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In a significant shot in the arm for agitating farmers and fishermen, the Andhra Pradesh High Court recently suspended an order issued by the state government alloting 394 hectares (ha) of wetlands for a thermal power plant near Sompeta in Srikakulam district.
The single bench of the high court delivered the interim order on June 23, 2011 while admitting a writ petition filed by three activists of Paryavarana Parirakshana Sangh (PPS)--a body of farmers, fishermen and environmentalists agitating against the proposed plant. The court did not quash the government order, but ordered a stay on the beela.
Sompeta was in national focus last year when two persons were killed and many others injured when police opened fire on a protesting crowd. The people were angry with Andhra Pradesh government for allotting a tract of Sompeta’s wetland, or beela, to private firm Nagarjuna Construction Company (NCC). The company plans to build a 2,640 MW coal-fired power plant on the land. The people protested on July 14, the same day National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA) cancelled the environmental clearance given to the company.
Despite this, the state government did not roll back its land allotment order and the beela remained with the company. Recently, there were rumours that NCC was going to begin construction. “Since the appellate authority has cancelled the environmental clearance, the government order does not stand,” says K Sreenivasa Rao, the petitioners’ lawyer. While the government order says the proposed site is a dry, barren, wasteland with no agriculture or any other livelihood activities, the petitioners contend that the truth is far from it. They say the proposed site is a part of a 20 km-long fertile wetland system that stretches through Sompeta, Kanchili and Kaviti blocks spreading over 1,619 ha. Thirty villages in these three blocks depend on this water body for their livelihood. “The beela supports over two lakh people including farmers, fishermen and artisans,” says Y Krishnamurthy, president of PPS.
The NEAA, in its order cancelling the company’s environmental clearance, also stated that “The Authority has no doubt that the area in question is a typical wetland of great ecological significance.” Further, a committee constituted by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) subsequent to the Sompeta firing too has noted the importance of this water body in its report dated July 30, 2010. The committee observed that the beela has all the features of a wetland. It also noted that there were extensive areas of irrigated, fertile, double-crop paddy fields around the beela and a significant number of families depend on inland fishing on it. It also noted the beela cannot be treated as a wasteland. But the land has been earmarked by the Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation for industrial development.
“This wetland provides livelihood to many communities and should be maintained as a Common Property Resource,” says Jeevan Kumar of Human rights Forum, a Hyderabad-based non-profit. Further, the petitioners claim that the State Irrigation Development Corporation had commissioned three lift irrigation schemes a few years ago at Kuttumma, Benkili, and Rushikudda villages for irrigating about 304 ha of land. The source of water for these schemes was the water body allotted to NCC.
Meanwhile, NCC has approached National Green Tribunal against the NEAA’s decision of cancelling the environmental clearance. The decision is awaited.