of HRF. He also points out that an appeal is pending in the Andhra Pradesh High Court and that any attempts by the NCC to start clearing or levelling works are illegal.
C. Bhaskar Rao, of the Organisation for Protection of Democratic Rights, says the Sompeta agitation has helped mobilise those opposed to the proliferation of power plants. He calls the industrial policy of the Andhra Pradesh government “undemocratic and unscientific”. “When the Srikakulam collector files a report saying that such a sensitive ecological area is a fallow land,” he says, “you know that greedy politicians and bureaucrats are ganging up to destroy our ecology and the lives of farmers and fishermen.”
By Debarshi Dasgupta in Delhi and Madhavi Tata in Hyderabad