Police open fire, but people resolute to weed out power plant from wetland in Andhra Pradesh
A village in Andhra Pradesh has become the epicentre of an eight-month-long fight against a power plant in neighbouring Kakarapalli. Following two deaths in police firing on February 28, people from 29 villages near the plant site thronged Vadditandra village in Srikakulam district to show support and mourn the deaths. “My brother gave his life to protect our livelihoods. None of us can give up the struggle now,” says Jeeru Murli, brother of Jeeru Nageshwar Rao of Vadditandra who was killed in the firing. “The plant will not happen on our land.”
The contested site is a marshy land with at least 40 middle-sized ponds and a vast area used as salt farms. About 30,000 people depend on it for survival. The East Coast Energy Pvt Ltd is setting up the coal-based thermal power plant there with an investment of Rs 12,000 crore. The Andhra Pradesh Industrial Investment Corporation (APIIC) gave it 992 hectares (ha) in 2006.
In the environmental impact assessment report, however, the company describes the area as “barren, uninhabited, low-lying” land belonging to the state (see ‘Lies, deceit and half truths’). “There is no rehabilitation and resettlement issue, since there is no habitation on the land,” states the report.
The forest department terms the patch of land wetland with rich biodiversity. About 20,000 people do salt farming on it, 5,000 fish in its ponds and another 5,000 do farming, according to revenue and census reports. So communities of the 30 villages surrounding the swamp in Santhabommali mandal do not want to part with it. M Narasingha Rao, who is leading the fight and has been slapped with criminal cases, including attempt to murder, says, “It is a common property that has been fraudulently declared barren land.”
People want the 2,640 MW plant to be scrapped. On March 12, after 13 days of mourning they resumed relay hunger strike that had continued for 224 days on the outskirts of Vadditandra. The police immediately swarmed the area to arrest those slapped with criminal charges. A similar provocation had triggered the clash between the police and the agitating residents on February 28. The police had banned mass gathering and when people violated the order policemen cracked down on them. Two persons were killed and 50 others injured. “We are not violent by nature. The police adopt violence to put us down,” says Damayanti Ananth whose husband was picked up by the police. “After two deaths we are more determined.”
Objections raised and shot down
Following the clash the Union ministry of environment and forests directed the company on March 1 to suspend work at Kakarapalli. The ministry also ordered the Expert Appraisal Committee dealing with thermal power projects to examine whether the project site was a wetland and whether the company adhered to conditions of the environmental clearance given in April 2009.
This is the second official scrutiny of the project. In August 2009, Narasinga Rao and E A S Sarma, former secretary to the Government of India, moved the National Environment Appellate Authority against the environmental clearance given to it. In August 2010, the authority cleared the project with conditions, saying it was “balancing development with conservation” (see ‘Chronology of events’).
The authority ordered 172 ha of the land acquired by the company to be left intact as wetland. “One way it was an admission that the area is a wetland,” says Sarma. It also barred the company from raising the land or building bund within the wetland. People promptly demanded the government take back the land earmarked by the authority as wetland from the company. “As a result of the collusion between APIIC and East Coast Energy, this land has been allowed to be retained by the company,” alleges Sarma. East Coast Energy did not reply to Down To Earth’s queries by the time this magazine went to press.
Bad for ecology, economy
Allegations of violations of environmental norms have been trailing the project since the public hearing in 2008. Two of the most contentious points are: nature of the land acquired and its impact on ecology and economy.
The swamp lies between the mainland and the Bay of Bengal. As one stands on an elevated area, it emerges as a network of three streams, a canal system, water bogs, mangrove-type forest expanding towards the sea and flocks of birds whirling around. Surrounding this swamp is some 2400 ha of farms. Water from the Garibula, Bheemapuram and Enugula streams and surplus water from Vamsadhara left canal flow through this swamp and drains into the Bay of Bengal at the Tekkali creek. Government estimates four-five thousand million cubic feet flows through the swamp. Tides affect the area up to Kakarapalli. That’s why activists allege the project violates the Coastal Regulation Zone.
In 1954 the state government recommended that this area be declared a wetland. Information gathered by activists through the Right To Information Act shows the Kakarapalli swamp is part of the Naupada wetland system. Just 3.5 kilometres away is Telineelapuram Bird Sanctuary that hosts 123 bird species.
A cooperative society of fishers has been managing the local fish trade for 60 years. “We have been using the ponds under community rules,” says Ananta Sachdeva, a fisher in Vadditandra.
The area has been known for its salt farms. This very swamp was the epicentre of the salt satyagraha led by Mahatma Gandhi for the southern and eastern provinces. On April 6, 1930, a big crowd gathered at the swamp to break salt laws.
Construction at the site is, however, altering the landscape. The company built a bund around it to raise the level of the swamp by a few metres. “This has altered the natural drainage system. Now water from the streams and the seepage of the canal is channelised to the creek, so small ponds no more get water,” points out Sarma. “On the other hand, farmlands near the creek get flooded.” At the public hearing the company promised to widen the creek to allow water from the swamp to flow into the sea, but did not do so. The result: nearly 4,000 ha is inundated, as per the state irrigation and command area development department. The company started construction much before the environmental clearance. This is a violation of Rule 5 of the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986. Under Andhra Pradesh’s Water, Land and Trees Act of 2000 as well the company was not authorised to interfere with the wetland.
Plant, a wrong decision
Expert reports on the ecological significance of the swamp have questioned the decision to allow the plant. The Expert Appraisal Committee’s own sub-group visited the site in July 2008 and said the project should not be set up there. It observed painted storks and spot-billed pelicans breed and nest there. “The proposed site is an ecological entity with incomparable value requiring conservation and protection,” states its report.
Non-profit Bombay Natural History Society studied the site in 2008 and found the plant would affect the nearby bird sanctuary. It also concluded the plant should not be allowed on the wetland.