By Uma Sudhir
“I wish we were not connected by the National Highway, we did not have a rail link and we were not so close to the sea.”
This was our local escort Ramu thinking aloud as we drove on the fantastic road connecting Visakhapatnam towards the Ichchapuram lagoon area in Andhra Pradesh’s north coastal Srikakulam district. With visible pride, he added, “You see madam, how breathtakingly beautiful this place is. All your so-called development linkages are proving to be a curse for us.”
Much as it may sound way too dramatic, it is a sentiment echoed by many, many more people in this coastal belt in Srikakulam. Within a 90-kilometre stretch between the Naupada swamps and the Ichchapuram lagoon, six thermal projects to generate upto 10,000 MW are to come up. Add to that a nuclear project at Kovvada to which locals are thankful, environment clearance has just been rejected. What the villagers have understood is that it will destroy livelihoods and life as they have known it so far.
“Our lives may not be luxuriously rich. But then like Gandhiji envisioned, we are self-sufficient. We live in harmony with nature and get enough to eat,“ 70-year-old Raghavulu says. “As long as they don’t take away what we have, we are happy in our little paradise.”
Paradise this place is. Some call it a mini-Kerala. Coconut groves, jackfruit hanging from the trees, cashew nut, mangroves by the sea. The open areas are green as far as you can see.
“Don’t think even Kashmir may have this kind of bounty and they have called this a wasteland just to set up a thermal plant here.” Raghavulu just can’t fathom how the district officials gave such a report and how despite their repeated protests and appeals to anyone and everyone, right up to the Centre, no one asked any questions.
It was in fact the visuals of lush fields turned into a battleground, of villagers running helter-skelter, battling an army of policemen, that had brought me to Srikakulam. I had spoken to the district collector N Srikanth and the district incharge minister Vatti Vasant Kumar. Both of them insisted it was `wasteland’ that had been allotted to Nagarjuna Construction Company for a 2×660 MW power project coming up in Sompeta. But the visual backdrop looks so green, I asked, amazed. But it is identified as `wasteland’ in the revenue records. And that is how about 1000 acres of it was allotted to the company. “You show me any record that it is a wetland and I will get this cancelled,” the minister offered.
Locals explain that in Sompeta the project will take away 1000 acres of a 1500-acre wetland, locally called Beela, that is a lifeline for at least 32 villages around the area. (The accompanying picture you see is of us on a hilltop overlooking the Beela. The green cover hides the water underneath, Raghavulu tells me)
Kishore explains that even when it doesn’t rain, there is always water in the Beela, round-the-year, 365 days. At least a couple of feet of water. Two paddy crops on some 5000 acres around directly benefit. There are three government-approved lift-irrigation schemes using the water. Cattle, fisherfolk communities all thriving on what nature has given them.
“What God has given, who are these people to take away? Unlike every other district, there has never been any hunger deaths or suicide here. There are some three lakh people dependent on this and enough to eat for everyone. Where will we all go? Why should we go? They have killed two people in police firing. Let them kill all of us and take over this place. We won’t go anywhere,” says an emotional Raghavulu.
People in Gollagandi village, where the project is to be physically located, are angry that despite 90 per cent of those at the public hearing held here in August, 2009, opposing the project, the reports said about 10-15 per cent opposed and the rest welcomed the project.
“We have lost trust in everyone. MPs, MLAs, ministers, even officials. We had told so many officials and politicians so many times that we don’t want this. We want our greenery, our life. We have lost all trust on political leaders, Congress and Telugu Desam. It is a people’s struggle, our struggle. When Nagarjuna company officials came to construct, we decided it will be a do or die battle for us,” says the area school teacher.
Locals feel vindicated that just a day after the firing incident, the National Environment Appellate Authority withdrew environment clearance for the project, saying facts were grossly misrepresented. That it was a wetland and not a dryland. No industry is to be located in wetlands under the Envrionment Protection Act. India is also a signatory to the International Ramsar Treaty for protection of wetlands that are known to influence the water table of a region, act as water purifiers that prevent flooding and erosion.
“Whoever gave the wrong reports, shouldn’t they be made answerable, madam?” asks Basker.
Reacting to NDTV’s report, Union minister of environment and forests Jairam Ramesh has asked for a fresh report on whether it is a wetland or not from the regional chief conservator of forests. But the battle is far from over.
The company is planning to appeal against the judgment of the National Environment Appellate Authority and state revenue minister Dharmanna Prasad Rao seems to indicate that whatever the hiccups, the thermal plant will come up right where it was planned. His statement in the state assembly that his home district of Srikakulam happens to be backward, that women don’t have adequate clothing to cover themselves and so, he would ensure that industry and development come to the industry, has fuelled the anger of the people.
“Even we were fools to believe when we were first told this,” says Raju, a young man on crutches. “They want to break our legs and offer us charity. They will take away livelihoods, our homes, our villages and say we are creating jobs. For how many? A few hundred at the most and what they take away is thousands and thousands of livelihoods. Is this what is development? They will burn coal and make money and fill ash in our lives, in our land, in our ponds.”
Villagers admit upto 500 acres was sold by them to the company. They were told if they didn’t voluntarily give up their land, the government would anyway, eventually, take over and then compensation would be minimal. When they understood what was in store, they appealed to everyone possible against the project. When that fell on deaf ears, the villagers sat on a relay hunder-strike that had entered its 225th day when we went. It was only when Gandhian, democratic methods failed that the villagers decided it was time now to make visible protests that would get noticed.
What struck me as amazing and awe-inspiring was the clarity and awareness with which almost everyone here spoke. The socalled `uneducated, even illiterate’ villagers had understood the value of the environment in their lives. Credit for providing them with the tools to talk in this language should go to dedicated environment, social and humanrights activists.
Among them Dr Krishnamurthy, a softspoken medical doctor, who said he was living his quiet life when a speech by late human rights activist Balagopal inspired him. Balagopal had said right-thinking people with their hearts in the right place need to come out to the public domain and speak out and that’s what Dr Krishnamurthy and a few other intellectuals did. They gave leadership to the movement from Sompeta and elsewhere. And that’s what has now brought his name into the police records, suspected for `inciting trouble’.
And as if to compensate for most people not being able to articulate and speak out in english, the language of the ruling elite, walls everywhere around the village are painted with slogans that say “Go back NCC”, “We don’t want thermal plants” “Save our wetlands”. Children may not be able to recite nursery rhymes but `Beela maaku muddu, thermal plant voddu‘ (Beela is our precious darling, please, we don’t want any thermal plant) is on their lips as well.
For the villagers, those killed in the police firing on 14th July are martyrs.
“My children can be proud that their father sacrificed his life for the present and future of lakhs of families like ours,” says Jogaram’s widow. He was a devoted family man, she says. He wanted his two children to be educated and have a better life than him. Her priority now is not to let her husband’s death go waste. The thermal plant should not come. Otherwise what is the meaning in his death, she asks me. She doesn’t talk to me about who is going to earn for the family and what will happen to the future of her two schoolgoing children.
Jogaram’s brother Ramachandramurthy is a weapon’s instructor in a defence establishment in Pune. He says it is technically not possible that the bullet in his brother’s scalp was fired from a distance. He is demanding an inquiry into how it happened.
“They have shot him dead as though he was a terrorist. He has died for a cause. Will the government still not understand what the locals want and stop this?”
Just a few kilometers away from Sompeta, work is on at the 10,000 crore rupees 2640 MW East Coast Energy thermal power project site in Andhra Pradesh’s Srikakulam district. This is coming up right next to Naupada swamps, the last of the marshlands on the east coast that supports rich biodiversity and thousands of families. When objections were raised by the environment ministry, the company gave up 500 acres and locals say, it was re-acquired in the name of another company, to set up a 500 MW project at Meghavaram.
Local farmer Mandapaka Narsinga Rao admits that till a couple of years ago, he and everyone else here was blissfully ignorant of what thermal plants were and how they would destroy the environment here. That’s how East Coast Energy managed to get clearances, he says, without facing too much local protest. Some other village sarpanches in the area, whose signatures were taken on documents, say they were not even told it is going to be a thermal plant.
“The company officials said they wanted to make electricity out of water available here. They never told us about burning coal. They said industry will bring jobs. We will start schools. Your village and life will improve. We all got convinced and cheated and signed.”
“In and around, there is a population of 50000 people dependent on agriculture and fisheries, that will be destroyed with the projects. The company pamphlets mention they will create 700 jobs. We are not against industry. But why should we only be cursed with such polluting industries?” Narsinga Rao asks.
Locals explain that bunds erected on the swamp as part of the land-filling exercise divert fresh water away and fishing is badly affected. When it rains, 30,000 acres of paddy-growing land will be flooded. Fishermen say even before the plant has come up, the building of the bunds has put a deathknell to their livelihood. For almost three years now, the fish have disappeared.
“After the building of bunds, there is no fish and no food for us. Many have migrated. Some have been forced to resort to begging. We have appealed to everyone, MLAs, MPs , ministers, Telugu Desam and Congress. No one listens to us. What should we do?” says Anantadhananjayulu, a fisherman.
Vaddi thanda sarpanch Ananta Dushtavarjanum says they are waiting for the rains. When it is full, they will go and physically break the bunds. If that doesn’t work? “We are all prepared to go in a line with pesticide in hand and consume it in front of the company’s gates. Will the government wake up at least then?”
Less than five kilometres away is the Telineelapuram bird sanctuary where several migratory birds come visiting. Some 123 species of birds are reported to have been spotted here. It is recognised as an Important Bird Site Area, critical for nesting and feeding of birds. We were visiting in July when the bird season had not yet begun and yet we spotted a few exotic species. But in submissions to the government, there are blatant lies. That within a 15-km radius, there is no such wildlife.
“The birds come visiting every season and we are told they occupy the same nest every time. Even they seem to have ethics that humans don’t. We want to go and occupy other’s lands,” philosophises Sanjeeva Rao.
Former Energy Secretary E A S Sarma who has been pointing out many of these irregularities, says its a failure of the government.
“At every stage, there is a suppression of facts. Doesn’t the state department of environment and forests have a duty to inform their counterpart in the Central government. Afterall the Union cabinet has decided to protect wetlands and has even issued notifications for that. They failed, I would say they suppressed this fact. As a department of environment and forests, if they don’t report to the Government of India that this is a wetland with a lot of biodiversity, it is a shame on the government. They are failing in their constitutional duty.”
Locals say they went in busloads and visited villages like Pittavanipalem near the National Thermal Power Corporation, near Visakhapatnam. What they saw there, they also captured on camera and brought it back to show those back home in the villages. Sights of villages filled with ash, where agriculture and livestock suffer, health problems abound.
Add to that testimonies on tape of people who had become unsuspecting victims. That’s how the awareness and protest gained a passionate edge.
Scientist activists like Dr Babu Rao have also told them about how the developed world has given up on thermal power plants calling them `death factories’. He has also told them about the huge ash that comes as waste, about the sulphur and nitrous oxides ane mercury that pollute the air and cause agricultural productivity to fall drastically, besides causing health problems. So the people have learnt to ask questions on why the companies should profit while pushing the burden of pollution on the people and the environment.
Narsing Rao says they were asked by the authorities that when there is such an expanse of land, why should locals object to a few hundred acres being taken away by the company.
“We said that in the entire body, a bullet takes up only a few milimetres of space, but it kills the entire body, doesn’t it?”
Those who support thermal plants argue that development always has a price. Who reaps the benefit and who pays that price is the question. There are a reported 384 thermal power projects planned mostly along India’s coastline, 73 in Andhra Pradesh alone, 36 of them between East Godavari and Srikakulam districts.
So it is not just about a Srikakulam. Is it fair that we make a choice on development and push the environment and people into hellholes?