Paradise Lost


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?

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About t s sudhir & uma sudhir

Uma Sudhir and T S Sudhir are senior journalists, based in Hyderabad. Both work for NDTV. Uma is a Tamilian, who was educated in
This entry was posted in Environment, Political blogs and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Paradise Lost

  1. Harsha says:

    Dear Sudhir & Uma sudhir,

    The article above tells me that you guys have really made an effort in getting the information by going to the People and the location by yourself. I also come from the same place(Sompeta) even though I’m right now in Germany, I really was worried and was always doing my part to save one the Greenery. The stretch of the power plants coming up is one of the most fertile lands in Andhra Pradesh.

    Why don’t the Government look at the Food prices increasing everyday (the basic needs of HUMAN), in-spite-of encouraging the farmers to develop the way the have to do their Agriculture and how to approach the market, they are working and walking in the footsteps of the corporates(who will do anything to get Profits). everyone knows this, but still even after being a Democratic country we really don’t have “Right to SPEAK” to our Govt. Servants who are really busy in solo Mission so called “Accumulation of MONEY” and save them in Swiss n all other EU banks. There are some countries which mostly run by running BANKS….these so call India politicians serve these banks and people but not Indians. So ashamed to say this.

    Coming to the development, you guys have rightly had this info. about the Coal-based Power Plant that they are the Death Factories…itz true. But as we are a developing country we need electricity but this should not come at the cost of FOOD giving lands. How come the officials in the State or the district officials say that the Wetlands are completely dry lands.

    Once an Indian philosopher coted this ” Only when the Last Tree has Died & the Last River have been poisoned & the Last Fish has been caught….Will we realize that WE CANNOT EAT MONEY…!!! ”

    Regards,
    Sri Harsha, Sompeta-Lakkavaram

  2. Serenity Stupidity says:

    Dear Uma,

    This is neither my initial response to this post, nor complete. But it is something, which i have been desperate for about a week to POINT OUT.

    I hope you do not feel I am being paranoid or an Alarmist, but just a day or 2 AFTER I was calmly pleased ( as an initial impact, with a lot more “left to be done” ), with your Update on NDTV Social : “MoEF expert inquiry panel has agreed completely with NDTV’s reports on thermal projects in Srikakulam and has vetoed them. Some hope here !” , I was Shocked, worried and sad, to see a front page news in a leading Telugu daily, ( on 5th Aug), which went like :

    “…It is known, that the CM Mr. Rosiah said in cabinet meeting, that the Opposition is proceeding according to a plan, to block Industries coming up in the state. The CM suggested the ministers, that they should make people aware of this, and campaign among the public, that only when there is power, can water be supplied, and that only when Industries come in, would there be chances, of employment improving. The CM requested , that the ministers get together as a committee under the Forest minister, and pressurize, for gaining Environmental permissions. It is known, that the Minister Dharmana prasad rao requested to be excluded from such committee. The CM said that, in view of the agitation that happened related to Sompeta power project, the central minister J Ramesh has stalled the requisite clearances. The CM said, that we need to recognize, that there are a lot of power projects coming up in Gujarat, and that is the reason, for Industrial development in that State….”

    Hearsay cannot be the basis for journalism, nor can precious time be wasted during service to the nation, which this series on Srikakulam projects, is to my belief; So, I do not intend in any way to keep distracting you ppl;

    But, please please update this forum, regarding such reported response by CM. Is this true ? I mean,
    related to the Save Tiger campaign for example, NDTV promised that they would take the agenda to the CMs round the country, and it gave me some satisfaction, as some kind of “closure” or progress….but what to do when the CM himself is convinced of not even re-thinking ?

    I know you wrote, the “battle is far from over”, and i am left to worry, is there really a battle ?

    So will of those ppl mentioned in the post, to be trying to highlight aspects of the Models being used, and ppl like us pondering on them, meant to be proved jokers and brushed aside ?

    The way the Minister coolly implied that development comes at a price and innocently pointed to the records showing lands as wastelands, is that all about the “Power” of democracy ?

  3. Serenity Stupidity says:

    Dear Uma,

    I have managed to read this post, only 1 and 1/2 times. This is an attempt, to convey my initial reactions, which I have not been able to type since the first time I read.

    The moment Tss had referred to “Development models” in “Singur in Srikakulam?”, I had realized that you and us are on to something major, and I reminded myself the need to be even more stoic, about developmental issues in India. And, I silently admired the calm and stoic mindset, with which you people had reported on the issue…and since then every new post made me happy, that you ppl had continued your effort and focus on the issue. I have been trying to read with as much as focus as I can.

    “Singur in Srikakulam?”, gave me the courage, to go ahead and participate , no matter how limited my expertise was on developmental models and the related terminology. And so, I did not mind, “pointing out” or requesting you, “where and when possible, to link the issue of wetlands to agricultural lands…”. I do not understand what exactly does a wetland mean, whether it is a super-set or subset of agricultural lands, but I was desperate to point out , how it had startled me, when i learned, about the pattern of Fertile lands being used, for building of highways, rather than barren lands…And , at the heart of all, being the unscrupulous motives of politicians…

    But even then, and even until I read half of this post, to the point I read “…What struck me as amazing and awe-inspiring was the clarity and awareness with which almost everyone here spoke….”, i was thinking, I do know at least a little bit.

    And then whatever I read from the point you referred to the dedicated environment, social and human rights activists, my mind started going Topsy-turvy. As if , knocked out of senses by a killer punch. It disoriented me so much. And sent me scurrying to read something about thermal power plants…Of course, I only managed to learn the tip of the ice berg.

    I remember, how shocked , choked and speechless, I was in response to “Nothing poetic about Death”. But after reading this post, I was really disturbed, and can easily say, that I had specific feelings and ideas in response to “Nothing poetic about Death”. I even shared a plan I have. But the real speechlessness is with this post and this issue.

    Ignorance is bliss, my ignorance so far on thermal plants( which obviously is just the tip of the iceberg) was such a bliss.

    I have read many wake-up calls as part of you blog; and each, gave a lot of assurance,comfort, a definitive knowledge piece added, and some response formed.

    Even “Maoists in white” , “The buck stopped with Nalin”, “These death do not qualify” and “We cant stop getting killed”, were within limits that my heart and mind could take. But this issue, It drove me to a point of stupidity, which i never thought I would engage in, as regards, a particular conversation on NDTV Social. Well , i better stop responding on this issue, and only silently read….whenever you come up with update.

    “Please let me know, how should I react and what I should I feel to , with every new post.” is what my heart might want to request, but my mind, it only hopes, that you ppl find the peace and strength, to carry on.

    Please forgive all my incoherence. I will not disturb you ppl with such responses.
    May this country of mine, prosper, and find the right path.

    “Srikakulam”, is not just an environmental issue. Not just a “choice” hardly known. It is a battle, as part of the war of Democracy, war on Ignorance.

    Regards,

  4. Serenity Stupidity says:

    Hi Uma,

    “Development at a price” is such a hollow “reasoning” or “excuse”, when there is rampant unscrupulousness and short-sightedness all around.

    And when coming from Innocent sounding politicians, it is just a glaring proof, example, of how the different unscrupulous people, have become experts at using “Jargon”, and thereby gaining “clean-chit” for themselves, for all the subverted “implementations” of developmental programs.

    A case of having the cake, and brushing aside scrupulous voices. What does the “common person” left to do ? Elections, are all about Caste, Money power, “Leader” power. I do not see how, these few hundreds/thousands of enlightened villagers, can win.

    Is that why you titled this Paradise “Lost” ? I mean, how hopeful are you, the national consciousness will wake up to the model of thermal power plants ?

    Democracy, in its basis, is a mode of ensuring that real public, common people, run the country, and so even if illiterate or not tech-savvy, common people were meant to be above the administrative system. Extending the same logic, all such people as mentioned in the post, and all people who are wanting to point about “Green power”, cannot be swept under the carpet.

    Whenever I saw NTPC ad all these years on TV or elsewhere, it stood for me, as a symbol, that “no matter how flawed or rumbling on, this democracy of millions, is progressing”.

    The Wikipedia page mentions as its Future goal : ” The company has also set a serious goal of having 50000 MW of installed capacity by 2012 and 75000 MW by 2017. The company has taken many steps like step-up its recruitment, reviewing feasibilities of various sites for project implementations etc. and has been quite successful till date.”

    “384 thermal power projects planned mostly along India’s coastline, 73 in Andhra Pradesh alone, 36 of them between East Godavari and Srikakulam districts.”
    I cannot have high hopes of miraculous shifts in models , nor being able to step into tracks of the thermal model. So, may be paradises are destined to be lost.

    But I can take away all this descriptions of resistances that you have mentioned. These are instances of which I can be proud, that battles were waged against Ignorance.

    I have never been is such villages, country-side, wetlands. I may never be too. I may never be able to enlighten myself about developmental models. But a journey has begun.

    May be

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